A Marathon Of Hope And Faith

Susan Page
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Wednesday - February 17, 2010
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Being a half marathon finisher feels good to this post mid-lifer - for many reasons.

Until three weeks ago in Carlsbad, Calif., I hadn’t walked, much less run, more than five miles at a crack in 10 years. My training for this improbable marathon venture was to begin in earnest over Christmas. However, a virus sought to do me in for three miserable weeks, and on top of that, I coughed so hard my back went out.

I rationalized: I should just drop out and chalk it up to “It wasn’t meant to be.” How could I possibly expect this pathetic body to do the impossible?

Then on Jan. 12, just 12 days before the Carlsbad Marathon, the earth below Haiti shook so violently that a nation became buried beneath itself, leaving in the avalanche of wreckage thousands of parentless, homeless children and thousands of childless, homeless parents. The merciless devastation of this quake even shook the faith of the news-watching faithful worldwide. Prayer, though turned to, felt oddly futile given what unfolded before us.


 

Then, one by one, parched, dirt-encrusted survivors rescued from mountains of concrete, steel and darkness, emerged singing praises to God. What’s more, these scenes of spontaneous worship from the salvaged replayed repeatedly as amazed reporters tried unsuccessfully to analyze them. And, now, over a month post earthquake, CNN’s Anderson Cooper reports live from Haiti of loud praise and worship music blasting from speakers in tent cities around Port-au-Prince. Some 500,000 homeless Haitians - many seriously ill and alone - now live in cardboard lean-tos and patchwork hovels. Still they sing in praise - and in hope.

These songs changed my tune. I cancelled my “pity party,” remembering why I’d originally signed up for the half marathon.

Last October, Heart for Africa (HFA), the humanitarian organization that focuses on helping AIDS orphans and widows in Sub-Saharan Africa, put together a team for the marathon to raise money for its Swaziland Litsemba - “hope” in SiSwati - project. Impulsively I joined. Three months is sufficient to train for 13.1 miles, right? (Yes, if I’d only trained).

Litsemba is an ambitious initiative to identify and bring into care some 200,000 AIDS orphans and vulnerable children in the Kingdom of Swaziland, the world’s No. 1 AIDS-infected country. Partnering with Swazi churches that commit to look after these orphans, HFA also hopes some American churches will help. HFA volunteers, including some of us from Hawaii, will plant a community garden at each church during the July mission, culminating in the Litsemba celebration, when 15,000 orphans are bused to the national stadium for a day of entertainment, food, gift distribution (blankets, Bible, etc.), affirmation and litsemba.

Then, a massive HFA pediatric-focused medical mission for the orphans headed by Dr. Ron Vandenbrink will follow. Vandenbrink, just back from a fact-finding trip, writes:

“On the first day in Swaziland we visited a rural home that was reported to have 28 orphans living in it. ... When we arrived, there were over 40 children, mostly 5 and under, living in a two-room home. We were told that on the weekends over 320 orphans came to eat there. The government official for this area told us there were 25,000 constituents in his community and that 15,000 were orphans. One rural pastor explained there were 2,000 people in his community ... Most shocking ... there were less than 100 parent/adults - all others had died, leaving approximately 800 grannies and 1,100 orphans/vulnerable children.” He is calling on doctors and medical personnel from across the U.S. to join him.

Haiti is somewhat like an African country close by. Americans, unfamiliar with Africa, now see why people who’ve visited there are forever moved. Africans and Haitians share the same indomitable spirits, incandescent smiles, loving natures and faith amid much tragedy and scarcity.

So, I trained for a week, flew to California and walked/jogged the half-marathon course, every - sometimes painful - step dedicated to orphans of natural disasters and disease. I got my T-shirt, and the shin splints are healing nicely. I thank many friends who supported this project with donations and prayers ($50,000 raised!). My husband, Jerry Coffee, sidelined by knee issues, cheered me at the finish line alongside Swaziland’s Princess Pashu (a California university student), who thanked each HFA runner for helping her country.


Clearly, the race has only begun.

You could liken Haiti’s disaster to a sprint that’s now becoming a marathon of long-term challenges. But Swaziland’s AIDS crisis has been like the marathon, starting slowly but turning into a sprint towards a deadly finish if we don’t lace up our running shoes and sprint - trained or not.

Litsemba, litsemba. Find out how at http://www.heartforafrica.org. For medical mission, click Projects/Litsemba/Medical Team.

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