The enthusiastic greeting from four year old James* is always the highlight of our walk home from work. He runs up to hold our hands, posse of friends close behind, still incredulous at the colour of our skin. James stays at the market near where my colleague Tanya and I work, and we see him almost every day when we pass through. On this particular day, we had bought James and his crew homemade freezies at lunch, ten kwacha each. It’s not something we do everyday, but it was fun and easy to treat them. Besides, ten kwacha is just barely over 2 cents.
As we pried ourselves away from the children, we were greeted by James’ mom, one of the dozen or so women who sits at a stall all day selling tomatoes, onions, and potatoes. James’ mom only ever speaks to us in Chichewa- rapid and unforgiving- expectant that by now we should know what she’s talking about. We don’t make it far past traditional greetings, but still manage to purchase tomatoes and onions. The vegetables are set in neat little bundles; four tomatoes cost 300 kwacha. James’ mom picks up a an extra fruit and smiles. “Gift!” She says, stuffing the extra tomato into a flimsy plastic bag. I hand over the money, happy to support this family. 300 kwacha is not even a dollar.
We continue on, heading to the side of the market where the men hang out. The biggest building is a bar with pool tables and loud music. As we pass, a man in ragged clothes and bare feet approaches me.
“Please sir, I need four hundred kwacha to buy shoes.”
This isn’t the Christmas Shoes. His manners are bad and his breath smells like alcohol. I don’t want to enable dependency. But underneath, my reluctance is flimsier: I only have 1000 kwacha notes on me. If I cave, I would have to give him more than double what he asked for.
Something deeper nagged at me: when there are opportunities to give, there are two mistakes I can make. The first is to give to someone who doesn’t deserve it. The second is to not give to someone who does deserve it. To me, the second mistake seems a lot worse than the first. I decided to err on the side of generosity. I decided to err on the side of generosity. Besides, 1000 kwacha isn’t even $2.50.
As I hand over the money, another man walks out of the bar. He laughs at my naiveté.
“He already has shoes, you know”
Hot with shame in the afternoon sun, I quickly turn the corner. Standing in a group of friends is Loyal, who lives in the house behind ours. Loyal struggles with mental health issues and alcoholism. When we meet him he’s holding a styrofoam cup.
“What have you been up to today?”
Loyal is missing most teeth and you have to lean in close to catch what he’s saying. We walk home together, and I learn that Loyal used to attend the University of Malawi for computer programming. He tells me about visual basic. As we pass the homes in our neighborhood, he names the owners of every house.
When we get to our house, we stop; I’m eager to end the conversation but Loyal keeps talking, inviting us for dinner anytime. I nod politely, but squirm inside because I couldn’t invite Loyal back into my house.
Our guard gives me a knowing smile when I walk in our gate. He fills me in on the details. Loyal’s father was a corrupt Parliamentarian whose political fortunes faded. Loyal had been in university, but had stolen from a relative and fled. When he finally returned, he was put under house arrest, spending some time chained to a tree.
“Like a dog?”
“Yes, with a chain and padlock around his ankle”
I’m warned not to invite him in; he has a reputation as a thief and a drunkard. We get inside and I sit with my roommates and talk about how we deal with all these people asking for our money and power. And one of my housemates put words to a feeling that haunts me:
“It’s like when you pass by, you don’t want to look at them because if you make eye contact then you will have to give them something”
I know that feeling all too well. When you really look at someone, you can’t help but be changed. Every time I walk into town, I see them: the lame and the blind and the outcasts. I look away because if I really cared about these people, I wouldn’t stop at freezies, tomatoes and shoes.
But there’s so many of these people and their needs are so deep. Even my presence in relationship isn’t enough; a conversation can make someone feel human again, but eventually I go inside and close the gate to my walled in house and heart. It is not that I don’t want to give, it’s the crushing knowledge that deep down, no matter what, I can never give enough.
My money, my power, my presence fail all too quickly. I look away because I know that I am insufficient.
And I think of Jesus. Christmas is when came down and looked us in the eye. He abandoned riches and gave up power, he was present with us in the deepest way possible: he became a human being. He didn’t look away because he was willing to give everything. He gave and gave and gave until he faced the crushing weight of the deepest need in every human heart. And he gave his life.
And it was enough.
While Jesus is my role model, I know that I will never be able to give like he did. But he is also my Saviour, the one who took me- despite my insufficiency- and put his Spirit in me. And so now, while I do my best to share my money and time, I don’t pretend that I have enough to fill others’ needs. Instead, I give from what he has given me and I point them to the one who is always enough.
*A couple caveats: names are changed, the story is a month old, and the picture is a different market.