The National Catholic Review
Lorraine V. Murray
I could barely wait to tear into the fat envelope. As I pulled out the letter, my eyes spotted the photos of two grinning girls with dark eyes. Come and see our children! I called out to my husband. To be precise, they are not really ours. They are two little girls in Ethiopia whom I am sponsoring through the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. When I discovered that a mere $20 per month was all it would take to sponsor a child, which means providing food, medical care and clothing, I couldn’t imagine not doing this.

After all, how many months go by when I spend double that amount to feed my hamster and cat? The conclusion was obvious: Whatever sacrifices it might take, sponsoring children would be the right thing to do. And as I sent in the check, I prayed my freelance writing efforts would continue to be blessed, so I might add a few more children to the family next year.

In the envelope, we also found a holy card showing Pope John Paul II with his papal crucifix. On the back of the card, I read these words from our beloved, late Holy Father: It is not enough to discover Christyou must bring Him to others!

Next we studied the handwritten forms provided by the girls’ teachers, which tell us a bit about the children’s history. The older girl is 9 years old, and in fourth grade at a Catholic school in Ethiopia. Her father has died, and she has two sisters and one brother, the note tells us. Then we read a line that says it all: They are very poor and desperate. The mother bakes bread and sells it on the street.

The other girl, 5, is in kindergarten at the same school. Her father is a farmer, and she has five sisters and one brother. About this child’s family the handwritten note reports: They are very poor. They have an unstable and insufficient income.

We chuckled when we read that the hobbies of the 9-year-old include doing artwork, while the younger one enjoys playing. Next we put the photos in a place of honor in our home, which is, of course, the front of the refrigerator.

Over the years, the refrigerator has become a rather odd bulletin board of sorts to show off photos of our goddaughter and godson, plus my niece’s children, along with recipes and holy cards. As I add the little girls’ photos to the gallery, I reflect that in the past I had wanted to sponsor a child, but always felt I didn’t make enough money to do so.

In C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, though, I found a more accurate explanation of my reluctance. Lewis says many folks are afraid to give to the poor not because of greed or an attachment to luxuries, but because of a fear of insecurity. That is, we fear that if we give to others, we ourselves will have to go without in the future.

Of course, it can be difficult giving to people when they seem part of an anonymous mass, but now I have faces to connect with my giving. It is rather nice to envision two little girls sitting down to a hot meal that my money provided, and lacing up shoes purchased with my funds.

When I first decided to sponsor children, I did some research and discovered that C.N.E.W.A. takes care of children primarily in Ethiopia, Eritrea, India and Lebanon, as well as other parts of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. When I called the organization’s New York office, a lady named Jeanne answered the phone and was very enthusiastic about my plan.

What country are you interested in? she asked me, and somehow Ethiopia seemed the right answer, because my husband traveled there with his family when he was a little boy. Besides, I have always loved the hot, spicy cuisine that Ethiopians cook, and the fact that they sit in a circle while eating and share a common platter.

As we talked, I imagined one day traveling to Africa to see the children. Really, I am not much of a traveler, and just getting me to Florida twice a year is a big deal. But it is always fun to fantasize.

Later that day, I thought again about Pope John Paul II’s statement on the holy card, about how we should bring Christ to others. It has long been my experience that the people who are best at conveying Christ’s love and warmth, and at doing it in a spontaneous, heartfelt way, happen to be little children.

So it is not surprising that two girls halfway across the world prompted me finally to do something that John Paul II would warmly approve, something that others, more devoted and generous than I, have been doing for years with hardly a second thought.

As I started writing letters to our little ones, I reflected that when we help children by feeding and clothing them, we are obviously ministering to them; but how easily the tables get turned.

I would say the two little girls with big smiles who are living on the other side of the world and awaiting their daily bread from my hands are the real missionaries, for in their own way, they are bringing Christ to me.

Lorraine V. Murray works in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. Her latest book is How Shall We Celebrate? Embracing Jesus in Every Season (Resurrection Press).