At 3:00am on May 9th my phone alarm went off. I woke in excitement as my 30-hour journey back to Malawi, Africa began— a place that I fell in love with the previous summer. I travelled with a non-profit organization called Circle of Hope International, who has partnered with the Grace Alliance Church to build an amazing place known as the Grace Center. The Grace Center consists of a boys and girls orphanage, church, school, feeding program, and soon to be medical clinic and maternal center. It has grown tremendously over the years and continues to grow despite the many obstacles that stand in the way.
Almost all research companies rank Malawi as a top-5 poorest country in the world and some even have it ranked as number one. Most kids only have a couple articles of clothing and do not own shoes. Most kids eat the same thing for every meal: beans and nsima. Nsima is maize flour mixed with water and it literally tastes like nothing. Many of the kids who live in the orphanage have lost one or both of their parents; others were abandoned and some were rescued from abusive situations. But you will not hear them complain. In fact, these kids are the most joyful kids I have ever been around.
FALLING IN LOVE
It doesn’t make sense to fall in love with a place that I only spent 3 short weeks in. To fall in love with people who don’t speak the same language as me and who live a life that is so different than mine. But I did. And so have so many other people. I would say it’s rare to find someone who experiences The Grace Center and doesn’t want to go back. My wife, Karly, is on the board of directors for Circle of Hope and this year was her fifth trip to Malawi. She spends countless hours collecting and organizing medical supplies to send each year. To say Malawi is her passion would be an understatement. Our Chicago condo is completed covered with pictures of the kids of the orphanage. I really didn’t understand why she loved it so much until I went myself.
Because of unfortunate circumstances, my wife had landed in Malawi about a week before I did. Pastor Phiri, the man who was in charge of the daily activities of the Grace Center, suddenly passed away. Because he did so much for the compound, the future of the Grace Center was very uncertain. My wife, along with a small team, had to get to Malawi as soon as possible. They arrived during a memorial service and were greeted by members of the community, weeping about the loss of Pastor Phiri. The kids of the orphanage were heart-broken once again. They had already lost their real parents, now they had lost their father figure who provided them with a home, food, security, and schooling. Over the next several days, the children were reassured many times that they would still be cared for despite experiencing another devastating loss.
On May 10th, I arrived in Malawi. I was definitely excited to see the kids that I had formed great relationships with last summer. Our team had a productive first couple of days. We painted and prepped the clinic before the rest of the medical team arrived and I played a lot of soccer with the kids in my free time. Last summer, I did a fundraiser to get the school's soccer team new uniforms and cleats (thanks to all who donated)! This may not a big deal to you and me, but most of these kids have never owned soccer cleats and usually have to play barefoot. On my second day, they held a special school assembly to present the uniforms to the kids. It was a great day to experience with them!
May 12th is a day that I will never forget. Just before midnight, Karly and I woke up in our tent to a horrible noise. We had no idea if it was person or an animal. I thought to myself, “this is Africa, you hear noises at night all the time.” But there was something different about this noise. We then heard the metal front gate violently clang back and forth and soon after we heard glass break from the pastor’s house. It confirmed our suspicion that something was terribly wrong. Loud pounding from the house followed. People yelling. We could see lights and shadows outside our tent. We heard quick footsteps run down by our tent followed by the sound of someone being beaten. They finally stopped and went back inside the house. The man was Len, the husband of the director of Circle of Hope. Eventually he limped by our tents saying “we are getting robbed, hide yourselves.” Karly and I sorted through our belongings in the dark, trying to find anything that we could use as weapons. We decided that a small pair of scissors and Karly’s stethoscope was the best that we could do. In that moment, the thought of dying became real. My wife was next to me and my mother-in-law and sister-in-law were in the tent next to us. Karly and I turned to each other and said, “I love you.” I remember I closed my eyes and prayed over and over for God to protect us. I could still hear noises coming from inside the house. I felt helpless. I didn’t know what to do. Do I stay in my tent? Do I take off running in the pitch black and try to get help a mile a way? After the noises stopped, we continued to stay quiet in our tent. It felt like forever but the whole robbery and waiting time ended up being about 45 minutes. Following the silence and some whispered phone calls to other team members, we ran to the house.
One by one we gathered in the living room. For every person who entered, a brief wave of relief hit, but we were still missing some people and the tension was thick. I’m sure it was only minutes before the three pastors supporting Len came to the door, but each second seemed to drag on. As he entered through the door, the visible evidence of the beating he took knocked the wind out of us. The medical people in the room tended to his wounds, while others barricaded the broken house door with the kitchen table. We were still missing one more person— Isaac, one of the Malawian men that was staying with us. Eventually there was another knock at the door. The room fell silent and I called out asking who it was. “Isaac” he replied. The room filled with sobs of relief. Isaac had run a mile down the hill in the dark to get help and returned with some villagers. Over the next hours, more villagers gathered around the house and eventually the police came and took statements. They left two armed police officers at the house for the rest of the night but no one went to sleep.
