Grief sits heavily on my chest today. I know that she was old and had lived a full life. I didn’t even know her. But. The death of Queen Elizabeth II feels personal to many of us in the UK, and no doubt around the world.
The Queen was the best of Great Britain. The best of all of us. She united us in a way that I doubt anyone will be able to do again.
Her faith was her rock and she pointed us to God during her Christmas speeches. For those of us who are Christians, we take comfort in the fact that she is now in Heaven with her husband, and we will actually get to meet her one day!
As someone who grieves every day for my baby son, this feeling is familiar. It feels like heaviness, like fatigue, like nothing will be the same again. And of course, it won’t. After the death of our monarch, we feel the loss of her wisdom, her ability to unite us and of hope for the future. In this increasingly divided world, the Queen was able to rise above any political divides. I worry about our country, now more than ever.
For those of us who are already grieving a loved one, this time of mourning reminds us of who we have personally lost too. It hurts a little more today.
I think about my son Samuel, who should be 3 now. Who should be starting preschool next year. He wasn’t royal or famous, but he is loved. I wish that everyone could have known him and mourn him too. But Samuel is just as loved, valued and celebrated by God as her Majesty is. Jesus doesn’t care if people were poor or rich, disabled or healthy, old or young. God loves us all the same.
There will be many poor, unknown people who died yesterday. They won’t be on the news or get a funeral procession, but their lives also had value.
I pray that everyone who mourns would know peace and comfort today.
Let’s look after each other. It’s later than we think.
We knew that Samuel would not live for long. We found out at my ‘normal’ 20 week scan, which happened to be 3 days after Christmas 2018.
We knew that he would never talk, never take his first steps, never start nursery or school.
The cardiologist told us that the average life expectancy for a baby with his congenital heart defect was 2 days. I hoped for a few more, so that he could meet as much family and friends as possible. Of course, any baby can die during labour, so there was that awareness too.
We and other Christians prayed for a miracle, but myself and Mike both felt that he was never destined for a long life. We would have gladly taken it, of course. Why didn’t God heal our Samuel? Only He knows. I do know that Samuel’s life is just as valuable as someone who has lived to 100, or climbed Mount Everest or became a millionaire. Every single person is loved by God, and that is not dependent on their looks, education or achievements. I do know that thousands of innocent babies and children die around the world every day, from disease, war, poverty, illness, accident, unknown causes and parental choice. So he is definitely not the only child currently chilling in Heaven. I miscarried before Bethany was born, so he has an older brother or sister with him.
When I was about 6 weeks pregnant, and then again at 17 weeks (after completely normal 9 and 12 week ultrasounds that didn’t show any problems); I did hear clearly a male voice in my head saying “There is something seriously wrong with your baby.” I hadn’t been thinking or worrying about my pregnancy at the time either. So I had some warning.
Thankfully we were in a lovely hospice for most of Samuel’s life, called Charlton Farm.
We had as peaceful and enjoyable a time with him as we could. And it wasn’t just that Samuel’s every need was met. We were looked after as a family too. They were a real blessing, and we will be forever grateful to them.
I remember the last full day of his life, Saturday 11 May 2019. It was the weekend, so Connor and Bethany were with us again, after a few days at school (staying with Mike’s parents.) Being a Saturday, more family were able to visit, which was great. My sister in law, Mary, came to visit us in the morning. My sister, Laura, who had visited from Scotland ‘for just a few days’, more than 2 weeks before, was living at Charlton Farm with us, mostly to look after me as I had had a c-section and was fairly immobile. She was an absolute angel to us all, and I can’t thank her enough for being there for us. My brother Vince, and his fiance Anna visited us that afternoon. So Samuel was blessed to have all of his aunties around him on his last well day.
