Thursday, April 30 was set to be a routine day on the farm. As the work force is a combination of volunteers, Missionaries, students and full time employees we were all anticipating, from separate perspectives, what we would do on the upcoming Workers Day holiday, which would be the following day, Friday, May 1st. It is a day similar to Labor Day in The United Sates.
Earlier in the week during devotions one of our full-time workers, Justin had been asking for prayer, as his relationship with his brother has been tenuous and deteriorating. The situation has been causing him a lot of heartache and this is one of the few times I can remember him asking for prayer for the same thing several days in a row.
We break our devotions up between our full time staff, which we hold out on the farm, and our students, which is held at the main building. Once again, during our devotions Justin asked for us to pray for him and his family as his relationship with his brother was continuing to slide. Justin had been asking for prayer all week and this is the first time I remember him asking us to pray with him for the same thing, this many times. Following devotions, we went to work in the growing tunnels performing the various maintenance tasks necessary this time of year to ready the tunnels for our next crop and our next phase of students coming in July.
About lunch time Taylor Nash, a friend and missionary from Tennessee who has been here with his wife, Emma for two years and I were making plans to put up posters and do some recruiting with community leaders in and around Masiphumelele, Township. The posters and conversations are an effort to increase interest in the next phase of our program. Being a little concerned about my lack of knowledge of this township, I prayed for God to bring the pieces together for us going into the community. I asked Him that our work may bear fruit. Masiphumelele is also where our friend Justin lives with his family.
If you are not familiar with Townships in South Africa they are what someone in the first world would consider a shanty town, only worse. Thousands of people live in one or two room “leantwos” that are made from scrap metal, wood, or anything that can be nailed or screwed together to put a roof over your head. They have no running water, electricity is scarce and the surroundings are always filthy. The villages sometimes go on for miles.
In order to be more efficient we had contacted another friend from Masiphumelele, Alan, who would help guide us through the labyrinth of streets and alley ways, so that our time spent there would be as efficient and effective as possible. Driving down the main road the three of us noticed a cloud of smoke off in the distance towards the back of the community. Fires are prevalent in these densely populated communities and it looked like one was just getting started. Looking small in size from a distance, we anticipated it would be taken care of shortly and moved on to finding the first place on our list, the Salvation Arm.
With Alan’s help we were able to navigate through the community in an efficient manor finding some good locations for our posters as well as having the opportunity to meet several leaders within the community. The work turned into an incredible joy as I watched Alan engage the residents and move from community center to hospital and from shop to shop. He was doing a vastly superior job connecting with people and in a fraction of the time that it would have taken Taylor and I. Having completed our task early, we dropped Alan off at his home and anticipated what we might do on the evening prior to the Workers Day, holiday.
While I was saying my goodbyes to Alan, which can sometime get quite protracted, at times to awkward proportions, Taylor started hollering at me to get in the truck. Feeling a little rushed, but respecting Taylors sense of urgency, I quickly ended my “good bye” with Alan. As I hopped into the truck I heard Taylor say to someone on the other end of the phone that we were on our way. Taylor gunned the gas and we headed in the opposite direction of home, back through Masiphumelele at a rapid pace. I asked Taylor what was going on. I saw the concerned look on his face as he hollered over the noise of the truck that we were going back to where we saw the fire. It occurred to me that I had forgotten about the cloud of smoke in the back of the community we had seen when we arrived.
Remembering where the fire was coming from, I started to picture that particular part of the township and it dawned on me that the fire was coming from a familiar place. The back of the township and the cloud of smoke, were coming from the same place I had dropped off Justin at his house after work several times before. After a few minutes of driving through narrow streets, dodging street vendors, school children and stray dogs, we made our way towards the smoke and pulled over by the first fire truck, lights flashing, to arrive at the scene. The firetruck was blocking the main road one street over from the blaze. We jumped out of the truck and I glanced over to Taylor and asked, “where should we go”. He yelled at me that he had called the guys from the farm and they were going to meet us in front of Justin’s house and from there we were going to use the truck to help clear out his place and try to save his belongings.
Running up and down the middle of the streets with fire on both sides of us watching people running in and out of their homes trying to salvage what meager possessions they could, we searched in vain for Justin’s home. The flames had already several houses and as we moved through the fiery streets we realized that Justin’s house was further back in the community, in an area that had already been incinerated. Our next thought was what had happened to Justin.
As we stopped in an open area the impact of the heat coming from the fire for the first time became evident. I could feel it on my face and began to suddenly struggle to get my breath when Taylor turned and broke through the crowds of onlookers heading back into the fire. Looking over his shoulder at me, I heard his legendary southern accent say “come on” and I followed suit, sucking in what air I could, forgetting about my new “sunburn” and chasing after him back into the blaze.
Inside, with fires circling all around, covering about a suburban square block, was chaos. The pathways and alleyways were covered with a stream of people escaping the fire with what they could salvage. It was pure chaos and I had no idea what to do. My mind was still racing with what could have happened to Justin and our failed effort to locate him, but I quickly was forced to collect myself. We began asking people coming out of their homes what to grab and carrying household products, boxes and what ever else we were asked to take from the burning shacks.
