A goal of everything we do ‘here’ is it’s translation ‘there.’ When we started the Hopewell Widow Program here in our neighborhood Hopewell, we also had in our hearts the many widows in Uganda, India, El Salvador and the Philippines--women who suffer not only the loss of their husbands, but also the loss of societal protection. In Uganda alone, 80% of widows live as the heads of their households and 88% are wage-earners. Yet, 56% are disabled, 57% have never been to school, and 70% are illiterate. A large majority of widows live in the rural areas, involving themselves in subsistence farming. Our land plot in the rural area puts us in direct proximity to a number of widows in need of assistance.
Throughout the years, our cooperatives have blessed neighbors with practical projects like building toilets, fixing roofs, or ventilating kitchens for widows in their vicinity. In fact, a majority of the nearly 600 rocket stoves we’ve built in Kenya have been for widows (the other large number of recipients are single mothers). The Hopewell Widow program, however, has given our African community an example of how to prioritize the needs of widows (based off of 1 Timothy 5), and commit to serving them on a regular basis. This extends beyond the physical realm of home maintenance tasks, to the humanizing tasks of listening to their stories and advocating for their economic and social needs.
During our most recent trip to Uganda, we had the opportunity to assist a few of the widows who are situated near our land plot. Each Wednesday, trip co-facilitator Stefanie Price, six summer interns, and I teamed up with our Kenyan cooperatives – Reuben, Simon, and John – and Ugandan cooperatives - Peter and Francis - and visited the home of a different widow in the area. Each visit was spent building a ‘rocket stove’ so that they no longer have to inhale smoke while they cook, and enjoying tea together as they shared their stories with us. As we gathered around and sipped our tea, these ladies shared testimonies of tragedy and faith. This was a very vulnerable time for them, and something I’m still grieving over several months later.
During one of our visits, Mary shared with us that at t the age of 12 she was deceived by a relative, who sold her to be the wife of a much older man. After bearing eight children despite decades of abuse, she escaped the situation. But, the nightmare didn’t end.
Mary recounted one tragedy after another. Currently, she lives in a home that is little more than a heap of compacted mud with a roof. As a result of multiple misfortunes in her family, she has been left to raise her four grandchildren by herself. Even at her age, Mary has to walk two-miles to tend the garden of her employer each day. The meager funds she receives from this work is all she has to not only provide food for herself and her grandchildren, but also to pay their school fees. There are no social programs to assist her.
Yet, in the midst of such challenges, she gives thanks to God. Her faith was inspiring to all of us. Stefanie and I felt the Lord’s leading to provide school fees for her grandkids for an entire year! She was so grateful. Even more, Stefanie went to the headmaster of the school as an advocate on Mary’s behalf and convinced him to waive the 50,000 shilling ($16) debt she was carrying!
In a region where the number of widows is so overwhelming, and the problems they face so complex, we are happy to have a paradigm to follow, based on our own efforts in the US. The temptation to get overwhelmed by the burdens these women face is a strong one, especially for me. Yet, we serve a faithful God who is also (extremely!) concerned with these widows. I’m thankful to have him lead us in an effort to do something. We cannot solve the issue of widows worldwide. But we can serve the widows who are our neighbors, both in Tennessee and in Uganda. It begins where we are. If everyone could begin there, we could get accomplish so much together.
James 1:27 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.