Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Atlanta, Georgia

We are home again (sort of). As we write this, we are actually on our way back to Atlanta after a weekend speaking engagement in Oxford, Mississippi. (We are taking to heart that proverb about allowing “no sleep to your eyes, no slumber to your eyelids.”) After one incredible last day of site visits, we left Africa behind and arrived in Atlanta early Friday morning. Saying goodbye to Jim, we then immediately exchanged the airplane as mode of transportation for an SUV and embarked on another 6 hour road trip. The road to Mississippi is definitely smoother than the one to Gulu, but all of the roads we've traveled these last two weeks have been meaningful. And sometimes it is the bumpiest roads that remind us most that God is good.
It is not always easy to find the right words after a Wellspring trip. Remembered faces and half-formed thoughts swirl like eddies in the stream of consciousness that is a jetlagged mind. And yet, standing in front of a congregation of people sincerely interested in the work of Wellspring in Africa, words were worth fighting for. We wanted nothing more than to convey every image of despair and of hope, every child’s smile and story that privileged our ears. While we worried that our fatigue would get in the way of what our hearts wanted to share, the people of College Church were so gracious. Their eyes grew teary hearing the stories of a hurting yet determined people and it quickly reminded us of the strength of friendship and the goodness of the tender human heart.

As you read headlines of the latest tragedy or search the big round eyes of children who have a great fight ahead of them in life, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the dark evil that we can inflict on each other. But then you can walk into a quaint and beautiful church of believers in Oxford, Mississippi and be reminded again of the good. There are people who want to hear what is happening in the District of Gulu in Northern Uganda, people who want to extend their hands in friendship and their hearts in prayer to the littlest ones struggling with HIV/AIDS, and this gives us reason enough to find the words.

As anticipated, our last day in Cape Town offered several occasions to celebrate. While the first half of our trip was spent primarily visiting new sites and taking in new projects, the second half was spent taking in the exciting sights of projects having come to fruition. We met with Noleen, Wellspring’s very first graduate. Naomi first met her two years ago at a rehabilitation home for women in prostitution and drug abuse. Sitting down with her over some African tea, she asked Noleen what she would choose if she could be anything in the world. Immediately her eyes lit up and she confided that she had always wanted to be a chef. This put us on a mission, and after identifying a culinary school in Cape Town, Noleen was accepted into the program, and Wellspring provided the funds that would allow her to finish.

Shortly after Noleen began school, she sent a beautiful letter that will be one of those treasures remembered all through life. She wrote, “I just finished watching a movie called 'Sea biscuit' about a horse and a jockey that both came out of really difficult circumstances. Both had little chance of success until they were spotted by the right people who invested time into them; it is a wonderful true story of how they overcame and became winners. Well, I really can identify with them. Thank you so much for believing in me, and I trust, with God's help, I am going to be a winner too. All my best wishes. You have made a dream come true.”

Now 18 months later, Noleen has graduated at the very top of her class. She greeted us with big smiles, hugs, and thank you's. We gave her a graduation present at which she exclaimed with delight upon opening. It was an apron with “Seabiscuit” written across the front.

What Noleen has achieved is incredible, not only because she is now a chef, but because she persevered through times when it might have been easier to give up and embraced a new life even when so often the old one, though painful, seemed easier simply because it was known. Our time with her was emotional, and she thanked each of us profusely the entire time we were there. When we assured her she didn’t owe us this, she replied, “You don’t understand. No one has ever done anything for me my whole life. I couldn’t be where I am without you. I know it is God that made it happen, but you were his hands.”

We were only the messengers representing the giving of so many back home; something in us felt so unworthy of those words, and yet we know years from now we will still remember Noleen's heartfelt expression as one of the clearest assurances of God's presence in a world of pain.

Also at this rehabilitation home, we spent time with Lisa, another young mother striving to rise above a difficult life. On a Wellspring scholarship, she has just begun a counseling course. She proudly showed us all her books for the semester. Her story is one of loss. After watching her husband die in the seat next to her in a tragic accident, she found herself suddenly very alone with an infant to care for. Out of desperation, she found herself caught up in a life of prostitution. Lisa has recently been awarded visiting rights to her little girl and hopes she will one day bring her home. Her studies seem to have given her purpose, something upon which to focus, rekindling something in herself she thought lifeless. We left Noleen and Lisa behind a bit tearfully with a promise that we would return for a homemade meal at the hands of our new chef.

