Durban, South Africa Update – March through April, 2014
It’s time to write my two-month White Fields update.
Has it really been two months already? Has it really only been two months?
My update isn’t really about preaching or outreach this time. Or maybe it is…it’s just looked a little different lately.
One thing I’ve recently learned is that life doesn’t stop for a break when I want it to. I didn’t want to come back to Africa. I sat on the airplane in DC, bawling my eyes out before take-off, wondering if there was any possible way to get out of the situation without embarrassing myself. The lady next to me pretended not to notice my tears and sobs, for which I’ll be forever grateful. Once the plane was in the air, it was done. Resolved. Next stop: Africa.
Life had injured me badly not too long before I came here the first time; and when I got back home – as life often does – it re-opened the same wounds in an even more traumatic way, when I least expected it and was least-capable of dealing with it. I didn’t want to bring that pain back to Africa. I didn’t want to come here and focus on other people’s problems. I just wanted to bury myself in my own pain. I wanted to stay in my comfort zone. I wanted to stay where I knew I was safe.
But I knew I had to come back to Africa. There had to be a reason…other than the fact that I had left half my belongings in my room here. All the pain and confusion from the past few years had to mean something – it had to serve some purpose; it had to make me stronger and show me that Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me”) wasn’t just a childhood memory verse – it was literal, powerful, and meant for me.
My first month here was a whirlwind. I had severe jet lag for a week, then we had a bunch of extra one-off projects going on. I was still struggling with the unresolved issues I’d hoped to leave behind in North America, trying to focus on my work here.
Life just kept on coming – one day I found myself holding a bleeding five-year-old from Clermont township, whose fingers had been blown off by fireworks while he was home unattended. Neighbours told us an ambulance had been called hours ago and – as is common here – had never shown up. Bro. Tim, from the UK, drove us to a nearby clinic – the boy sitting in my lap so he wouldn’t bleed on the car. Tim and I watched in amazement as the nurses remained seated and gawked at the bloody hand I unwrapped and held up for them to see. This was my first real, up-close-and-personal taste of how long-term poverty and lack of resources and education can cripple people from taking any action at all, making them seem as if they just don’t care. I wish it had been my last taste.
A couple of weeks after the “Pinky” incident, I got a call from Bro. Rick Szabo, a fellow-volunteer. Bro. Mdu, who also lives in Clermont township, had a son none of us knew about. He’s nine years old…he doesn’t speak…and he’s been missing for 36 hours.
Someday I’ll blog all the details of this account. It’s all written down in precise detail, but I can’t seem to force myself to look at it again. But this is what I’ve spend a big part of the last month doing.
The little boy, Ndumiso, had disappeared outside his mother’s home at 7 pm, after she sent him outside to use the bathroom before his bath. Since then, the details get so confusing that I’m at a loss for how to give a concise summary. We have reason to think he was abducted, but we also spent days following leads from people who claim to have seen him wandering the streets several kilometers away.
Many volunteers and locals got involved. Rick and I found ourselves as lead investigators. We had to do things we shouldn’t have had to do: we searched door-to-door in unsafe areas, we told detectives how to do their jobs, we looked at a child’s burned body in a morgue – we begged for someone who could actually do something to care about this child. We were told awful stories about beheadings and witchdoctors and warned that we were putting ourselves in dangerous positions. It was scary, heartrending, traumatic, and something that will be with me forever. I don’t regret a moment.
Back home, I work with children with autism. I teach nonverbal kids to talk – at least when things go according to plan. Though there is no diagnosis, I’m fairly sure this child has autism. Why didn’t I know he existed? Why didn’t I ever ask Mdu about his family? I’d been frustrated because we found a classroom at Happy’s (a school for the disabled, where we run a few programs each week) that is supposedly an “autism classroom,” but none of the kids actually seem to have autism. I had been talking about how much I missed working with these kids, and how I was going to have to find one somehow, in order to get my “fix.” Why didn’t I know my brother well enough to know that the child I was looking for – not just a child in the community but one within the household of faith – had been right under my nose all along? This should have been a child I knew about six months ago on my first visit, a child I could have designed a program for, a child I would have helped and loved.
Instead, it’s one more thing left unresolved.
The boots-on-the-ground aspect of the search lasted about a week and a half. We drove around every day, chasing leads as they came up. We got a megaphone and appealed to everyone around us. A drunk lady with a loud voice wanted to help. She got into the car with Rick, Mdu, and me, and became “drunk megaphone lady,” shouting his name and description in Zulu as we drove around and around.
She was very concerned and helpful, but so loud that we thought our eardrums would rupture. Finally I took the megaphone from her and handed it to Mdu, the boy’s father. “Talk directly to your son,” I told him, since at this point we had reason to think Ndumiso might be very close by. “Don’t describe him for others; call him directly. Say ‘Ndumiso, Daddy’s looking for you. Come to Daddy.'” I choked up even saying it, and again writing it – but somehow he managed to do it without crying. I can’t describe the surreality and the illogical hope of the moment when he started talking to his son on the megaphone. People stopped their busy-ness and listened. Surely he’ll show up now. He’ll come out from behind a building and run into the street. We’ll have to slam on the brakes so we don’t hit him. We’ll have to be careful not to scare him, since he doesn’t actually know Rick or me, even though we now know more facts about him than anyone else on the continent and will want to scoop him up and never let go.
