This was the message at the 2011 Thanksgiving Service for Harvest for the Hungry at the Meadows Shopping Centre in Chelmsford.
How much do you spend on your hair? How much a year do you spend at the hairdressers or the barbers? How much do you spend on shampoo and conditioner and colouring? How much do you spend on hair bands or hair grips or scrunchies?
A few years ago we went to deliver food parcels from Harvest for the Hungry to the home for orphan girls in Dolna Banya in Bulgaria. At that time my wife Ruth was a teacher at St Peter’s school in South Weald who were supporting Harvest for the Hungry so we put pictures which the pupils had drawn on to some boxes and presented them to the girls at Dolna Banya.
Our church had also given us some money so that we could add to the food boxes some simple gifts. Our partners in Bulgaria asked the girls what gifts they would like – and we were amazed at their response. They didn’t ask for toys, or books, or games, or DVDs or any of the things girls in England might like for birthday or Christmas presents. What the girls of Dolna Banya asked for was very simple – could they each have their own hair brush? And maybe a hair band to be their very own? Because these girls were growing up sharing everything – sharing the very few toys in the children’s home. Sharing clothes handed down from one girl to another – they didn’t each have their own wardrobe or cupboard for their own clothes because they didnt have any clothes they could call their own. They didn’t even have their own hairbrush. Can you imagine that, girls and ladies especially? No hairbrush of their own. No hairbands.
The simple point I want us to understand this evening is that when our friends in Bulgaria don’t have enough food to eat, that is not the only thing they don’t have which we do. It is not the case that the lives of poor and disadvantaged people in Bulgaria are pretty similar to our lives, except that they don’t have enough food to eat. We would do better to say, they don’t EVEN have enough food to eat. In reality there are so many other things we take for granted which they do not have either.
We took our own children with us to Bulgaria and we gave Lizzie, Susie and David the job of choosing what we would give. You can see from their faces how happy the girls of Dolna Banya were to receive the little gifts we gave them of hair brushes and hairbands, and colouring pens, and packets of biscuits.
And here is little Evo, seven years old and the only boy in the home in Dolna Banya. He is there because he needs his three older sisters to look after him. We gave Evo a little model car. It was the first toy he ever had! Can you imagine that boys and girls? Seven years old and Evo had never, ever been given a toy! But then when people don’t even have enough money for food, families and homes can’t afford luxuries like toys.
Sixty pounds a year. That is roughly what I spend each year on haircuts and shampoo. I know that works out at around 20 pence per hair nowadays! But coincidentally that is what the budget is to feed each of the children in the home at Dolna Banya. Half a lev a day. Around 20 pence a day or around sixty pounds a year. Since they came into the EU prices in Bulgaria have risen to almost the same level as in Western Europe. But incomes and budgets have remained at Eastern European levels. What for us is a simple meal treat for children at McDonalds or KFC would cost TWO WEEKS of their food budget. The day we delivered Harvest for the Hungry parcels to Dolna Banya, lunch was a simple meal of onions and peppers, with tea or water to drink. No breakfast, no evening meal, just a lunch of onions and peppers. Same as yesterday – same again tomorrow. Because that is all you can buy for 20 pence a day. Harvest for the Hungry helps people who don’t have any food. They don’t EVEN have any food to eat!
A report this week says that a quarter of children in England are growing up in poverty. In England a family is considered to be in poverty if the weekly income is less than a couple of hundreds of pounds a week. In Bulgaria poverty means NO weekly income, NO job and no prospect of a job, NO pension, NO savings, NO prospects. There are so many people in Bulgaria who are so poor they cannot EVEN afford food. And there is another obvious thing they often have to do without as well – and that is heating.
I visited Bulgaria twice in November and it already felt colder than it ever gets in England. The story was the same in the different children’s homes and in some of the families we visited. They had no heating. Sometimes it was because the heating system was broken and they couldn’t afford to get it mended. Sometimes it was because they couldn’t afford the fuel. Can you imagine what it would be like in winter like we had last Christmas with all the snow – with no heating. In much of Bulgaria the temperature drops below freezing and stays there for weeks on end. Feet of snow fall and stay on the ground – but you can’t afford any heating. In England we speak of ‘fuel poverty” when somebody has to spend more than ten per cent of their income on gas or electricity or oil for heating and cooking. In Bulgaria fuel poverty means that when a person doesn’t even have enough money for food, they certainly don’t have enough money for fuel to heat their homes.
You may remember the old old St Trinians film when Alistair Sim as Headmistress Miss Fritton tells prospective parents says that the fees for the school are so much a term, with so many pounds extra for luxuries like lighting, heating and food. It’s no joke for so many families and children’s homes and homes for the elderly and the disabled in Bulgaria where lighting, heating and food are luxuries which some people can’t afford! They don’t EVEN have food. They don’t have money for fuel. Some don’t have their own hairbrushes or their own toothbrushes. They wash their hair with very basic soap because they can’t afford shampoo. They don’t have toothpaste. Many children don’t have toys. Families don’t have televisions when they can’t afford carpets or curtains. They simply do not have so many things which we think of as essentials. They have so little when we have so much!
G. K. Chesterton said “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
May God help each one of never to take for granted all the good things He gives us so richly to enjoy. May God help us to receive everything with real gratitude – and to share everything generously with people who don’t EVEN have enough to eat.