I never meant to fall in love when I went to South Africa last September. I left thinking I could make a difference in this world. I would be that difference. I find it amusing that despite our arrogance, the Lord will still use us and rip us apart to our core.
I recently returned home to my suburbia haven of New Jersey, spending almost a year in South Africa and Swaziland. I signed up to escape everything I knew, to play with orphans, do something real. I wanted to feel noble in my pursuits, to clothe myself in righteous works. Instead I came home naked, more aware of the injustices in this world than ever. I had escaped nothing. For my year in South Africa, I worked at a Children’s Home for HIV-infected children. A government-funded home for 34 children, some forgotten and others rejected.
I fell in love with every child at Mohau Children’s Home. Working at a children’s home for nine months, falling in love seems an easy task. But I am not speaking of affection, liking and sympathy. I refer to a broken love: limitless and unconditional. It was not me; it was never me. It was the love of the Father. I was worthless in that place. I was tired; I gave up; I ignored children; I turned a cheek to noses full of snot. I never gave enough of myself.
I worked alongside two dear friends of mine, Sam and Kyle. We spent our first three months confused, tired and hollow. We spent many days considering giving everything up, giving in to an easier option. HIV-infected, institutionalized infants are poster-children for the marginalized. Abandoned by families with little hope for adoption. Finally we let go of controlling the situation. We gave in to the love of the Father and committed to being mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters to the 34 children.
We walked them to the clinic every day. We sat alongside mothers and fathers for six hours at a time awaiting those precious minutes with the doctor. We held them during their bloodwork, impatiently longing for the removal of the syringe. We laid beside them as they napped, changed the impossible diapers. Above every humbling task were the beautiful moments of laughter and grace, which injected more humility than any soiled diaper.
The day before we were to leave, our boss, Tiekie, took us out for lunch. She gave us a brief history of each child that we had grown to love. Stories that we had longed for but never knew. With each word that came from her mouth, our hearts broke piece by piece: abandonment, loneliness, abuse, disease and sickness. Then we came to Ernie. Ernie was the child that had held me the tightest. He was a 10-year-old who was HIV positive, autistic, epileptic and diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Suffering seems to be a gauge by which one cannot measure, but Ernie was certainly one of the sickest children at Mohau.
Ernie knew this world better than I did. He knew love. He was a heartbreaker. I am sure Ernie had wooed many people before me with his charm, his rhythm and his love for people. I underestimated Ernie. I thought I was humoring him, singing his songs, clapping my hands. When all along he was humoring me. He knew I would leave. His life had been so temporary, why would I be any different? Every morning I walked into Mohau, I wondered if Ernie had remembered me from the day before. He remembered my songs, why wouldn’t he remember me? He used to scream scrambled versions of my name. The cynic in me thinks he was speaking in some mangled version of Sotho but my heart prays he knew my name, my face because I will never be able to forget his.
The day I heard Ernie’s story, of the choice that was to be made, I felt like everything inside of me had evaporated. I was this shell walking around, useless. Incapacitated, how could I help this child? That night my team had a time of prayer and worship. I wept for Ernie. Before that moment, I have never cried for anyone but myself. The LORD grabbed me by the heart and He wrecked me. He gave me a glimpse of His compassion; I knew I was crying His tears for His children.