He did not appear. We continued this for days, because the leads kept coming. Several people had seen a boy fitting the description – he was sitting in the cemetery crying, he was hanging out with local kids by the ice cream lady, he was wandering the streets and ran away when approached…it made so much sense. We charted the sightings on a map and they were in a direct line. It was perfect. It would surely be resolved soon.
We prayed so many times for him to just come wandering into sight. “Come on out, little boy,” Rick and I would often say as we drove around. “We’ll buy you pizza,” we promised. “We’ll throw a big party at the Good News Center.” “We’ll get you an ID bracelet to never take off.” I’ll teach you to talk so this never happens again.
This was the most collaborative effort I’ve ever been involved with. We had volunteers and locals searching, collecting data to update maps, calling hospitals, trying to get the police or media interested. What I remember most about the time we weren’t actively searching is the meals. I was utterly exhausted and constantly famished; and so grateful to not have to think about food because, along with being active members of the effort, Kim and Sonya made sure those of us on the ground didn’t starve. A lot of times we ate in big groups. It was comforting. I didn’t want to be alone. At the end of each day we all sat around and figured out the next day’s plan, or told stupid jokes, trying to forget.
A few days into the search, Rick heard on the radio that a mute child the same approximate age had been found and taken to the police station. I literally jumped up and down at the news. We rushed there from different directions and waited for an hour as they brought him from the “place of safety” he’d been taken to. All the police officers guaranteed us it was the boy in the picture.
They brought us into a room and I started recording with my phone. This was going to be the best video ever.
But I could tell…I saw the boy’s back as they led him in ahead of us. Having never even met him, I could tell it wasn’t him…but maybe I was wrong. I kept recording. Mdu walked in, with me right behind, and Rick and Matt following closely. He didn’t grab the boy…he just fell into a chair. Maybe still…maybe he’s just shocked.
I turned off the video, but not before capturing my weak, hope-drained voice asking, “Is it him?” and his distraught reply, “It’s not him.”
Somebody’s little boy was now safe, and for that we were glad. But it wasn’t the boy we wanted. I sat down next to the boy and patted his head, held his hand, said nice things to him. He smiled at us. Mdu looked straight ahead, silently. I was quietly sobbing my eyes out, but wanted the boy to know he was safe and that we weren’t sad because of him. I quickly tested his ability to imitate signs and sounds, and found he was extremely capable. When we got up to leave, he came over to me and held my hand, wanting to go with me. “Can I have him?” I asked, half-jokingly. The police lady just smiled sadly.
That night I sat at dinner and sobbed into my plate, with about ten people around the table. “I just want this kid back,” I kept saying, almost forgetting that I’d never had him to begin with.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending. It doesn’t have an ending yet at all. Ndumiso is still missing. Unresolved.
It’s been over three weeks now. The police officially opened a kidnapping case after a couple of weeks of us staying on top of them, and at this point our part of the search consists mostly of supporting the family.
We still have hope. I know that statistically, little lost boys who have been gone this long don’t come home. But I also know that God sees His lost children afar off and runs to meet them.
The learning opportunities have come fast and furiously during this. The opportunities for service – the three mute boys we ended up stumbling onto along the way, the neighbourhood that saw us every day combing the streets in our Kingdom of God shirts – we’re determined to make it mean something.
Since the beginning of this, I’ve been thinking about the likelihood that this scenario could go unresolved for years. I think about Ndumiso’s parents, who will be living with this long after the volunteers have gone back to their respective countries. We’ll think about it now and then, with a twinge of sadness. For them it will become part of their being.
The overarching question of my last couple of years, reaching a pinnacle with this situation, is how to find internal resolution – peace – when there’s no external resolution. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I think it’s what I’m supposed to be learning. I’m getting closer.
We never know the “why” of any situation, but we can still find lessons along the way. I’ve learned that human weakness is where God shows His strength best. While I’ve felt weaker than ever before, I can feel my capacity for humility, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and love stretching beyond its limits. With this comes a connectedness, an ability to truly “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep” (Rom. 12:15) that I’ve never experienced this intensely before. It’s just a glimpse now and then, but it’s enough to make me aspire to greater heights – to want to know the mind of Christ; to want to put away all thoughts of my own suffering and focus on the suffering of those around me. I know ultimately all will be revealed, but in the meantime I’m trying to find lessons in the unresolved.
“And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” – 2 Corinthians 12:9-10.
An appeal for prayers – please ask your ecclesias to pray fervently for the safe return of Ndumiso, if it’s according to God’s will. We are a worldwide community of believers. I believe there’s great power in that.
“The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”[Updates on Ndumiso’s story will be on my blog: www.nextcomesafrica.wordpress.com.]