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The Story Behind this Hug

She told me that her name was Alwande. We were on the streets handing out donated isiZulu Bibles, and she asked for one in English. We had no English Bibles, but I had at least four at home. I would bring one tomorrow, I said. She started crying. I had heard of people in Communist countries, who weep when they receive smuggled-in Bibles, but never in our city. I asked her why. “When I was in prison, I was only given English books to read, so I can’t read isiZulu anymore.” Prison, wow. First time I had met a female who had been to prison. That I knew of. I had to ask. “It’s a sad story, Aunty. I will tell you another time. I don’t want to disappoint you now.” I can tell you this woman was dressed better than many corporate secretaries I had known. That she was beautiful, albeit very lean. And so well spoken. I imagined she had been wrongfully arrested for something. I imagined she was the innocent victim. “You could never disappoint me, Alwande.” And I held her hand, curious to hear the story. She was orphaned at 12. Never knowing her father, when her mother passed, she made a life on the street. It involved prostitution. It involved some drug dealing. It involved some petty crime. She lived on the streets for three years before a man came to her and introduced himself as her long lost, somewhat distant uncle. “We’ve been looking for you! I am your father’s brother!” Desperate to escape the streets, desperate for family, she went with him. He treated her like a welcomed child for a short while before reality struck. He ran a shebeen, (informal bar and liquor store,) and would pimp her out to his clients: drunken, often violent men. Often it would be multiple clients in the evening. Often it would be in public view.

She did what you or I probably would have done. She stabbed her “uncle” to death in his sleep and ran away. Alwande was arrested and sent to prison. She was there for 8 years. She lost the ability to read in isiZulu. Worse, she lost all self-worth, all sense of dignity, and what little sense of self she had before he came into her life. When I hugged her at the end of this story, sitting on a filthy street, she was amazed. How could I still want to hug her? I had no other option BUT to hug her. Somehow, I needed to communicate that we are not the sum of our biggest mistake. We are so much more – our potential for redemption is infinite. I was there carrying Bibles, how could I not try to share with her how much God loved her? I don’t know when last she had received a genuine, heart-felt, hold-you-till-you-let-go hug. I asked her if I could meet her at 8am the next day, with an English Bible. She agreed. Unbeknown to her, I gathered some clothing, some food, a few more books, a journal and said Bible together and went to meet her the following morning. She didn’t come to that meeting. She was actually in hiding again. Maybe the truth she had shared was one step too far in vulnerability for her. She stayed away for a few weeks before a member of our team saw her again. “Aunty was so worried about you!” they told her. She thought I would have forgotten her. She was surprised I had even remembered her. Flash forward to a few weeks and months that passed. We saw her at our resource centre from time to time. I kept my pile of goodies for her, not as a punishment for her not showing up, but more as a safe keeping until she trusted me enough to receive them as a gift. The street ministry team saw her out in the evenings every few weeks. She seemed to be doing okay. Eventually she divulged that Alwande was not her real name. Her real name was Nosipho. She didn’t want us to know her real name. She felt unworthy to even share that with us. The story about her time in jail was true, though. We found out when she needed to hide once again, for one of the ghosts of her past came looking for her. Even still, we have a feeling that we had only heard the bare minimum. I gave her a Bible and she wept with joy, relief. Clutching it to her chest. She arrived very badly beaten one day. And told us that she was pregnant. She had been AWOL for so long, we had been worried that she had died. Stick thin, seriously ill and wounded, and supposedly carrying a child, we tried to get her to a clinic. She failed to come to any of the appointed meetings. Every time she did show up (too late and never for long,) all we could do is pour love on her, try get her to the medical care she clearly needed. We helped her with some basic medical care – but when it was time to go to a clinic for her pregnancy, she never showed. Of course, we found out that the pregnancy was a scam. There are certain unavoidable tell tale signs that one is pregnant…  I don’t quite get it, but it was attention seeking to the ultimate, and she thought if we took her to a clinic and discovered that she wasn’t pregnant – we would shun her. Of course we didn’t and we wouldn’t have – but when your self-worth is zero – you expect the worst of others. We loved on her again and again. Helped her back to health. Helped her with new clothing (she had lost so much.) She eventually came and told us that she still had family in a nearby town. She was going home to be with them. She was tired of the city and the life she was living here. She left our city, our safety net and went “home.” It was what we wanted for all our clients, to feel the security of their home community, to be with family. But this didn’t feel right. Nosipho was running. She was gone for about three months. When she returned, she was thinner still. She was beaten again. She refused to come to our resource centre. She hid when our street team approached. I kept thinking – this poor woman has no idea how much we care about her. How much I care about her. How much we were willing to do to help her. Let alone the infinite love of Christ for her – the worth she had in Him. But SHE needed to put her hand out. We couldn’t take that first step for her, we couldn't force her to trust us. Flash forward another few months. World Homeless Day in 2022. We had over 300 meals served that day. Everyone was wearing green t-shirts that read: “Where should I go?” to highlight the lack of facilities in our city. We all looked the same. Nosipho had been missing, once again. And once again, we feared the worst. It was her longest AWOL in all the time of knowing her. No one knew where she was. And in amidst this throng of human mass: volunteers, homeless, church folks and football coaches… there she was. You can’t see it, but we were both in tears. The feeling of seeing her! Of knowing that she was okay – alive – still fighting – and that she knew she could come and sit at the table – that there was a place for her – THAT is what we expressed in that hug. I know there are those who say that charity should be private and what you do for your philanthropic pursuits should be kept behind lock and key, off social media, etc. But this hug was an expression of love to a fellow human being. It wasn’t to promote my work or the work of Life Changer – it was simply, purely, a human being, who cared deeply about another human being, reaching out with a hug. She was like the prodigal son, returning. She was like a long-lost friend coming to tea. Life Changer is built on the scripture that states “God sets the lonely in family.” In the Message translation, it says, “the Lord gives a home to the homeless.” All we want is for our clients to know that, like the Biblical story of a returning son, there is always a home for them wherever we are. That, apart from the meal or the cup of tea on a cold day, there is a hug waiting when they arrive.  When we select employees or volunteers, we fully realise that there are people in this world who have really kind hearts, but are baffled by the situations surrounding homelessness and addiction. Our team, volunteers included, are people who have a genuine love for our friends on the streets and the addicts that frequent the Life Boat. We care about their wellbeing. We notice when they go missing. We know their names. And when we find them, re-connect with them, build a bridge with them… it almost always ends in a hug. Because, ultimately, they are our brothers and our sisters, they are our cousins and our parents. They are our children. And they are HIS children, as are we. And that is what families do.

#bethefamily  PS. Sadly, at the time of writing this, Nosipho is missing again. And this is the longest she has been out of touch since we have met her.

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