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RICHMOND, Va. (BP) -- Here's a handy back-to-school tip: Make friends with that pimple-faced kid sitting alone in the back of the classroom.
You know the one. Nobody wants to be around him because he's weird. He doesn't belong to a group, except for maybe the losers. He smells funny. All the cool people make fun of him. The jocks push him around. If you talk to him, he either freezes up or gives you an excruciatingly detailed description of his comic book collection.
Talk to him anyway. Not out of pity. Not because he might become the next Bill Gates. Do it because Jesus would.
The Lord left the flock to search for the lost sheep. He associated with the lowly and He touched lepers. He endured personal rejection and shame, even unto the cross. So if Jesus were in your classroom this year, where do you think He would sit? If He lived in your town, where would He hang out?
God loves the whole world, but He has special compassion for the rejected, the forgotten and the neglected. "He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing" (Deuteronomy 10:18).
Ten minutes outside an African city lies a place that's easy to miss. Few people talk about it. It's called the Outcast Camp. It is home to 90 women and children who have been accused of witchcraft.
"The majority of these women have been abandoned by their husbands, parents and friends. They are forced to farm the chief's land in return for their safety. They are outcasts of society," a missionary writes. "We go twice a month to share Bible stories. We facilitate volunteers and churches in America coming to help ensure these women are loved and cared for. When a woman is able to leave the camp and return to her village, we help her transition back. We are excited for this opportunity.
"Please pray for these women and children. Pray for their eyes to be opened to the truths of the Gospel. Pray they would know that though they are outcasts in society, in God's eyes, they are worthy and someone for whom Christ died."
Whole peoples and ethnic groups have been treated as outcasts through the ages. The Jews. The Roma (Gypsies) of Europe. Bedouin of the Middle East. The Kurds, caught between multiple nations. Untouchables in caste-ruled parts of India. Tribal peoples. Mountain peoples.
Mountain communities "were often isolated not only from the outside world but also from each other, even when they were not very far apart as the crow flies, but were separated by rugged mountain terrain," says economist Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. "A pattern of poverty and backwardness could be found from the Appalachian Mountains in the United States to the Rif Mountains of Morocco, the Pindus Mountains of Greece and the mountains and uplands of Ceylon, Taiwan, Albania and Scotland."
Even when they migrate to dominant cultural centers -- willingly or after being driven from their traditional homes by war, persecution and other factors -- forgotten people often remain invisible in plain sight.
The United States leads all nations of the world as a destination for migrants, the Pew Research Center reported last year. With 43 million foreign-born residents, America is home to one of every five migrants worldwide. According to mission research, nearly 600 unengaged, unreached people groups also can be found in North America. They have yet to hear the Gospel in ways they can understand it and respond to it. Up to eight of every 10 refugees resettled in the United States come from unreached areas of the world.
Yet 20 percent of all the non-Christians in North America don't even "personally know" a Christian, according to new research from Gordon-Conwell's Center for the Study of Global Christianity. The top reason: immigration. Newly arrived Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims or non-religious people move into ethnic enclaves -- or right next door -- and no Christian attempts to meet, greet or welcome them. True, churches and church folk are the main sponsors of incoming refugees and have been since at least the 1970s. But that doesn't make up for the waves of immigrants who find no hospitality at all.
"Why does our compassion so often scab over in response to those closest, and most unlike us, even as our hearts burn with passion for 'those in need' who are far off?" Melody J. Wachsmuth asks in Mission Frontiers magazine. "Perhaps Jesus told His parable of the Good Samaritan in order to elicit a visceral reaction regarding the true challenge of loving our neighbor -- a reaction we can experience today if we take out the word Samaritan and insert a neighbor with whom we share close physical proximity but try to avoid."
It's not as hard as you think. It's like talking to that kid in the back of the classroom: A little kindness goes a long way.
Erich Bridges is IMB global correspondent whose column appears twice monthly in Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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