We went for a walk up to see the horses on the farm at the top of the steep hill with Mary and Thalia (Samuel’s nurse for the day), that morning. It was a warm sunny day. The kids played on the very posh private school nearby’s outdoor play equipment. We noticed that Samuel was struggling to poo, which is a sigh that we had been warned about. It was because his heart was failing, and the digestive system is the first thing that struggles to work due to reduced oxygen. He could still breathe fine on his own and wasn’t in any pain.
That afternoon, Vince and Anna arrived. We had a lovely time sitting in the garden while Samuel slept in his pushchair or was held by everyone in turn, and Bethany played in the nearby sandpit. Everything felt so relaxed and happy. I thought at the time that this was going to be a happy memory to cherish. You don’t always know what you will remember, but I just knew this time. Samuel was ok, if sleepy and not hungry. The exact opposite of his brother at that age!
We knew that his time was probably coming to an end, but didn’t know how long it would take. And there is always hope that you will be given a few more hours and days.
That evening as Mike and I watched a film, strangely I can’t remember what it was, we could see that Samuel was starting to physically deteriorate. He was still comfortable and didn’t need any interventions, but one of the hospice’s regular doctors made the effort to came to check on him anyway at about 11pm, long after she had gone home for the day. A trick of his was to creak at you almost like he was trying to communicate. He was also a surprisingly alert baby who stared at people as though working you out. He got more creaky and more pale. We felt calm, but there was sadness as we knew that we would have to face his death soon.
We told the two nurses on night duty to wake us up if there was any concern about his health. I was downstairs in his room, as the trip to the bedrooms upstairs was too tiring and I wanted to be near to Samuel at night. My sister was in the next bedroom. At about 2am, nurse Sophie woke me up to say that they had tried a little medicine, but he was quite poorly. I had a cuddle, and after a while he picked up a bit. About an hour later, they asked if they should wake Mike and the kids, as Samuel was struggling. I agreed, and soon Mike, Connor, Bethany and Laura came into the room. He was very pale and we told the kids that he was going to die soon. The nurses had given him some medication to make him more comfortable. We had some cuddles, and all said goodbye to him. He was in my arms as I sat in bed when he died. It was all so calm and quiet. I think that he had the best death that anyone could hope for.
At about 4am, we had said our goodbyes and the nurses made us all a hot chocolate while we sat in the nurses’ station where Samuel had spent many nights in a nurse’s or my arms. There are sofas and a big window. We watched the sun come up.
Samuel had a happy life and a peaceful death. He was hardly ever in a cot or pushchair as everyone fought over cuddling him. He made such a big impact on our and many other people’s lives in his 11 days on Earth.
We are sad, and sometimes angry; and it is incredibly unfair. We will never stop grieving our son. But what happy memories we have with him. He has helped me to think about life differently: about what is really important.
I am going to come right out with it, something that’s been bothering me for a while: Christians are not always that helpful. Christians are not always great when you are having a terrible time. Sometimes they say stupid, ignorant things. Sometimes they ignore you because that’s easier for them. Sometimes they throw inappropriate and out-of-context Bible passages at you like so many bricks, then walk away smugly, thinking that they have helped, when in fact all they do is make you want to stop going to church, simply to avoid people like them.
Yes, it’s harsh but it’s true. Thank goodness that I put my hope in Christ, and not people. That’s the problem with putting all of your faith in someone human, no matter how much they love you, one day they are going to let you down.
Before I get lots of defensive replies, let me also add that sometimes Christians are literally a God-send. Sometimes they are the perfect friend at the right time, and even though they don’t know what to say; even though they may have never been through trauma, they are still kind. They still give you a little bit of joy or peace.
And, of course, non-Christian friends are wonderful too. If you haven’t got any friends who are not believers, you are missing out. People don’t need to have faith to be kind, honest or generous.
I am in the club with the most expensive membership fee, the club that nobody wants to join: people whose child has died.
Meeting other people who have lost a child can be helpful, tiring and sometimes really sad. I found myself recently in a bereaved parents’ group, and honestly I felt so sad for them. A bit sad for myself certainly, but mostly for them. I was thinking about why I felt this way, amd I think that it’s because even in the most hopeless of circumstances, I have hope.
