Fourteen years ago Darlene O’Lena became a widow at the age of 47. She and her husband Chuck were married at the tender ages of 17 years old and 19 years old. Darlene was being abused at home by her step-father and felt like marriage and moving away from that situation was the answer. This was not the case. Her husband became a physically abusive alcoholic and unfaithful to Darlene. Confused and wondering what she had done wrong, Darlene became unfaithful seeking love and acceptance from other men.
Fifteen years into their marriage, Darlene was introduced to Christ and accepted Him as her Lord and Savior. Six months later Chuck accepted Christ and things were better for awhile until Chuck went back to his old ways. God protected Darlene from so many things. She was alone at his side when he died.
In all these years Darlene has remained a widow, but she has not just been sitting idly by. Last week she returned home from a trip to Rwanda and I want to let her tell you about that trip in her own words. You may feel like your life is over and there is no purpose left for you on this earth. Darlene is a living testimony that one widow, who has been through some horrible things in her life, can be used by God to make a difference in this world. Here is her Rwanda story.
TURNING MY TRIALS INTO TRIUMPHS
Rwanda, Africa. Called “the land of a thousand hills”, it is a small little country on the east side of Africa. A country full of extreme poverty. A country that lost thousands of people in the Rwandan Genocide in the 1990’s. But, it is also a country of people that are full of God’s love and aren’t afraid to show it.
The idea of going on a mission trip actually started 20 yrs. ago. Church friends of ours had gone on a trip to St. Croix and had been telling Chuck and me about it. That Sunday, pastor gave a sermon on missions and, at the end, asked people to go forward if they wanted to go on a missions trip sometime in their life. Chuck and I went forward, as did many others. Shortly after that, Chuck got sick and, a few years later, passed away. The mission trip idea was put on the back burner.
Now, jump ahead 20 yrs. I was sitting at my kitchen table doing my Bible study one summer night last year. As I sat there, my mind strayed to looking back on my life. It seemed to me that I had never done anything significant in my life regarding sharing the Message of the Gospel. I found myself saying that night “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” Little did I know what I was saying to God at that point.
I had heard about a mission in Rwanda, Africa at my church. I had always thought about Africa. One of my favorite Family Classics movies as a child was “Stanley and Livingston”. Dr. Livingston had been a missionary doctor in Africa. As I listened to Pastor Jay at church talk about “Love Alive International” in Africa, I thought… “I should check out their website.” When I got home that Sunday, I went on the internet and found the website. www.lovealiveinternational.com It showed where you could sponsor a child’s education in Rwanda for $35 a year. Gee, I could spend that amount just going out to dinner. OK, I’ll sponsor one child. Then, on the website, I saw that there were sewing classes for the Rwandan women so that they can learn to make clothing, purses, etc. to sell at the market. This would provide money for their family. When they graduated from the sewing class, they would receive their very own sewing machine. These sewing machines would be purchased from people that would sponsor them, once again, on the website. OK, that sounded like a good thing, so I sponsored one sewing student. A couple of weeks later, I got thinking about the Rwandan children and sponsored three more.
I received an email later from Laura, the woman that had started Love Alive International three years ago. She thanked me for my donations and said “If you’d ever like to come visit us, we would be glad to have you.” (As a side note, Laura later said that it must have been a “God thing”, because she has never said that to someone before). Visit Africa? Me? That was quite an idea. I thought about it again and again after that. Driving to work one morning, I found myself talking to God about it. The conversation went something like this:
Me: But God, where would I get the money to go?
God: Just trust Me on that one.
Me: But God, what about the innoculations? You know my health isn’t the best and I always have reactions to stuff.
God: Just trust Me on that one too.
Me: But God…..
God: Are you willing to “step out” for what I am asking you to do?
Well, He had me on that one. A couple of days later, I was driving home from work. I turned on the radio and tried channel after channel for something to listen to. All of a sudden, I turned to a radio station and a voice said “You know that missionary trip you’ve always wanted to go on? Go do it.” It sure sounded like God speaking to me. (It turned out to be a Joel Osteen station). Well, I had my answer. I was going to Africa.
