The months that led up to my first trip to Lusaka, Zambia with African Vision of Hope had been transformational in my walk with God. As much as God had been pouring into me, looking back I had no idea the mountains He was moving to bring a really key change to my understanding of who He is.
Starting around April of 2015, during my morning devotional times there had been Big Daddy Weave track that would occasionally play . “Stay” was not a new track, but the truth is it was one of those tracks that for me had blended into the album. I thought the majority of the song had a great message that was a bit “convicting” because there was a dotted line to a personal application from my past. I wanted to embrace the song, but the honest truth was a small portion of the chorus really caused me to struggle from a “theological” point. I was of the opinion that the lyrics “humanized” God to much – it spoke of “hurting God” when we walk away from him – I had been a firm believer that we we walk away from God we “miss the blessings of God” – the creator of the Universe is on plan – to say that I “hurt him” in my disobedience – that is bringing the creator of the universe down to a “disrespectful level”.
Over the next several months if the song popped into the playlist I would just skip on to the next track – I really had come to a place I simply didn’t like the song and the chorus just gnawed at me. I wasn’t coming from a place of being egotistical or self righteous, I was coming from a conviction that people “humanize” God too much. He is an AWESOME God, Mighty and Powerful, our human minds can not begin to understand His Majesty, and simply stated I could not agree that we “hurt” him if we choose to move to a backslidden condition or to walk away from a daily devoted relationship with Him – we are the ones missing the blessing.
The third day on the ground in Lusaka at around 5:30 am as I was out walking around a banana field – having my devotional time – the song “Stay” comes on. “Ugh… really” is what I verbalized – I swore I had deleted the track and here it pops up again. I was having a beautiful quite time with the Creator marveling at the beauty of a place and people I had never met and then this song comes on and just “ruins” it. I remember calling out to God – “Father I don’t know why this frustrates me so – almost antagonizes my soul – If I am wrong and you are hurt in those times – will you show me – will you settle this once and for all”.
That day would be the first day we would be serving at the school at Kabulonga – I was a little anxious because I was going to be serving the 7th grade boys by myself. By this point in my life I am not what I would term “a great kid person”. I am much more comfortable with a room full of adults. So being on edge a bit – I was taken off guard during the morning assembly when a pint sized little girl began to catch my attention. Initially it started while I was taking pictures – if my camera wasn’t up and faced to her – she would be smiling at me – as soon as the camera turned towards her – she’d look away and cut off the smile.
This went on for the 45 minute opening and then she disappeared. I was sent to work with my group. A few hours later I found myself sitting on the ground – everything was wrapping up, some of the students were eating – others still in their final classes – I was taking a few moments to just relax and take in the sights and sounds – honestly in a word – feeling very overwhelmed.
As I was sitting and relaxing I began to notice that there was a group near us doing some music – dancing singing – all of a sudden the little girl from the morning opening appears. It only takes a few minutes to realize we are back to playing our game – she smiles big at me – I smile at her – I pull out the camera – the party is over. Another team member even begins to notice and says – Ward I think you have a friend… I gave it a few more minutes and in a move my family will tell you is VERY UNLIKE me – I decide to go get up and meet this little girl.
To my surprise she doesn’t run. I lean down and ask her name – “Naomi” she says. What grade are you in – “grade 3” – where do you stay ….I have no idea what she tells me or at least I know phonetically what I am hearing is not possible so… “thats nice”… I reply.
It wasn’t what was being said in those movements – it is what was going on in my heart – there was this emotion of love and compassion towards this little girl that was growing inside of me – it was very raw, unexpected and untypical. I said to her – did you meet my wife – she was working with some of the children – “huh” – clearly I am speaking to fast or there is a decent size english barrier here – I slow it down – “no” which is good a “yes” is for sure she doesn’t understand. I point out Dawn across the yard standing on the porch of the school – “yes” she did see here – I said let me introduce you.
I walked her up to Dawn and it was weird for me – this child grabs my hand as we are walking – not something I do with children other than my own when they were small. I remember saying “ok God we can do this”…
As Dawn and I were doing introductions – other kids were flocking around – and then we started doing pictures – another first for me – she wanted to take our picture together – and as I leaned down – it was her and some friends – I was startled as she leaned her face into my cheek. Again this is just not me – but God was making this feel “normal”.
We would sit and talk for a few minutes – asking about her family – finding out that her younger sister just “happened” to be sitting right there on the other side of Dawn and Dawn had been working with her – her name was Diana.
I asked her about sponsorship – she said no she wasn’t – but having been clued in to that conversation I knew that did not mean that was true.
The team was getting ready to leave for the day and we were being told to “load up”, we were headed somewhere to do home visits.
I told her I would be back in 2 days and I hoped to see her again – I was going to check on her sponsor status. I took her name and ID number. She walked with me – like a shadow to the bus – I told her “see you later” and climbed on the bus.
