I’m filled with a strange sadness and joy as I try to wrap my brain around the news that one of the children Holly and I sponsor through CRF in Turkana has died—drowned –in a desert where it never rains.  It was a flash-flood I’m told. Elkatarot was out gathering firewood (a daily ritual in Turkanan life) when he and several other children were caught up in a flash flood. Field workers were able to save the other kids, but Elkatarot could not be reached, and now he is dead; he would have been 14 in one week.

This makes me sad, in many ways. Holly and I sponsor several kids from Turkana (my church members sponsor, collectively, some 170 of them!) and I have no less than six pictures of Elkatarot in my office.  His photos stand out because he is taller than most of the other kids, older. And there is that smile. IMG_2986 (2)Most kids from this region don’t smile much, partly because life is hard in a desert where it never rains and you have to walk miles for water. It’s also partly because certain tribes in Africa don’t smile in pictures.  But Elkatarot almost always did, because he wasn’t like most kids. He was special, what we’d call here in the U.S. “special needs.” When I first met him four years ago I was told by the field workers that he was “slow, not-right.”  But there he was, one of about three kids among more than fifty who kept catching my eye.  And he was always smiling, very curious.

We were there in 2013 to tour CRF’s project in Turkana, at that time consisting of about one school house and a few wells, the first fruits of a project to save people with clean drinking water. This place was called Nadabal, it was truly out in the middle of nowhere, a sort of mini-oasis in a seemingly God-forsaken desert, made into a community by virtue of a new well. The water brought animals, and a village had sprung up around it simply because of the water. A church met there under one of the few shade trees nearby, and that morning hundreds of people were on hand for services. Church. Under a tree.  It tends to last a long time in Africa!

It was after a dozen baptisms miles away and a 3:00 lunch (a goat, slaughtered and barbecued on the spot, a meal for Chiefs and Elders) that my good friend Francis Bii came around behind me, DSC01407 (2)leading Elkatarot.  He said, “This child needs your help. He needs clothes and food and schooling and to know about Jesus.” I must have, in my awkwardness, said something to the effect, “I’ll bet we can do something; I’ll consider it.” They left. In about 20 minutes Francis came by with a dozen of the most forlorn, dirty, ragged kids you can imagine. He tapped on my shoulder. “Pastor Jim. These children also need your help.”  I felt sure we could find sponsors for 13 kiddos back in the states, so I nodded, “Sure. We’ll see what we can do.” About 20 minutes later he came back around, this time with about 40 kids! “Pastor Jim, these children…” he started. I finished the sentence: “Need my help?”  DSC01410Before an hour had passed every orphan within reach was rounded up, photographed, interviewed, and thus became potential CRF kids, the only thing standing between their orphaned destitution and a life with love, food, clothing, medical treatment and education was a willing American sponsor.  I’m proud to say that my church has never failed to sponsor a CRF Turkanan child since that day, given the opportunity! Lord willing, it will always be so.

But Elkatarot was the first, you see. He was the one Francis and God used to finish breaking my heart. He was the one, with needs beyond my imagination, needs that could mostly be met for my magnanimous (lol) sacrifice of $35 a month—a pittance out of the well-spring of wealth God has given me, and given… you.  How could I have possibly said “N0?” Saying “Yes” has changed my life, and the life of my church. And it changed Elkatarot’s life dramatically, and God has used a gangly, slow, mentally-challenged  “not-right” African orphan as the first seed. Because of Elkatarot there are a dozen water wells today that weren’t there four years ago, new school houses and missionary residences and churches and irrigated farms that weren’t there. There are ambulances and motorcycles and dozens of supported, trained pastors. There are hundreds of souls who have been saved and thousands of people who are alive because they have clean water to drink, who, because they are alive will have the chance to drink the living water of Jesus. Connect the dots and they all lead back to Elkatarot, and the God who made him special, the God who used him to bring about God-sized things. Isn’t that God’s way?

So I’m sad to think of this “son” of mine now dead in a desert somewhere.  I need a funeral to go to, some way to do something.  I think about the last moments of his life and hope he wasn’t terrified long, hope God granted him a quick transition from pestilence to Paradise.  The best thing I can imagine doing is making a life-changing difference in the life of some more Turkanan orphans.  If Francis shows up today, I’m in real trouble!  I’m sad, but I’m joy-filled to know that in his last four years of life he was known, loved, taught, nurtured, clothed, fed and introduced to Jesus Christ. I’m joy-filled that this simple-minded-ever-smiling-very-special-special-needs-child—was used by God to make “starving African children” real and personal to me, and to do elkatthe same for my whole church.  I only got to talk to Elkatarot face to face on two occasions; I only wanted him to know that he was loved and known and indeed special. Now he knows that in a perfect way. And I hope he knows all that God made possible because he was there that day behind my chair.  Elkatarot: The next time I see you will be in a place more different and even farther away –yet closer and more familiar than we can imagine. I’ll be seeing you in heaven, along with all of the other people who are there because of you, special child!