It started with raising the money for the trip. I figured I’d need about $2500 to go. I sent out ONE donation letter to friends and church members. I thought, “Well, Lord, if you REALLY want me to go, the money will have to come in.” Within a short time, $2600 had been raised. Hmmmm……
Next came the innoculations. I held my breath when the doctor injected me with shots for Hepatitis A, Typhoid, and Yellow Fever. He also gave me Malaria pills to take. No adverse reactions to any of it.
It was coming down to the wire now as the date of March 10th, my chosen date for my trip, got closer. Satan started messing with me now. I would find myself doubting my going and what could God possibly use me for? I had no skills to teach anything. I couldn’t think of anything that I could do there. I took a test to see what my spiritual gifts were and it came back “Compassion and Mercy.” What the heck could I do with that? Oh, but God had a much chosen plan for me.
So the morning of March 10th arrived. I arrived at O’Hare airport and took my luggage up to the nearest guy handling it. He weighed both of the pieces and said “That will be $200. You’re overweight on both of them”. Oh, great. Yep, I was not only bringing little gifts to my kids that I had sponsored (which, by the way, had now risen to 14 kids), but I was also bringing food items to Laura and the people I would be staying with, Randall and Jennifer Smith. Certain items, such as peanut butter and saltine crackers, are harder to get in Rwanda, so I was bringing them some. All of this made the luggage extremely heavy. As I prepared to pay it, I began talking about where I was going and what I was going to do. The man looked at me and said “You know what? I won’t charge you for the second suitcase.” What a nice man. I offered him ten dollars for helping me, thinking he could buy lunch with it or something. He initially took it, but, after finishing taking care of my luggage, he handed it back to me, saying “Take this and buy something for the Rwandan kids.” I was already starting to see God working with this trip.
After two eight-hour flights, I made it to Kigali, Rwanda. Kigali is the capital of Rwanda. Laura was there to meet me. We got in the car she had borrowed and set out for Randall and Jennifer’s house. Randall and Jennifer had moved to Rwanda last fall so that they could help Laura with the mission. As Laura put it, “you’ll find Randall and Jennifer’s house to be better for you. They have INDOOR plumbing.” Uh, yes, I guess so….. As we drove to their house, about 20 minutes out of the city, I found myself looking at mud houses and some pretty poor neighborhoods. We arrived at the house, which was surrounded by a concrete “fence”. It seemed that the larger houses had these fences around them that completely enclosed the house. I met Randall and Jennifer. I immediately felt like we had known each other a long time. After we talked for a couple of hours, we went to bed. When I saw the bed, I felt like I was in a movie set from a movie I had seen before. There was mosquito netting around the bed hanging from the ceiling. I crawled into the bed and slept soundly.
At 6 a.m. the next morning, I was awakened by a neighbor’s baby crying, an African woman singing in her language, and a rooster crowing. That was a jolt to reality. I got up and went to the bathroom. In the bathroom was a toilet, a small sink, and a drain in the floor with a faucet over it. No shower. There was also what looked like a large garbage can full of water. It turned out that there wasn’t running water all the time. When it WAS running, you filled this can up to use when there wasn’t running water. Well, we hit PLENTY of those days.
Laura had drawn up an itinerary for my time with her. On the first day, Saturday, we drove over to a place called ERM in Masaka to have a Children’s Kids Club. It is similar to our VBS. This was the second Saturday that they had met. There were close to 100 kids there. When I got out of the car, the kids began running up to me, hugging me for all they were worth. Such lovable kids. These kids had nothing material wise, but they had LOVE. We played with them for a little while, then Laura sang songs with them in their language, told bible stories to them (and quizzed them on the stories), and passed out papers for them to color. They got two crayons a piece. That’s all there was. They didn’t care what color they were. They seldom got crayons. Then, we passed out something cold to drink and a little snack. Bananas are prevalent in Rwanda, so many snacks are bananas. After 3 hrs. with the kids, one last hug and they walked home.
