Read that again.
What is the most that one person you don’t know has ever mattered to you?
I’m not asking how much someone you know matters to you. I’m asking about someone you don’t know. That may be hard to answer. You may wonder, Isn’t that like asking, “What’s your favorite meal that you’ve never eaten?” or “Where’s your favorite place to visit that you’ve never gone?”
How can someone matter to you if you don’t know them?
I Need to Do Something
In 2010 my family spent a month in the Dominican Republic to do mission work with some friends who serve there. The second day we were there, I was sleeping in a bunk bed and was awakened by shaking. Immediately, I knew it was an earthquake, but I didn’t know how far away the epicenter was or how devastating it would be. I soon learned a massive earthquake had struck Haiti, on the other side of the island.
You may remember seeing the catastrophic images on the news: 7.0 magnitude, two hundred and fifty thousand lives lost, more than three hundred thousand people injured, and five million people displaced. I didn’t know it when I sat up in that bed, but in that moment tens of thousands of children became orphans.
That earthquake radically changed the plans our family had for how we would spend the next month. For more than a year, we’d been preparing for this mission trip to the Dominican Republic. All those plans quickly changed, and I found myself on a tiny plane filled with emergency supplies, crossing over the mountains and landing on a tiny airstrip in a small Haitian town called Jacmel.
It’s hard to describe how different the devastation feels when you’re actually there. A few minutes after we had left the airport, I noticed an overwhelming stench in the air. I asked the Haitian pastor I was with what I was smelling. He answered me with one word: “Death.”
Building after building had collapsed. Rubble was everywhere.
People were everywhere. Crowds of people walked around in stunned disbelief, wailing, shouting out names of loved ones they couldn’t find, combing through the debris. Some were searching for something, but most were searching for someone. I walked through the streets, numb, looking around at this gigantic group of desperate human suffering, and then I saw her.
Everything else blurred out and disappeared.
She was probably two years old, sitting all by herself, no one in her immediate area. I walked over to check on her. She saw me coming and looked up. Tears filled her eyes. She lifted her arms for me to pick her up and hold her. I scooped her up and held her, but I didn’t know what to do. I was hit by a wave of those same helpless, powerless feelings I’d had when I’d moved that dresser and lifted my unconscious two-year-old daughter off the floor.
I wasn’t watching crowds of random people on the news from the comfort of my home. I couldn’t change the channel. It’s one thing to read about hundreds of thousands of people who have been impacted; it’s another to hold one in your arms.
I need to do something. I looked for her parents. I asked around, but no one seemed to know where they were.
I need to do something. There were people in makeshift tents along the side of the road. I took the girl over to them, but they were preoccupied with their own problems.
I need to do something. Finally, I found a girl who was maybe nine years old who seemed to know the little one I was carrying and was willing to take care of her. I left her there. I don’t know if that was the right thing to do.
The Power of One
I didn’t know that little girl. I didn’t even know her name, but she mattered to me, and even though I tried, I couldn’t forget about her. When we got back to Kentucky, we continued to send financial support, but I mostly tried to move on from what I had experienced in Haiti. A few months later I was looking through a stack of pictures someone had taken while we were in Haiti and saw there was one of me holding that little girl. I tried not to look at it.
Somehow that picture started showing up on my screen saver rotation. Whenever my computer would start cycling through images, she would come up.
Even though I was no longer there or holding her in my arms, I still couldn’t shake the thought. I need to do something.
That’s the power of one.
Most of us regularly have those I need to do something moments. We feel compelled to make a difference—but how?
After enough moments of feeling like we should do something but not knowing what to do, we learn to silence that voice. I need to do something gets replaced with Somebody should do something. It’s not that we don’t want to do something, it’s just that we don’t know what to do.
For a long time when I felt compelled to do something, I would pray, God, what do you want to do through me?
What I have learned along the way is that often my first prayer should be, God, what do you want to do in me?
Because the work God does in you will lead to the work God wants to do through you. This radically changes our approach to being difference-makers. As much as I might want to skip the in and go straight to the through, God’s approach is consistently in then through.
Idleman, Kyle. 2022. One at a Time: The Unexpected Way God Wants to Use You to Change the World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
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