Strolling through the gate camera in hand, I was delighted to finally be back at the orphanage I have long hoped to revisit. Pausing for a moment to take a picture in the middle of the courtyard, a little boy suddenly came running with arms outstretched and wrapped himself around my legs. Reaching down I picked him up and took him into my arms. Here a little boy who has no idea who I am yet feels the confidence that if I am there, allowed into his space, I must be safe and welcome. This is what happens when children who have lost everything are welcomed into a community of hope.
Meet little John. He is two years old but when you first look at his tiny little body you would think him younger than a year. Yet when he stands on his own power and wobbles toward you, your heart melts and you realize that he is older than he looks.
There is a reason why John is so little. When his parents died of AIDS leaving their HIV positive baby behind, the rest of John’s family rejected him. Not knowing what else to do, his grandfather brought him to El-Shaddai Hope Center for Orphans. Although John’s medical record is quite important, the family has not provided the promised information. Though malnourished and tiny, the orphanage took him in and through loving care has nursed him back to health.
Can you imagine losing every member of your extended family in a matter of weeks? To be the only survivor among the people you loved the most? This is exactly what the young man in this picture experienced and I sat there listening to him sing about it. Through the help of a translator I learned that the lyrics went something like this;
When I remember my past
My heart is filled with praise
Because God did the impossible for me
I remember the people who died all around me
But after they tried to kill me several times I survived
And that is impossible
Informed by a mere paragraph in Lonely Planet and a quick glimpse at their website, I set out to find the Solace Ministries Guesthouse in Kigali, Rwanda. The vague map in my travel guide pointed in the right direction without actually pinpointing the location. Passing through multiple neighborhoods, making several phone calls, and asking anyone he could find, my moto-taxi gradually narrowed down the spot until we had found the place.
Introducing myself to Denise, the manager of the guesthouse, I mentioned that I sometimes photograph and write about vital causes that I find in East Africa. She then took me to the office of the founder and director of the ministry, John Gakwandi. Listening to what must have sounded like a bizarre story of how I found my way to his organization, John welcomed me and introduced me to their work.
This past week was the culmination of a process that started nine years ago when I fell in love with Africa for the first time. It was during a college trip to South Africa in 2000 that I discovered the beauty, needs, and receptiveness of this vast continent. As I was about to graduate from college two years later, I began to make plans for a return trip to Africa. I had met a Pastor from Malawi at a conference who invited me to visit his church and to work with him at training pastors. Having talked to everyone I could about Africa, I kept hearing that their greatest need was for leadership training to help deepen the church. When my plans fell through, however, I took this as a sign that I needed to spend more time preparing for the work that I would one day do in Africa. Although I have been back one time since, this week’s pastors’ conference in Gulu, Northern Uganda, marked the beginning of my opportunity to fulfill the goal that began nearly a decade ago to help train people for ministry in Africa.
Perhaps you’ve heard by now that I’m heading back to East Africa so here is the story. A couple of months back I walked into the student lounge at Bethel Seminary and noticed a flyer about a trip to Uganda. Having visited and fallen in love with Uganda and the surrounding region several years ago, I was immediately intrigued. As I read more it seemed like the trip was actually designed specifically for me to be involved. So why am I going back to East Africa? I’m glad you asked. Here are the two primary reasons:
“For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem.” (Romans 15:26)
The regions of Macedonia and Achaia, or modern-day Greece, were some of the most wealthy areas of the New Testament world. It is likely that many of the Gentile converts in these regions, as well as the Jews living there, were quite successful in the world of trade and business. The Christians in Israel, however, suffered under intense persecution. They lived in a society where leaving strict Judaism to convert to Christianity meant giving up your place as a citizen of society in good standing. The Christians in Jerusalem, in particular, suffered greatly at this time.
Learning of their Jewish brother’s sufferings, the believers in Greece decided to make a generous contribution to the church at Jerusalem. When the apostles and other traveling ministers brought news to them of Christians’ needs abroad, they opened their hearts and gave.
We have a similar situation today for in America we have more wealth than anywhere else in the world. Our Christian brothers and sisters abroad, however, suffer lack in many parts of the world. Somebody needs to travel like Paul did, seeing each situation first-hand and carrying word of the needs to the rest of the Church. Somebody also needs to be willing to give to the needs of those who are part of our own body, shared with Christ as the Head. Just like we would not ignore the needs of our own family, we must not turn away from the needs of our family in the Lord. At Mission Focus our desire is to bring not only the testimonies of the Church abroad, back to the West, but also the needs. We pray that God will open our own hearts and many others, to provide for His people.
When confronted with the needs of countless children suffering from AIDS, poverty and the death of parents, what can one do? Isn’t the need to large and overwhelming to address? Wouldn’t it require too much time, energy and resources to reach out to such a helpless multitude of little ones? Not according to Stephen and Beatrice Njau, founders of El Shaddai Children’s Home.
I just noticed that Paul emphasizes the importance of “one” six times in Romans 5. He repeatedly affirms that it was the offence of one many that caused sin and death to come upon all. Contrasting Adam’s failure with Christ’s perfection, he also states that it was the righteousness of one by which all receive life. As I reflect upon what I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen on this trip, one thing that I want to make sure that I do not forget is the power of one. Short of placing ourselves in the unique position of Christ or of Adam, there is a principle that one life carries unlimited potential, for better or for worse.
While walking along one day, with my camera hanging from my shoulder, I was abruptly approached by a man who named Henry. Eyeing my camera, he asked if I was a journalist. As I described my work as a photographer and filmmaker, he asked if I would be willing to do a documentary for his organization in a rural town in Western Kenya. Pulling out his business card, I noticed that it targeted the needs of orphans and vulnerable children. Anybody working to help children is a friend of mine, so I sat down to talk with him further.