It’s easy to lose hope in the face of tragedy. Ed Walker worked for Tearfund as part of the Disaster Response team and saw some terrible suffering. This week he had a special reminder that his efforts weren’t in vain.
‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.’ John 15:15
There aren’t many emotions worse than the feeling of powerlessness – especially when you experience it in the face of human tragedy. That was how I felt in 2003.
I was working in South Sudan with Tearfund’s Disaster Response Team. We had hastily built a mud and grass-roofed feeding centre for severely malnourished kids. Taddy, the coordinator, was showing me around. She was an experienced nurse with many years experience, working in Ethiopia and South Sudan.
There were about 30 mothers in the makeshift ward nesting inside their mosquito nets with their children – some had two or three. Their ribs and shoulder blades protruded and their hip-bones stuck out like dorsal fins. Illness was everywhere and death seemed to hover over each child, whispering on the closing door of their existence.
As we left I noticed even Taddy was emotional. That night, before bed, we had a team meeting. We were asked to pray for two children who were ‘very close to death’. Our prayers that evening were earnest and heartfelt.
‘Occasionally we get a chance to see how our service has made a difference.’
Journey of grief
I awoke before sunrise and went into the centre. Both babies had died. Their corpses now lay beside their mothers. In their exhaustion and grief, the women were readying themselves to tie their deceased children onto their backs and walk the 6-8 hour journey home.
Concepta was our Kenyan nurse. She had stayed up throughout the night trying to keep the children alive. I met her outside and tried to offer a few words of comfort. Instead my English stiff-upper-lip wobbled and tears welled up in my eyes. I tried to compose myself and try again, but to no avail – I could only cry.
I couldn’t even comfort poor Concepta. I decided that I was no use to anyone. Instead of trying to be helpful I might as well take a shower and sort myself out.
As I stood under the sky with the bucket shower, I wept angry tears – anger at the injustice, that in 2003 a child could die for lack of medicine and food. In that moment I realised my anger actually came out of love.
‘I'm alive today because Tearfund revived me from the deep sleep of death. Tearfund gave me life.’
Deng Lual Amet
Then I realised something else, something that had never occurred to be before: God’s love must also lead to anger sometimes – how could it not, when babies die unnecessarily. It would not be genuine love otherwise. No-one had taught me this, it felt like a revelation.
I moved on from Tearfund just over ten years ago in 2008. It would be easy to dwell on moments like this, when there really was nothing we could do. However, I had a wonderful reminder this week, that our work wasn’t in vain. Concepta sent me an e-mail:
‘July last year, I was doing a nutritional Survey Consultancy in South Sudan. One of the staff was a boy named Deng Lual Amet. I can’t forget this boy. I nursed him in 2003, when he was in coma for 21 days. When he realised who I was he was in tears and so happy. He said to me "I'm alive today because Tearfund revived me from the deep sleep of death – mama thank you. If you happen to talk or see those people who assisted me and many other children, tell them I am grateful, Tearfund gave me life and now I am training as a midwife."’
Deng would have been worthy of our love and compassion however his life had turned out. However, knowing that he is now doing the same thing for others is a tremendous encouragement.
As Jesus said: ‘You will bear much fruit, fruit that will last.’ Mostly we don’t get to taste the fruit itself, or even see it reach fruition. We have to be faithful and serve others, regardless of the outcome.
Occasionally, however, we do get a chance to see how our service has made a difference. It’s a delicious taste when we do!
Ed Walker is now the Executive Director of the charity Hope Into Action. He has written about his experience working at Tearfund in his book Reflection from a Scorched Earth.