Onesmo is eight years old. He lives in a cinder block hut in a tiny village in Tanzania. My family has sponsored Onesmo for five years through Compassion International. Our tiny gift pays for his education and some basic health care. And last week we got to meet him.
On Friday, four families from my church spent the last day of a week-long mission trip with Onesmo and seven other Tanzanian children we sponsor. Over lunch, we asked each kid what he or she wanted to do when they grew up. This was a tricky question since many of them might not have any choice in the matter, but all of them answered with worthwhile ambitions. Elizabeth wants to be a doctor. Hawa, a soldier. And Khatibu wants to be president. Onesmo said he wants to be a pastor. I quizzed him a little about his current pastor and if he had ever taught a lesson to other kids (he hadn’t.) He attends a very conservative church. He wore a suit to our meeting and when the waitstaff announced that ginger ale was on the lunch menu Onesmo’s chaperone raised his hand to clarify that ginger ale was not, in fact, ale.
Later in the day, we spent some time playing games and doing crafts — things that didn’t need a lot of translation for us to connect with the kids. One of the crafts was a leather coin purse. When Onesmo finished, he told me that he was going to use the pouch to collect money to buy a Bible. What he didn’t know was that we already had a Bible for him. Before we left the States, a generous friend had made a donation and asked specifically for it to be used to buy Swahili Bibles for the Compassion kids. I told him we would have a surprise for him at the end of the day. Onesmo wasn’t going to need the coin purse.
Gifts were the last thing on the agenda. Each sponsored child received a backpack, clothes, school supplies, a soccer ball and pump, a frisbee, some books, a bag of candy, several other gifts, and a copy of the scriptures in Swahili. In that culture, it’s customary to explain and unveil gifts with some ceremony. It’s rude to give someone something for them to open later. So we allotted the last half hour of our day to presenting gifts to the kids and their Compassion chaperones.
When we gave Onesmo his very own Swahili Bible, he clutched it with both hands and wouldn’t let go. It was the first gift we gave him and we had two whole bags of other gifts to present to him, but he just kept holding on to his Bible. It’s tan and leather-bound with gilded edges. It cost $15 but he treated it like it was priceless. I asked Onesmo to write me a sermon — his first sermon as practice for being a pastor some day — using his new Bible. He seemed excited at the prospect.
I’m very proud of Onesmo and, to be honest, a little shamed by him. We Americans showed up with our luggage full of gifts to bless those in poverty, but it was the poor kids who taught us the lessons. They exposed our poverty of spirit. I have constant access to the word of Almighty God — a message that is living and active — a story that has changed history. Too often I treat it like it’s worth as much as a soccer ball. Onesmo reminded me of its real value. In a way, I guess, Onesmo has already delivered his first sermon. I can’t wait to read his next one.
One more thing about Onesmo: his namesake is Onesimus, the slave who was a friend to the Apostle Paul and whose freedom was the subject of Paul’s letter to Philemon. Onesmo, like Onesimus, is not free. He is enslaved by poverty. I pray for his freedom from want, and after this trip I’m starting to pray for my freedom from abundance.