by Mommy Emily

Pastor Santos was born somewhere out in the bush under an actual lulu tree — the shea nut tree that grows in the villages of South Sudan. His mother went into labor while gathering firewood and couldn’t make it home.

“I don’t remember how I got back to the village,” he says with what they call a banana smile. “All I know is that a hunter found my mother and helped her.”

We eat rice, beans, matoke (mashed plantain), and beef stew, sitting in plastic chairs near his church and training school for mothers in a refugee camp bordering South Sudan. He tells us that he started his first refugee church under a lulu tree in the camps — a place where he’s become known as a father of many and a uniter of nations.

Seated with us are four children. We met them hours earlier after a Save-the-Children rep named Paul told us about them. They live in one of many child-headed homes, hiding in the “tukools” or clay, thatched-roof huts of the refugee camps. We saw their mother’s grave marked by red rocks beside their hut. The hut itself was bare with some thin mattresses leaning against the wall and a mesh bag hung from the roof to catch the straw falling in when rats climbed on it at night.

We stood there in the dim light of the hut, the four children with us. The youngest, Margaret, was shaking with fever from Malaria. The Save-the-Children rep had found her all alone, desperately sick. The oldest boy, Paul, was stone cold, his eyes glazed over with resilient pain. The older sister, Theresa, turned toward the wall in shame, wiping away tears. And the middle boy, Maurice, just stood in his torn, girl’s shirt, looking up at all the new faces.

Pastor Santos, Pastor Emmy, and Apostle Baptist were trying hard not to cry, as all of them had been orphaned at a young age, too. We learned from the rep that the children’s neighbor had been stealing food from them. They climbed into the van with us, and we headed back to the church to eat.

They don’t say a word the whole time they’re with us. When we take them back to their hut, we tell them we’ll see them tomorrow, and they nod hesitantly.

The next day as we eat another meal, Pastor Santos tells us that he shared with his wife about these children, and she said,

“We should take care of them,”

despite the fact that she’s pregnant and already living in a small tukool with seven children, half of them adopted.

That same day the church fills with pastors, some from the camps and some having traveled across the border from South Sudan, and we urge them to do as Pastor Santos has done — pledging that we will help them to be a father to the fatherless, if only they will open their hearts to take in children who are trying to raise themselves, shocked by the tragedy of war and loss, and desperate for the love of a family.

After the fellowship, we drop the children off, and now they’re the ones with banana smiles. Their arms are loaded with new mattresses, a good padlock, and maize and beans. And their hearts overflow with the promise of an earthly father’s care.

The man born under a lulu tree is the perfect embodiment of what was always true but now they can taste and see — that their heavenly Father will never leave or forsake them.

*Since writing this post, Pastor Santos has told us he wishes to build five huts on his church compound to care for all these children — he’s also going through the paperwork to officially adopt all 18 of them. He has taken them for haircuts and for malaria treatment and is getting them all into school. He calls them his sons and daughters. Pray for him. We are so blessed to partner with this humble servant of God, and it’s our prayer that many other pastors will see his example and care for the child-headed homes surrounding them.

(To learn more about the work God is doing in South Sudan, please go here.)