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 ..."