Imagine standing outside on the street curb, staring up at sounds of children screaming and crying from a high up window of an overrun, under-resourced hospital that is overwhelmed with medical challenges that it barely has time to think, let alone consider long-term implications of its operations (or lack of).
Imagine being with a sweet-talking guide, who manages to get you and I into the hospital, past the security and up a VERY rickety elevator that seems to be unserviced for over 30 years. By God's grace, we make it up to the high floor, where the elevator doors barely open up to a hospital floor that is dark and damp, but crowded with people with ailments of all varieties. One thing that sticks out though is the noise coming from the end of the hall --- the distinct, piercing sound of children.
We are told we cannot take pictures and we must put our cameras away. It's our first trip to Zimbabwe and we want to capture everything, but we oblige, fearful of the tone that comes with the order from the head floor nurse. We dodge through the patients, who seem to have waited hours (maybe days) to be seen, almost all of them with expressions that communicate hopelessness. You and I look at each other, knowing what we must do. We want to stop and talk to each one, but the sounds of the children crying still ring through the cement block hallway --- each cry calling out to us to simply smile at each patient, with a focus on finding the source of the tears of children.
We get closer, with the cries growing louder. I'm nervous now, but try not to frighten you -- though remember at this point, I've never been here either. As we approach, we see a kid, probably about 6 or 7 yrs old, shuffle/crawl past the door. Not walk. Not run. But a shuffle/crawl. My eyes are shocked and confused, but I keep walking. We enter a GIANT blue room. 1 bathroom in the corner, a couple of sinks and 1 door. A couple windows, but all are barred up. It's high and the kids need protection, we think, with a glance at one another.
Then, I feel someone grabbing at my leg. You get the same feeling, but from a different direction. We both look down and see 15, 20, 25, maybe more kids all sitting in different corners of the room, coming toward us. All with arms extended waiting to be loved.
We are not supposed to be in this room. It's clear by the way the nurses dart out, but we stay --- compelled to stay by the depressed, emotionless glances that we see in the little faces staring up at us.
Our guide is told by a brave nurse that many of these children, ranging from days old to 8 yrs old, have never left this room since the day they were dropped off as infants. Abandoned, most of them children who have lost a parent to AIDS and families or neighbors dropped them off here at the hospital. I almost lose my balance, overhearing. You do, too. NEVER? There must be a language gap. Ask again. But slower this time.
It's confirmed. NEVER. You think I'm brave to sit down on the floor to better hug the child still grabbing my right leg. In truth, I need to sit down, unable to stand and ponder the gut wrenching fact we've been told. I'm immediately enveloped by a sea of clinging hands, crawling all over me. 3 yrs old. 4 yrs old. 7 yrs old. Maybe 2 yrs old. Many of them can't walk, when they should be able to --- how would they learn? What reason do they have to learn when they live in this one room?
We've only been in Zimbabwe for a few days at this moment, on our 1st trip together. We can't begin to imagine what's in store for us, but I feel paralyzed by the facts I've just heard. Another person with us, starts kissing the tops of the heads of each child and verbally reminds us all to "just love the children right now" and "we may not have long and these kids are starving for love."
They are right. Just moments later, a frantic nurse comes in and says we must leave. Someone in our group snapped a picture. They couldn't resist, I guess. I don't blame them. I grew up, watching stories in Romania of young children chained to the bed. Those images when I was 8 or 9 yrs old, watching 20/20 reports came racing back. I'm glad we got 1 or 2 images, but I'm crushed we have to leave.
Our pastor, though we were told to leave immediately, leans over a crib and touches the head of a child who had no way to reach us unless we went to him. That image is etched in my mind, despite the thousands and thousands of kids I've met and hundreds of people I've sat with on their death beds. I'll never forget the gently extended hand of my pastor, touching the head of a small child that may never leave this room. May very well die in this room.
I'll never, ever forget the stark contrast between the hand of compassion and the horrors of "life" wasted in that giant blue room.
That was 5.5 years ago, when we were forced to leave that room and the hospital. Forced to leave these abandoned children. Forced to say goodbye before we could say hello. Forced to accept the orders of a system we did not understand, but at the same time knew everything about --- a system that was failing to effectively serve the most vulnerable, but efficiently escorts love out the door. HATE 1, LOVE 0.
Race forward to today and you see why my hope still burns. Over the past 5 years, I've met hundreds of heroes around southern Africa. Dozens and dozens of them have become some of my closest friends.
The ministry of Forgotten Voices is finding pastors and church volunteers who are standing for the fatherless in their communities. Standing for the children that show up on their doorsteps instead of being dropped off at the giant blue room door. The church has proven itself to be a willing option --- not always an option with firm plans, but with willing hearts.
Our task and vision at Forgotten Voices is to find these honest heroes. Find them and tell their stories. Share the unfathomable bravery they exhibit and pray to God that people like you reading their stories will not simply slip back into your worlds, but choose to say YES. THESE ARE STORIES I CANNOT FORGET.
We are driven by their cries and their prayers. We are driven by their compassion. We are driven by the deeply held belief that our God is alive and well today.
3 Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless;
maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
While this story was long, for some of these kids it has a happy ending, which finally brings us to Stop #8. Forgotten Voices is proud to support a ministry that is caring for abandoned children that start off destined for the blue room, but a network of people is intervening to give these children a chance --- a chance to reconnect to a distant relative or family friend. If not, they are placed in a forever home.
I remember visiting one of these forever homes. Its location and name I cannot reveal, for obvious reasons. But, as God is my witness, the very first child I met at this forever home --- nearly 5 years after my first trip to the giant blue room --- was a child I saw that first trip. He had been rescued.
I sat down on the chair and watched him crawl into my lap. I was unable to speak for awhile, overwhelmed by the memories of this child's face and to the glory I was giving to God for his deliverance from that vile place to this oasis of love. He had been learning to walk and was making great strides. He had a yard to play in now. How great is our God!?!??! Sing with me, HOW GREAT IS OUR GOD!??! HOW GREAT. HOW GREAT. HOW GREAT IS OUR GOD.
Forgotten Voices is now proud to be a supporter of this ministry to abandoned children in Zimbabwe. It is led by a large church in Zimbabwe, but they need our help, just as so many other heroes of the faith do, too in Zimbabwe and Zambia.
You can help us invest in this ministry and 24 others that we are experiencing on this Journey Across Africa.
To make a gift online, visit ForgottenVoices.org or send a check to Forgotten Voices, PO Box 1368; Mechanicsburg, PA 17055-1368.
Pray on, as we rise to meet the enormous challenges we see. Nearly 5,000 children are receiving care from our network of church partners. You can join the movement of hearing their stories and responding by being a voice for these champions for children. By doing so, you are helping us equip them with the resources they need to meet the physical & spiritual needs of these vulnerable kids, orphaned by AIDS.
NEXT STOP: We go to a seminary equipping church leaders --- graduates that are leading Forgotten Voices' church partnerships in Zimbabwe. Where character, service, leadership, and reconciliation is taught, so giant blue rooms are responded to with love and hope --- not crippling hopelessness. Come back and be challenged again by the inspiring place that is a 2nd home to me: the Theological College of Zimbabwe.
Thanks for reading. And thanks for loving. Thanks for being a voice and not simply moving on, forgetting their cries. I love you for this. If they could give you a hug themselves, they would.
With a giant bear hug to you,
PS To learn more about the abandoned children and the woman behind it, you can read a recent post here. Again, the names are protected.