That afternoon, we visited with some children in one of the worst poverty-stricken areas. These children seemed starved for love. These people, mostly women with children, had little, if any, money. Many of them turned to prostitution. We walked into an area and met the children. Laura brought them little gifts… balloons to be blown up and a little craft to make. Seeing the brace on my leg, one of the women set out an old wooden chair for me to sit on. I must have looked really hot (I was), so the children began to fan me with papers that Laura had handed out to them. Nothing like having ten little kids fanning you all at the same time ! I had my own air conditioning ! Then, two of the mothers were examining my hair. They don’t see long, blond hair too often. The two of them began to braid my hair while I was sitting there ! I think they did it because they saw how hot I was! I had one long braid tucked up in the back and a small braid on each side. It was sure funny !!
The next morning was Sunday. We left at 7:30 a.m. for a two hour drive up into the mountains to a small town called Ruzizi. There we met the pastor and his wife at their house. It is a big thing for these people to have visitors. The hugs abounded ! They set out bananas and breads to eat. They also provided Chai tea. We had some prayer time, then walked behind their house to the church. The church wasn’t very old and wasn’t completely finished. It still had mud walls and a dirt floor. But the worship time was wonderful ! Songs were sung in their language with a choir. I didn’t understand all the words, but our interpreter, Kabuto, who had come with us, explained the words to me. They were all about Jesus, being covered in His blood, the King of Kings, etc. You could just FEEL the Holy Spirit in the room. Randall preached that morning and Kabuto interpreted to the people there. The room was full. When it came time for the offering, some people put in a small coin, others brought up a small bag of produce that they had raised. At the end of the service, the produce was auctioned off to the people that DID have money, and the money went to the church.
The pastor announced to the people that I would be speaking in the afternoon at 3 p.m. and all the women were invited. Church ended after 3 hours.
We went to lunch after church with the pastor and his wife. It was a beautiful place to eat, about halfway down the mountain and on a lake. The surrounding scenery was beautiful. We ate outside.
After lunch, we headed back to the church and my meeting with the women. 65 women showed up to hear me speak! Now, I’ve been a speaker in the past and also a teacher for a few years. But I didn’t have a clue what I was going to say to these women. I would have Kabuto to interpret for me, which I had never done before either. So I decided to give my testimony. I talked about sexual abuse, physical abuse, and verbal abuse that I was a survivor of. Then I talked about being a widow. It turned out that more than half the room was widows. As I talked about the depression, loneliness, and anger that comes with being a widow, I saw a woman in the front row nodding her head with everything I was saying. I finally took a moment and said “I keep watching this woman and I see that she has agreed with everything I am saying about being a widow.” I walked up to her and she said “Yes, I am a widow. I know all about depression and anger. I didn’t know that American women had this happen too.” I hugged her and went back to talking. I noticed that there was an older woman in the front row that looked very unhappy. I started talking to her and found out that her husband had been killed in the Genocide. His body had actually been chewed on by street dogs. I didn’t know what to say. Lord, what do I do? I could tell that she was very bitter. I finally asked five women to come up, lay hands on her, and we would pray over her. We prayed and she sat back down. I could tell that this woman was stuck in her grief, even though the Genocide had happened twenty years ago. From what we could tell, this woman only came occasionally to church and sort of “wallowed” in her bitterness and grief. She was unable to move on. And it seemed that the other women were tired of hearing her story. It was interesting to see the women that HAD moved on and this woman that HADN’T. I encouraged them to stick together, to care about each other, to pray together, and to help each other. Only a widow knows the feelings that another widow is feeling. I shared Psalm 37:4 with them: “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” I told them, also, that Jesus is a husband to the widows. He is ALL you have, but He is ALL you need. When I finished speaking, all the women rushed up to me and hugged me. It seemed that the talk had gone well.
