noun. a squalid and overcrowded urban street or district inhabited by very poor people. • a house or building unfit for human habitation
The slums of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, certainly fit this description. This is not an area fit for human habitation, though thousands of men, women, and children do. It is squalid. It is overcrowded. It is ignored.
It is not a pretty place.
Dirt pathways are swept by fervent moms as their children play amongst the small shanties nestled row on row. Garbage is piled on the beach, next to the lone communal tap. There is a quiet desperation yet an obvious pride found in the people here. They might not have much, but it’s a place to call home.
So what? You know there are poor people in the world. You know there’s slums and poverty and people who need love and care. Why do you need to hear more?
For me, I guess I need to share these stories because we can’t ignore it anymore. We’ve seen and met people whose entire lives could be transformed for a few dollars a day. People who would love their kids to have a chance at life, a chance to grow and become who they were meant to be. We’ve met them, sat in their homes on the best chairs available, which are sometimes chairs we’d find relegated to the trash or the burn pile. We’ve seen the desperation and the fear. But that’s why we care. Why should you care?I think it’s because God cares. He cares for the sea of unknown and forgotten, the poor and destitute. The Lord cares for these people. These unknown people on the other side of the world. And He knows each and every one of them by name.
He knows people like Sujani Priyangika. She and her husband Upul Hemantha live in a partition of her mother’s shanty. They had a home, but it was swept away in a horrible tsunami in December, 2004. They are raising their daughter Tharushika Decmini on not much more than love. Sujani and Upul take turns selling lottery tickets in a street-side stall, which makes little money at the best of times.
Tharushika goes to a day program – an early learning education centre – run by Christians living in Moratuwa. They are showing God’s love and care for the residents of this slum. They believe that each person matters, and they’re trying to help families by providing education to kids like Tharushika. The Beach Children’s Centre cannot do much, but for 23 children attending the daily program, it’s a better start than they ever would have had.Mothers like Sujani are hoping their children’s education will be their whole family’s ticket out of here. That is, if they’re not physically kicked out of the slum first. This meagre patch of earth the impoverished have carved out for a home is being threatened. Tharushkina’s parents and hundreds of neighbours have been labelled squatters and given notice to leave, Sunjani says. And according to Sunjani, the government has not offered anywhere else for the poorest of the poor to go. And so they stay.
“We will have nowhere to go. The government has given the date to get out, but nobody stepped out,” Sujani tells us through a translator. “One day the police will come and kick us out…” she trails off and looks outside, through the broken wire mesh window.
The Bible tells us to hear the cries of the poor and needy and defend their cause. I have no way of keeping in touch with Sujani, and it certainly won’t make international news if this slum is ever cleared out by police. My brief encounter with one family living in this impoverished land has stuck in my brain, but has not led me to action.
Tharushika, Sujani and Upul are just one family, living thousands of miles away from me on a small island nation. As I’ve reflected on the scores of people we met who were poor and hungry, widowed or orphaned, alone and in need of support, I’ve struggled with these verses. There is so much need, and so little I can do. According to the United Nations, there are 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty conditions. And I know that even if I had a good salary, I couldn’t help all the people we met, people like Sujani, let alone a fraction of the more than 1 billion people facing serious starvation conditions.
So what does God ask of me? What does He ask of you?
• “Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.” Psalm 82: 3
And if we don’t obey, then we don’t even know the Lord…
• ”‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD.” Jeremiah 22:16
Or He won’t listen to our own cries …
“If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.” Proverbs 21: 13
And the Lord gives us promises that our efforts will be well worth it…
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Luke 12:33-34
I think this all means that while I can’t help everyone that’s poor, I do need to do my part. If I have been given little, I need to be entrusted with that little to spend myself on behalf of the poor and oppressed. I can’t wait and pray for God to give me a six-figure salary so that I can be generous. Maybe you feel called to help Tharushika. Maybe your heart goes out to Ugandan orphans, or to Ukrainian widows, or to the lonely living in your local care home. Whatever it is, I think God is calling each one of us to do what we can.
In some ways, I’ve had a hard time dealing with the aftermath of travel, with the ’so what’ that comes when you see enormous poverty and then come back home to enormous wealth and waste. And processing stories like Tharushika’s and verses like the ones listed above is something I have been working through and something I felt that needed to be shared. As I have been doing, I would suggest you pray and ask God where He would have you fulfill His clear instructions in the Bible. Where should your time, your money, your talents be directed?
Seek, and act, and obey.