People who don’t believe in God think that they will never see their child again. If you haven’t had a child die, you have no idea what this is like, but try to imagine it for a second. Most people won’t, because our brains try to protect us from harm. And the death of a beloved child is the most harmful thing that our bodies, minds and spirits will ever have to face. I have had life-threatening cancer at a fairly young age, and I can confirm that this is a walk in the park compared with holding your baby as he breathes his last.
The thought of never seeing your beautiful child ever again for me is the definition of hopelessness. It is sadness, dismay, emptiness, fear and pretty much all of the bad things, rolled into one.
But I do believe that I will see my Samuel again. I did not want him to be ill, I did not want him to die. I get cross with God for putting us through this. It is completely unfair. Please do not tell me that this will work together for our good. But I do know, as much as I know anything, that one day I will see him in Heaven. I will hug him, I will be overjoyed. I have to, probably, want a long time for this meeting. But I look forward to it.
I have hope in the hopless situation, because I know God.
If I did not believe that God loves me and gave up his only son to die on the cross for me, and that he is looking after Samuel for me, I would be inconsolable. I would fall into the depths of despair. Nobody’s kind words or saying that he is a star or a butterfly or an angel now, would help. Superstition and traditions ring hollow. The only person that I put all of my hope into is Jesus. The only thing that shouts truth to me, is what is written in the Bible.
I have faced my own mortality head-on, and it does not scare me. I know where I am going. I know where my baby is. No popular culture or secular academic argument will ever sway me. I must either be completely deluded, or right.
How do I have hope? Even though I am traumatised, harrassed, been physically and mentally ill, grieving, incredibly sad and sometimes very angry? Because I know that God loves me. I don’t know why life has to be so flipping hard, but I know that he will never let me down.
I asked Donna to tell us about how she first got involved in Burundi; her vision for the country; and what is currently happening with her Hope for Tomorrow Global charity.
I have been friends with Donna for a while, and knew much of her story, but still learned a lot about her journey from being a teacher here in the UK, to leading a charity in Africa which serves and blesses many hundreds of families in one of the poorest countries in the world.
First trip to Burundi
Initially I went to Burundi in 1999 to set up a school for orphaned children, sent by my church, to volunteer with an African charity.
When I met the lady who invited me, I didn’t even know where Burundi was, but I had a heart for orphans.
I lived in Burundi for almost 3 years. I grew to love Burundi, but then felt God asked me to leave. It was a confusing time, because Burundi was still in my heart and God has given me many promises which had not yet been fulfilled. I thought about the people that I worked with and the children every day, even though I had no contact with the country. I never expected to go back there.
Once back in the UK, I worked for Newfrontiers in Brighton, running short term mission teams around the world. I learned a lot about the church. It was a foundational time. I discovered that God wants to use his church as a vehicle for transforming communities around the world. I was especially impacted by what the church was doing in Zimbabwe, one of the places we sent teams to.
During that time, I starting working in Zimbabwe, and was in and out regularly.
Then I was offered a job with one of the Newfrontiers churches there and was making plans to move to Zimbabwe permanently but within days of accepting the job, my Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so everything was put on hold.
After my Dad died, just 6 months later, I began to seek God, as I was feeling unsure about moving to Zimbabwe. It was a very confusing and difficult time.
Hope for Tomorrow
In the midst of my confusion, one day I felt God spoke to me and said, “Start Hope for Tomorrow”. I felt that God said to me, “Give yourself to this vision and trust me to provide.”
Hope for Tomorrow was my name for a vision God has given me while I was in Burundi in March 2000, 8 years earlier. It had felt like there was a download in my head, from God to me.
God spoke to me about the what he wanted me to give myself to. I felt that he wanted me to facilitate practical demonstrations of God’s love, in areas such as education, health, water, farming, church planting and caring for orphans.
