A campaign for Forgotten Voices International.
Her name is Prudence. When I met her in January 2005, her eyes peered up at me. She couldn’t talk and she couldn’t walk. She was just 3 at the time, a frail, injured child with big eyes. I’ll never forget those eyes. I didn’t know what to do or say, but a friend of mine named Dale had been to villages like this before. He sat down next to her and passed her a bottle cap. The ground all around us was littered with bottle caps. Dale began to draw in the dirt. Prudence followed his lead, but eyed me up – uncertain of my motives and likely sensing my fear and insecurity…way out of my comfort zone. It was only my 2nd time to Zimbabwe, but first time really facing the fear of AIDS.
Her arms were frail, bony beyond description. Sores were all over her body, most notably her face. They even went into her mouth, covering her with pain that could not be washed away by the dirty water in the bucket next to where we were sitting. No food, but a goat, some chickens and a skinny dog wandered around us looking to gobble up anything remaining before others could find it.
Another friend named Trevor and I slowly sat down, too. We all began drawing in the sand with Prudence, which drew out a slight smile from her. She kept saying something quietly, something I never understood or asked about, too overwhelmed to try to know.
We had come to meet Prudence’s mother, who would die the next day from AIDS related illnesses. The flem in Prudence’s mother’s throat was so thick that she couldn’t talk to us, let alone comfort Prudence. Most of you know the story of Peterson (see fun video of him on Keyboard). Peterson is Prudence’s older brother (he was age 7 at the time of my first mtg Prudence), but it struck me today that it had been awhile since I had written about Prudence. I began asking myself, why?
There are many reasons why I don’t write about her much. Here are some.
I will never forget those eyes: every time I hear of a child die or a mother or father die in any of the churches we serve, I think of Prudence’s eyes as she peered up to me that first day. She was waiting for life to happen to her, facing insurmountable obstacles. Sometimes it is too painful to even think about those eyes, let alone write about the girl who grabbed my heart and hasn’t let it go.
She died. Over the past 8 years, I’ve been told that kids die all the time and that I can’t blame myself. I’ve been told that God knows her needs. I’ve been told that God’s will trumps all and I can’t linger too long on one child because I must be emotionally able to care for the thousands we must help in the future. But, for a long time, I never really bought any of those things.
We should certainly pray for less suffering, but we should definitely pray for more God. Perhaps that love can come through you and me? Her death reminds me of this often. You and I have a choice to serve orphans and widows or not.
So I sometimes I just avoid writing about her, too hard for many of you and often too hard for me. I chose to not act fast enough. Though I wasn’t fully responsible for her death, almost exactly a year after I met her, I WAS part of it. Those who heard and chose not to act were part of it. Like the characters who walked by in the story of the Good Samaritan… those who chose to do nothing… I did feel that I took my time deliberating on what is best instead of just acting out of love. I have felt guilt about this inaction, guilt I have let go of now. But, that feeling always prompts me to push back against our culture of needing to figure out everything before we do anything. Our fear of failure must not prevent us from doing what is right. As I say to our team all the time, “we must build our boat while we sail.”
I hate guilt ads and American hero messaging. I never want people to be guilted into giving OR believe that their gifts are doing the transformation alone. I saw the emotional power I held over people and it scared me. And I stopped because I felt like I was unintentionally guilting people or was leery of doing. I was too connected to not be passionate. Also, I always left Prudence behind and leave behind a network of churches every time I return to the USA. The work being done by brave men and women caring for children orphaned by AIDS is not to be underestimated or ignored. There is but one Savior. It ain’t me and it ain’t you.
We prefer happy stories. I found grimaces on the face of people I would share Prudence’s story to after meeting her, grimaces that often led to silence and looking away. People shut down or ran away emotionally. My goal in sharing her story was to spur people to act on behalf of other children orphaned by AIDS, but my emotionally charged connection to the story was achieving the opposite. I found that we like happy stories, where our donation makes things better instantly (or at least makes us feel that way).
Those stories of hope were there, but I’m left wondering why I can’t find a way to share stories of darkness that conclude as dark for the child or caregiver? If death is part of life, why can’t we find ways to act even as we mourn? After 8 years and 1,000+ home visits, I believe we must. Certainly I must if this calling on my life and our ministry is to be fulfilled.
There are others. But this is enough to say what I need to say now.
There are many reasons why I should write about her and children, even if it can be deeply painful. Those moments with Prudence and the pain in the eyes of people who heard me talk about her helped me see and understand that Forgotten Voices must be about the hope that surpasses our understanding. Our aspirations must be for restoration, even if we never get to see it for ourselves. That critical time with her in January 2005, looking back on it so many times, helped me see that hope was there for her. That pain and regret helped spur me to join with churches in southern Africa to start Forgotten Voices. Her eyes helped spur a network of volunteers in the USA to engage with the mission. A mission that is needed today, more than ever.
Local pastors stood ready to help her and Peterson. Yet, they needed our help to resource some of their aspirations. There are many other stories like Prudence’s that we know about and I need to keep writing about them, or risk becoming numb to the stats or consumed by running a nonprofit.
I am in this because I love children and I believe God has gifted us with an opportunity to create partnerships across people who commonly believe that hope in the darkness is there for children & churches impacted by AIDS. I’m thankful for your investment in us and look forward to sharing more and more about children & churches we love to serve.
Every Monday, I’ll share a story. I likely will share more than 1 during the week. It’s good for you and for me. Others on our team will also share (Remmy on Wednesdays, Ellen on Thursdays, Beki on Fridays).
But I don’t want you to just read them and be challenged by them. The work we are doing together with the church in Africa REQUIRES and YEARNS for us to do more. I’ll be sharing stories of children we know about, but have not served. We need you to share those stories because the opportunity for us to experience love of our God in the midst of suffering is real. The children, their eyes and names are real. We all will die someday, but together with the local church, I believe we can help children survive AND thrive through a better system of care that our ministry is working hard to equip.
We have a clear, powerful, deep and wide vision for our ministry that I look forward to sharing with you here. Prudence’s encounter with us continues to influence my leadership and our ministry. Through the pain, hope springs out to share God’s love.
I look forward to the journey of seeing, praying, learning and acting because God first loved us. Prudence taught me that.