A Meditation on a Number

After years of working in community development, it is hard to sometimes see the faces, the smiles, the fears, the resiliency of the families and of the children.  After a while, they all blend together.

I read policy reports, research studies, and media accounts about famine, disease, and gender based violence and the huge numbers mask the details behind the numbers.  As I read them, it is hard to see the face – the soul – the heart.

Yet, a number references something specific, something of substance.  It is an indicator of something beyond the symbol. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of a number is:  number, figure the property possessed by a sum or total or indefinite quantity of units or individuals.  The definition is all about the digit or a figure in a system of numeration.

So when I read that there are 1 billion children living in poverty and that in the United States, 17 million children wake up daily without the promise of a hot meal; or that 13,000 children die every day because of hunger – I stare and try to peel back the layers of the numeration.  A number is a convenient tool but a masking tool.

Recently, in my quiet moments, I have tried to think differently.  I take 1,000,000,000 and I start stripping back the numeration and instead of thinking deductively, I try an inductive approach to the number.  A single digit in the number 1 billion is a child who is an individual, who is in a family (of some type), who lives in a neighborhood or a community, and the child is a member of a nation.

How do I pray for this number – this digit – how do I reach this number – how do I feel when I see this number?  All questions that haunt me in my meditation and quiet time.  Numbers are infinite I tell myself and I cannot get my arms around infinite.  However, when I am in a home and I see a child and I see a family and I see a community, I can figure out a way to wrap my arms around the individual – confront the need, feel the pain and empathize with the digit ONE.

Suddenly, as I walk through the slum of Ruaraka in Nairobi, I see one child playing in a stream of industrial waste and I stop, kneel, and do a magic trick and she smiles. I don’t see a billion – I see ONE.  Yes, she is part of a billion – but to me at that moment in the moments of my quiet time she is a ONE.

To those who claim any hope of faith she is a child to be remembered, redeemed, and given a chance to emerge or rise up from her environment.   In my quest to do this for a billion, I dare not forget the one in front of me.  Who is the one in front of you?

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