If you ask someone from East Africa how many children they have, the answer will always astound you.
After ten years of doing work with orphans in Rwanda and meeting with clergy in the arid beauty of Africa, I know the answer won’t just be a number, but a story to go with it.
When I met the Bishop of Malawi last week, sitting around a small café table full of empty wine glasses, he tells me he has six children. Only one is biological. The Africans know what it means to be sacrificial parents. Because it is not an exception but a way of life.
Two of his children are from his wife’s family, two from his own, and the one without family genetics – that story is like opening the Bible and watching it illustrated through a porthole on a boat. And you already know I’m smitten by the power of story. For a few minutes, I forgot I was in Houston on the top floor of a hotel, in a room full of dignitaries; that my stomach was growling, or what time it was.
When the Bishop talks his teeth are like ivories on a piano; a wide gap in the middle, on top and bottom, like a crack in the wall to freedom. His words, a joyful melody in an African dance.
At fourteen, the Bishop loses both of his parents separately to illness. He is forced to become an adult before age catches up with him. Along with a tribe of siblings, he finds daily nourishment by gleaning from scraps left by soldiers living in the military camp they walk through daily on their way to school and back.
On one occasion, he is alone, meandering through the camp mid-day, when a soldier notices and asks why he isn’t in school. The Bishop explains he is released early because he can’t afford a proper uniform and they won’t allow him to stay in school without it.
A few days later, a new uniform is delivered on his doorstep, making a return to classwork possible.
That solider, a stranger standing in a field and watching over his men doing their work, continues looking after the welfare of the Bishop from a distance, providing for him throughout his young life.
Years later, after the soldier passes away, the Bishop returns to his hometown like David inquiring about Saul’s family, asking if there is anyone to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake. (2 Samuel 9:1)
The Bishop learns of the soldier’s daughter, now fatherless and in need of parenting. She is the sixth child he refers to when I ask him, the one he calls his own and for whom he provides an education.
“I want to repay the kindness of that man,” he says in a thick accent, smiling humble.
When you feel worthless, passed over, and forgotten like Mephibosheth – God remembers.
He scours your Lo-debar — that desolate pasture with hope rolling like tumbleweed over the surface of your life – and fulfills his promises. He sees the way you walk with a limp, hanging your shoulders in circumstance and asks, “What can I do for you.”
How will you answer?
I have some blogging friends on the ground in Uganda with Compassion International who are there to raise awareness about orphans who need “soldiers” and “bishops.” They haven’t asked me to write this but I happen to be following their journey because I love Africa and the people who live there. The timing of their trip collides with what I was planning to write today so I wanted to make you aware of it. And this story, well it’s like opening the Bible and witnessing God in the flesh.