We quite literally counted down the minutes until daylight. That morning, our team met to decide what to do next. There were 12 additional team members on their way to Malawi, including my dad. They would land in a few hours. Do we go home? Do we stay? Where do we sleep at night? We were all a combination of dazed, traumatized, and in shock. We decided to stay at a hotel in Lilongwe, about an hour away. Although it was much more expensive, safety was our first priority. As we left the Grace Center to go to Lilongwe, we met with our kids. We told them that we were going to Lilongwe for the day but that we would return tomorrow. The children gathered in a circle and prayed for us to send us off. When we picked up our team, we broke the news to the team in the airport parking lot. We had to give them the option of turning around to go home. All but one person decided to stay.
After putting all of our stories together, we discovered that 15-20 masked men had robbed us. They broke into every room of the house except the room that our director was staying in. That was the room that had our passports and money in it. There were 6 tents surrounding the house, and 5 of them were occupied. The robbers sliced through the only empty tent with a machete—a tent that we had set up about 5 hours before the attack. If they had come to any of the other tents they would have found people, money, and valuables leading them to check all the other tents. Also, there is typically a light on the house that shines down toward where our tents are set up. However, a team member turned it off that night, and she doesn’t know why she did it. Although it was a traumatic experience, it could have been far worse. As we prayed to be hidden, we believe God blinded the men to our five occupied tents. If the attack happened one night prior, we would have probably cancelled our team’s flights to Malawi and we would have all gone home. If the attack happened one night later, there would have been people in the tent that was slashed open. God’s timing was perfect. And He protected us that night.
The robbery took more from us than just physical items. It robbed us of the full African-experience. Bucket-showers, going to the bathroom in a hole in the ground, sleeping in tents, walking up a long hill everyday, eating food that most of us would not normally pick—all the stuff that we typically joke and complain about became the things we missed so much. That night also robbed us of time with the kids—time to love them after they had been through so much. It stole over an hour of socializing and chapel with our kids in the morning and over an hour of playtime in the afternoon. Everyday before we left to go back to the hotel, an 8-year old boy named Josephe would ask if I had to go back to Lilongwe today. When I told him yes, he would walk away with watery eyes. And every day my heart broke all over again.
Circle of Hope had to cancel the trips of all the summer teams that were coming after us. Some people were robbed of experiencing this amazing place for the first time. Others were robbed of returning to a place they fell in love with. Sponsorship was also impacted—many people that come for the first time develop a special relationship with a child and leave sponsoring them. As team members tell friends and family about their trip, that leads to more sponsorship. The kids are used to having Americans with them the whole summer, something they really enjoy. This year, three teams worth of time and love was taken from them.
My trip to Africa this year was crazy. But it was still an amazing trip. From a medical perspective, we accomplished everything we set out to do. We did medical checkups for nearly 700 kids. We had a dentist and an optometrist come this year—both a first for the organization. The support we received from the Malawian community was incredible. Hundreds of villagers and chiefs demonstrated their support through standing outside the house, searching the fields to find and return some of our stolen objects, meeting together to improve community-based security, and building a fence around our future doctor’s home. A Member of the Parliament quickly started working to establish a police station at the Grace Center. He also told us that he would be able to help us out with any other future projects, such as registering the medical clinic and maternity center once they are ready. The four men that are a part of the new leadership team at the Grace Center have done an amazing job since the loss of Pastor Phiri. They are men that love God and want to make a difference in the lives of the children and members of the community. I am confident the the Grace Center is in good hands.
Romans 8:28 is the verse that God spoke to me over and over again during this trip: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” It doesn’t say all things are good. It doesn’t say that God causes all things. But it does say God can use all things for good. ALL THINGS. Not just some things but all things. This verse is a promise to us, followers of Jesus. It shows us how powerful and good He really is despite the attacks of Satan and men. Through all the trials on this trip— even more than I have discussed here— it is clear that God is working at the Grace Center. He is making it a safer place for Malawians and Americans. He is establishing favor with a government official who will help accelerate the work being done at the grace center. He is stirring the community to invest in the center that invests in them.
The men that were physically injured are all healing. I ask for your prayers for all those who experienced that night. Please pray for the men who are leading during this time of difficulty and transition. I also ask for prayers for the kids, who have had a very tough month.
Adjusting to life after Africa is challenging. It’s hard to explain to people. I never really understood it until I experienced it myself. I miss the kids. I miss the people. I miss the joy that they express on a daily basis. There is something beautiful about living a simple life and being rid of all the distractions that we have in America—distractions of things that don’t truly matter. I miss their mindset of doing two things: Loving God and loving others.
If anyone wants to know more about Circle of Hope or is interested in sponsoring a child, please reach out to me!
Visit the Circle of Hope International Facebook page by clicking here.
Tad Glibert is the Assistant Director of Operations for Northwestern Men's Basketball. You can contact him directly at email@example.com.