For I Was Hungry


She was the frailest woman I had ever seen, yet still stunningly beautiful. Her head was wrapped with a cloth, gold edges highlighting her glorious eyes which were sunken back in her head. Her eyes were searching and lost. Her long, stick-thin arms were trying to hold her baby, but she was too weak to lift him up.

We were in Congo on our way to Masisi – one of the most war-torn areas of the region at that time. I was traveling with Matthew and our Congolese Exile International team. We had been stopped by the police because our “tires were low on air” … which really means, “you need to give me money so you can pass into North Kivu territory.”

We were 30 minutes into our Congolese team speaking with the officers when I saw her. Down a side road, not far from where we had parked, there was a small displacement camp. It looked to house maybe 300 – 500 people. Hundreds of shacks made of sticks and mud and thatched roofs were lined up one right after the other… smaller than the size of my walk-in closet.

I glanced across the land space, and I immediately saw her. Her hut was on the very edge of the camp closest to us. She was lying on the ground near her hut. At first I thought she was dead. I started walking toward her before I even thought about the safety… like I was being drawn to her. Matthew was back at the vehicle in conversation with one of our teammates and didn’t see me leave.

The closer I got, I noticed there were two small children sitting beside her on the ground. They were sitting up, but barely moving. At this age, these children should have been running around playing and laughing, but their eyes were lifeless, and I could quickly discern that they too were too weak to walk.

I knelt down next to her and greeted her in the little Swahili I knew. She responded but her voice was weak. I looked around to see if someone might be able to translate. I saw Augustine coming over to us. He had followed me from the truck.

As I watched him walk toward us, I thought, “I wish I could tell the world about his beautiful story.”

Augustine was kidnapped at around 12 years old by one of the rebel armies and made to do the unspeakable. He had been forced to take life and had seen torture and rape first hand… yet, with time God had healed his gaping wounds.

He is now one of the kindest, most gentle souls I know. His voice is soft. His walk slow and steady, and his heart is kind. He is now in university to become a nurse so he can one day bring life and save life. He drips with redemption.

As he approached, I asked if he could translate for me.

“Yes mum, what would you like me to say?”

“Ask her when she and her children have last eaten.”

He speaks. She mumbles.

“She doesn’t remember, mum. For she and her children, she does not remember the last time they have eaten.”

Tears filled my eyes.

“Can you ask her how long she has been at this camp? And, the children’s father… where is he?”

More Swahili. More soft mumbling.

“She thinks she has been here for about 6 months, but she is not sure. The rebels killed the father. He is dead. She is alone here.”

She is alone here.

I looked at these tiny children and I wondered how old they were. They were malnourished. Their hair was falling out. I wondered, if they went on like this, how much longer they had to live.

They were starving. Not the kind of American “I didn’t have time to eat breakfast and had to work through lunch” starving. They were dying-starving.

“Augustine, I have several crackers and peanut butter in my purse. I can give them to her, but I fear a mob would begin if I gave it to her in the open. Can you ask her if I can go inside her hut and leave them there?”

He translated in his soft, kind voice and nodded a yes. Then he gently took my water bottle, opened it, and put it to the lips of the youngest child… holding it up so he could drink it slowly.

It felt as if I was witnessing Jesus giving water to a dying babe in a displacement camp. But it was not just any Jesus. It was the broken and resurrected Jesus who no one knew.

Time stopped and my soul heard, “For I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”

That moment stopped my heart, punched me in the gut and took my breath away. Both, because of the love I had witnessed and because of the reality of knowing that death was looking this momma and her babies in the eyes.

I slowly went inside her hut, placed all the food I had in plain site so she could easily find it, and walked out.

“Can you ask her if she is a Christian?”

He asked her, and she replied in the little English she knew,

 "Yes, I have nothing left but God."

Matthew came up right at that moment telling us we had to leave right away and that the police agreed to let us pass. I felt so torn. He and I quickly prayed for her and her sweet babies. We prayed life and that God would provide for her. And just like that we were gone.

But that was not the first time I had seen true hunger on the faces of children.

The first time was in Lira, Uganda - at a baby orphanage operated by a group of kind and loving nuns.

These babies. These toddlers. Many of them were born during the time their teenage mothers lived in captivity - stolen to be sex slaves… and soldiers and cooks.