On Monday, we took a drive out to Rusheshe to visit the sewing center where women were learning to sew clothes. They would eventually be able to sew clothing to sell in the marketplace and bring in money to their families. As we drove to Rusheshe, I watched all the people along the way. Rwanda has many people and they are all going SOMEWHERE every day. There are very few automobiles there. So the people either walk, take a Moto (a man driving a motorbike and you on the back), or a bicycle (a man riding a bike with you on the back). The Moto’s and bikes are prevalent all over. Most people are traveling to fill a 5-gallon container with water at the local well. These wells are spaced far out, so it can take hours to walk there and then walk back. I saw small children even carrying these containers by themselves. This is a daily ritual for most of these people. Every day they do the same thing. Sometimes, the children that go to school walk 1-2 hours home, then gather up the container and walk to get water. What a long day for these children !
Another thing that stood out to me is the STARES that you get from the Rwandans. Caucasian people are VERY rare in Rwanda, so you really stand out ! As you drive past the children, they call out “Muzungu ! Muzungu !” which means “White person !” They all stand and wave to you, and are truly delighted when you wave back to them ! I held my arm next to one of the children one day, and he just giggled and smiled !
We arrived at the sewing center and I met the women. Younger women that so wanted to learn a skill so that they could be able to earn an income. Once again, I was asked to speak to these women. Laura said “Why don’t you just give your testimony again?” So, once again, I began my story. There were a few widows in the group, but what amazed me was the way that God turned my story this time and took it down another path. As I once again talked about the abusive background, I could see the look in these women’s eyes that they HIGHLY understood what I was talking about. I talked about how I had a hard time forgiving myself for things that I did in my past even though I knew that God had forgiven me. When I asked if anyone in the room had a question or anything to share, the room got quiet. Then, one by one, women began sharing their similar stories as mine. Laura told me later that Rwandan women seldom share things like that and that the women had really responded well to me. It was good for them to talk their feelings out. They also said that they didn’t know that American women had the same problems as the Rwandan women. Laura shared with them that I had many medical problems, but had wanted to come to Africa all my life and now had a chance to do it. It brought a feeling of comradery between us as we talked about God’s love for us. At the end, I shared with them Philippians 3: 13b… “…Forgetting what is BEHIND and straining toward what is AHEAD, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Many hugs were given before I left that day….
When I got home, Randall, Jennifer, and I discussed the talks I had done in the two days there. I felt that NOW I knew why God had sent me there. These women needed to hear what I had to TELL them. THAT was my purpose. As someone put it, “God turned your TRIALS into TRIUMPHS.”
On Monday afternoon, I got to meet the young woman, Claudine, that I had sponsored the sewing machine when she graduated sewing class. Claudine is a beautiful young woman, very quiet, with a small child. She is married, but her husband doesn’t bring in much money from his job. She was thrilled that she now had a sewing machine to make clothes not only for her family, but to sell. We visited at her home and met her husband. He seemed like a kind, gentle young man. He thanked me over and over for what I had done. Claudine presented me with a beautiful quilted bag that she had made for me to thank me. They offered us the customary bananas, then he prayed before we left their home.
Tuesday. We went to Fumbwe sewing center, which is now a cooperative. We visited with the ladies, then Laura and I delivered a few mattresses that were donated to a few of the women. One woman said it was the very first mattress that she had EVER slept on. Oh, the things we take for granted….
I also got to meet Godance. I had seen a picture of Godance a few months ago as she graduated from a sewing class. She has been a BIG motivation to me. Godance is a young crippled lady and walks with two canes. Godance wanted to learn to sew so bad that she walked two hours to get to the sewing class every day. What an inspiration ! We met with Godance at her home and she was thrilled to get to meet me ! We even compared our leg braces !!
I visited with some of my sponsored students in their homes that afternoon. Their homes reminded me of little caves. They were made from concrete and had 1-2 very small rooms. The door to the home was generally a curtain hanging. They always offered me a seat on what was probably the only chair in the house. And they ALWAYS offered something to eat, as was their custom. Mostly, if they were very poor, they would put out a bowl of bananas. If they had a LITTLE money, they were proud to offer you a “Fanta” soda. Yes, Fanta is still available out there. Fanta almost seemed like a status symbol. Each parent expressed their sincere “thank you” for sponsoring their child in school, as schooling would not be affordable otherwise. I even received some gifts from some of the students, whether it was a handwritten letter to me or something they had made. Before we left each home, a prayer was said, as is the custom there.
