Normally on the blog I try to get a good mix of lighthearted anecdotes along with stories of the more serious aspects of our ministry. While I hate to throw such heavy reading on you twice in a row, that’s the reality of life here; you never know when you will receive news that can rock your world. Following is a story that may break your heart. I know it does mine.
The Pines capacity is currently 24 children. We had 22 until one of our boys went to live with his father in December. Some quick math will tell you this left us with 3 open spaces. This is not common, as normally we are forced to turn people away. We decided a couple weeks ago that we should pray for God to fill us to capacity while bringing just the right children whom we could serve best.
Warning: Prayer can be a dangerous thing. Within 24 hours, Lois received requests to take in 7 children. There were three children in one family, whose mother and father had both been admitted to the hospital for undisclosed care. Another set of three came from a family in Hani Park. From previous updates you may remember Hani Park as one of the roughest places to live. The mother of these children is in hospice care, meaning her outlook seems grim. The last child was needing care, but we are not sure what the reason was.
After some discussion, we determined we could handle these, as most of them would only be here on a temporary basis. That afternoon the first three arrived. These kids stayed only for a few days, when a relative from another province arrived to care for them while the parents remained hospitalized.
When the day passed without any word on the other children, Lois contacted the social worker to see why the children hadn’t arrived. Social workers here each are assigned to a zone, and then they also work a rotating schedule for “emergency” situations. Lois learned from the social worker that had initially contacted us that it had been determined that the single boy had a place to live, so by providing a food parcel, he would be cared for sufficiently.
The other three had not come because when the social workers arrived to fetch them, no one was home. Lois queried as to what would be done, as obviously the situation hadn’t just corrected itself. She was told that now another social worker was on the “emergency” list, so word would be passed along. After a couple days and additional calls, it was clear that the case was not proceeding.
Then came one of those days you wish could be forgotten. The Pines received a call from the hospice that was caring for the mother of the three children. They requested that we come help, as tragedy had struck. When Brian & Lois arrived in Hani Park, they learned that the oldest child, a 9 year old girl, had decided that life was no longer worth the struggle. She had committed suicide by laying down on the train tracks. In addition, she had tried to get her 7 year old brother to join her, even to the point of attempting to hold him on the tracks with her. He was able to struggle and escape, but her life was quickly ended.
That day Brian & Lois brought the boy-Ndephewe, along with the 15 month old sister (whose name I can neither spell or pronounce), back to The Pines for care. Thankfully, the mother was in favor of this, and seems grateful for the assistance. The Niehoff’s also assisted with the funeral plans and preparations, as funerals are, or have become, very important to this culture.
Ndephewe, as you would imagine, remains traumatized by the event, having witnessed his sister’s suicide, and having narrowly escaped himself. He is willing to talk about what occurred, which seems to be a step in the right direction. We have learned that children can be tremendously resilient, as so many of our kids have seen and experienced more than we can even imagine. He has adjusted to life at The Pines very well. Already he is enrolled in Dunamis, the Christian school our children attend, and appears to be thriving. The kids here do a wonderful job accepting and helping the new kids as they arrive, and he is already assisting in the normal mischief of the boys his age.
The baby arrived malnourished, with sores on her face and body. The sores are already healing and she is showing more strength every day. While she is almost a year and a half old, her development is similar to Drake-our 5 month old. The mothers are doing a great job caring for and nourishing her, and we are confident that God will bless and bring her to full strength quickly.
Last Saturday the funeral for the older sister was held. I attended with several of our older children and one of the mamas, who came along to care for the baby. At first, Ndephewe seemed tentative, even a bit shy. It’s hard to tell whether that was because of the somber event, or because of his return home. After a half hour or so, he warmed up and soon was running and playing with the other children. Oftentimes, funerals become a social event. It seemed as if Ndephewe forgot completely what was going on and just enjoyed being back with the children he knows. Again, tragedy and death have become such a part of the culture that it seems so commonplace. There isn’t a person here that hasn’t experienced the death of a close friend of family member.
As a member of The Pines, and possibly as the only Caucasian, I garnered more than my share of attention. While not on the program to speak, they carved out a few minutes for me to speak. I was not notified of this beforehand, but after spending almost a year here, we’ve learned to be prepared for about anything. It gave me a wonderful opportunity to share the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. I noted that life is full of news, both good and bad. While we were gathered because of bad news, God has given us the best news anyone can ever receive-assurance of eternal life in heaven. Given the impact of death on this culture, it is imperative to make a decision on your eternal destiny today. Regardless of where you live, no one is promised the next breath, let alone another day or year.
As I said, funerals are a social event. The speaking, preaching, and singing went on for several hours, and the crowd continued to grow. Soon it was time to head to the cemetery for the burial. Transportation is at a premium, and we had the biggest vehicle around. I started getting requests for a ride a good hour before we left, and by time I got back to the van, a crowd had gathered and I had to fight my way through to the door. I made sure The Pines children got in first, then there was a free for all. After we got to the cemetery about a mile away, I counted the passengers. In a 12 passenger van 28 adults had packed themselves in, along with the 8 children from The Pines.
After another hour or so of singing and speaking at the gravesite the burial started. I had wanted to get a few photos, but right as the shovels arrived the battery in my camera died. I was quickly handed a shovel and pitched in to help. No one leaves the graveside until its filled. As soon as I started to throw dirt, about 10 people rushed over with their cell phones to get a photo. Apparently it was a novelty for me to be involved in the process. I don’t write this to minimize the tragedy-throughout the whole day I couldn’t forget why we were here, and what circumstances had led us to be burying a child who should have been just starting life. One of the most poignant reminders of life in South Africa came at the gravesite; on one side – a row of empty graves waiting for the next child, on the other – a row of freshly filled graves. And during the entire graveside ceremony there were 4 guys about 50 feet away digging more graves.
For whatever reason, God blessed me and allowed me to be brought up in a loving home, a home where Christ was preached. I was raised in the richest country the world has ever known. And this girl from the day she was born barely had a chance. Our heart’s cry out to God that we can continue to reach people and restore hope to a society where it is not known. Not just reach people with food, clothing, shelter, and education, but reach them with everlasting hope-the joy of knowing Jesus Christ as a friend and Savior.
P.S. After the burial it is customary to provide a meal. Maybe that’s another reason why funerals garner such a crowd. I’ll be the first to say I was a bit tentative coming in, but was I ever wrong. While the food was definitely African, and prepared African-style over an open flame in big pots, it was delicious. I’m going to have to get the recipe from one of our mamas.