Janice Wilson remembers the day well. It was 2008 and she was leading a mission group that was making rounds of the Neighborhood Care Point (NCP) centers in Swaziland. The group did not have much food with them, but gave all they had – a few oranges – to some children at a Care Point center in Shewula who had not eaten for more than two days.
"One of our team members had a really profound experience there. She gave this little girl her orange but the girl still split it and gave her half back," said Wilson, who paused to hold back tears.
It is the well-being of the tens of thousands of orphans in Swaziland that Wilson is most concerned about. A member of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Shelbyville, Ind., Wilson just returned from a two-week mission trip to Swaziland with a group of 11 Disciples from Indiana and Kentucky. The Disciples were visiting its partner church, the Kukhany’okusha Zion Church (KZC), in a country that has the highest infection rate of HIV and AIDS in the world.
The main KZC congregation is located in Manzini, Swaziland. There are 33 KZC satellite churches across the country. Global Ministries, which includes both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ, has had a partnership with KZC since 1982.
While in Swaziland, the Disciples stayed in the capital city Mbabane. During their visit, a picture of them appeared the country’s national newspaper, the "Swazi Observer," which publicized the group’s attendance at the ordination of Bishop Samuel Mkhonta, the new bishop of the Kukhany’okusha Zion Church.
Wilson, who is married to Nathan D. Wilson, pastor of First Christian in Shelbyville, first traveled to Swaziland in 2004 while taking part in an HIV informational and educational mission. She has been back three more times since then.
HIV/AIDS has spread its wrath across Swaziland, a small southeastern African country with about a million people and a plethora of other problems. At least 60 percent of its population lives on less than $1.25 per day. The nation has a 40 percent unemployment rate and 33 percent of its people are infected with HIV. Their 32-year life expectancy, much of it impacted by the spread of AIDS, is the lowest in the world. Approximately 39 percent of the population is under the age of 14.
"Right now their statistics are just overwhelming," remarked Janice Wilson. "About 20 percent of their population is orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC). What we are doing right now is working with the new bishop’s church." She has become close friends with Mkhonta, who plans to visit her church when he visits the U.S. to attend the 2011 General Assembly in Nashville, Tenn., next summer.
"Bishop Mkhonta is a dear friend. The reason I decided to go back to Swaziland is because of the words of the bishop the first time I went over," Wilson said, speaking of the ideas that were expressed by the former KZC Bishop A.M. Dlamini during her 2004 trip. "He said at the time that they were desiring a relationship with people and churches that was real, and one that could be developed over time."
Though Swaziland has been decimated by HIV, Wilson couldn’t help but note the beautiful spirits of those involved with the Disciples partner churches there. She was especially impressed with the work they were doing in dealing with HIV and extreme poverty. Despite the obstacles they faced, she said, they managed to get a lot of work done.
"I was just impressed with the leadership of the church," Wilson said. "The other side of it is seeing how the conditions of the country are just so devastating; seeing how many obstacles they have to deal with on a daily basis, and seeing their Christian attitudes … Just seeing how many orphans there are and the utter adversity that they deal with."
Many of the children in Swaziland have watched their parents suffer a slow, painful death from AIDS. Then those same youths have to become the nurses and care givers of their younger siblings.
Wilson believes that the trip has forever changed the lives of the members of her church who went with her. Those Disciples have become much more involved in the church’s ongoing mission work in Swaziland since their return. Her husband agrees.
"Being Christian is not about sitting on the sidelines of life, but rather jumping in and living out values of compassion and courage, hospitality and hope," said Pastor Nathan Wilson. "That’s what folks from First Christian in Shelbyville are doing more and more, including those who went to Swaziland. I’m thrilled they went! I’m glad they learned about the need for food security, and accompanying those with HIV and AIDS."
Janice Wilson may be contacted at: [email protected].
By James Patterson