The widow, the fatherless, and the alien – the marginalized trio – are often forgotten by both society and the Church. Their care is not explicit in the Ten Commandments and, due to the social isolation of this group, we often do not remember them on the list of “our neighbors” in the Great Commandment. In my African context, the marginalized trio is often treated as sub-human and in some cases non-human, even denied basic human rights.
Like biblical Israel, the marginalized trio in parts of Africa live on the fringes of society. Widowhood is considered a curse, and accusations of witchcraft often result in harm and punishment for widows. The marginalized trio live without access to justice and without the means of wealth creation, which is land. In patrilineal and patrilocal cultures, male figures provide access to wealth (land) and the right to live in a particular space. The absence of such a male figure, typically through death, disenfranchises the woman and her child. Thus, the widow and child cannot inherit and are left landless, much like the aliens, refugees, and strangers displaced from their homelands. The marginalized trio do not have access to sustenance nor to economic empowerment. They are vulnerable, despised, neglected, and victimized. They are the poor.
The Biblical Case
Nonetheless, God’s heart contains a special place for these marginalized people. God proclaims that He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien. He promises to kill with the sword those who take advantage of them (Ex. 22:22-24), but on the other hand, He will bless those who provide for them (Dt. 14:29). The friends of Job accused him of mistreating the trio, thus bringing sickness upon himself (Job 22:7-11). Job, knowing the seriousness of that accusation, responded by calling down an even greater curse on himself, were he to have done such things (31:21-22). To mistreat any from among the marginalized trio is to commit a direct crime against God.
The Bible is replete with the voice of God telling his people to treat the trio with kindness and respect. Within the economy and cultural milieu of Israel, God gives injunctions to ensure the survival of these groups of people, including specific instructions for harvesting crops so that some would remain for the trio to glean (Dt. 24:17-21). He instructs His people about giving tithes to support the vulnerable (Dt. 14:28-29), and calls for them to be treated justly (Ps. 82:3-5). He admonishes the Church to provide for them – an act James (1:14) calls true religion.
God’s unwavering concern for this vulnerable group is demonstrated in the life of Elijah. In 1 Kings 17, Elijah declares a famine on the land, and God directs him to a brook where birds feed him. The brook dries up, and God then does the unimaginable. First, he asks Elijah to go to the village of Zarephath – the hometown of his archenemy, Jezebel – where he would be a total stranger. Second, God sends Elijah to a widow with a fatherless child. Even in a time of plenty, a widow’s home is not a place to go to for help. How much worse in a time of famine? Elijah obeys and finds her down to her last meal. God has brought together a stranger, a widow, and a fatherless child under the harshest of human conditions: famine. True to His word, God provides for these people throughout the famine so that there is always flour and olive oil (17:16).
The Call of the Church
God desires for His people to meet the needs of the vulnerable. He wants the Church to be their advocate and their source of hope. Christian responses have ranged from complex organizations to one-house orphanages. Most of the responses have focused on orphans, often to the neglect of widows and aliens. Furthermore, some of the responses toward the orphans have not been contextually appropriate, with orphans extracted from their natural environment and put into artificial places.
However, in Scripture God did not set up parallel systems for caring for these vulnerable people. Rather, He worked within the social and economic life of the people. Boaz evoked the kinsman redeemer practice to take care of two widows; one later became his wife. In a similar way, African Christians can work within their socioeconomic and cultural structures to provide for the poor and grant them access to justice. For example, widow inheritance is a strong cultural practice among the Luos of Kenya and the Mendes of Sierra Leone. It is very possible for Luo and Mende Christian men to “inherit” these women, without “conjugal rights,” and provide for them as their cultures require. Africa’s strength in generosity and communal life can empower African Christians to provide natural environments in which children can grow. In 1 Kings 17, God used the meager resources of the widow (her olive oil and flour) to sustain three destitute people. God sustained the widow, who in turn sustained the others.
A Success Story
Following the 1 Kings 17 model, we developed a response to the plight of the marginalized trio in a farming village in Sierra Leone. At Faith Home, some 38 children, who have lost their biological parents to war and Ebola, and three widows live as one African family, under the same roof and feeding from the same pot. The family lives in a ten-bedroom gated house. Faith Home provides the land so that the widows can continue their socioeconomic life (farming) as they had when their husbands were alive. The children receive care and attend school, considering the widows as grandmothers. For the past 12 years, the proprietors, an African elder and his wife, have been able to sustain the home and its growth through their natural means and with support from friends. Over the years, the home has trained pastors, medical doctors, nurses, and teachers.
When God’s people respond to God’s call of taking care of the marginalized trio, God demonstrates His power and love. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: There will always be flour and olive oil left in your containers until the time when the Lord sends rain and the crops grow again. Until these children grow into adulthood and the widows are able to stand again, Faith Home will not lack flour and olive oil, just as the Lord has promised.