In the the fall of 1967 the Biafran people of Africa were starving. A terrible drought had ruined their land and killed their crops, then civil war broke out.
Our family was living in North Dakota, nearly half a world away. But every evening as I fixed supper our three children came to the kitchen area to watch the TV news. Night after night they saw little Biafran children with distended bellies and matchstick arms and legs.
One evening as we sat around the table, Janet, 16, looked over the roast, potatoes, brussel sprouts, yams, and tossed salad spread and said, "It's hard to eat after watching all those hungry little kids. Can't we do something to help?"
I nodded. "We don't have a lot, but I'm sure we can give something."
"Listen," 15-year-old Marie said, "Christmas is coming, and we always get new holiday clothes, but don't we have enough already? We could skip that and send the money to the Biafrans" (this from the daughter that loved new outfits).
"And we could eat less expensive foods," Janet suggested. "Beans instead of roast, cabbage instead of brussel sprouts" (The daughter who loved to eat).
Peter, almost 11, looked up. "And we always buy lots of presents. This year why don't we get just one big present for the whole family? Maybe a Ping-Pong table" (Our family game person).
Janet jumped up. "I've got a spiral notebook in my room. I'll get it and we can begin writing down what we save." In a moment she was back. "OK, how much can we free up by not buying new clothes?" she asked. "I trust that we're all willing to do this." We all agreed and began estimating what we usually spent on new clothes and food items.
"And how much do we spend on presents for each other?" she asked. When she added everything up, subtracted what we thought a Ping-Pong table would cost, and came up with the difference, we were surprised at how much it was.
After that, as we sat down to supper each evening, Janet added up what we'd saved that day and wrote it in her notebook. Back in early October the congregation we belonged to had decided to hold a fund drive for Biafra. The week before Christmas we were to bring in what we'd collected.
Steadily the numbers in Janet's notebook grew as we found more ways to save, a few dollars here, a few dollars there.
Finally it was the week before Christmas. We looked at the total—more than one fourth of our family's monthly income. And none of us had felt deprived. I wrote a check and sealed it in the special envelope. We all placed it into the offering plate at church.
Six years later
Life moved on. A few years later we moved to Chicago. In the fall of 1973 a friend who was in charge of foreign students at the University of Chicago asked if our family would be willing to take one of her students under our wing. We said yes, and so every Wednesday evening Leonard, an 18-year-old from Nigeria, came to have supper with us.
Leonard's uncle practiced tribal medicine, and Leonard hoped that after college he could go to medical school and learn the ways of Western health care. Before he left Nigeria he'd never ridden in an automobile —or even worn shoes.
Then it was Thanksgiving. We'd invited Leonard to come over midmorning and help us prepare all the good things we'd planned for Thanksgiving dinner. We had potatoes, stuffing, fruit salad, broccoli, butternut squash, cranberry sauce, a turkey, and dessert.
Our best dishes and silverware awaited us on the linen tablecloth, accented by a centerpiece of fruit and nuts. The house smelled of fresh rolls and spices.
When everything was ready we all carried the platters and bowls of food into the dining room. "Wow," Leonard said. "When I was starving I never thought I'd live to see this much food again!"
We looked at him, puzzled. "Starving?" we asked. "When were you starving?"
"I'm a Biafran, you know."
"No," we said, "you're Nigerian. You told us so."
"That's true," he said, as we listened in stunned silence. "My country is Nigeria, but I'm a member of the Biafran tribe. Back in the fall of 1967 we had a terrible famine and everybody ran out of whatever food they had stored. When we had no more food we ate grass and leaves—and even bark—but we were still starving.
"First the old people and babies began dying, then the young children. I was 12 and my brother was 10. Eventually we were so weak that we couldn't walk around. All we could do was sit on the dusty ground, leaning up against a tree. And finally all we could manage was to lie down all day. We hardly had the strength to talk. I was hoping my brother would die first so he wouldn't have to watch me die.
"Then one day when we thought we wouldn't last till nightfall, we heard the honking of a truck horn, and over the hill came the missionaries. Their truck was loaded with bags of food.
"Eating too much would have killed us, so they cooked up some grain into a thin gruel and came around every hour or so with a spoonful for each of us. It took many days before we could really begin to eat." He stood there and surveyed our heavily laden table. "I never thought I'd see this much food ever again!"
We all looked at each other, remembered what we'd done six years earlier. It hadn't hurt us one bit. In fact, it had been more like a game. But, along with the gifts of many others, it had made the difference between death and life.