Few escaped, but if they did, they could not escape alone, and it is much more difficult to escape with a crying infant. They often returned home with AIDS or with war wounds. Many died, leaving behind their children.

Walking around the orphanage, it was obvious to me that these children were malnourished: distended bellies, discolored hair. Most of them were only wearing diapers.

This was the first year or two after I had founded Exile. I was full of passion, heart, and naivety.

Sitting down with the head sister, I asked, “What can we do to help? When we return, would it be helpful to bring clothes for the babies? Maybe shoes?”

I will never forget her laugh. It was a loud, you-silly-American kind of laugh, and it caught me off guard.

“The babies do not cry because they have nothing to put on their bodies. They do not cry because they have no shoes. They cry because their bellies pain them from hunger.”

Time stopped and my soul heard, "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat." 

If there is one thing I have learned in the last 10 years working is conflict zones, it is this:

If you want to find Jesus, to know Him, to see Him … go and be with a child who has survived war.

Touch the face of a hungry child in the curve of your hand telling them they are strong and brave and loved… while feeling the utter helplessness of knowing those words will not feed the gnawing in their gut and the weakness in their tiny body from not eating for days. You leave not knowing if they will live or die.

Hold the hand of an emaciated, broken mother living in a home of mud and twigs who probably only has days on this earth... not knowing what will happen to her two little ones.

Hold a hungry, crying baby who has been fathered by a rebel solider and mothered by a teenage girl abducted and used as a sex slave ... living off of her own bravery only to lose her life with no one to care of her baby girl. 

Those images are now etched in my heart and seared in my soul.

You see, I no longer believe it is someone else's responsibility to feed the hungry. It is mine. I no longer believe that the problem of the orphan crisis in Uganda and Congo is too big.

 Those words mean nothing to one single child holding on to her one and only single life

Here is what I do believe with every drop of myself: 

"For What You Have Done To The Least Of These You Have Done To Me." 

I believe Jesus is the orphaned child. 

I believe Jesus is the dying mother.

I believe the eyes of these children who need us to care for them are the same eyes of our Savior and I believe that when a child has been orphaned by war they become my child. And yours.

They sit at our table ... and we welcome them all. What a privilege!

Because as we have done to the least of these ... we have done to our Savior.

Join Exile International on May 2nd as we welcome these children at our table. Arms wide open.

"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink ..."
Matthew 25:35


A STORY Podcast: How Art Can Change The Impact of Trauma

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It was so fun spending time with the STORY gathering team! We talked living out a passion, how expressive arts can bring healing and what happens when your secrets are out.

This is, by far, one of my favorite podcasts. AND, you can come here even MORE in a few weeks at #STORY2017!

I'm so excited to be speaking AND Exile International is the partnering non-profit! Our team is currently in Africa working on a one-of-a-kind art project to connect #STORY2017 attendees to the war-affected children we have the privilege to serve!

We can't wait and truly hope you'll join us!

In the meantime, check out the podcast here.

The Color of Grace: An Excerpt from Chapter 19

"Most of the time, I stand in front of the children -- giving them a word of encouragement, leading a time of group counseling, or reading and acting out a Bible story. But this day was different.

This day the children asked me to sit. Andrew, who had been in the Congo program for years, spoke for the group: “Momma Bethany, we have drawn our stories of pain and dreams before, but today we have decided to share our stories in a drama.”

Walking out of the tent, about twenty boys soon returned with AK-47s made of corn shuck and bamboo, and with walkie-talkies they had carved out of wood. They had bandaged their heads with cloth as if they were injured, spattered red paint on their bandages to represent blood spots, and rolled small pieces of paper to mimic cigarettes. In minutes, as they reenacted they nightmares, their horror came to life. Some boys played the roles of rebel leaders and some played the roles of children. In drama, they acted out being at school and being abducted, then went on to reenact being beaten, captured, taken to training camp, and taught to use guns for the first time. Next, the commander taught the boys how to kill someone with a machete.

“Now you are man!” the rebel commander shouted.

When the boys reenacted an ambush, the designate abductors shot imaginary guns -- and the abductees dodged bullets, hid behind trees, or acted out being killed. It was so real that, at one moment, I found myself hiding behind a bench in the tent! I felt as though I were in the middle of the Congolese bush, and in those few minutes I tasted a tiny fraction of the world from which they had been saved. Finally, they reenacted being rescued by MONUSCO and being taken back to safety. Everyone cheered and clapped.

