A couple days ago HH, the Bear and I were on the road to visit an orphanage near Paarl to explore a potential partnership. In my mind Iâ€™d imagined being greeted by a quaint little building, lots of bunk beds, and smiling faces that might look a lot disheveled, a little hungry.
I didnâ€™t get the greeting I bargained for.
Through one of our friends at Paarl Family Church, we were being introduced to a woman named Mirriam. Iâ€™d heard the words â€œThe Mirriam Projectâ€ mentioned, which made me picture fancy lettering on brochures, marketing, and a team of dedicated people taking care of orphans in need.
I was way off.
We drove into a township just outside Paarl, passing gates and fences, grassless front yards and cinderblock homes, tiny puppies and kittens roaming dirt roads. These scenes have become familiar to me… shacks and fruit stands, surprising ingenuity and abject poverty sitting side by side. A vintage Coca-Cola sign closes a gap to make the wall of a small shack complete.
We turned onto a side street and pulled Potato to a grumbly diesel stop halfway off the road on a patch of gravel. Through the gate of a tiny lot, perhaps not much bigger than some of your living rooms, stood a six foot container, decorated and being used as a home, and next to it a reasonably sized shack constructed of split pole walls and corrugated tin roofing.
Inside the kitchen stood a small stove, a large, deep freezer chest, a creatively constructed centre island workstation that also provided storage, a dividing wall with cupboards, separating the living area from the kitchen. Iâ€™ve lived in homes with bigger bathrooms than the living area of the home, but it was tidy and well kept. A small table skirt neatly laid over the armchair where the Bear and I took a seat.
And then we were introduced to Mirriam.*
Inside the walls of this tiny shack, two back rooms with bunk beds, another room with a double bed, Mirriam is a mother for twenty-five children. Ranging in age from 1 or 2 to twenty, she is a living testimony to James 1:27:
Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit widows and orphans in distress and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
She has taken in children with nowhere else to go. Children on their death beds. Children who have been counted worthless by the world and abandoned.
A tiny little one, even younger than the Bear toddled in with a helping hand. She had a heart-tugging smile. Her name was Virginia.**
She was left in a trash bag, and some people called me to come. I went and opened the bag and she was purple from the heat. No one thought she would live. When I brought her home everyone said â€œYou bring death to this house.â€ But I prayed and fasted and worshipped God. I am a worshipper and when I worship, people are healed. At the hospital they said there was no hope, but they took her and cared for her and then I got a call to come. I was afraid she had died, but I said to the Lord, â€œLord, if you do love me, You wonâ€™t bring this to me. Please, if You are the God You say You are, it will be well.â€ When I arrived at the hospital, she was well, and the nurses told me I could bring her home.
I watched as another little boy named Joseph stood by Mirriamâ€™s chair. Also younger than the Bear, his head was at just the right height to rest on her lap. As she continued to share her life and the stories of the children with us, Joseph’s eyes softly closed and I expected him to soon fall asleep standing up. He’d been found in an empty house. His mother had left him alone there. I’m not sure if they knew for how long.
Mirriam also shared the story of another boy who had just come to live with them. Isaac had been left on Miriamâ€™s doorstep. His mother came to ask for help, and while they were still talking, she left him there and ran away. They ran out of the house to try to find her, but no one knew who she was or where the baby had come from.
Mirriamâ€™s sister lives in the container on the lot with some of the children, others are in the bunk beds in the two rooms off to one side. Mirriam sleeps in another room in a double bed with the smallest of the children.
You might expect a zoo from a tiny shack with 25 children, but the place was filled with incredible peace. Before we closed our time together with prayer, Mirriam and her sister, and some of the older children joined in singing for us. It was beautiful and humbling and I was ashamed at the things that I struggle with in this life.
The Grape Community, a non-profit organisation birthed by a table grape exporting company called The Grape Company, has been supporting Mirriam and the children. We work on what I had previously considered a tight grocery budget. But on a grocery budget even smaller than mine she manages to make sure the children have food and even meat to eat that lasts throughout the month. I imagine the miracle of the fishes and the loaves happening inside that chest freezer every month. With financial support and partnership from The Grape Community here, a generous gift there, they manage to make ends meet and keep tummies supplied, and hopefully pay the electricity.
The Grape Community has pulled together the finances to buy a plot of land where they hope to build several homes for the children. The ratio demanded by the government is four or five children to one house mother. They havenâ€™t found the land and they donâ€™t yet have the funds to begin building.
Invisible strings from HHâ€™s and my heart have been pulled and tied to Mirriamâ€™s ministry. Beyond blessing the children with shoes. Beyond giving when we are able. We donâ€™t yet know how, but we want to be more involved.
Iâ€™m looking forward to extending the invitation for you to be involved, too.
â€œI give them love, I give them education, I give them God,â€ says Mirriam.
Pure and undefiled religion before God. Lord, help your whole Church to shine like this for You.
*Pictured above: Pastor Michael (a pastor from Mirriam’s area we thought we should introduce to her), Annemarie, our friend from the Grape Community, Mirriam, Virginia (with a yawn!), Me & the Bear. (I am not sure what the little one in the front’s name is!)
** I’ve changed names and a few details to protect the children in this story.