What I Learned From a Little Girl in Africa

What I Learned From a Little Girl in Africa

Last month I was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, serving with fellow Athletes in Action staff and American college basketball players on a basketball tour. During our time there, we played games against university and club teams, put on clinics and camps for kids, served the community, and shared our faith in Christ.

One of the most memorable moments occurred during our visit to the town of Wolkite. We put on a basketball clinic for the kids in the town and played a game against the local club basketball team.

When we arrived at the court, I was captivated by one little girl. She was smaller than most of the other children and was wearing a very worn and faded dress. She clearly came from poverty. Considering that no adults paid any attention to her—and the condition of her clothes was so poor—she is likely an orphan.

Underprivileged children and orphans in Ethiopia face heartbreaking realities. A Harvard study says an estimated 4.5 million children in Ethiopia are abandoned or parentless. They make up five-percent of the total population of the country. A disturbingly high percentage of orphans in Ethiopia will be sexually abused, trafficked, ignored, enslaved, malnourished, on the streets, forced into indentured servitude—or, in many cases, dead by age twelve.

For most of the morning, I observed this little girl. The sorrowful reality of what her life may become broke my heart as I watched her exuberantly play basketball.

Despite her circumstances, this little girl was radiant with joy. Her little hands could hardly grip the basketball, she had no hope of making a shot, she often dropped the ball, and she was pushed aside by other kids desperate to have a turn.

But something beautiful happened when she picked up a ball. Her face glowed with a bright smile, giving the impression that she didn’t have a care in the world.

Watching her taught me so much about joy, beauty, and the power of sport. This little girl’s overflowing joy is something I need to remember when I return home.

Here are six thoughts to consider:

Sometimes having nothing gives you the freedom to experience everything

This little girl truly had nothing materially, yet when she picked up a basketball it seemed like she had everything. Her joy was not found in material possessions or the affirmation of others. It couldn’t be. She didn't have them. Her joy came from being relationally connected to others and through the simple act of play. For a brief moment her physical needs and worries were replaced with contentment and pure joy.

Joy as described in the Bible is deeper than happiness. It is a deep-rooted contentment that is immaterial. Jesus addresses the tension between materialism and contemptment in the Lord when he states “...it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). Jesus is not attacking those with wealth or privilege when he makes this bold statement. The point he is trying to make here is treasuring God above money and the things of this world will lead to contentment in the Lord and an abundant eternal life.

Although this little girl is not now a follower of Jesus, the picture of her playing with the basketball is a visual reminder of the contentment and joy I can experience in the Lord rather than in my possessions, money, and affirmation from others.

Beauty isn’t determined by clothing or possession, but by being made in the image of God

When I looked at this little girl, I was immediately struck by her beauty, her joy, her smile, and her desire to be relationally connected with the other children around her. I saw her the way God does, as the Imago Dei: created by God, in the image of God, with dignity, and given an elevated purpose. Seeing past her tattered clothes, oversized flip flops, and faded scarf, I recognized her infinite value and worth.

Children have value because they are image bearers of God. Every child is worthy of protection, love, care, and being viewed in such a way because they are the Imago Dei. Jesus made this point very clear when he put a child on his lap while teaching and said “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but Him who sent me”(Mark 9:37).

Children in Jesus' day had no merit in society and no rights in the eyes of the law. Jesus’ view of children is a historical oddity. He routinely took children into his arms and affirmed their intrinsic value. As a Christ follower I am called to live out this view of children, to be a protector of the innocent and vulnerable, and acknowledge their value and worth in the eyes of the Lord.

This little girl’s significance in the eyes of the Lord as an image bearer of God means that she deserves protection and an opportunity to experience the gospel in her own life. If and when she becomes a Christ follower she will acquire an identity as a beautiful daughter of a king, be seen as perfect (Hebrews 10:14), lacking nothing (Philippians 4:19), and as an adopted child of God (Romans 8:16). What a beautiful reality that I pray she will experience in her lifetime.

