Hibo had no immediate family in Djibouti other than her children. Her husband gave her three kids and HIV and ran off. She had one dead baby and two living. Hibo had her first baby, the one who died, when she was 14. Malnutrition had stunted Hibo’s growth, and because of malnutrition her children’s hair was peachy fuzz—the color of henna—and falling out. Her 15-month-old baby couldn’t sit up yet and slept in a sling tied across Hibo’s back.
Hibo sold tea from a small restaurant consisting of an orange cooler, some plastic cups, and a single gas burner for boiling water. But she was in Djibouti illegally. Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, she had never obtained a refugee card or legal Djiboutian documentation.
One day police arrived, searching people for identity cards. Hibo was arrested and kicked out of the country. She returned, but the police had confiscated her supplies. She resorted to begging and prostitution.
I decided to help Hibo start over. She came to my house, bringing her children and swarms of flies. We discussed what sort of business she could try, what supplies she would need, how to manage her profits, and where to reinvest rather than simply “eating” all her earnings. She made a plan for how to keep her supplies safe from confiscation.
“I’ll leave half the pots and plates at my house,” she said, “half at Raqiya’s house, and half at Medina’s house.” I hoped her determination surpassed her math skills.
In the market, she picked out simple aluminum plates, pots, cups for tea, a cooler, a large spoon, a knife, five blue-flowered oval serving dishes, five plastic plates with huge oranges painted on them, and a small gas burner. We bought thirty bags of pasta and a case of tomato paste.
While Hibo made her selections, I held her son Ayuub on my lap. He refused to get down until I stood to leave. I smelled the urine on his pants and the sweet, thick scent of his unwashed sweaty body.
We spent 13,900 francs, less than $100, all the money I had other than a few coins jangling in my pocket. I was happy for Hibo, hopeful for the new start, eager to see her succeed.
At the car, a blind beggar (led by a barefoot girl with matted hair) approached and held out his hand. I barely glanced at them and shook my head, my eyes on the ground. I had given enough. I climbed into the car and started the air conditioning.
Hibo had fifty francs, less than forty cents, and nothing for dinner. She pressed it into the blind man’s palm without hesitation and climbed into my car.
Offering or not Offering a Widow’s Coin
This happened before, when Jesus sat down opposite the place where offerings were put. He watched the crowd dropping money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on” (Mark 12:43-44).
“We spent all Rachel’s money,” Hibo chanted as I maneuvered through the crowded streets toward her home.
I felt the cold, round edges of my leftover coins, through my skirt against my thigh.
Hibo rented one room, the size of our kitchen, inside a three-room shack. The metal walls had holes rusted through but no windows. She had a burned-out light bulb on a chain and a broken ceiling fan, painted pink to complement the bright blue walls. She didn’t pay the electric bill, because electric company employees were afraid to come here.
A thin, faded headscarf on the ground served as her mattress. Three lumpy pillows were chairs. She had two cans of formula given to her by the doctor monitoring her HIV. She owned two changes of clothes, one of which I had given her the day before. A strand of purple confetti decorated the walls.
I dropped Hibo off and drove my Land Cruiser back to my five-room house, where my refrigerator was stuffed with food and my healthy children wore clean clothes every day and rubbed antibiotic ointment into scrapes and played video games—and I cried. My family didn’t even know where I had been. The money I gave Hibo would make no difference to their bellies or their wardrobes.
I was broken by the depths of her poverty and her instant generosity in the midst of it. I was shattered to recognize my pride and the weakness of my faith, which suddenly seemed more transactional than relational. I put in a few good deeds and some generosity, though not so much that I would feel the pinch, and expected God to bless and honor it. I thought I could do some good, but I held part back. I clung to the coins in my pocket.
Comfort came from a surprising place, the Muslim mystic Al-Ghazali. He wrote, “One’s giving should be done with a sense of shame at one’s meanness in holding back the rest of one’s wealth from God.”
He understood. He knew we would never be able to literally give everything, whether because of greed or out of practical consideration for our own nakedness, children’s needs, or hunger. Giving should never be performed with pride—“look what I’ve done”—because it comes, always, with the reality that we could have done more. When I read Al-Ghazali’s quote, my confusing swirl of emotions settled. I could feel both joy in being generous and convicted humility because it would never be enough.
Trusting God to See
Jesus didn’t promise the widow in the Gospels an enlarged home smelling of fresh bread and roasted lamb and goblets of vintage wine. He didn’t promise to heal her broken heart or raise her husband from the dead or ease her burden of labor. But he acknowledged her. He saw her. He paid attention to her gift and knew what it cost.
I didn’t believe the way into paradise was through living a life of deprivation and poverty, but I could see how hard it is for the rich to enter. Jesus said the way of life is found in following him, living and loving like he did. The wealthy, myself included, have a difficult time doing that. I didn’t want Jesus, in the body of a homeless man, to pee on my couch. I didn’t want Jesus, in the body of an HIV-positive woman, to ask me to kiss a scab-ridden hand.
And yet. I needed to be seen as badly as the widow at the temple needed it. Not for my great sacrifices, but because of my great need. The purpose of living in faith and obedience wasn’t to demand that God improve my circumstances, it was to trust God to be with me. To trust God to see me.
Hibo and the poor widow with Jesus, showed me that giving isn’t about how much I sacrifice. It is about how deeply I experience and depend on God; generosity would flow from that.
Excerpt from Pillars: How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus by Rachel Pieh Jones