The day after our bout with the stomach flu was our Grocery Day here at The Pines. Since we were still feeling some minor aftershocks we were hoping to catch some time off. With that in mind, we completed the shopping first thing in the morning and by 10:00 I thought there might be time for a nap.
Just as we were stashing away the foodstuffs we were told there was someone here to see us. We went outside and found a young girl named Susan. Susan is about 14 years old and lives in the informal settlement about a mile up the road from us. An informal settlement is, in effect, a squatter camp. There is no electricity, plumbing, or running water. It is just a collection of shacks that have been thrown together by these people who are looking for a place to live. It is a very transient community, as most of the inhabitants are immigrants from Lesotho and frequently the return there, move in with other family in the area, or find better housing somewhere else. The settlement is referred to as Number Seven, since it is located in the vicinity of the #7 mine shaft.
The children of #7 attend school at the same school The Pines kids initially attended. Since Brian & Lois moved here in May of 2006 we have been in contact with these children, and although it has lessened somewhat, we still attempt to help them when possible. Susan had come looking for us because the tin shack that was her home had burned down the night before. Susan lives with her aunt, Alice, and two younger cousins. When she arrived she said that Alice had been taken to the hospital with burns and that they had lost everything except the clothes on their backs.
Another new co-worker of ours - Phil Carmichael - and I got in The Pines van and drove back with Susan to inspect the damage and see how we could help. When we arrived at #7 we found her 8 year old cousin was only wearing a flimsy, worn-out dress that was a few sizes too small. Cold weather had just arrived in the Free State the previous day and temperatures were in the 50's with a strong wind making it feel cooler than that. Susan herself wasn't dressed much warmer.
We quickly went to the shack site and it was immediately obvious that everything had burned. We found remnants of clothing, cooking utensils, and a box spring amongst the smoldering rubble, but that was about it. Susan said the fire had started while they were cooking, and in the pile we found a pan half full of rice with the remaining rice scattered and burned on the ground. The pan itself and a metal teapot were half melted. The climate in Welkom is very dry, similar to the panhandle of Texas. The frames of these shacks are ancient wood scavenged off old mine buildings. The tin is tacked onto these using the old nails that have been saved and straightened. Often rooms are sectioned off using old blankets or sheets. When these structures catch fire they tend to burn very quickly and with intense heat, and the fact that the insulation in these homes consists of wadded up newspaper only exacerbates the problem.
Susan said Alice had been burned trying to save some of the items from the shack, but her English isn't terribly strong and we were pretty sure some of our communication wasn't completely accurate. We offered to allow Susan and the girls to stay at The Pines but they refused. They have another aunt that also lives at #7 and elected to live with her. We spoke with this aunt and she agreed that it would be ok. Seeing that the girls had no clothes or food we determined that The Pines could help in that way, at least until Alice was back and we could sort everything out.
The 3 girls got back in the van for the return trip to The Pines and the aunt came along to help. Once we arrived at The Pines Lois began searching the clothing storage for items that would fit the girls. I found Mama Irene and she agreed to help the girls bathe and warm up. I then began to put together a food parcel for the family. When we moved here we were able to obtain some old comforters from a hotel that was remodeling and since then they've been put to good use. They were used to wrap fragile items during shipment, some of them have been given as gifts to various individuals, and now we were able to use some of them to help keep these kids warm.
After a couple hours everything was ready and the girls were outfitted with new clothes, shoes, toothbrushes & soap, blankets, jackets, and food & sweets. Each girl also got a new stuffed animal. While they had just endured such a difficult trial it seemed from their faces that it was their Christmas morning. I'm sure that they've never been given so much in their lives, and these are things that we Americans have discarded in some way or another. Our ministry here isn't simply to relieve physical needs and suffering; that would quickly become overwhelming. The goal of our work is to reach souls with the love of Jesus Christ, and the message that "God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but will have everlasting life". We give, not because it is heartbreaking to see such tremendous need, but because God has given so much to us. He asks us to share His love with a lost and dying world. It brings to life the truth of James 2:15-16. My question to you is, have you ever truly seen that God gave His Son to pay for your sins? Have you asked forgiveness for your sins and are you trusting only in the grace of God to take you to Heaven?
If not, why?
If yes, what are you doing about it?
Later that day we saw Alice and found that she hadn't been burned, or at least not in any serious way. She had been taken to the hospital as a precautionary measure, and because she had shown some symptoms of shock. She said that the fire had been started by a man at #7 who for some reason held a grudge against her or the family. He had disappeared after the fire, so it's safe to assume she's probably right.
As an interesting post script, I have a story about some kids who are doing something about their faith. The children of some family friends of the O'Tools back in Iowa had collected money to send to the work here. The total came to $20. We received it in our account at the end of last week. Susan and the next oldest girl attend school but their uniforms were lost in the fire. The $20 that this family sent is being used to purchase new uniforms for the two girls. Something that may seem so minor to many has become something so big to this family. We are thankful to the many back home who give so generously, and often sacrificially, to allow our ministry here at The Pines to exist and continue. You efforts are appreciated now and will be for eternity.