As I set there on the bus – I was talking to a team member and they stopped me and said “I think you have a friend” , yes I know… “No look outside”… I turned around in my seat to look out the window – there stood Naomi – barely tall enough to extend her arm to the open window behind me. There she stood hand reaching for me. I reached my hand out the window and held her hand – she just smiled. I asked one of the other mission team vet’s – what is happening here – there answer back was not reassuring – “you can’t explain these things – they just happen sometimes”… so since they were clearly no help I turned to God – WHAT ARE YOU DOING… make this stop…
For the next 5 minutes she just stood outside the bus holding my hand and smiling. I really had no idea what to do but to just go along with it. The bus finally pulled away and I began to unpack the emotions, really questioning what this was all about and a little relieved because I truly didn’t know how to handle what I was feeling.
We drove for 10-15 minutes and it was easy to leave all that behind as we entered the compound of Kalikiliki – we were being thrust into a village of poverty, just up the hill from the school. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. All of a sudden I was in the middle of a late night infomercial for “feed the children”.
The sights, sounds, and smell for a first timer are overwhelming. The bus went as far as it could, the “road” became a path and it was time to make the rest of the journey by foot.
We walked for a bit then visited the house of one of the older boys that attends school. His grandmother was welcoming. Mixed with the day, I heard my heart crying out to God, “this is too much for one day – please make all of this stop”. I really just wanted to get on the bus and go back to where we were staying.
There was still one more visit – an older girl from the school – it was just a short walk through the compound. As we entered the street and turned to walk up the hill, I was looking down the other direction and saw Judi Bertels, founder and CEO of African Vision of Hope. My brain kicked in, here is my eject button. I really needed to go back to the tech center to work, this would be a safe withdrawal for my brain, something techie and familiar. I started walking her way to see if I could convince her of my escape plan. I was almost proud of my “genius”, it wouldn’t look on the outside to be as cowardly as what was really happening on the inside.
As I began to walk down the hill towards her, my peripheral vision caught a blur running up the hill at me. I turned and caught this “blurr” as it was jumping at me, really just more as a natural instinct like someone zipping a football at you – turn and catch. As it landed in my arms – my eyes focused – it was Naomi. She hugged me so tight and laying her head on my shoulder – my momentum kept me walking towards Judi – she asked “who is this”, I answered…”this is Naomi”. I remember mouthing to her… “I don’t know what is happening” – Judi audibly said with a laugh “I am just telling you now – you can’t take her home”. Within a second my masterful escape plan was gone – ambushed by a 9 year old.
Naomi then said something to me that rang clarity to an earlier conversation – “You come to my house.” That thing she said earlier that sounded like “wiki leak” which I knew was not right… was “Kalikik” (Ka Leak e Leak) which is the short term for Kalikiliki.. and this hopelessness I was walking through was her village, it was HER HOME.
My heart began to break deeper, she jumped down and clung to my hand. Not knowing if it was right or wrong to accept the invitation – I said “yes we can go to your house – but first we must go with the rest of the group – then we go to your house”.
As we walked hand in hand the next several minutes it was clear I had a new buddy – we were an odd pair – we couldn’t be more different in size, shape, color, background, or social group. Inside God and I were having some serious conversations. I was experiencing a new found fondness for one of His creation and she lived…. “here???” I seriously wouldn’t wish this on anyone. As we walked together hand in hand, she led me like a little tour guide, all the time she was just beaming from ear to ear.
For me the pinnacle was once we made it to the next home visit. Naomi had stepped in front of me – still insisting to hold my hands – she had her tiny finger wrapped around my fingers – left on left – right on right. I stood there and in my heart crying out to God as I looked at our hands together, “God what is this all about, Father – why are you doing this to my heart?” In a rare moment, I audibly heard Him answer me, “you keep struggling with the fact that it hurts me when you walk away from our relationship”. Yes that song… what does that have to do with any of this I thought?
I heard Him whisper “you have felt in just a few minutes a deep compassion and love for a child you have never met or known – you can not deny the compassion you feel for this small child. You are already struggling with leaving her here in this place , I have had a relationship with you as Savior since you were 6, imagine how much more it hurts me when you walk or step away from our daily relationship – I love you – the walking away hurts. I desire you to stay in a daily relationship with me, I want us together hand in hand each day”.
I would visit Naomi’s house that afternoon – it was the start of what has been a BEAUTIFUL, wonderful, and rewarding relationship. God is still writing this story – it is far from finished. Each trip he brings us together in some “Only with God could this have happened” scenario.
I am also quick to tell you as special as Naomi is to me, she is just one of the hundreds of children of African Vision of Hope that are very dear to my heart. God used her to speak to me a very important life application lesson about His Character and His Love for us.
I will also tell you Kalikiliki is the darkest place I have ever loved. The compound itself I detest – but it draws me like a moth to the flame – I love it’s people – it’s children. I have never more felt the presence of my Jesus than when down on my knees in the dirt, sand, and gravel of that compound. I daily long to be there loving and hugging on the dirty, hungry, poor, beautiful little children of that compound.
Oh and by the way – I am really thankful for the message and lyrics of “Stay” and for the way God would use Big Daddy Weave’s music to be a catalyst for growing my understanding of who He is.