I recently called an 88-year old widow to ask a question about something we had discussed in the past. I asked, “How are you doing today?” partially as a cultural courtesy, but also out of sincere interest.
“Not so good,” she said. “My daughter passed away two days ago.”
I was taken aback, not only by the news, but by her matter-of-fact tone. Clearly, she was grieving the loss of her daughter, but she insistently returned to my purpose for calling, asking me, “How can I help you?”
I soon learned that I had mistaken her tone as matter-of-fact, when really it was her familiarity with loss I was hearing. She had already outlived three other children before this daughter’s death. She had seven children. Four are deceased, and one daughter lives with a debilitating illness. One son has severe emotional issues and is still dependent on his mother’s physical and financial support. The son who is able to help her is also concerned with the needs of his sister and brother, as well as supporting his own family.
What happens when widows are deprived of family caregivers? Whose responsibility is it to care for these vulnerable women? Is it the responsibility of society? Is it the responsibility of the family of God?
Deuteronomy 14:28-29 gives a societal command to care for the widows “in your town.” This is the responsibility of the government and today, it is enacted primarily through social security benefits and government services designated for the elderly. However, in many passages, the bible does not simply relegate the responsibility of widows to faceless government agencies. The care for widows is directed toward the community of believers in which the widows reside.
The bible’s most definitive command to care for widows necessitates that we know them. The letter to Timothy tells us to “Honor widows who are really widows.” Does she live alone? Is she elderly? Does she have a history of showing hospitality and helping others? Is she a woman of prayer? (1 Tim. 5:3-16). It is in knowing widows that we also become acquainted with their needs. The story of Tabitha in the Book of Acts demonstrates a person with such knowledge. The scripture says that Tabitha was “devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36). It was at the time of her death that we learn who the objects of her good and charitable works were: the widows. At her deathbed, “all the widows stood…weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Tabitha had made while she was with them” (Acts 9:39). Tabitha knew the needs of the widows in her town because she was with them—they lived in her neighborhood.
Our ministry is situated in a low-income neighborhood where there is a significant number of widows. Because of age and illness, many of them stay inside their homes, so it would be easy enough to neglect them. In other words, they are socially invisible. Over the past five years that we have lived and worked in this neighborhood, we have gotten to know many of these women and consequently, we have made ourselves available to meet their needs. Recently, an elderly widow called us. During a bad thunder storm, a large tree fell on wires that ran to her house. “Do you know anyone that could help me?” she asked. The roof of her house was damaged and her electricity was out. It took three days for her power to be restored and within that time, a group of men from our organization volunteered to repair her roof at no cost. She knew to call us because caring for society’s most vulnerable members is what we do--according to James 1:27, it’s what we must do: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
The government may provide financial and medical assistance to the elderly, but they do not clean their houses, make home repairs, maintain their lawns, provide healthy meals, or offer social interaction through reading to them or listening to their stories. These are necessary benefits that need to be provided by those in close proximity to the widow. It is one of the evidences of fulfilling the biblical mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself.” What we at Global Outreach Developments, Intl. do for widows is what we can do. Gardeners provide organic vegetables. Those who cook have made healthy meals. Carpenters have done home repairs. Plumbers have serviced sinks and toilets. Houses have been cleaned, grass has been cut, sheds and basements have been organized and, as a respite from loneliness, many have spent hours talking, listening, and praying with the widows in our town.
Like the example of Tabitha, the seamstress in Acts 9, everyone can use their skills and abilities to serve widows. We can and should view the care of widows as a privileged responsibility, rather than relegating their care to large scale, impersonal “programs.” The way to begin the process of caring for widows is not difficult. We started by introducing ourselves to our elderly neighbors and asking, with interest and sincerity, “How are you doing today?”