'Jesus loves me'

Story and photos
by Donna Evans

“Mom, come do this with me!”

Last fall, my then 19-year-old daughter, Molly, sat at the kitchen bar as we discussed the possibility of traveling to Johannesburg, South Africa, in June of this year. Our youth minister at Woodland Heights Baptist Church, Kent Dixon, had just announced he would be leading a group of college students, in conjunction with International World Changers (International Mission Board), to support local missionaries in their ongoing work there.

This trip would not be what one might consider typical African mission work — traveling through the jungle and wading snaky rivers and sleeping under mosquito netting to reach distant natives. This trip would be centered in “Joburg” and Soweto, very urban areas with lots and lots and lots of people.

Johannesburg has a population of 3.2 million. The AIDS/HIV epidemic has left many children without parents. The average life expectancy is approximately 50 years. The contrasting gap between rich and poor populations has resulted in one of the highest crime rates in the world. Many people migrate to South Africa in hope of finding work, become disappointed when there is none and oftentimes join the ranks of those who are homeless and hopeless. It is a dire and crushing situation, one that many in America cannot possibly understand.

I had to contemplate and pray about Molly’s invitation. I had wanted to participate in an international mission trip since I was in my 20s. I just wasn’t brave enough to do it then, which is one reason I have encouraged my children to do the things for which they have a passion now. Do not wait! Life has a way of bringing lots of responsibilities and duties that squeeze out the things you would really love to do some day.

I spent some time in prayer and felt that I did have clearance, and so I added my name to a list of seven college students and five adults with intentions to visit Africa this summer.

I have been asked repeatedly, “How was your trip?” The easy and assumed answer is “fine!” or “great!” But I’ve found it’s a difficult question that has no simple answer. My string of descriptive adjectives creates a wild paradox: beautiful, wild, disgusting, poor, broken, hopeless, trapped, happy, violent, joyful, colorful, genuine, honest, bizarre, loving, thirsty, longing, needy, quiet, vast, sobering, overwhelming. It would take me a lot more space to adequately relate what all of these words mean in the context of this trip, but you must know that it was unforgettable. And I hope I never forget it.

I hope that I never forget the precious faces of children who are starving for love and attention.

I hope that I never forget the woman with a baby tied on her back, grilling corn over a makeshift fire on the street corner, who didn’t look a day older than 15.

I hope I never forget the men we invited to the launch of a new church in their community, who were already drunk at 10:30 a.m.

I hope I never forget the rows upon rows of cinderblock housing equipped with only the barest essentials.

I hope I never forget playing Duck Duck Goose in Bertram’s park with children who ranged in age from 3 to 13. They did not get tired or bored and would have played till the sun went down.

I hope I never forget that a crowd of children was entertained for hours with one dilapidated soccer ball.  

I hope I never forget the conversation with an intelligent and educated 16-year-old girl, who dreams of studying in the U.S. and becoming a doctor, but who faces the impossible financial and logistical barriers of that ever becoming a reality.

I hope I never forget Caroline, an older woman in Zulu who loved God and prayed for my husband’s impending surgery back in the U.S.

I hope I never forget Thursten, a 10-year-old girl that Molly and I met in an inner city park, who was precious and sweet and already knew the song, “Jesus Loves Me.” I will probably never see her again, but will continue to pray that God will deliver her from the life she seems destined to live in poverty and despair.