Lessons in Giving and
Editorial Note: In many nations, children bereft of parent(s) are not adopted but cared for in relationships akin to fostering. This practice is particularly prevalent in nations with large Muslim populations. Thus, displaced children legally remain a child of their birth parents. The stated purpose of this is to avoid a complicated sense of belonging, preserving family lineage, keeping inheritance matters intact, and marriageable options clearly defined. The practice of bringing gifts to orphans in exchange for prayers, originates from a saying of Muhammad, reported by Ahmad, “When a person puts his hand of compassion on the head of an orphan, for every hair (that his hand touches) of that orphan he will receive a blessing from Allah.” In the following account, Rebecca Hopkins, a Christian missionary, enters into daily life at a local orphanage in her Indonesian town.
I spread my arms out as wide and I could and said, “Big.” The kids at the Indonesian orphanage crowded close around me, pushing my arm span narrower and narrower. I brought my arms closer. “Small.”
A man and woman walked into the orphanage, the man clutching a bag of rice. The woman was pregnant. All the kids abruptly turned away from my free weekly English lesson. The girls grabbed head coverings, the boys buttoned up long-sleeved embroidered shirts. They sat around the Indonesian Muslim couple, turned their palms up and began their ritual prayers, mostly in Arabic, then switching to Indonesian. They prayed to Allah for blessings and a healthy baby in return for the gift of grain.
It was the third-such interruption into my English lesson that day. Most of these children are “poverty orphans,” which means though one parent has died, one is still living. But the single parent believes she can’t afford to feed, shelter and school her child, and that the orphanage — with all these local donors’ help — can. Some, in this culture, believe donating to orphans is an avenue to receiving Allah’s blessings, even to forgiving some sins. So, each afternoon, the generous donations come in the form of rice, or boxes of food, or envelopes of cash. Their givers usually have needs of their own — some obvious like the pregnant woman, and some less so, like the business owner hoping for Allah’s blessing of success, or the man visiting who had cancer. Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable, this exchange of gifts for blessings. On this particular day, it just seemed like a jumble of needs.
As a foreigner, I spent the first part of my 10-plus years of living in Indonesia knowing I had needs, but wishing desperately I could shut them down. I wanted to help, certainly not need! That’s why I was teaching English — it was the only thing I could think of that they didn’t have that I could give. I knew I should be “blessed to be a blessing,” but often I was abundantly aware of my lack. My halting language wasn’t good enough. In such a friendly, hospitable culture, my attempts at loving a neighbor felt small and inadequate and misunderstood. I was often sick, tired, sweaty.
Some of my needs were hard to put into words back then. The need to connect at a heart level. The need to see good stuff come out of the hard stuff. And many of my prayers seemed to go unanswered. My faith in Jehovah-Jireh, in the midst of watching so much go wrong, felt small.
After the expectant couple left, I blurted, “Would you kids rather learn English from me or sit and chat and play?” “No more lessons!” they shouted, and inside, I cheered, too. So, I ditched the English flashcards and came each week with a list of questions to ask, most of which the kids answered with one word, or not at all. What do you want to be when you grow up? Teacher, soccer player, flight attendant. Favorite fruit? Langsat, durian, pineapple. Hobbies? Soccer, playing, dancing. One girl gave me a longer answer. She told me about a garden she was planting at her school.
In the middle of the awkward silences, I offered my own funny stories, of language blunders I’d made that week, or cooking mishaps or silly stories about my young children. The silences seemed to grow longer. So, I filled them with more stories. I said that I often missed my own family back in the States, and how I was missing weddings and births and Christmases. I told of how I moved around a lot as a kid and how sometimes that was good because I got to experience many places, but hard too, because sometimes it made me feel lost. I told them what I prayed for and what I had trouble praying for because… sometimes it’s hard to hope.
When I’d talk, I’d stumble around for words that fit, for the bravery I needed to get them out of my mouth. Though I was trying to give them something, I felt vulnerable, like they would figure out my own hidden needs that I wished didn’t exist. I was the adult, after all. The educated American. The one with my own bed and house and family. But the year this happened was a particularly tough one, and if someone had asked me who I was that year, I would’ve given my own one word answer. “Fragile.”
Then one day, the girl who was growing the garden pulled me to the side and started talking. She shared her own traumatic story of how she lost both parents over the years, was separated from her siblings and eventually ended up in the orphanage. I won’t share all the details here, but it was a haunting story and I carried it with me all week. The next time I saw her, she had another hard story to tell me. Someone had destroyed the garden she’d planted, the one she’d spent weeks tending.
I didn’t know what to say. What do you give an orphan you can’t ever legally adopt, when she’s lost so much, when this is just one more thing that’s gone terribly wrong? So, we sat there in that busy orphanage — people coming and going, donations given, children chanting their thanks to Allah — this girl and me, heartbroken and fragile together.
Our relationship deepened in that needy place, and other kids noticed. Soon I heard more stories, more brave words spoken out of broken places.
Meanwhile, I was realizing my fragility wasn’t such a terrible thing. Fragile things are also highly valued things.
Sometimes we think meeting needs around us is a simple exchange between the giver and the needy. We think in terms of problems and solutions. We see a need, figure out what it will cost us, and make a decision.
I watched a different story unfold in that orphanage. I saw loss, and needs, and heartbreak, all jumbled together with friends, and hope, and courage. I was in the jumble, too – both giving and receiving, both needing and believing.
Rebecca Hopkins and her husband, with their three children, live and serve in Indonesia with Mission Aviation Fellowship. More of her thoughts and experiences can be found on her blog: Borneo Wife