The scene was familiar: a flimsy hut in a forgotten place, a freshly dug grave just outside, the sorrowful faces of boys too young to be on their own. The feeling was also familiar: my throat tightening and eyes stinging with tears, the unmistakable sense of my heart breaking — again.
I met Peter, 12, and Samson, 10, in Turkana, northwestern Kenya, a region hit particularly hard by drought. The effects of the East Africa hunger crisis are evident here. The boys’ mother had succumbed to starvation a few months earlier; it was her grave outside the hut. Their father was killed in a cattle raid — violence born of desperation.
“We have no other food in the house,” Peter told me, nothing more than a squirrel that Samson had managed to trap, skin, and cook. The one bright spot in the boys’ circumstances is that they can go to school, where they receive a meal. They’re learning Swahili, one of the official languages of Kenya, although the two words they’ve mastered are ones they no longer need: “mother” and “father.”
My time with Peter and Samson bore a striking resemblance to an encounter on my first World Vision trip, in 1998. Rakai, Uganda, was the setting, and the boys living alone in a flimsy hut were Richard, 13; Mugera, 11; and Muzeyi, 10. AIDS, not hunger, was the reason their parents lay in the crude graves outside. But otherwise, their grief and hopelessness were identical to those of the boys in Turkana.
Two child-headed households, 19 years apart. I had developed no new defenses against the sadness that overwhelmed me in Turkana. Bearing witness to children’s suffering has unfortunately become a regular occurrence in my years as World Vision president.
But I thank God for my broken — that is, re-broken — heart. World Vision’s founder Bob Pierce famously prayed, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God,” and I’ve come to realize it’s not a one-time request. Bob prayed it earnestly and often so that his heart would be broken again and again, never to truly heal as long as there were hurting children in the world.
When we look at the life of Jesus, we find that he was, as Isaiah described him, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (53:3, ESV). Jesus’ heart was continually moved to compassion as he encountered the lame, the sick, the widow, and the orphan. Surely God’s heart breaks today each time he looks upon children in distress like Peter and Samson.
That’s how we, too, must view suffering in the world — through the eyes of a grief-stricken Father gazing at his children in pain. Facts and figures about a widespread hunger crisis are instructive, but they don’t engage us emotionally. It’s almost incomprehensible that 25 million people across East Africa are at such risk that they need food assistance. But we can focus on Peter and Samson, two children among millions who need our help.
I believe God created us with breakable hearts for this purpose. You might even look at it as a blessing. Only by breaking can our hearts stay tender enough to see as Jesus sees and love as Jesus loves
World Vision U.S. President Rich Stearns is the author of The Hole In Our Gospel and Unfinished. Follow him at twitter.com/richstearns.