After they finished, they sat down, and a young man named Shalom stood before the group. “I want to give God glory today,” he said.

He told a story about the rebel commanders getting on the backs of the child soldiers to cross a river because it was too deep for these men to cross by themselves. The commanders rode on the young boys’ back until they got close enough to the other side that they could swim to land. But, in the process, many boys drowned under the weight of the commanders. He finished with these words: “And I give glory to God for saving me until this day. Even me. I did not drown with the others, and I thank Jesus for saving my life.”

Shalom. His name fits him perfectly. His smile is bold, but his spirit is gentle. Two years after he said these words, he graduated from secondary school and finished the Young Peacemaker program at the Peace Lives Center. At the center, we do not call the boys and girls “former child soldiers.” They are given a new name: “young peacemaker.” They love their new identity and live it out each day. Using expressive art, song and dramas, Exile’s counselor at the center leads the children through the Hope Initiative program twice a week, where they process their trauma, learn the power of forgiveness, and are taught conflict resolution and leadership skills. The change we see in these children is remarkable -- especially in Shalom.

When the time came for Shalom to return home, all the children and youths gathered outside the center and formed a circle -- singing for their brave brother, praying for him, dancing together, rejoicing as a family over what God had done in his life. Shalom’ s dream had been return to his village and begin the first Village Peace Club, taking the tools he had been given involving trauma healing, forgiveness, and conflict resolution and sharing them with his peers back home. Once a boy soldier, he was now a young peacemaker returning to the village from which he had been kidnapped. Now reintegrated into his community, he is teaching his peers and a younger generation about peace, forgiveness, and a new way of life following Christ. After a year of leading the Village Peace Club, investing life and hope in his peers, working and saving money for school, Shalom will begin university next month, as of this writing.

Sitting beside him as we drove into the mountains to his home was one of the greatest honors of my life. Not being used to riding in a car, he became carsick, so we stopped a few times along the way. He took this opportunity to show us where he once fought as a boy soldier. Sharing these stories was healing for him. With each one, the sense of freedom he seemed to feel in his heart became stronger and stronger as he released memories of a past life and an old identity. After getting as close as possible by car, we began the walk toward his home, with Shalom carrying a pack on his back and a new mattress on his head.

“It is just there,” he said with a radiant smile. “My home is right around the corner!”

He was filled with joy, and I was beaming as I thought of this boy soldier whom we had watched grow into a young man of peace. We arrived at his small home and shared hugs with his family and village chief. We ate with them, laughed with them, and finally, played with them. Before leaving, I looked down at my right hand to see the bracelet I was wearing -- a simple cord with a metal circle attached. I remembered that Exile International had begun using the bracelets as reminders that” when your greatest heartache become your greatest ministry, grace comes full circle.” I smiled.

Yes, he should have it, I thought.

“Shalom, I want to tell you that meaning of this bracelet,” I said. “ It is a circle and it represents redemption in Christ.”

Explaining the saying, I told him, “Today your greatest heartache is becoming your greatest gift to others. You are taking the healing you received back to your community, to your people, to your country. The very thing that caused you the most pain in life has been turned into strength, and because of that pain you have grown to be a great leader. I have watched you grow into a strong and capable man of God, and I am so vey proud of you!”

I put the bracelet on his wrist. Almost before I could place it there, he gave me a huge bear hug, exclaiming with joy, “I will never take it off of my wrist, Mum. I will never take it off!”

Walking out to the van, his last words to me were, “Greet the people in your village. Tell them thank you for praying for me all these years.” Assuming the “people in the village” were my friends, family, and Exile prayer supporters, I gladly passed along his request.

A few days later, I asked the children a big question: “If you could write a letter to the world, what would it say?” There were many answers.

“We would tell them to love each other and forgive their neighbor.”

“I would ask them to come and dance with us!”

Through this journey, God has granted me the opportunity to be in the presence of children who teach me the greatest lessons in life. Much of the time, I feel I am in the presence of prophets. The truths these children believe and embody astound me, and I long for my country and other developed nations to pull back its curtain of plenty and glimpse the reality of their world. A sacred beauty resides in the heart of these children who courageously impart wisdom to their elders. To me. They teach us of forgiveness, reconciliation, faith, hope and healing. I am in awe."