I had the privilege of going on a mission trip to South Africa with a team from Wellspring Church in 2007. I had seen my share of human pain, suffering, and disease during my career as a head and neck surgeon. So I thought I would be prepared for anything I might come across while in Africa. I was mistaken.
The trip began with a visit to an HIV clinic. Before I begin to describe what I saw there, I’d like to explain the concept of an AIDS defining illness. There is a short list of diseases, which include mostly rare tumors and infections that only patients in the late stages of AIDS develop. If a patient manifests any one of the diseases on this list, they are defined as having “full blown AIDS”. I saw three patients with an AIDS defining illness on the first morning of my visit to the HIV clinic. To put this in perspective, I have seen only two patients with an AIDS defining illness during my thirteen years in medicine (9 years prior to the trip and 4 years after); I saw three cases in just one morning in South Africa. The AIDS epidemic in Africa was astonishing to witness even for a health care worker.
The next part of our trip was spent visiting the different townships where we saw first hand the devastation this disease had caused on entire communities. A common theme was to see grandmothers taking care of their grandchildren after one or both parents had died of AIDS or other diseases. In the worst cases, the oldest children would head up their household if no other family members were available. Poverty, hunger, and a lack of educational opportunities compounded the problems created by a broken family support structure.
As I paint this portrait of life in an AIDS afflicted Africa, the situation may have seemed hopeless, but it was not. It was actually hope FULL. Hope abounded because God’s love for the orphans and widows was clear and evident. You could see God’s love in the way the children were able to smile and laugh in spite of their circumstances. You could see His love in the resilience and strength of the oldest children when they stepped up to take care of their younger siblings. You could see God’s love in the Hands care workers who devoted their lives to looking after these orphans. The evidence of God’s love for them was palpable and I took great comfort in knowing He had this same love for me.
I learned many things on this trip but there are two lessons that will stay with me forever. First, I saw myself in these orphans. I thought this is how God must have seen me before I came to faith. I was an orphan living in spiritual poverty without hope for a better future. Then God came along and chose to love me, plucking me out of a hopeless situation, laying hold of my life, and claiming me as His own. We’ve all come from such a place. When you see such a graphic, visual illustration of the depths from which God has saved you, you can’t help but be changed by that. The second lesson was realizing how immeasurably God had blessed me. I had Christian parents who faithfully raised me from childhood rooted in His Word. I had a loving wife and healthy kids. I had a satisfying career that happened to provide a comfortable living for our family. I was blessed by any measure. But I was compelled to carefully examine my heart to see if I had been living my life as if I had been entitled to His blessings or entrusted with them. I felt deeply convicted that I needed to be a better steward of the things God had given me. On our last night, I spoke with George Snyman (founder of Hands at Work) and promised him, and most importantly our Lord, that I would never forget the lessons I had learned and that I would be vocal about the things I had seen in Africa.
After the trip, we moved down to Los Angeles to start a new job. Fast forward three years to 2010. By this time we had been at our new church in LA for 2 years. It was always my hope that George could eventually come speak at our new church but unfortunately, due to logistical reasons, this did not come to pass. However, I wasn’t ready to give up on the idea of George speaking in my hometown, so I arranged for George to speak at my house during a dinner gathering for friends. I knew that it would be a blessed experience for them to hear what God was doing through Hands but I also hoped that a number of them would feel led to help financially support the orphans. I figured if 7 or 8 of the families contributed together, that we could support a village of 50 children. The message God gave through George that night spoke deeply to everyone in attendance. One of my friends, Sam Kim, was so moved that he recruited some of his own friends to donate with us. Before I knew it, the hope of supporting one village became the reality of supporting two. For the last nine months, we have been supporting just over 100 orphans in Ilage, Nigeria. This whole experience has taught me a lesson I have learned repeatedly over my life and that is, if you show a little faithfulness in responding to God's call over your life, He will exceed your expectations.
I would like to leave you with one final thought. If you have never been to Africa, I would encourage you to go and see what the Lord is doing there. I promise that your experiences there will change the way you think about what it means for God to love someone. And quite frankly, I’m certain that in the process, it will change your life too.
If you would like more information about how you can go on a team or as an individual click here.