Southern Africa Orphan Summit: Heartache and Hope

When we enter the “fields of the fatherless” with open hearts, we so often encounter the world at it’s most broken and most beautiful simultaneously. I felt that afresh this week in South Africa at the Southern Africa Orphan Summit – led by African Christians and co-hosted by CAFO.

As the Summit opened, we received the tragic news that a group coming from Namibia had a terrible accident. One died and many were injured. Everyone present ached at the news and we prayed earnestly for the many impacted.

Yet the heartbreak only strengthened participants’ desire to engage the world’s hurt with passion and grace. And what I saw over the days that followed poignantly wove hope with the heartbreak.

Two hundred attendees came from 17 nations, most of them pastors from across the southern half of the continent.

African Orphan Sunday Coordinators at the Southern Africa Orphan Summit 2014
Orphan Sunday Coordinators at the Southern Africa Orphan Summit

At moments, I felt like a Lilliputian amidst spiritual Gullivers.   They are women and men who pour themselves out daily, their lives a series of risks and sacrifices. They make me question deeply what I’d do if faced with similar choices.   Would I give, serve, remain faithful in the same way?

A Kenyan whose first day of marriage saw him and his new wife caring for 11 orphaned children. A Tanzanian medical doctor who eschews better-paying roles in hospitals to serve children daily despite inadequate medical supplies, often taking money from his own pocket to cover medications. A Zimbabwean pastor who spends significant time each week behind bars, ministering to imprisoned women and educating their children. Another who’d been the first to adopt a baby with HIV in Zimbabwe two decades ago, knowing the sorrow that would come as they watched their child succumb to the then-inevitable outcome of AIDS.

The humility of all these individuals provided only a thin veil to the blazing light of their character.   I couldn’t help thinking of CS Lewis’ imagery in The Weight of Glory. These individuals who would strike most people as entirely unremarkable – if we saw now what they will be revealed to be in eternity – might cause us to fall in terror of their glory.

Yet even as their choices and hearts stirred me deeply, I also heard from them how incredibly significant the Summit was for them, too. It strengthened their resolve to make orphans a true priority for their church. It told them they are not alone, but part of a worldwide family rising all across the globe for orphans in their midst. It left them feeling much better equipped to guide their church in effective response.

It also seeded a vision – a new and radical vision for many – of caring for orphans not only with food and teachings, but by embracing orphaned children permanently into African families.

A pastor from Zimbabwe approached me on the Summit’s last day: “It was one of my best moments ever,” he said.

Culture change is often a slow, halting and uneven process. Assumptions that marginalize orphans and view non-relative adoption as unthinkable won’t change overnight.

But as I ponder all I saw and heard at the Southern Africa Orphan Summit, I see clearly that God is growing the vision and character of the Church in Africa… just as I’m seeing Him do in the U.S. and many other parts of the world, from Eastern Europe to Central America.