Every summer we put on Camp LIFE for almost 10,000 of the poorest children in Lusaka, Zambia. A very common theme is a child with one or no parents, who rarely gets three meals a day and has little means to pay school fees. Many spend their days at home taking care of younger siblings while their caretakers try to find work for the day. Others might spend the day working at odd jobs such as breaking rocks or selling fruit in a market. In some parts of the world it is frowned upon to see a child under 12 doing manual labor for money, but if it means you can buy some bread that night then working is better than hunger.
It’s overwhelming to think of saving each one of the 10,000 kids (and especially the one million orphans in the country) from their desperate situations. The numbers can paralyze you and prevent you from taking action — until God allows you to be a part of the rescue of one of His children.
I’ll never forget that day I met her—Emma. I was busy with my camp tasks and pacing quickly through the nurse’s station. It was the lifeless look on her face that drew me in, redirecting my ministry path for the day. The Holy Spirit spoke to me, “This is a precious girl dying to be set free yet, at the moment, she feels trapped and has no desire to live.”
I knelt down on the floor, my body now underneath her hopeless stare. I wondered what condition had plagued this little one. A cold? Malaria? HIV? I was shocked at the answer that came out of the mouth of this 12-year old Zambian girl. “I’d rather die than go home…please don’t make me go home, “ Emma pleaded. “I just want to die before you send me home.” These words pierced my heart — no young girl should feel this way.
I looked up into her eyes and said, “Emma, darling, do you know what? God has given me the biggest present today!” Tears welled up as I spoke, “Do you know what He did?” Her face unchanged, I continued to speak from my heart. “He decided to bless me by bringing YOU straight to me!” Emma allowed one corner of her mouth to give a tiny smile. It was as if the Spirit put a banner over me, telling her she was, in fact, so special. Her smile might have been her last strand of hope rising to the top of her soul, and I grabbed it. I went to get her food for her hungry tummy, offered my lap for her to sit on, and my hands to rub her tired back.
Later, I found out just why Emma did not want to go home. What I heard was astonishing and cultivated an aching hole in my heart for this little sister in Christ. Emma lost her father when she was only a toddler. This sent her mother into a deep depression, accompanied by heavy drinking and two subsequent failed marriages.
Emma was deprived of basic food everyday. She and her siblings’ only food source came from Emma’s own begging in the streets. I remember noticing Emma’s uneaten lunch the day I met her. She told me she was saving it to bring home to her little sisters.
Her self-esteem was stripped from her and she was given shame instead. When Emma was seven, she was left alone at home with her sick little baby brother. She held him in her arms until he died and later she was blamed for his death.
Emma was physically beaten to the point of hospitalization for three days because of the severity of the abuse—only to return home not to recover, but to receive more beatings. She was in charge of all of the household chores. If she failed to do any of her chores, she was forced into a corner where her mother would throw hot, scathing knives at her innocent body.
And Emma’s mom was rarely home. She was out day and night working as a prostitute. Along with her mom’s marriages came more heartache for Emma; her step dad would arrive home before her mom and rape Emma night after night from the time she was eight years old. Just thinking of the diseases she has been exposed to and infected with sent chills to me.
God formed a quick friendship between Emma and me. Every day I packed a bag of apples, bread, and milk for her to take home to her sisters so that she did not have to save her own lunch. She became accustomed to sitting on my lap and everywhere I went, there was the sweet shadow of my new friend. The phrase we hear and say so often, “We are the hands and feet of Jesus” really is so true; it was like Jesus through me was Emma’s lifeline, which she clung to with all her might. By the final day of Camp, Emma was a bright-eyed, joyful little girl. She learned that “The Lord is Her Shepherd” (our theme for Camp LIFE 2008), and that He will always take care of her.
When the last day of camp came, I couldn’t bear to tell Emma goodbye, but I had one last special blessing for her. I pulled out a rhinestone cross necklace, fastened it around her neck, looked her in the eyes, and said, “Sweet Emma, I want you to always know that no matter what you may face, God will always be with you…whenever you get scared, just hold onto this cross, pray to God, and He will comfort you.” I watched as Emma clutched her new treasure.
