Stepping Stones

"Every act of kindness defines your character

and becomes a stepping stone toward heaven." 

-Dr. James W. Jackson

We become the sum total of every moment and every event of our lives on earth. Each episode forms our story and writes in time the adventure of our life. The enjoyable experiences, as well as the tough spots we encounter, set up the occasions that demand our responses. Our responses, then, set into motion the consequences of our intentions. And lo, and behold . . . we then have what we callcharacter. That character becomes our temporal as well as our eternal identity. But, character is built one episode at a time.

One of the great privileges afforded me as I traveled to nearly every corner of the world, was being able to quietly observe the countries, the cultures, and the character of the people. Though the mores and folkways were vastly varied, the core similarities of the people were astounding. Many times I was overwhelmed at the responses of the individuals to the opportunities of goodness presented to them.

While working in Lilongwe, Malawi, in eastern Africa, I encountered a delightful twenty-two year old man named Fletcher Mutandika. I listened carefully as he verbally un-wrapped his story for me:

One night an old, shriveled woman came gently, but insistently, knocking at the apartment door of the boarding school Fletcher was attending. She was holding an emaciated baby between her two hands. She began pleading for enough milk to help the baby stop crying. Fletcher looked at the starving baby and quizzed the old grandmother. He found that her daughter and husband both had HIV/ AIDS and had died recently. She could not care for yet another orphaned child. This was the grandmother's desperate attempt to keep the live baby from being buried with the dead mother. Fletcher was faced with a defining moment. How he would respond would set into motion far-reaching consequences.

Fletcher's own mother had been orphaned when she was just ten years old. As Fletcher was growing up his mother had told him of what it was like to grow up alone, with no family. But, God's love had eventually allowed Fletcher's mother to go to school and marry a young man, who later became a Presbyterian preacher in his native country of Malawi.

While Fletcher was standing in the doorway something happened inside of him. He not only came up with some milk for the baby, but he also took the starving baby to receive medical attention. Sadly, it was too late to save the child and she was buried with her mother three days later. Fletcher decided in his heart that from that point on he would get involved in trying to help with the orphan situation in Malawi.

A census had been taken about five years earlier showing there to be over a million orphans in Malawi alone. Old grandparents who should have been having someone look after them were still trying to take care of fifteen or twenty little kids. Many of the grandparents' children had died of HIV/ AIDS related illnesses, leaving all their living offspring to be raised by someone else. It was not uncommon for a child to be orphaned two or three times. Their parents would both die, and they would be taken in by an aunt or uncle, who would also subsequently die and would leave all the kids to go somewhere else. Nor was it uncommon for young children to be heads of households trying to raise their brothers, sisters, and cousins after the death of their parents. But with no adults around, who would teach the children how to cook, plant, tend the goats, or even fetch water?

By age twenty-five, Fletcher was operating his own Day Care Center for orphaned kids in Lilongwe, Malawi. He was caring for 750 orphans in his program. But his care concept had an interesting twist to it. He didn't want to break up the extended family if it could be prevented. Instead, he wanted to make it possible for the families to retain some of their original identity. He would not take the kids on a full-time basis, but gave them a place to go before school and after school, and even helped finance the purchasing of school uniforms, and helped pay the fees for the orphans. After school the kids would flock to Fletcher's pavilion where all would receive a good, hot meal. Then, he sent them off to a relative's hut to sleep for the night.

Every act of kindness bestowed on those 750 orphans continued to define Fletcher's character. Every episode was forming the story of his life. Even to this day, Fletcher continues to build stepping stones to heaven not only for himself, but for countless others in the country of Malawi.

(This story is an excerpt from Dr. Jackson's Field Journals soon to be available on a subscription-only basis.)