Honestly, the first time we went, I thought, “Oh Lord, anywhere but the burn ward.” I do not enjoy even mild descriptions of anything related to my body. I like that it keeps working. In fact, I loved all the abstract theory of things in biology class. But please don’t go into any details about things like bones and blood and tissue or show me how things work with an actual body.
So when our church Bible study decided to visit government hospitals with Zanini Bantwana on Sundays, I was quite glad that we’d be playing games and telling stories to the more active “social cases” who are stuck in hospital for a long time because their home situation might not be conducive for their full recovery.
But when you arrive at a government hospital, you cross a threshold into a world where you don’t have much control. It’s a world where a child might come in to hospital for a procedure, and end up staying for months (or a year!) because of complications, or because their family can’t help them convalesce. It’s a world where major public holidays like Christmas mean staff probably won’t show up—so if you’re sick, too bad, stay home until holidays are over. It’s a world where you might be completely separated from your family—because they live an hour away, and to visit you daily costs too much (and they can’t afford to miss work).
Hospitals are already scary places at the best of times. Aside from the anxiety around the fact that your body isn’t working right, there’s alien metal things, and shiny tile floors that are decidedly un-home-like, and then doctors who probably don’t speak your language (and if they do, you don’t understand their medical jargon anyway) and fluids and needles and things are stuck into you… and at the worst of times, you’re going through this all alone. And then, if you start feeling even a little bit better, it’s impossibly boring. There are no toys, no games, sometimes a TV set on WWE wrestling for the adults to watch. Not a fun place.
That’s why what Zanini Bantwana does is so cool. Their staff team visits children in the hospitals every day, bringing games and toys, just sitting and holding the hands of children who are too weak or in too much pain to play, praying for the kids, and as their name means in isiZulu, (come children), welcoming children towards Jesus. The Jesus who will be with them when life is unpredictable, when their family is far away, or when they feel alone.
So, when we entered the unpredictable world of the hospital, we found out there weren’t any social cases, so we’d go to the next ward with the most children, and that day, it was the burn ward. And I didn’t realize how joy and life and fun there could be in the burn ward, how balloon animals and a chance to strum a guitar for themselves could bring so many smiles (note: balloons+whitepeople hair= static electricity and major laughs). Sure, there were some funny hospitally smells coming from the bandaged hands and feet and in some cases whole bodies. There were children under tents, with just their faces sticking out. Last week there was a girl who was badly burned all over her body just crying because of pain, and her mom who was visiting her that day had to walk away, because she felt so bad there was nothing she could do. But that same girl was also so brave that she got out of bed and made her way down to the end of the ward where children were gathering for songs and a Bible story (her feet were the only part of her body not burned). Sometimes there were missing limbs. Sometimes you would meet the mother, and see that her whole body was also completely scarred from massive burns. Mostly burns that happen because we live in a country where some people don’t have adequate electricity, and depend on gas heaters, paraffin stoves, unsteady portable gas burners, or candles and fires for light, heat, and cooking, and it’s much more likely for accidents to happen. And now that it is winter, there will be more and more burn cases.
But there was also hope. The comforting (and heartbreaking thing) is that these kids are just that—kids. I had a twenty minute game of peek-a-boo with a two year old confined to her bed with burns the other day. And we were both in hysterics the whole time. (I love it when people think I’m funny!). We flew paper airplanes and made puzzles. We blew bubbles and bounced balloons around the ward. David paced up and down playing guitar, or trombone, and letting the kids play, too. (Another one of my memories from a previous week, when we were not in the burn unit, but the general pediatric ward, was a pencil thin child who wanted to strm the guitar. And when I brought it over, he wasn’t satisfied to strum, but sat up so I could put the strap over his shoulder and he could hold it himself. He concentrated on strumming, and when his consentration was interrupted by a balloon popping at the other end of the ward, he looked at me, rolled his huge eyes, gave me a knowing look and shook his head “Kids these days. What’s with them? Can’t get a moments peace in this ward,” his face said. So much spunk!)
“Visiting these kids is not about investing in the future leaders of South Africa,” Alan said the first time he chatted to our group. “It’s not work that’s going to have any huge impact on the world as we know it. It won’t change the course of South African history. It’s not anything big, or glamorous. But by being with those children, by loving them, by visiting them, you’re making a profound theological statement. You are affirming the image of God in them. You are saying they are special, and that God loves them. “
The sermon this Sunday was about the lame man at the Beautiful Gate. What a funny contrast: the lame beggar, dirty and disheveled—noticed, but not acknowledged—laying at the Beautiful Gate. And everyone’s rushing in to pray, and the irritating call of “alms! alms!” is so normal that no one hears it anymore. But here is the Kingdom: Peter and John stop. (The disciples of Jesus have learned a thing or two after spending three years with him). “Look at us,” Peter says, and the beggar stops his hum-drum whining and eagerly looks up, expecting a few pennies.
“I don’t have silver or gold,” Peter says. The beggar’s face drops.
“But what I do have, I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” And he stretched out his hand (Jesus did that a lot, too. Touching beggars, the people nobody else would think of touching), and helped the man up. And his ankles straightened, and his legs grew strong, and he was healed!
And I think sometimes that I am like Peter and John, that I’ve hung around Jesus enough that I actually notice someone that society isn’t acknowledging, and somehow Jesus Christ of Nazareth lets me be a part of some exciting, upside-down, better than you ever could have imagined Kingdom work.
But then sometimes, (and this, I think, is how it really is) I’m the beggar sitting outside beautiful gate, doing what I do every day, not expecting much.
And then I meet Jesus in disguise
in the burn ward of the hospital,
and I get something unexpectedly better than anything I could have imagined.
If you want to learn more about Zanini Bantwana, and the amazing work they do, they have a website/blog and a Facebook page. If you want to learn about an initiative to help improve burn care in South Africa, visit here.