Our faces wet with tears, I climbed into the bus after saying our goodbyes. There I was on the bus—the air around me all too spacious without my little shadow. I feel so blessed in my life to have a loving family, plenty of food to eat, a wonderful job and home. So often when I see the enormous contrast between my reality and the reality of the lives of millions of suffering children in Zambia, the Lord graciously reminds me of the challenging verse, “To whom much is given, much is required.”
The whole following week I could not get Emma off of my heart so I asked someone to go and check on her. One of my coworkers saw a girl on the side of the road completely stoic and void of life. She said she almost did not recognize Emma because after only four days of returning to her home, she had hardened back—all the love and joy was drained from her face. Her mom had taken all the gifts we had given Emma at Camp LIFE. Her bright green Camp LIFE jacket, new tennis shoes, t-shirt, and bandana were all taken away and I could not bear to hear what Emma was suffering without action.
After going to our director, and asking what could be done, we arranged to pick Emma up a few days later and temporarily move her to our Life Vision Boarding Homes. These homes are our ministry boarding school homes for teens 7th grade and up, and although Emma did not yet fit this category, a place had to be made for her.
When the day came, I was the first one out the door to pick up my little one! We arrived at Emma’s home at 8:30 a.m. to find her mom drunk, and her one-year-old sister Esther with horribly burned skin on her head from a prior drunken stupor in which her mom caught the sheets ablaze with her own cigarettes.
My eyes found Emma. My sweet one looked “enslaved” again. She wouldn’t look up at me, and who knows what kind of evil she had been exposed to in the dark hours of the night just hours before. I picked her up, sat her in my lap, and whispered quietly in her ear, “We’re coming to rescue you!” Thin fingers of hope squeezed my right arm, as if to silently scream “Oh please! Oh, please! If only this could be true!”
I think Emma was scared that her mom wouldn’t allow her to leave. But Emma’s mom responded to our proposition with surprising and hateful words, “Yeah, take her; I don’t want her.” Emma immediately leapt off my lap, went behind a dirty torn sheet, which served as a room divider and came out in her “best dress.” Without a goodbye or as much as a look her mom’s way, Emma grabbed my hand and said, “Lez go, Auntie Holly!” And with that, Emma led us out of her house.
When we got in the bus, Emma’s smile stretched from ear to ear and she kept saying over and over, “Auntie Holly! Tha Lawd eez My Shepahd…Tha Lawd eez My Shepahd! Tha Lawd eez My Shepahd!” She must have said this truth about 50 times! This little captive was free, and she knew it.
Upon reaching our house in Lusaka, I ran in to quickly find items and clothes I could give to Emma. Then came the fun part as I got to bless Emma with a real bath. She was elated when she saw the nice, clean, white bathtub with running water coming out so fast. For a minute, I looked at her, and it was as if she was confused as to where all of the water was coming from! Oh, she was so cute!
Emma took her clothes off, and my heart just dropped. Raised scars covered her little body, as well as large, dark bruises. I prayed in my heart, “Lord, thank you for rescuing this precious child of Yours!” I poured in some bubble bath. I think this was one of the most fun moments of her entire life. I began bathing her with a washcloth, and immediately, she kicked up her little feet on the side of the tub and said, “Auntie Holly, my feet ah duhty.” What a privilege! I would have gladly spent the rest of my day cleaning this little girl’s crusted, cracked, over-worked, under-appreciated, precious feet. After she was fully bathed, I let her play in the tub for a while and just have fun. About half an hour later, I got her out of the tub and wrapped her in a warm pink towel just for her. I dressed her in the cutest little blue skirt and top. Emma was thrilled with her new wardrobe. Then she did what every little girl should be allowed to do—freely twirl. She instantly began twirling around, and when she finally stopped, she just looked into a full-length mirror and could not stop staring at herself! All the while, she had the biggest smile on her face. I’m telling you, this by far makes the list as one of the greatest days of my life! I ushered her outside to show everyone, and she wanted to show off to all my friends. Everyone loved watching Emma glow.
On May 29th, a few months later, Emma was one of the first children to move into the new Tree of Life Children’s Village. I was so excited to show Emma a safe new place that she could grow into the child that God wanted her to be. Emma’s two younger sisters, Bupe and Esther, were also rescued and they now can live together without Emma having the burden of providing food for her younger sisters. The Lord truly provided for Emma Tembo!