Swaziland is a small kingdom in southern Africa of just over 900,000 people. Within a month the population dropped from 1.2 million. Yes, you read right. It has the unfortunate distinction of being the most HIV-infected country on the planet. Over 46 percent of the adult population is HIV positive, although clinic workers will tell you that four out of five people in Swaziland test positive for HIV.
Walter is a pastor in Swaziland. He spends Saturdays burying those killed by AIDS. On most other days, he’s feeding as many children as possible—more than 800—who have been left behind in the wake of the AIDS crisis.
In March 2007 I visited Walter’s ministry. He told me that one day he was reading what James 1 says about looking after widows and orphans. Walter said, “I prayed to God and said, ‘I want to do this, but where will I get money?’ God answered, ‘Reach in your pocket!’” And he did. The feeding program Walter started came at great personal expense for his family—including taking his own children out of school so he could use that money to help orphans.
While walking with Walter on the dirt roads of his community, we met a child headed home. A young girl—just 13—was taking care of her three younger sisters. The girls’ father had become infected with HIV. He passed it to their mother who soon died. Then he began to sexually abuse his youngest daughter, raping her on a regular basis. (It is a common myth in parts of Africa that sex with a virgin will cure HIV.)
As we were feeding his daughters, the father walked into the hut. Here he was, this unfaithful, cruel, predatory abuser. He was barely human to me. There was no sense to be made of this situation. No way to logically understand what was happening. I’m in a hut in Swaziland, feeding young children who are routinely raped by their father—who is also standing with me, obviously hungry.
I realized the only hope for this family and this man was the love of Jesus. Not a vague sense of Jesus’ love, but the powerful and transformational love that happens when we allow God to minister through us to others. As hard as it was to accept, I realized that God had called me not to judge this man, but to be Jesus to him in a powerful and real way.
While on earth Christ stepped into impossible situations like the one I found myself in with this family. He was always in the middle, bringing healing and compassion. Ultimately, Jesus’ purpose was to heal the eternal divide between man and God. In doing so, I believe he left a powerful legacy and message: Stop living as if the things that divide us really matter.
This was hard for me. Finding common ground with this man was nearly impossible. I could only say, “We are both created in God’s image and are worthy of His love.” Sometimes that’s all the common ground we get.
Jesus calls us into a radical and redemptive love toward others. It is through this love that we can minister in a powerful and mysterious way.
This was my epiphany, in a hut with a sexual predator. We reached out to him and gave him food and clothing. Walter dealt with him privately and took steps to stop the abuse. By extending this hand of love, something dramatic happened—the man’s hard countenance softened. He tentatively sat down with us to eat. I believe that somewhere deep inside this man’s soul he was very thankful we were taking care of his girls, even if he was not.
Jesus’ words divide us into two groups—those who talk and those who do. It is not easy to be the hands and feet of Christ to the world. But to know Jesus is to love and advocate for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the outcast. I’m not sure I ever expected to minister to the abused and the abuser at the same time. Each, in their own way, are the “least of these.” Such is God’s economy.
Originally printed in CS.