Attending to the least among us is the imperative of this week’s Gospel (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus tells a parable of a king who invites to a banquet all who have fed him when he was hungry, gave him something to drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, comforted him when he was ill, and visited him when he was in prison. These invitees do not remember doing such things for the king, to which the king replies, “I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”
So who are the least among us and how do we go about attending to their needs? There is no one right answer to these questions. The least among us at school may be different than the least among us in our families; the least among us in our local community may be different than the least among us in our global community. Attending to the needs of the least among us can take endless forms, forms that usually fall into one of two categories: charity or justice. Charity helps meet people’s immediate needs for things like food, clean water, housing, health care, and education. Justice aims to address situations that lead to social problems through actions like lobbying government and community organizing.
On the global scale, a strong case can be made that girls in developing countries are the least among us, as those in the most need of charity and justice. These girls are treated as dispensable, or even worse, as prey. If there are limited funds to provide vaccinations and food, girls are left out and become among the 30 million children who are not vaccinated against preventable diseases or the 5 million children under age five who die from hunger each year. According to CARE, a humanitarian organization dedicated to working alongside poor women, in the Middle East and North Africa, girls are three times more likely than boys to be denied education. The leading cause of death for girls 15-19 worldwide is complications from pregnancies, not accidents or illness. Some girls must spend as many as 15 hours a day fetching fuel and water. And estimates indicate that more than 2 million children are exploited through sex trade worldwide—a disproportionate amount of them girls.
Statistics can be overwhelming, leading us to feel helpless about problems that seem too big to overcome. The good news is that attending to the least among us is not only a spiritual imperative. It also makes practical and economic sense as a strategy for working for social justice in the world. In a recent column in TIME magazine entitled “The Best Investment,” author Nancy Gibbs argues that investing in girls in the developing world is the best way to fight poverty.* She cites research by the World Food Programme, which found that while men reinvest 30-40% of their earned income in their families, girls and women reinvest 90%, buying items such as books and medicine, acts that can help lift their families and communities out of poverty. Investing in proper medical care and education for girls can make tremendous differences in their futures.
Fortunately, there are some simple ways to get involved in charity for young women around the world. For instance, check out Girl Up, a United Nations Campaign that aims to get American girls involved in raising money and awareness about the challenges girls face around the world. Also check out Kibera Girls Soccer Academy, a cool example of how people in the United States have partnered with a community in Kenya to provide free secondary education to girls.
There are so many “least among us” among us and so many ways to help. I have been moved by the plight of girls in the developing world.
Who are the “least among us” your heart reaches out to?
What can you do to get involved in charity and justice work for their cause?