I thought a lot about “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” while I was in Malawi. Ten days in a land of scarcity. Most of the people in that part of Africa operate on the lowest levels of that hierarchy — focusing on obtaining drinkable water, food and shelter. And yet, everywhere we went, the people welcomed us with singing — and joyful singing, at that.

This is in spite of the fact that the third largest industry in the country is the manufacture and sale of coffins. And the fact that 20% of children don’t survive past the age of 5. And the fact that 14% of the population have HIV/AIDS. And the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of orphans — many of whom have HIV. I could go on, but you get the point that there are stark realities in the country. Still, those whose lives are characterized by such loss and need and pain expressed great joy for our visits. And after what I’ve seen of the people there, it’s no wonder that Malawi is called “the warm heart of Africa.”

Returning to my nice big comfortable home in the US, I can’t shake the notion that my life is no richer than theirs, in spite of all my riches. Most of us in America have lives that are characterized by the things we own. In fact, owning things is what Americans do best — we invest most of our lives in the pursuit things. After all, our “stuff” is what defines us. In Malawi, since nobody seems to have much of anything, they are who they are, not what they own. This, of course, challenges my American way of life and identity.

Throughout our trip, my mind kept turning to Matthew 25:40 — “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'” What response can we, as Christians, make in the face of such overwhelming need? Or on a more personal level, what does God require of me? There are many opportunities for involvement, and I’m confident that The Lord will show me how best to invest my time and gifts as I pursue His will. In the meantime, John Wesley’s words are an appropriate guide for all of us:

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

Dennis McQuerry is a research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Lab where he specializes in ‘visualization-based techniques for the analysis of large datasets of unstructured text.’ He is married to Maureen McQuerry, a writer and educator. They have two children — a daughter in an MFA program in Creative Writing at ASU, and a son who is a senior at Whitworth College in Spokane. They are members of West Side Presbyterian Church in Richland, WA.