In 2006, Doug Sarver, a missions pastor from Springdale, Arkansas, led a team from his church to Malawi. There, God gave him an unexpected mission. This is his story– and ours:
I saw her out of the corner of my eye, crawling in the dirt on her hands and knees, her back bowed with age: a woman, perhaps in her 70s. She moved quietly, gathering sticks and small branches.
“Sister, what are you doing?” I asked her.
“I am making a fire, sir,” she replied.
“Why are you making a fire?” I asked.
“To make myself some breakfast,” she replied.
“But sister, what will you cook?” I asked.
Without a word, she pulled a handful of green leaves out of her skirt and held them up for me.
“Surely, this is not all you are eating!” I said.
“This is my breakfast for today, sir,” she replied. “I am a widow and have no more family left to take care of me. So I must make my fire and cook my breakfast, and this is what I have.”
I was stunned. This woman had lived a full life. She had married and had children and toiled her fields. And now, here she was at the end of her days, crawling in the dirt, handicapped, searching for sticks to cook her leaves and eat her breakfast. No one was looking out for her. No one seemed to care. It shook me. “How common is this?” I asked my interpreter, who seemed sad, but not shocked by what we had just seen. “Sadly, it is very common,” he told me. “Malawi has many, many widows. It also has many orphans.”
He went on to explain that in every village we had visited, the children we had seen sitting alone on the roadsides or roaming unaccompanied through the fields were most likely orphans. UNICEF estimates that 19%– or roughly 1 in 5– children in Malawi is an orphan. Some children lose their parents to AIDS or famine and others are simply abandoned because their parents cannot care for them. Like the widows, they are left to fend for themselves—and not just for themselves. On many occasions, children as young as 8 become responsible for their younger siblings.
As I sat in the dirt with the widow, I heard the words of James 1:27 reverberate in my head: “Pure and undefiled religion is this, to care for the widow and the orphan, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Here were widows, here were orphans, right in front of me, all around me. But what on earth could I do to help them? I was just a pastor from Springdale, Arkansas….
Then I heard God’s voice in my heard, calm, clear and full of authority: “You can do what you can do. Now do it.”
I still resisted. I did my best to “argue” with God: ”Who am I to do anything, I am just one person?” But here was no getting out of it. God had given me a direct command and I had to obey. So I did exactly what He told me to do: I did what I could. We began working with a new church called the Madzanje Baptist Church, to begin feeding 5 orphans lunch once a week. It wasn’t much, but it was what I could do—and God blessed it.
That was back in 2006. Shortly after I returned home, God connected me to some amazing visionaries at my church in Arkansas. They had a family foundation and were looking to help begin a ministry to children. I could feel God smiling: what I could do in Malawi was about to get a whole lot bigger. With their help, we built a facility with dorms, classrooms, a kitchen and a chapel in the heart of the Madzanje village in the N’tcheu District. We called it Esther’s House.
We officially dedicated Esther’s House in April 2009 with the full blessing of the tribal authorities and the king of the Ngoni people. Our first staff hires were two Malawian young men that I had led to Christ on a previous trip. They did everything at first, caring for our first orphan and ministering to the widows of the village.
Today, we employ 16 Malawian staff and 3 American missionary families. We house 9 orphans on our campus and care for 64 orphans living in the nearby community. We provide discipleship, clothing, food, roof repairs and medical care for 75 widows. We feed 1,200 to 1,500 children every day at our feeding centers around the country. And all of us together, from the youngest child, to the oldest widow, teach the loving Gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone we come in contact with.
All these years later, I can still hear God’s voice clear, calm and full of authority: “You can do what you can do. Now do it.” He is not finished with the orphans and widows of Malawi. He still has work for us to do. Will you join us?