On Wednesday, Randall, Jennifer, and I visited the Genocide Memorial in the morning. What a sad place that is. The Genocide happened about 20 yrs. ago between two tribes. One of the tribes was seeking power. They used their machetes to hack people to death, even small children. Thousands were killed. The pictures of the people that were killed were hanging in the building. Rwanda set up a memorial garden for the dead and buried what remains were found. I was thankful that they gave the people a decent burial and remembrance.
That afternoon, we went up to the hospital in Masaka. Laura, Randall, and Jennifer routinely go up to this hospital, bring small gifts to the patients, and pray with them. Most of the patients truly wanted the prayers. I noticed that the hospital didn’t seem very clean, with patients lying on dirty sheets. Laura told me that the people had to bring their own sheets there.
Next we visited with baby Grace in the hospital. Baby Grace is a newborn that had been abandoned. She had a mark on her head, as if her mother had tried to kill her, and is somewhat delayed mentally. Laura and Jennifer take turns going to visit her and exercise her legs and arms. They also bring clean clothes and blankets for her. As I was getting tired by now, Laura suggested that I sit in a chair with baby Grace and rest for a while. So, I sat and rocked Grace. I sang “Jesus Loves Me” to her and any other songs that came to mind. I noticed that I had a number of women coming by and staring at me. I guess it looked unusual for a white woman to be rocking an African baby ! Jennifer said I looked like a “Grandma” there! Well, I’ve had lots of experience with that…. J
That evening, several students showed up for a Bible Study. These are the older students that were going to vocational school to learn a trade. The students were very friendly. We played Jenga with them, which they EXTREMELY loved ! Then we talked about the bible. One student, Manuel, said that he loved the book of Revelations ! He was a very educated young man. He proceeded to talk about many bible stories and that Jesus was coming back some day. I really loved listening to him and commented that maybe he should be a pastor someday…
On Thursday, we took a two and a half hour ride up into the mountains to the Akagera National Park. It seemed we were one of the only people there. It was beautiful up there, with its mountains and savannahs. We started out driving in our little Toyota car, but it started to rain. The dirt roads turned slick immediately and we slid around as if we were on black ice. We did manage to see many monkeys, zebras, warthogs, several species of birds including an eagle, a large crocodile, and a hippo (who decided to duck under the water just as I was taking his picture !).
Friday, I was terribly tired, so we decided to stay home that morning. We were having a party for all the children that I had sponsored that afternoon. We set out bananas and breads for them. The children showed up and we fed them. Laura had brought some games, so the children were taught to play Memory and make puzzles. I have to say that the Rwandan people really concentrate at everything they do, even games. There is no fighting or arguing when someone wins. They all get along. If only our American children were like that ! We went outside with some bubbles that Laura had brought, which were a BIG hit !
On my last day, Saturday, we once again went to the Children’s Bible Club in Masaka. Laura had brought the bubbles with, which these children had never seen. Oh, what FUN !! The children were THRILLED as I continued to blow bubbles for them to catch ! As Laura went on with their bible stories, I had two children, one new little child and one of my sponsored students (whose name was DARLENNE) sitting next to me. They cuddled up closely to me as if we had known each other for years. Oh, how my “hug tank” was filled in Rwanda….
As I flew out that night from Kigali headed for Amsterdam and home, I realized how God had made all the pieces fit in this trip. Perfectly. It took 20 years to be able to go on this trip. 20 yrs. ago, I would not have been a widow and had a story to tell. 20 yrs. ago, I would have still been married and maybe not have been able to go with a husband that was ill. 20 yrs. ago, I may not have had a “healed” heart yet from all the abuse, which I am now comfortable talking about. 20 yrs. ago, I would not have been the independent woman I have now become, able to travel this distance by myself. Oh, yes, God really DOES do things in HIS perfect timing. God really DID turn my TRIALS INTO TRIUMPHS. And He alone fulfilled my heart’s desire…
“Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart”.