Reading the opening paragraphs of the book of Ruth I was struck by the fact that God cared about an insignificant family displaced from their land and home by famine. God knew their names, He was watching as they traveled to Moab, He paid attention to who the sons married, in fact he chose one of those Moabite women to be the great-grandmother of king David, and part of the family line of His Son, Jesus.
In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
(Ruth 1:1–5 ESV)
Obviously there were other families displaced by the same famine whose travels are not recorded in the Bible — God had a specific purpose in recording the details of this family. However, there are plenty of indications that God does pay attention to the poor and the displaced, He knew exactly where to find a widow to take Elijah in:
“Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”
(1 Kings 17:9 ESV)
God also knew that without Elijah coming to her she would die (1 Kings 17:12), and He provided for her, her son and Elijah (1 Kings 17:13–14). Jesus himself confirms that God knew all the widows in both Israel and elsewhere (Luke 4:25–26).
As I considered Elimelech’s family fleeing the famine, I found myself praying for the Shan people, many of whom are forced to flee their homes, villages and fields to escape the Burmese army and, this year, also famine.
In previous years, the main livelihood problems for farmers have been the loss of income while doing forced labour, restrictions on traveling to fields, and extortion by various armed groups. However, the past year has been even more difficult throughout southern Shan State because of the worst drought in decades which has caused water levels in Inle Lake and major rivers to fall dramatically. With poor irrigation systems, the lack of rain for paddy fields will have a huge impact on the food security of rural villagers and rice prices for townspeople alike.
In this climate of instability, over 29,000 people are estimated to have been displaced from their homes during the past year. Over 128,000 internally displaced persons are estimated to remain in southern Shan State, which represents a slight decrease compared to last year. This is primarily because restrictions on movement in government controlled relocation sites have proved unsustainable and villagers have drifted away.
It is so easy to read numbers like ‘29,000 people displaced in the past year’ and ‘128,000 internally displaced persons in Southern Shan State’ and not properly register what this means. I have never been to Burma, it is impossible for me to understand the reality for all these displaced people. What I can imagine is that 128,000 is about the number of people living in Dunedin, my home city, and if all of us were forced to move out with only what we could carry on foot, this would be a major national crisis. It would make world news. Meanwhile the displaced Shan people just get on with attempting to survive under a brutal military regime while it seems nobody in the rest of the world cares.
But God cares. He knows each of those people by name, in their own language. As Gods children He delegates the task of caring to us also. I cannot do much, but I can pray. Even though I do not know the names of any of these people, God does and He can take my un-named prayers and apply them to the child or widow or father or young man or scared young woman who needs those prayers right at this moment.