How I First Learned the Meaning of Loving My Neighbor

by | Jan 28, 2021 | Founder Series

In a special monthly series celebrating 25 years of World Hope International, Dr. Jo Anne Lyon, World Hope’s Founder, will share some of her thoughts from through the years; asking questions, sharing stories, and reflecting on opportunity, dignity, and hope. In this first article, she remembers learning the meaning of “loving my neighbor” while in El Salvador…

I have grown up learning the words of Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But many times, these words are more rote than real.

In 1985, I was visiting in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp in the rural part of El Salvador. I was visiting El Salvador with a group of faith leaders on behalf of the Grand Rapids Center for Ecumenism, an agency of the Christian faith community of Grand Rapids, Michigan, focusing on hunger issues in the troubled region of Central America at this time.

This IDP camp was made up of primarily women, children, and old men. All the men and boys had been conscripted into the army. The stories of torture, horror and pain the people were experiencing in their civil war was overwhelming to me, and yet the women talked of how thankful they were to be in this camp. I looked around and could not believe the incredibly difficult living conditions. But they were not looking at that; they were grateful to be in this camp with armed guards and protection from the terror of the civil war of which they had previously experienced.

Despite the lack of food security, the women in the IDP camp gave us all a simple lunch comprised of the meager rations they had for themselves. I was embarrassed to eat it and yet at the same time, I realized if I refused, it might bring shame to them. Following the meal, the group had arranged for the children to sing and recite poetry. The women told how us how excited the children were to see people from “the outside.” I then realized what that meant to all of them; this was a celebration: they had not been forgotten. Someone cared about them outside this camp.

To think one is forgotten is far worse than loneliness.

The children began singing in Spanish a tune that was familiar to me, but soon they switched to English, and I was overwhelmed again. In what I had envisioned as a desolate camp and where I had expected to see only struggle and pain, I was instead seated in a place of honor with a satisfied stomach and overflowing heart listening to these precious children. They were singing in beautiful harmony the familiar Hymn by Henry Van Dyke, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” and when they reached the text in the third verse, tears embarrassingly rolled down my cheeks.

“Thou our Father, Christ our brother,
All who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other,
Lift us to the joy divine.”

Mysteriously, I realized I was forever connected to these children. We were on common ground. We shared the same father and brother. I could not ignore them. I suddenly grasped the words of Jesus in “loving my neighbor.” This was their gift to me. I needed to speak up when they could not be heard. They showered me with such gracious hospitality, filled me with their joy, and showed me so much love, and I wanted to reach back and share opportunity, dignity and hope with them in turn.

Did you know that World Hope was founded out of a front bedroom in Dr. Jo Anne Lyon’s house in 1996? Today, World Hope International is working in 20+ countries around the world to provide those in need with opportunity, dignity, and hope so they can possess the tools for change in themselves, their family and their community.

To support these efforts, you can make a gift to The Hope Fund, which allows us to respond where and when it matters and continue projects centered on clean water & energy, protection, global health, and social enterprises.