Garbage dumps make horrible delivery rooms—but Cristina had no choice. As she went into labor, her mother’s wood-and-tin shack in a Philippines garbage dump served as birthing center, delivery room and nursery.
I wasn’t prepared to see a newborn there. I had gone to the dump with a team from Compassion International to see how one of our partner churches in Cebu City ministers to families who live in extreme poverty. Cristina lay exhausted on a mat spread over a cane floor inches above the dirt. Her son, Jonel, was an hour-and-a-half old. He slept next to her, swaddled in a T-shirt.
I considered the realities that Cristina and her son faced in a home in the middle of the garbage. Platitudes are anemic at a time like that. I knew God had placed our team right there at that precise moment. The time was opportune for the Church to be the Church.
The First-Responder Church
When the Church works right, her effectiveness is unsurpassed. Nowhere is that more evident than when the Church is a first responder. Nowhere is the need for a first responder more urgent than for an expectant mother or mother with an infant in the grip of abject poverty.
Abject poverty is the stupid, debilitating poverty that weakens bodies, stunts hope and perpetuates itself across generations. While her infant may only weigh a few pounds, the load of an impoverished mother is heavy. She is the last to go to bed and the first to get up in the morning. Too often she is the last to eat, if she eats at all. Too often she is uneducated, because the opportunity was given to a male in the family. And too often her opinion doesn’t count, even when it comes to family planning and the spacing of her children.
This is where the Church can be her best, not just because she can do something for the poor, but because she will walk closely with the poor. There is a world of difference between the two.
Walking With the Poor
In Compassion International’s partnership with local churches in some of the world’s most impoverished communities, “with” is the operative word. Hundreds of the 6,500-plus churches with which Compassion partners implement a Child Survival Program that walks side by side with mothers-to-be and new moms. From the womb through toddlerhood, the church assigns a Child Survival Specialist to nurture a one-to-one, woman-to-woman relationship. The experience is life changing.
For many of these moms, just the idea that they actually matter is transformative in its own right. Her physical health in pregnancy is monitored bi-weekly through home visits by her Child Survival Specialist. The assurance of an attended birth takes away her isolation and eliminates the fear of delivering a child alone.
And after delivery, the Child Survival Specialist maintains a regular schedule of relationship and care. Everything from nutrition and health to toddler development and home safety is explored in bi-weekly visits.
Walking with also brings mothers together. Each month, moms in the Child Survival Program gather at the local church, where the woman-to-woman relationship is magnified in a women-to-women community. In an environment of relationship and trust, the church contextualizes the concepts of family planning and birth spacing. For many women, this is their first hint that they can directly influence their own family’s future. What should be obvious actually flies in the face of messages they receive in their neighborhoods.
The Church’s first-responder approach counters negative patterns of family planning and mistrust that have permeated communities for generations. In the spiritual context of Jesus’ teachings and inside a community of support, mothers receive a new message of freedom that expresses itself in all areas of life from personal grace to expressions of freedom and influence in life’s most intimate decisions.
Paul’s declaration in 2 Corinthians 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” finds practical applications in the Church. Freedom in Jesus to discover self-worth and relationship with Him. Freedom to escape illiteracy. Freedom to learn a marketable skill. And freedom and instruction on the specifics of family planning. A mom learns how to have critical conversations with her husband, and in many cases, the Child Survival Specialist will accompany and assist her.
When the Church works right, the peripheral vision of a mother in poverty begins to widen to the personal benefits of literacy, solid child development and healthy spacing and timing of pregnancy.
The Journey Ahead
Back in the Philippines, our staff and the church pastor secured an immediate place for Cristina and Jonel in Compassion’s Child Survival Program. Now the local church would rally around Cristina to help her develop income-generating skills. They would train and assist her in nutrition, health checkups and the life-forming needs of an infant as he grows.
The church and its Child Survival volunteers would do everything in their power to keep Jonel from being one of almost 19,000 kids under five who die every day from causes that rarely affect our children in the United States. Cristina and Jonel would receive loving, Jesus-centered care. Compassion would be accessible for Cristina. But more important, the church would walk with her and her son through their journey ahead.
As we stood there with Cristina and Jonel, I prayed. Not a quick, expected “bless them” prayer, but a heartfelt, Spirit-led plea to Jonel’s heavenly Father. As our interpreter translated, I asked God that Jonel’s life would have value. I thanked God that his mother had come to Christ and had been baptized a month earlier. I prayed that Jonel’s parents would love him the way Jesus does and that he would come to know Jesus as early as possible.
Once again, I realized how relentlessly the Church tracks down poverty in the most rancid of spaces. Because the Church is there, because the Church is a first responder, I left confident that Christina and Jonel were going to make it. This was the Church at her best. This was the Church working the way it should and building a future—even when the future was just an hour-and-a-half old.
Santiago (Jimmy) Mellado is the president and CEO of Compassion International, a leading authority in holistic child development through sponsorship. Jimmy married his wife, Leanne, in 1986 and they have three adult children.