An Unexpected Journey, 10 Years and Counting

Wow! I did not expect the last ten years, at least not like how they happened. Also, I’d guess neither did the six people who traveled over 8,000 miles with me to Africa nor our church that sent us nor my family.

In December 2007, a small team from Christian Life Center (CLC) and myself took an “exploratory” trip to Swaziland, Africa in hopes of finding a place we could find a partner community where we could plant a church that would do holistic ministry (spiritual, medical, educational, economical, and sustainable) among people ravaged by poverty and the AIDS epidemic.

You can watch the actual story shared through some compelling videos during a recent weekend service at CLC. View the sermon archive here.

It’s our “Swaziland Story.” You can see how our church has been able to pack and send over 2,700,000 fortified rice meals to help “widows and orphans in their distress (see James 1: 27). You can see some of the ten church communities launched since we began plus the heartwarming stories and pictures of over 200 CLC trip participants who have made friends with some of the kindest, most joy-filled, beautiful people of Swaziland an ocean away.

I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to travel eleven times to this tiny nation of just over one million people, about the size of Rhode Island, on the northeast border of the country of South Africa. More than that, I’m grateful to have been involved in a work with so many amazing people that has truly made a difference in peoples’ lives.

Reflecting on this incredible experience, below are some of my most stark memories:

1) “This is an AIDS orphan!”

Colani was a polite, friendly young man about 20 years old with a smile as warm as his two-handed Swazi handshake. He interpreted my first-ever sermon in Africa at a rural church with a congregation of about 150 people. Older Swazis typically only speak Siswati, so Coloni was needed if any of them were going to be able to understand my message. My primary theme was “We need you church of Swaziland.” I had hoped to instill value in them as brothers and sisters in Christ and important partners to what we sensed God calling us to do in their homeland.

As I thanked Colani for his help after the service, we got to chatting about his life story. Suddenly, I realized, here in front of me, was a child-become-young-man who had lost both parents to the AIDS pandemic. He spoke of life “on the streets” until he heard about the love and hope of Christ. From then his story changed, and he is now a part of a caring church community. All of a sudden, posters and heart-tugging brochures from American relief organizations trying to highlight the need for intervention in the African AIDS crisis came alive!

Since then I’ve met dozens, perhaps hundreds, of children of all ages who, like Colani, have lost mom or dad, or both parents to AIDS. I’ve looked into their captivating dark eyes and felt compassion that I believe lies latent in each of us until we place ourselves in opportunities to care.

2) “I’ll never forget the smell.”

The first time I sat on the floor of a traditional stick-and-mud home was at an African “wake.” The son of the “Gogo” (Grandmother) who owned the home had just died of AIDS. The home was filled with about 15 of us sitting in quiet sympathy for the family.

As you might imagine, I was enthralled with my meager surroundings. There was no electricity or running water in this one-room home. I noticed a decided lack of any furniture. Blankets served as beds, and a few grass mats were our seats. There was no real food in the handful of severely used pots in the  corner; perhaps a leftover spoon of dirty rice, but that was all I saw in this 10×10 foot structure that about eith people (most of them children) called home.

I also noticed the smell. I had no exact correlations for the scent to my life in the U.S.  I detected a “smokey” kind of smell not unlike public picnic shelters that have hosted too many “barbecue grills moved under the shelter in rain.” It was a strong scent but not offensive. When homestead visits are during the rainy season, the smell seems “heavier” amidst the surprisingly sturdy homes made from sticks, mud and grass of the surrounding rural countryside.

3) “He reached for my hand.”

In December 2009, my family and I spent Christmas in Swaziland. We visited rural homesteads simply sharing our friendship and prayer. We spent time with those who welcomed us inside the stick and barbed-wire fences that marked off their “lot” containing 40×40 feet of dirt and scrubby grass. Inside the fences, there were usually three to five handmade stick-and-mud huts. Each building was probably 80 to 100 square feet (10×10).

We walked among the huts of one homestead and said hello to the “Gogo” (Grandmother and family matriarch) and a few children. As we stepped around the corner of the house, there was a man. His name was Justice, and he was lying on a handmade grass matt. I almost stepped on him, and I was somewhat startled.

He was a diseased, living skeleton of a man. We were told he was dying of tuberculosis and AIDS (not an uncommon fatal combination), and he was holding his hand up to me. He wanted to shake my hand, man-to-man. In a nanosecond of first-world self awareness, my initial thought was, “Germs!” I was thankful I wasn’t quite a hand-sanitizing junkie or what Justice wanted me to do would be unfathomable.

Still, I realized the contact-contamination I was about to have and took his hand. Brother to brother, we were joined by a common faith, yet separated by two very different life paths. As we held that handshake for a few moments, I realized the value of human touch. I repented of my “germ” awareness and prayed a prayer of grace for Justice. It was all I had to give him, yet it seemed to matter significantly to him.

Justice died days later. The diseases and malnutrition that ravaged his body took his life. Throughout the years and return trips, I’ve never forgotten him. I remember how I was startled by a man lying at my feet. I was taken back as I realized he was breaths away from his last. I will always remember taking his hand and the quiet, overwhelming awareness of the connection and compassionate power of human touch.

4) “I could see it in her eyes.”

Hope is recognizable, especially in an environment where despair abounds. Hope sounds different in people’s voices and looks different in their eyes.

I’ll never forget sitting with my wife and our teenage son and daughter in a small “children’s home” built by men from our church. We had just been served tea and a cookie, and the six school-aged girls who lived in the home were reciting poetry for us.

With varying degrees of childhood performance anxiety, these beautiful litlte girls told us their names, their dreams, and their value in God’s eyes. Furthermore, they did all of it to a rhyming cadence that they learned in the church across the yard from their humble home.

I had the privilege to return almost 10 years later. One of the girls, Lindo, gave an update from her rhyming childhood dream. She explained how at 21 she had graduated with an Associates’ degree from a local community college. She became employed and had a vision for a future and a hope. Her life promised to be dramatically different from her childhood which was marked by abandonment and death of loved ones.

What we noticed in her childhood poem was evident at age 21. Hope is powerful. Hope is something a person has when they know someone else believes in them enough to help, enough to care. Hope is seen in their eyes.