Life Lessons from Swaziland
By Phil White
May 14, 2008
“You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror” (TNIV).
This excerpt from Psalm 10 appears at the top of an Internet blog written by Dennis Brock, a Christian missionary whose work in the tiny, AIDS-ravaged African nation of Swaziland is inspired by God’s love for the poor. The verse has added meaning for Brock because God heard his cry of desperation earlier in life.
Brock grew up in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y. While in high school, he became depressed, at times feeling suicidal. Brock’s emotional pain was an impetus to start abusing alcohol and drugs, leading to a damaged relationship with his parents and an increasing sense of futility. Realizing that substance abuse was wrecking his life, Brock began searching for something that could save him.
“My mom knew the Lord and my dad had just started going with her to Kenmore Alliance Church, so the next morning I asked them to tell me about Jesus,” Brock says. “Then I talked to the pastor at Kenmore, who told me Jesus died for me and desperately wanted a relationship with me. He led me in a prayer and advised me to learn more about God from the Bible.”
To put his newfound faith into action, Brock gave up his self-destructive habits and prayed daily for guidance. He felt God calling him to missions work, and after discussing this with his pastor at Kenmore, he started leading junior-high and high-school youth groups at the church. Brock believes that God used this mentoring and volunteer work at a kitchen for the homeless in Buffalo to teach him that serving others is more important than serving selfish desires.
“The Lord helped me take my eyes off myself, and that was a real turning point,” Brock says. “I realized that this life is not about me, but rather is about what God can do through me to help those in need.”
Realizing that education would prepare him for the mission field, Brock began visiting Christian colleges. He settled on Nyack College in Nyack, N.Y., an institution founded as a missionary school.
“Two of my friends from Nyack, Ben and Janine, went on a missions trip to Swaziland [one year], and when they came back they asked me to move there with them for six months to start an Adventures in Missions base,” Brock says. Adventures in Missions (AIM) is an interdenominational organization that spreads the Gospel through work with orphans, the sick and the poor, and has sent out more than 65,000 people across the globe. As Brock found out more about their work, he started to consider his friends’ proposal.
“I’d never even heard of Swaziland, but after I prayed about it I had a dream about African children who needed my help, and that convinced me to go.” But first, Brock faced a financial obstacle. AIM requires individuals to fund their missions trips, and with only three months until his friends were due to depart, Brock was panicking about his lack of money. He worked all summer, but when August came he still hadn’t raised enough. In a bold step, Brock got on the plane for Swaziland with Ben and Janine, thinking he would be able to stay for just a few weeks.
“When I got to Swaziland, I called my parents and they told me that our church had collected enough money to cover the entire six months,” Brock says. “That was more humbling evidence of God’s provision for me.”
In his first few days in Africa, Brock was shocked by the impoverished circumstances of the native people. Seventy percent of Swazis live on less than a dollar a day, and the small African country has the highest rate of HIV infection on earth. “The lack of basic physical provisions such as clean water is astounding,” Brock says. “Then there’s the HIV epidemic—there are so many people who are sick and dying that it just breaks my heart.”
While the plight of Swaziland’s poor distresses him, Brock is also disturbed by the greed of the federal and local authorities that prevents AIDS victims from receiving appropriate treatment.
“Government corruption here is sickening,” Brock says. “The Swaziland authorities have the resources to buy antiretroviral drugs for everyone with AIDS, but the supplies run out because of swindling. It leads to needless suffering.”
One person affected by the medication shortage is Brock’s friend Wandile. This 21-year-old woman contracted AIDS from what Brock calls “bad lifestyle choices.” Although she received antiretroviral drugs at first, the supply ran out. Withdrawal from these drugs causes mental disturbances, and when her medicine ran out Wandile regressed into a childlike state of dependence, unable to feed or wash herself. Dramatic weight loss left her on the verge of death, but AIM and the local church intervened. “A lady Wandile didn’t know took her in and fed her, bathed her, treated her as her daughter,” Brock says. “Wandile came to know the Lord and His strength, and this woman’s care revived her.”
Once she had gained weight and acquired more medication, Wandile became determined to use what was left of her life to spread the Gospel and help others avoid the dangers of promiscuity.
The people of Swaziland have few or no material possessions, are in the midst of a seven-year drought that has led to zero crop yield and are afflicted by a nationwide AIDS pandemic. And yet, they have an enduring spirit that Brock has not seen in the United States.
“There is an unnatural resilience, a strength the Swazis find in their faith,” he says. “Joy leaps out of them, in spite of all the adversity they face, and it comes directly from God. They are my inspiration.”
It is the hopefulness of the Swazis that keeps Brock in Africa, even when the circumstances he finds himself in are tragic.
“I know so many people who are critically ill or who have died, but God is working miracles here, and I can’t walk away from that,” he says.
A plan to stay in Swaziland for six months turned into a three-year commitment for Brock, and now he intends to stay indefinitely. “God has changed me since I’ve been in Swaziland,” he says. “He has enlarged my heart and humbled me. Even on difficult days, when I’m emotionally and physically drained, I have the joy of the Lord and know I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Brock encourages others to give monetary donations to further God’s work through AIM and other charities, but has words of caution about giving.
“You should be generous financially, but be careful what organizations you give to, because there is so much mismanagement of funds,” he says. “Five minutes of Internet research will make sure your gifts are going to a reputable charity.” Much more than money is needed to help the underprivileged. Brock believes that an open heart takes precedence over an open wallet and that good intentions are meaningless without action.
“Pray and be willing to do whatever God calls you to do,” he says. “Not everyone is meant to end up in Africa and not everyone will be a missionary, but wherever you are, you can use your time and resources to help others. God has a plan for each of us to reach out.”
A symptom of rampant consumerism in Western nations is an over-inflated sense of self. Even while in Swaziland, when buying goods needlessly is not an option, Brock faces the temptation to think of his needs before those of the orphans and AIDS victims he works with daily. He is determined to overcome this challenge so he can serve Christ and others more effectively.
“Each of us faces a daily war against selfishness, including me,” Brock says. “We must be resolute in continually taking our eyes off ourselves and onto others who need help. Pray that God will awaken your soul, and He’ll do it.”
In the 12th chapter of the Book of Mark, a scribe asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is. Jesus tells him it is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). It’s easy to imagine the scribe thinking, “That’s easy enough; now I’ll be on my way.” But Jesus isn’t done. He goes on to say, “The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). To Brock, solving the problems of poverty, disease and oppression in Swaziland and across the globe begins and ends with following this second commandment.
“If we start to truly, actively love our neighbors as ourselves, there will be a huge transformation in the world,” Brock says.
Originally published in RELEVANT Magazine issue 33. If you enjoyed this article, consider visiting your local newsstand to pick up the latest issue or subscribe online and save up to 71% off newsstand.