Here in Malawi there’s a more recent custom of asking a foreigner—most likely from Europe or the U.S.—to name a newborn child. We presume this comes from the desire of the Malawian parents to create a strong bond between the child and a foreign friend of the family who may be able to assist in supporting that child as he/she grows. It is not unusual for families to have met someone through various missionary groups or non-profit organizations who they later ask to assist them with paying for the child’s school fees, for example.
This concept struck a chord with me—we recently have heard the news that some Malawian acquaintances of ours have a newborn baby girl whose name comes from the Scots Gaels language (I think it is similar to Maura, but it sounded like it may have a “k” sound at the end; Mauragh in Scots Gaels?). This immediately made sense, since the mother has been associated with a missionary group from Scotland who came to do some work in Malawi and she has even been to the UK to see the group up there.
The strong bond formed from naming someone, however, is not only made tangible through the incredible opportunity of being asked to give someone’s child the name by which they will be known. Merely acknowledging a person by their given name is often a powerful event that we often take for granted. When I happen to meet a former student on the streets of Blantyre, it brings so much more joy to the student’s face if I am able to recall his/her name. It feels good to hear someone call us by name; it is an acknowledgement of our existence and tells us in even the smallest of ways that I am memorable.
In a decade of ministry I’ve tried to remember names as best as possible. At one parish, the children going through our various ministries exceeded 700, however, and the addition of guardians and volunteers caused the number to probably exceed 2000. I, of course, was unable to remember everyone’s name, but it is surprising just how many one can recall when you decide to make an effort. I fear that in my various ministries in Elkhart, Notre Dame, Peoria, Safety Harbor, and now Lunzu I have met so many people that I would do a terrible job of remembering names at a high school reunion. Some people hold jobs where perhaps a half-dozen people at most are new every year, but as anyone in ministry or teaching can attest—there is a revolving door of new faces and names every single year.
It still impresses me, then, when my parents mention a former teacher or school counselor they’ve recently run into and who at the sight of my parents’ are able to recall my name. Being a good student may have helped make me a bit more memorable than others, but nonetheless, I can remember my elementary school principal—Mr. Stajkowski, or Mr. S as most of us called him—standing outside even on the snowy days to greet as many students by name as he could. I remember him knowing just about everyone, from the newest arrival to the perennial retained, from the handicapped students to those accomplished in sports, from the student being dropped off in the latest brand name clothes to the kid coming from the trailer park wearing the same outfit as the day before. And looking back, it seems the students at that school had a remarkably high sense of self-esteem.
So if you run into someone whose name you know today—an acquaintance, a member from your church, even a worker with a name tag—greet them by their name. Even if there’s seemingly no reaction, I bet you bring a little sense of importance to them that they wouldn’t otherwise have felt. And if you don’t recall the person’s name, ask them it at least shows you care enough to know.