I felt I was to play a part in seeing these things established and was to help resource and mobilise people.
This was not specifically about Burundi, it was a more pic
ture of God’s heart for the nations and for the poor and marginalised specifically.
I got very excited! I wanted to give my life to this. I just didn’t have any idea of how it would happen, but then I felt God very clearly said to me,
“Don’t do anything other than pray.”
That was hard! I had no idea I’d have to wait so many years.
So, in Jan 2009 I had resigned from the job with Zimbabwe and had no income. It was now time to pursue the vision. A new journey of living by faith was beginning!
God provided incredibly, but it was still a dark time, as I didn’t know how I would fulfil this vision or even what it really meant! I often saw God’s amazing provision for me but not a lot happened that was visible to others.
People were beginning to think I was crazy as nothing was really happening!
When I had left Burundi years earlier I knew that God has asked me to leave teaching, which I loved, and to give up my career. Now friends started to tell me to go back to teaching and get a proper job. Part of me wished I could but I knew God has spoken.
After more seeking God over many months, I finally felt he said, “Keep your eyes on me, be filled with the Holy Spirit, be faithful with what I put in front of you.” That’s what I tried to do, just giving myself to anything even vaguely related to the vision!
Two unexpected events
In 2010, two very important things happened.
Firstly, I received a Facebook message from one of the orphans I had taught in Burundi, who was now a young man. He said to me,
“Why did you leave us?”
This made me really want to go back to see the kids, and to explain why I had left.
The second thing that happened was that a few weeks later, out of the blue, one day I felt that God spoke to me and said,
“I want you to go back to Burundi.”
It seemed so random!
I called my friend Mark T (who was, at that time, an elder of the church I attend), and asked him if he thought I was crazy.
“I often think you’re crazy, but you do hear God. Why don’t you go and see what God might do?’ was his reply!
I didn’t have the money for the flight and was worried but that same day my friend Angela called and said to me, “You can’t wait for the provision to come. Faith must be activated. Take a step of faith first.” So, I booked the flight. The very next day I was given money to pay for it.
Within ten days of speaking to Mark, I was in Burundi!
When I got back to Burundi, it was clear that God was doing something. Evariste met me at the airport. He had helped to get the school set up when I lived in Burundi before. He took me to see his home in a rural village. I had not seen rural Burundi before, due to the civil war making it too dangerous to travel.
We went up into the mountains to see where Evariste was born. Prayer mountain looks out over the countries of Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Congo.
Evariste shared his vision; it was based on a promise from God that he would see transformation wherever his eyes could see. It would be a transformation of the land and of people’s hearts.
In that moment I knew that God had taken me there for a reason. This is where Hope for Tomorrow would begin.
Evariste was already starting to bring transformation to his village. He started by buying two fresian cows, which he took to his village. Long-horned cattle are the traditional cattle of Burundi, but they give very little milk (only 1-2 litres per day.) Evariste showed the people in his village that a fresian cow is much more profitable, as it gives 10-15 litres of milk a day.
Burundi is a very malnourished country. Having milk to feed your family, as well as extra to sell, is life changing. No one believed Evariste for two years, in fact he was ridiculed for having fresians. People said he was feeding them something different, to make them produce more milk. He finally gave two families the fresian cows and sold the surplus milk in the city on their behalf, giving them the profits. They were lifted out of poverty in weeks! The two families could now afford to send their children to school; as well as ‘luxuries’ such as tin roofs for their mud-hut homes. People in the village could see that their lives were changing for the better.
Evariste wanted more fresian cows for the village. By this time, 30 families had cows. I decided to I’d try to help him to get more cows seen as God had told me to be faithful with what he put in front of me. I felt sure God had taken me there for purpose.
We bought more cows, and I then somehow I ended up helping him to set up a commercial dairy, working with a team of volunteers who built him a pasteuriser!