The act of noticing the unnoticed can bring them joy and comfort

Jesus noticed the unnoticed. In Matthew 20:29-34 he encountered two blind men on the road out of Jericho. The crowd following Jesus rebuked the men for yelling out to him, but Jesus stopped, called to them, listened to them, and met their need. He healed their sight and they began to follow him alongside the same people who were rebuking them on the road.

As Christ followers, we are given the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). As we grow in our relationship with Jesus we should begin to compassionately notice the unnoticed around us, because he did. Our heart and mind should become more like his as we continue to surrender to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

Based on the way the little girl lingered alone after the basketball clinic, I assume she often goes unnoticed by the people around her. By making eye contact and passing a basketball I told this little girl that I noticed her. It told her I recognize her value and worth. She was filled with joy and comfort simply because someone “saw” her and passed a basketball her way.

I can bring joy and witness God’s grace when I step out of my comfort zone

A trip into a foreign culture in another country can be uncomfortable. The language barrier, funky bathrooms, and different foods definitely shoved me out of my comfort zone.

But stepping across normal comfort lines also allowed me to experience bringing joy to someone else, as evidenced by the little girl’s response to my interaction with her. Watching her sweet little face light up with the ball in hand, and watching her play was a powerful and tangible example of the grace of God, and the love He has for all of His children.

Jesus calls us to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Whether at home or overseas being obedient to God’s call on your life and stepping outside your comfort zone will open opportunities to be used by God. There are plenty of ways to be a bringer of joy and see God’s grace at work in the context in which you currently live. Here are a few examples:

Initiate a spiritual conversation with someone you work with and interact with daily. Get plugged in and begin serving in your local church. Pursue a relationship with someone younger in their faith, encourage them and study the Word together.

There are many more ways to live missionally and step out of your comfort zone. The key—pick one and do it! When you choose to be obedient to God’s call on your life to “go” and become uncomfortable you are choosing to be a bringer of joy, and witness God’s grace in the lives of others around you.

This trip to Ethiopia allowed me to experience the Lord in ways that I would not have had I remained in my comfort zone. My experience has challenged me to continually seek further opportunities to become uncomfortable and used by God when I return home.

The way we view sports in American culture is often corrupted, but sports can be a powerful way to bring joy to others and to bring glory to God

Not a day goes by without a new sports scandal in the news cycle. Legalized gambling around sports will likely not slow that reality, using sports to further feed our own greed and self-interests.

When we use sports in our own quest for glory, we often forget what drew us to them in the first place. As I observed all these kids playing basketball, I was reminded of my original motivation to play sports—simply because they were fun!

When we opened the bag of basketballs, the response of the children reminded me of the joy that can be found in the innocence of play.

Not only do sports bring joy to others, but they bring glory to God, too. In his book, Explicit Gospel, Matt Chandler writes:

“All that we have and all that we are and all that we possess was given to us by God, through God, and for the glory of God. When we act like we own these things like they were given to us by ourselves for the glory of ourselves, we belittle the name of God.”

We have been given much by God to steward for the glory of God. Christ followers are called to use all that we have been given in order to be a blessing to others and to reflect the tremendous weight of His glory.

American sports culture does not often meet this standard. But by humbling ourselves and using the wonderful gift of sport to serve “the least of these” (Matthew 25:34-40), we can offer joy to others that brings glory to God.

What now?

Encountering this little African girl has truly impacted my life in a deep and powerful way. I will likely never see this girl again, and I don't even know her name, but I pray for her. I pray that her circumstances will change. That her joy will abound. For her safety and security. I pray that she will be an outlier in the statistics I stated earlier. I ask God to use her story to bring me closer to Him and to break my heart for what breaks His. I pray that her story will impact the world the way it has impacted mine, and I pray that through the universal power of sports, lives of children like her will be redeemed.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” Matthew 5:3

“Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” Matthew 18:3-4