The Gift of Giving

She was happy to write a check for someone else to help the poor. But did God expect more from her?

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- Posted on Apr 17, 2015

Shelene on her first trip to Uganda, in 2003

It was one of my I-love-to-have-people- over-for-no-reason parties. Our friends inviting their friends, and so on. A woman I’d never met before pointed to my refrigerator.

“You fell for that?” she asked, with a mouth full of guacamole.

“Excuse me?”

She pointed to the photos of two Ugandan kids: a girl, Omega, and a boy, Alonis. AR212 and GR479. My husband, Brice, and I sponsored them through an organization called ARM (Africa Renewal Ministries). We thought it was important to teach our son, Blake, five, and daughter, Brooke, two, about giving.

“You’re very fortunate,” we’d remind them. “Some children, like Omega and Alonis, don’t have food or clean water, so we are helping them.” It seemed like the right thing for us to do.

“How do you know that those kids are even real?” the woman continued. “They might be forty years old and just taking your money.”

Her cynicism shocked me. “I guess I just have faith that the money’s getting there,” I said. My answer sounded lame even to me.

“Well, I never fall for those things,” she said smugly, grabbing another chip.

Long after everyone left, her sharp words stayed. What if we are being scammed? I climbed into bed and shook Brice awake. “Honey, I want to go to Africa and see where our twenty-five bucks a month is going.”

“Cool,” he said. “Let’s spend three thousand dollars so you can see where our twenty-five bucks a month is going.” Then he rolled over.

I understood where he was coming from. It was easy to send a check so someone else could go to the ends of the earth to help the poor. The money would do more good than I could, right? I was a creature of my middle-class comforts: clean water, indoor plumbing, soft mattresses.

Faith was a comfort too. I’d grown up going to church, and Brice and I took the kids each Sunday. I could quote Bible verses, but I’d never truly put my faith on the line. I was too busy. I’d taken a break from my Hollywood producing career to be a stay-at-home mom but took as many freelance projects as I could handle—and then some. I craved the professional accolades.

I shook Brice again. “Honey, I’m serious! What if we’ve been paying for some guy’s Porsche?”

“Okay. If it makes you feel better, let’s get some information about the place and we’ll check it out.”

So I did. I wanted to follow the money. It took some persuasion (and prayer) to get Brice to take time off from his law practice, but he agreed to go to Africa with me. Then, just hours before our early-morning flight, Brice looked at me with fever-glazed eyes and said, “I can’t go. I can’t even get out of bed.”

“Brice, you’ve just got to suck it up!”

“Shelene, you’re not sick. You need to go. The fact that you feel called to go is enough. You’re meant to do this. Not me.”

RELATED: A LAWYER PUTS HIS FAITH INTO PRACTICE IN UGANDA

So I, well, sucked it up. After nearly 20 hours in the air, I finished my journey by bus, arriving stiff and bleary-eyed in Gaba, Uganda, a fishing village in East Africa. All I had was my luggage and the two pictures I’d ripped off my refrigerator.

A local church group greeted me.

“Where is the ARM office?” I asked. A young man pointed to a little hut. I strode over and walked right in like I was back in L.A. pitching a project. “Hi. I’m from America. I came to meet my two kids, AR212 and GR479. Omega and Alonis.”

I expected at least a little push-back, but the woman behind the desk got up and said, “Follow me.” Moments later, we were hiking through the African bush. We must have gone a couple of miles, me struggling to keep pace.

She stopped abruptly in front of a mud hut the size of a walk-in closet. Outside was the kitchen—a pot sitting on a large stone in the midst of a coal-burning fire.

“Here,” the woman said.​

I went in. No electricity, no lights, no running water. Dirt floor. How could people make do with so little? A tiny girl in a blue school uniform darted at me, her arms wide open.

Omega! She was real! She had grown so much since her photo. “I’m Shelene,” I said, getting down on my knees and hugging her. “I know,” she said, giggling. I spotted a Christmas-card photo of my family stuck to the mud wall.

Maybe it was exhaustion. Or relief. Or something—I burst into tears, totally overcome. With love. Not normal love. Some other love, the love of Christ flowing through me. “I’ll get you anything you need, Omega,” I said. “What do you want?”

A huge smile spread across her face. “A bed?” she said.

Together we went to find Alonis. He was much shyer than Omega. Like her, he slept on a woven reed mat on the hard-packed ground. “What would you like, sweetheart?” I asked.

“A bed,” he said, looking up at me.

Easy. Let’s just head to...Not so easy. No big box stores in the jungle. So we trekked to the open-air market in Kampala, the bustling capital of Uganda. I bought all the beds in one man’s store, as well as mosquito nets and some shoes.

“God bless you!” he said. “My wife is pregnant and we need this money. You must be an angel.”

Later we did an extreme village makeover. We rolled out linoleum on dirt floors, set up beds in the huts and ensured that everyone had a mosquito net—the best preventative against malaria.

The people thanked me over and over, in between me thanking them. I’d never felt so blessed, so successful, all for less than the cost of a Hollywood power lunch.

RELATED: NO JOB, LITTLE HOPE—THE UGANDAN MISSION TRIP THAT CHANGED HIS LIFE FOREVER

The next day the director of a nonprofit group invited me to help deliver food to children in a remote village. I was totally ready. I was an American mom, with an American Express card—and I was unstoppable.

At the village, a little boy shuffled up to me. His belly stuck out like a pregnant woman’s. I asked our interpreter,

“What’s wrong with his stomach?”

“He is starving to death.”

“I will pay for whatever he needs.”

“Mama Shelene, if we were in the United States, yes, there would be options, but there are no options out here in the jungle,” he said.

“What do you mean? How is that possible?” I asked. Wasn’t money the answer?

The man shook his head. The boy was severely malnourished and racked with infection. He needed urgent medical care and food.

“How long does he have?” I asked.

“A week. Maybe.”

“No!” The word exploded out of me. “No!” A starving child stood in front of me and there was nothing I could do?

For the first time I really asked myself the question Why am I here? It came from deep within me, from my soul. Like a good movie pitch, it went right to the heart of the matter.

To meet Omega and Alonis and help them, yes. To see where our donations went. But now that I knew, now that I saw, could I just forget this boy who would probably be dead before I left for home? Was I supposed to go back to my middle-class comforts and keep writing checks?

A Bible verse flashed through my mind: I John 3:17–18. “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

Love with action. Those words were like wings. Back in L.A., Brice and I talked. We looked at our lives and saw so much that we thought we needed and didn’t.

What if we sacrificed things like status cars, the latest fashions and the hottest restaurants and sent that money to those in need? What if we could get others to do it too, even that doubter in my kitchen? Brice bit on my pitch. We called our project Skip1.org.

A decade later, we’re still going strong, sending beds, building wells, planting crops to help children not just in Africa but all over the world. I spend a lot of time on long flights, bouncing on buses and hiking in the bush. I’ve never felt more fulfilled, especially since Brice, Blake and Brooke travel with me whenever they can.

I’ll always be grateful to that woman in my kitchen. And her question. Maybe she had the wrong answer, but it was the right question.

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