We were gathered in Chicago for a dinner to announce the launch of a study Bible designed specifically for Africa. I arrived early and took a seat at a table near the back. A man with a naturally affable confidence approached and introduced himself. He used only his first name.

The man and his wife made for delightful dinner companions. I was struck by his capacity for stories. I especially loved hearing of his life as a child in a rural West African village. I had spent my own childhood in a nation not far from his.

Only when he got up to speak did I realize he was to give the evening’s keynote address. I have never forgotten his humility. Neither did I forget his opening story.

He began with a stunningly wry self-introduction. He let us know that he has more than a dozen wives. Pausing for effect, he looked around the room, the silence blanketing the atmosphere. What would he say next? Was it a mistake to invite him to speak?

He does indeed have multiple “wives.” But it’s not a case of lust, or of deeply ingrained misogyny. There is no adultery taking place. These women are aging war widows from civil war that destroyed his country a couple of decades ago. He was studying abroad at the time of the carnage, and even today he resides on the opposite side of Africa, more than three thousand miles from his childhood village. But he has a deep interest in his homeland, and he doesn’t pay mere lip service to caring for the war’s many victims.

His small, impoverished country has no safety net to care for the multiple war widows and orphans. The older widows among them are no longer deemed “marriageable.” What work can they do? What family do they have? Who cares for them? No one. No one at all.

No one except this man and a few others like him. He is now a man of means, and he has “married” a number of widows from his village, though only in the most technical sense. They carry his name and his protection. He never sees them. But he does indeed care for them. It’s how they stay alive. Like it or not, this is how life in the village works.

The well-heeled and well-meaning Midwestern woman seated to my right finally gave quiet voice to her shock. “Can’t the government do something?” she asked me, eyes wide in disbelief.

No. They can only do so much. There is much work to do, and so little resources to do it with. It will take at least a generation to rebuild an infrastructure sturdy enough to support the needy. This is an emergency siren—just one of countless many in the world—calling the church to action. And this man is answering it in the best way he knows how. He is doing what he can.

If I shared that speaker’s name, many Christians in Africa would recognize him. He is a prominent Christian. Some would find his “behavior” scandalous. I call it noble.

Would I do the same thing? No, for several reasons, not the least of which is that my wealthy country has laws against it. But my country has mechanisms to care for its war widows. The reasons that constrain me do not constrain this man. He is displaying an outrageous and creative compassion. This is love manifesting itself in a culturally idiosyncratic way. This is love in deed.

—Tim Gustafson

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  • 12/28/22