by Lt. Colonel Philip Maxwell
South Africa is a country of incredible extremes from tropical rainforests to arid deserts, world-challenging technology to endemic illiteracy, global prosperity to generational poverty. Cradled within this diverse environment, The Salvation Army has maintained its strong missional mandate to serve the lost, the least and the lonely.
Sitting in the shadows of a bustling and modern Johannesburg is the Ethembeni Children’s Home. Anyone who enters it can’t help but be moved. Shrouded behind the happy faces of the children and loving care of the staff is the harsh reality of life. The foyer enshrines an embroidery that sensitively captures the numerous names of orphaned children whose lives were prematurely extinguished.
At any time, the center can become home for up to 65 children from just a few days to four years old. As the most vulnerable of society, their lives are marked by emotional, physical or medical abuse or abandonment. Today, 24 years since it opened, the home remains a haven for orphaned children rejected by society due to HIV/AIDS.
Ethembeni is a Xhosa word which means “place of hope.” This family is made up of orphaned infants who’ve been gathered from dustbins, rubbish dumps, taxi ranks or simply the hospital after delivery. One such child, Zungu (name changed), was given to the care of Ethembeni by welfare services. Neglected by his mother, his face became food for the infestation of rats with which they shared their home. Successive ravaging attacks left harsh scarring: his left eye deeply recessed, his eyelids welded tightly together, his face devoid of a nose. Proportional to the sickening image of his marked appearance is the compassion that wells up. The heart breaks for such a vulnerable life entrusted into the care of The Salvation Army. In partnership with the local hospital, the work of reconstructing Zungu’s face has begun. Just a few months old, he has a long way to go, but the advocacy and compassion of the staff and volunteers ensures he will make it. He has a hope and a future.
Hope is not the sole possession of these precious lives.
Captain Bongi Zulu radiates love and fulfilment although she came to the center in the wake of her own heartbreak. Only 12 months prior to her arrival, her husband was brutally murdered, leaving her world shattered and her confidence about the future destroyed. She took up her appointment three years ago, uncertain about her ability to care and to minister in such a demanding setting. But God revealed Himself to her through this appointment, bringing healing to her brokenness and confidence in the face of her own sense of inadequacy.
Territorial leaders Commissioners Keith and Yvonne Conrad are regular visitors to the home, yet their familiarity has not desensitized them to the plight of the children. There is a righteous pride in what is being accomplished through Ethembeni and a strong sense of partnership with the other non-government organizations which work alongside the Army. Despite this, you can sense desperation in the tone of Commissioner Yvonne’s voice as she relays her concern for the epidemic of “children who are outside the reach of our care.”
We have these children for such a short portion of their lives. Some will be returned to a family member, others will transit through the country’s foster care system and still others will be blessed through adoption. But for a time, they have been given hope!
The story of Ethembeni, of the Army’s mission of reaching into the most vulnerable of communities, is repeated a hundred times over each day around the world. The opportunity may never come our way to visit Johannesburg and to cradle a child desperate for love, but through our World Services/Self-Denial contribution, we can make a difference.