During this time, people started to give money to support this work and so my little charity, Hope for Tomorrow Global charity was set up.
We sent the new processing machine to Burundi together with 7 solar powered fridges.
Then the charity started getting involved in other areas in Burundi, such supporting a community after flooding and landslides, which cause many Burundians to lose their homes and livelihoods . Many lives were sadly lost.
Gateway church soon started getting involved with Burundi together with many churches from the Regions Beyond family of churches. We’ve helped two communities, one of which was displaced and the other which had been badly flooded.
Hope for Tomorrow Global has continued to support the milk business called Milk for Transformation. Now there are well over 400 families who have been lifted out of poverty, thanks to the fresian cows.
We’ve recently started training Burundians in Foundations for Farming (so that they can feed their families, and sell their crops). This has been amazingly successful already. We are also helping people to start small businesses and supporting those in crisis with food and milk (with the Milk for Transformation enterprise.)
Donna, what would you like us to know about the people of Burundi?
Often our view of Africa is formed by TV aid appeals, with pictures of starving children. These images are true in some ways, but are certainly not the full picture.
Burundi is one of the poorest nations in the world but what people might not know is that in Burundi people are so resourceful and resilient and joyful despite their circumstances. There is a contentment about them that is so humbling. But they long for dignity and they want to change their circumstances. They do not want to be dependant on others. They long for opportunities to change their futures.
Poverty is not just a lack of money but it’s a lack of choice and opportunity. If we can help give our Burundian friends opportunities, which come through employment, learning trades, and education, this will make a huge difference to their lives.
If everyone did what they could with what they have, we could all make a huge difference. We can’t change everything overnight, but there is hope. It’s simply not the bleak picture that the media paints of Africa!
God can do the impossible. God changes hearts and minds. He has a plan to help people practically, as well as through the hope and truth found in the gospel.
The challenges that are faced in Burundi are enormous, but there is hope!
The poor need hope for today and for the next day, hope for tomorrow – before they can have hope for their future.
In the Carama community, 212 families are displaced, and they have no homes to live in or means to sustain or feed themselves. Humanly speaking they are destitute, although this is through no fault of theirs.
Recently, the Camara leaders asked if we would help them to start up a church. They said to us that we had taught them how God sees them, through Psalm 113, and it has given them hope. They want to share that with others.
1 Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, you his servants;
praise the name of the Lord.
2 Let the name of the Lord be praised,
both now and forevermore.
3 From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
the name of the Lord is to be praised.
4 The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
his glory above the heavens.
5 Who is like the Lord our God,
the One who sits enthroned on high,
6 who stoops down to look
on the heavens and the earth? 7 He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; 8 he seats them with princes, with the princes of his people.
9 He settles the childless woman in her home
as a happy mother of children.
Praise the Lord.
Now the people of Camara see themselves as God does. They started to change, because they don’t see themselves as victims anymore. How God sees them has transformed them.
We are seeing the power of the gospel at work!
God is transforming the people of Burundi. They are learning to farm successfully to provide for their families and for profit; and small businesses are starting up. Many have given their lives to him. The church is growing. People whose lives were so bleak before, now have hope.
In July, after a few months of illness, I was diagnosed with bowel disease.
Today my doctor undiagnosed me.
When the test results came back and I was told that I had colitus, I refused to accept it. I knew that I was ill, but I knew that I would get better soon. There was a long conversation with a nurse who insisted that I had bowel disease, while I countered that actually, it was just an infection that would heal. She was pretty bemused.
She offered me medication. I said no thanks, I’m going to be better soon. She made a follow-up appt with the doctor, and gave me her direct phone number, ‘just in case’.
When I got home, I spent the next few weeks claiming healing for my body, in Jesus’ name. After all, he did heal me from breast cancer, so colitus would be easy, right?
Today when I saw the consultant amd he asked about my symptoms over the last few months, he told me:
“It looks like it was just an infection. You don’t have colitus.”