There are angels in Chilabula

Ken Donaldson is Head of Missions at Greenfinch Church in Ipswich. Here, he tells the story of his recent trip to Zambia.

'A year ago the opportunity to visit a “Hands at Work” conference and their operations in Zambia was handed to me, a gift which I unwrapped with enthusiasm and the deepest gratitude. They say that Africa can get under your skin. Three years in Kenya in the late 1980s left me with that feeling and so when my church, Greenfinch Church in Ipswich, UK, invited me to lead a team to Chilabula last year, a community in the Copperbelt that our church is now linked with, I offered minimal resistance. But enough of me.

Last year I met Grace. The rural community of Chilabula, numbering 2500 people and covering many square kilometres, is home to people whose lives are dependent upon the land. Poor growing conditions, lack of land, lack of energy because of lack of food, lack of education, lack of clean water, lack of healthcare, lack of transport.....lack of all that we take for granted in the UK......means that the HIV virus has had ripe territory in which to infiltrate and devastate. The resulting lack of a middle generation is evident as Grace’s circumstances give testimony to.

Grace, at four years old, lived a long way from the centre of her community. She was in a very neat thatched dwelling surrounded by a small amount of groundnut plants, maize and sweet potatoes. An avocado tree stood nearby and the scene could have seemed idyllic to the uneducated. Warm and quiet, peaceful and unhurried. Through the Hands at Work care workers with whom I was visiting, I spoke with Grace’s mother in whose arms she lay. Grace was not well. She coughed harshly and her skin shone with a veneer of perspiration. Her eyes were closed at times, lost in her own world of what thoughts? I wanted to know more about Grace to understand her circumstances. Through the care workers, my assumptions were turned on their head. This was not her mother. Grace lay in the arms of her aunt.

Both Grace’s parents had died because of AIDS. Today Grace was lying weakly and without energy, riven by tuberculosis. Serenely and with the deepest, humble care, the community care workers gently exuded Christ to aunt and niece, offering love through their prayers, their careful touch, the offering of a little food and some clothing donated from the UK. And then the care workers, perhaps protecting me a little but feeling they had to tell me, broke news which broke me. That day, test results had confirmed that little Grace was HIV positive. It was hard not to cry, hard not to run off to find a quiet place to howl out the very real and painful anguish which struck so very deeply. Grace was beautiful, her innocent little life and body ruined....her innocent little life and body ruined.

How do you walk away from that, back to the UK and to material comfort, health and self-sufficiency? Walking away was and is so difficult – heart wrenching as many others can testify. What was most difficult was to walk away from people whose experience of self-sufficiency was so limited and for whom trust in God was so natural. Back to an environment where trust in God is so limited and self-sufficiency so natural. I walked away from Grace, my heart heavy, realising that her little life was probably only going to last a few short months more. Death is so much a part of life amidst a people and a place of divine beauty.

And so I returned to my life in the UK, back to “my world”. But I will never forget Grace. Her face will always be etched in my memory – her photo on these pages one that is in my head forever.

But walking away is not an option. Last month I returned to Zambia taking a new team to visit Chilabula. What differences I found there, what encouragements! The care workers showed me a new borehole supplying fresh water to the community; a new care centre had been funded by a partner from where the care workers now feed the many orphans who receive the three essential services from their Hands at Work partners; tomato plants are growing where before there had only been dust, the community (young and old alike) watering them daily. How fantastic to see a community beginning to develop and that on the back of the deepest faith and commitment from care workers offering everything they can from almost nothing. Living sacrifices. Imitating Christ.

Some children smiled and hopped about us, dancing with joy, revelling in our smiles, keen to see our digital photos of themselves. And I thought of Grace. When had she died? Did she ever experience this joy? Would anyone be able to tell me? I looked around at these children, but someone caught my eye, one of the children engaging my memory bank - a familiar shape of head, a familiar face – there before me stood Grace. To say my heart leapt is wholly inadequate. I learned that Grace now has anti-retroviral treatment which will extend her life and the Hands at Work care workers look out for her needs. She sat with me for a while. Some photos were taken and smiles asked for. Grace offered her best smile but as she did I realised with great discomfort that as she smiled, her mouth altered, but her eyes didn’t. What was going on behind them? Grace’s experiences were so much more than I knew anything about, her pain and hurt an unknown, maybe even to her.

How would you define Grace’s story? Is it a success story? How do you measure success? For me the most important thing I witness in Chilabula is the offering of grace, of a Christ-like attitude from a community of care workers that can change the poorest person’s transient journey of pain and hunger into an eternity of heaven. There are angels about in our world. I’ve seen them in Chilabula.

Ken Donaldson                                                                   April/May 2011