“If you give some of your own food to feed those who are hungry and to satisfy the needs of those who are humble, then your light will rise in the dark and your darkness will become as bright as the noonday sun” (Is 58: 10).
We are entering the fourth week of Lent. For us Christians, Lent is anchored around the cardinal works of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These important elements are necessary for the works of penance that we are engaged in. The important question in Isaiah 58:3-6 echoes to all Christians who fast: “’Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and you take no notice?’ In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers. Indeed, you fast for strife and debate, and you strike with the fist of wickedness…. Is this the fast I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is this not the fast I have chosen, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out…?”
For Isaiah, the works of mercy and compassion should be the utmost priority of a Christian in this sacred season. Love and compassion to the most vulnerable are values that no religion should ignore. Jesus’ entire ministry is centered around setting the captives and the poor free (Lk 4:18). Psalm 41:1 captures the blessings reserved for those who give service to the poor: “Blessed is the one who considers the poor; in the day of trouble the Lord delivers him.”
The Prophet Amos, dedicated his entire ministry to the raising of the dignity of the poor. Mother Teresa of Calcutta spent her entire life in service to the poor of India. She always insisted on spending one full hour before the Blessed Sacrament before she began her day. In her words, “The poor are kings and our gateway to heaven; we need to spiritually prepare adequately to serve them.”
As we approach the fourth week of Lent, it is important to evaluate our Penance in this season in the context of prayer, almsgiving and fasting. As I wrote in my earlier article, Let the Priests Lead in the Supplication, we engage this season in two ways: to lighten our souls from the burden of sin and to equip ourselves in the service of humanity. Service to humanity, especially the poor, should make a Christian restless. If among you, one of your brothers should become poor in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother (cf. Dt 15:7).
The structure of this world is meant to always accommodate the poor, for they will always be among us; (cf. Dt 15:11). It is left for us to make them a source of blessing or a people to be despised. As I earlier noted, there will always be the poor among us. However, there is a big difference between poverty and destitution: poverty is the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions. Poverty is said to exist when people lack the means to satisfy their basic needs. In this context, the identification of poor people first requires a determination of what constitute basic needs. Destitution is poverty so extreme that one lacks the means to provide for oneself.
This is exactly the situation in Nigeria right now, especially with the rise in kidnappings for ransom that has left thousands of families impoverished. In a little village in Sabuwar Kasa, Kafur Local government, in Katsina State, Kidnappers demanded for N50,000,000 (Fifty Million Naira) or one twenty thousand US dollars ($120, 000). Yes, you heard me, 50 million naira. These poor villagers sold every asset they have in this life to give to kidnappers. Destitution is what we face as a result of the mass sacking of the villagers and the total destruction of their houses and means of livelihood by Fulani terrorists in Kebbi State.
From the 16th to the 18th of March, 2022, the Commission for Interreligious Dialogue for the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto in collaboration with the Dominican Sisters in Gusau, visited those displaced from their homes by Fulani Terrorists in Kebbi State, through the assistance of the Knights of St Columbus in Sacred Heart Parish Vidalia, Georgia USA. The sight of these displaced people sitting helplessly and their living conditions was so heart wrenching. In one of the camps we visited, in Ribah; there were about 720 children, 320 women, and 208 men no food, no sanitation, no water. The only hope of food those IDPs we met have is the daily rising sun. They narrated to us how the terrorists visited them in January in their village and killed over 30 people, kidnapped 40 persons and set the entire village on fire. Those who made it to safety escaped with nothing.
While we were sharing food to the over 720 children and women, a three-year-old girl died of measles. Her death was very painful to many of us because measles is a sickness that a simple vaccination can cure. In a camp of that nature, there is so much grief already in the heart of everyone; the people have witnessed the deaths of so many of their friends and neighbors, and they are still mourning so many losses, so the death of a three-year-old was nothing to them. There was little or no show of pain in the heart of the mother. That is what destitution can do. For many in Nigeria, pain, loss, ransom for payment, have become very normal. And that is why, the death of the little girl was not an issue even for the parents. The camp was still busy with children playing as they took the little child for burial. As I watched the faces of those IDPs in the camps in Ribah, Zuru land, all I saw was a people humiliated by destitution.
IDP camps are generally not taken care of by the government in Kebbi State. There are thousands who are squatting at the moment with families who can accommodate them. The government is not sending any form of assistance to those in the IDP camps. Diseases like measles will continue to kill children there because many of them don’t even have the means to go to the hospital. In Shimfida community of Jibia Local Government, of Katsina State there are over 9000 persons living in a camp. Those 9000 people do not enjoy any form of state support. We cannot even begin to count the number of people, both adult and children, who have died of diseases like measles and chicken pox.
As we continue to do good in this season of Lent, let us equally remember the Internally Displaced, who have been humiliated by destitution and do something concrete to support them.
Fr Stephen Ojapah is a priest of the Missionary Society of St Paul. He is equally the director for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism for the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, a member of IDFP. He is also a KAICIID Fellow. (firstname.lastname@example.org)