Our next stop was the Home from Home office, where we greeted the rest of the staff and prepared for the official home opening. As we drove up to the Wellspring home, it was filled with energetic children and smiling house mothers shaking their heads affectionately at the child-like energy of 42 children. As we all filled the small living room and kitchen, a blessing was prayed upon the home by a local pastor. Some of the children sang for us, our favorite selection being an African song to which the children danced. It's amazing to watch 3 year olds dance and know you could never compete with such moves! One of the little boys, whom we affectionately nicknamed “LL Cool J” for his resemblance to the celebrity and his moves on the dance floor, kept us shaking our heads in amusement. The entire group then sang to us the South African national anthem. We enjoyed this and were lost in its effect, until we were told the new tradition was that the guests, too, had to sing their national anthem. The Americans among us were looking back and forth at each other sheepishly, when suddenly we heard Jim’s well-trained voice bellowing through the crowd. (This well kept skill was perhaps more startling to his traveling companions than anyone else.)

At the completion of our singing debut, we were rewarded with a plaque that was immediately given a place on the wall in the front room of the home. It beautifully read:

In honor of Dr. Ravi K. Zacharias
Evangelist and Apologist,
for a life devoted to sharing the love of Jesus
in word and deed
throughout the world

We were filled with enormous gratitude and pride. The kids continued to fill their bellies with all kinds of sweets, and as we finished celebrating, everyone seemed to leave with a sugar high.

We finished our last night in Africa appropriately: at a local African restaurant with friends. To the sounds of beating drums and foot-stomping, we sat around a table and talked about what we had seen, stories that were shared, and then we bid each other farewell.

The next morning we finished a few last minute meetings and began the typical scrambling to the airport, digging for tickets and passports and preparing carry-on bags. We left Cape Town for Johannesburg, where we finally sunk down into airplane seats that seem to get smaller every time you board, and exhaustedly fell asleep.

Now returning home from Mississippi, we are reclaiming family, friends, and dogs, Georgia sunshine and sweet tea—at least for a few days until the next Wellspring trip to the Middle East in early May.

Thank you for taking this trip with us, for your support, and your words of encouragement. Until next time, we are signing off.

Naomi and Jill


Kristjana said...

What a joy to find your blog! I pray often for you and for Wellspring, and wonder constantly about the work you are doing. I am a "story" person, so to read your detailed accounts is a gift - I now know better how to pray for you and I know more specifically how to pray for the people you are reaching.

I must admit that my little suburban housewife heart yearns to be able to work alongside you and to see the things you are seeing and to be able to help directly in the plights of those who exist so close, yet worlds away. I do know that God has me exactly where He wants me to be, so I stand content in serving where I am. And I will also continue to read your blog and pray for you. I grateful for your willingness to be God's Hands to so many who are in need of His love.

God bless you!

Kristjana Cook

Jeffreyh said...

The format combination here enhances the reader to see and feel even in a minute way, the impact of God's Touch upon Naomi and the devoted sisters & brothers who contribute so much of their lives, even beyond what might be their talents. It is so evident that their efforts are richly rewarded in those who they encounter, with all the varied scars that unfair life has brandished upon these souls who have come to seek a refuge from cruelty & look to what Wellspring offers them; a passageway leading to the richness of the love of the true God of Israel. This is a wonderful encouragement to read, done with unusual integrity towards displaying the love of Christ, creativeness, and a substantial testimony of Ravi Zacharias' commitment towards reaching out to a lost and parched world, with the Living-water of life found only in Christ Jesus. These accounts are truly uplifting, with a challenge put forth amoung us as supporters to be diligent ourselves in giving thru prayer & monetary funds to keep this absolutely wonderfully caring ministry upon its journey driven by the love of The Father, Obedient heart of His one & only Son Jesus, and by the assurance given thru The Holy Spirit. Wellspring could not have a more appropriate name for it's ministry.
In Christ Jesus,
Jeff Haldeman