After several trips rushing through smoking homes, puddles of mud and tripping over broken possessions left behind that littered the area, I noticed a woman not wanting to come out of her home. I saw her neighbors pleading with her to leave and her being very steadfast that they leave her alone. She ordered them not to remove anything from her home. Unfortunately, the fire at this point was steadily burning one row of houses after another with a consistency that was almost predictable. Every time we went back into the fire and helped clear someone’s house of their goods another home would be burned to the ground and another home would be engulfed in flames, like gradually falling dominos.
The fire continued to creep closer to the woman’s home and still, she refused to leave or remove any of her belongings. The back and forth pleading had turned into emphatic yelling and screaming with those who wanted to help her. My first thought was shear stubbornness, she was that person who would not get out of her apartment until the wrecking ball hit it. However, the more I contemplated her attitude I noted a faithfulness and a trust that no matter what happened she would be content with the consequences. After the fourth or fifth time I passed by her front door, I glanced inside her home for a split second and noticed that she was clinging to a red covered book.
By this time, everyone had given up on trying to convince her to leave her home, which was in line to be eaten up by the approaching flames, like a peloton catching up with a breakaway rider in the Tour de France. I could not help but stop momentarily and again glance in. Talking out loud and wailing with intense emotion and tears in her eyes, I could see that the book she had clinched tightly in her fist was a red Bible. Suddenly, I noticed she was beginning to pace back and forth in her one room shack praying with all her belongings still un-moved inside. I glanced a few doors down to where the next home was about to be destroyed and realized she was in eminent danger.
The homes on one side were burning and abandoned and on the other side two homes with furniture cleared, left for ruin and littered with broken furniture, shattered dishes and scattered personal belongings. With all of this around her, she stood in her home with not a piece of furniture or blanket unturned. When the fire overwhelmed the home two doors down from hers, she finally stepped out into the alleyway. I stopped in my tracks about 10 feet away as Taylor walk up to her, knelt down in front of the home next to hers and began to pray.
As I stood a witness to Taylor praying with this faithful woman, I also began praying. I prayed for God to intercede, for Him to bring peace upon this chaotic situation and prayed for Taylor and this woman’s prayers to be answered, whatever they were. Taylor and the woman continued to pray directly confronting the approaching flames. The Firefighters had finally made their way within one house where they were they were desperately trying to douse the flames. There was ricocheting water coming from the hoses, and ashes falling on our faces. With the firefighters back stepping in reaction to the intensity of the flames, almost bumping Taylor and the woman out of the way, the woman, with the Bible still clinched in her fist, stood up and began to command the fire, in the name of Jesus Christ, to stop.
With the flames now one home away, the firefighters began to force us to leave the area. Making my way back out of the flames I was left with the image of this incredible woman stuck in my head, her asking God, in the name of His Son Jesus, to intercede and stop the fire one home away from hers. Walking down the dirt road, now muddy and covered with piles of broken furniture and personal belongings I searched for a place to rest. As I came to a corner I glanced up to see Justin in a crowd of onlookers.
I began shaking my head in disbelief that he would be the first person I set eyes on after leaving the chaos. We had no idea what had happened to either him or his home. I immediately asked if he was all right and if he had gotten everything out of his home, since we knew the area burned by the fire was where he lived. He smiled and said that he didn’t live in that home any longer, he had moved last week. He now lived right where we were standing.
I shook my head in disbelief and gave thanks to God for sparing Justin and his new home. Justin said it looked like the fire had been stopped so I decided to climb up onto a rooftop where I could look down on what had transpired. We could see from one side of the fires destructive path to the other and looking over the smoldering wood and metal of what it left behind was heartbreaking. This same area that in suburban communities may be up to ten houses, in these communities is easily hundreds.
As I stared into the aftermath of this horrendous situation I looked over to where the woman with the red Bible knelt and prayed with Taylor in front of her home. What I saw should have been expected, but it was initially hard to believe. The woman’s home was untouched. Homes on all three sides of hers had been reduced to piles of burning rubbish, but her home stood. God had answered our prayers in a very real way.
As far as the aftermath: Looking back on the situations, I struggle to understand what kind of help or council I might offer Justin and his family. I have spoken with Justin and found out his brothers’ families house was indeed consumed by the fire and that they are moving into Justin’s’ place until they can figure out what to do about losing theirs. I pray this reconnection with his brother and his brothers’ family renews the friendship and closeness they once had. I pray that somehow this entire situation is all things working together for good and Justin’s family.
The one vision I will be blessed to carry with me the rest of my life, the one very demonstrative reference that I will always have emblazoned into my memory, is the image of Taylor and the woman with her fist clinched around her red Bible commanding the fire to stop. Wow!
As I reflected on this yesterday I couldn’t keep myself from sending Taylor a text reminding him in a few short sentences the series of events that occurred before the fire stopped. We both realized how God had interceded, but I could not help but to point it out again. I asked Taylor if he realized the obvious connection between our prayers, his kneeling and praying with the woman and the fire stopping at her doorstep. His response was unquestionably the only acceptable answer and made a huge smile spread across my face when I looked at his text in reply. I could hear him saying it in his typical southern drawl, “Faith bro.”
Not unlike Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, faith is always the answer.