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FIRST-PERSON: Toward the mountaintop in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (BP)–Imagine being apologetic for offering a few foreigners “only a cup of tea” after you’ve lost nearly everything -– home, career, family and friends. Our team continually experienced this hospitality as we visited with those affected by Pakistan’s devastating 7.6-magnitude earthquake of Oct. 8.

Our team served in one of the areas most affected by the quake. Nearly every home and business was reduced to rubble. Pictures and video footage truly don’t give an accurate picture of the physical destruction.

Yet greater than the physical destruction is the emotional devastation. Our van driver lost 29 family members. Even six weeks after the quake, many loved ones were still missing and presumed dead. A few families described the earth opening and swallowing up family, friends, homes and livestock before their very eyes. Can you put yourself in their shoes and feel their gut-wrenching pain? I tried to as I listened to one story after another.

One of the few news clips I remember watching before going overseas was that of a girls’ school that the earthquake had completely leveled. If you saw the reports, you might remember that along with two teachers, approximately 200 girls, or one-fourth of the students, lost their lives. Little did I know this was the first place where our team would serve.

As we drove onto the school grounds, my eyes immediately fixed on what once was a three-level school building. Now the crumbled rooftop lay about five feet above the ground, walls reduced to rubble. I roamed the roof and couldn’t help thinking about the children’s lifeless bodies, which still lay buried below my feet -– more than five weeks after the earthquake. One picture engraved in my mind is that of a mother wailing in the arms of another. What incredible grief as her child was still buried under this rubble.

One of the teachers shared the following story: When the earthquake hit at 8:52 a.m., she commanded the children in her class to leave. Then grabbing her cousin’s hand, she followed in pursuit. Suddenly, a wall fell on her cousin and crushed her. This teacher’s guilt weighed heavily on her heart as she questioned, “Why could I help save others, but not my own cousin?”

Many of these teachers and girls need to share their stories with others who will listen, comfort and bring life-giving words of hope.

Hope includes moving forward. Having lost their schoolbooks, the students gratefully received our tangible expression of love as we provided books and book bags so they could continue their education.

Our team spent three days counseling and playing with these girls. From schoolmaster to student, what began with some resistance to Americans turned into incredible gratitude. We listened, comforted, offered hope and loved them. They even gave us permission to pray for them in Jesus’ name. If only you could have seen the transformation that took place in such a short time!

Another report I saw on TV before I left was that of the tent camps. We spent a day at one of the larger tent camps where nearly 3,000 are living. Many traveled to the camp barefoot one to three days through mountainous terrain, without anything except the clothes on their back.

At this tent camp, we counseled and prayed with 250 women in one setting. This is unheard of in this culture, as women are to be in public only with their husbands. When offered prayer, nearly every woman came forward. Women wept as they shared their stories and as we held them in our arms. They held our hands tightly, not wanting to let us leave.

We broke into small groups and met with women and children in their tents. Again, we listened. Again, we loved. Again, we offered hope and were allowed to call upon Jesus in prayer.

One such person we spent time with was Baiza*, a 12-year-old girl who had been orphaned and was now raising her siblings. (I still find it hard to believe that most of these girls in this culture get married when they are 15.)

Our team also went to a makeshift playground where we invited the children to play. What a joy it was to hear laughter and see smiles return to the faces of these children. Even as we were leaving the camp, I held the hands of two girls, twirling them around like ballerina dancers. My heart was full of delight.

Mothers expressed their heartfelt gratitude for our visit to this tent camp.

“Many have come to help, but no one has come to play with our children,” they said. “Thank you.”

The military official in charge of this camp said, “Your group is different from other NGOs [non-government organizations]. You are respectable and humble.”

The coworkers and nationals with whom we served were absolutely amazed at the doors God flung wide open in an area previously off limits.

We also were able to serve two different unreached people groups -– one living in a valley, the other living on a mountain. With one such group in a small village on a mountainside, some in our group offered a medical clinic to the women while others played with the children.

We continued to make our way to the top of the mountain and soon realized that life there is harsh, as seen by their weathered faces. One woman I thought was in her 80s was actually 57.

It was on this mountaintop that I experienced God’s tender and good heart as we distributed food, clothing and cooking utensils to widows and orphans.

As I left the mountaintop for the last time, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those I met would survive this winter, which arrived the day after we left.

“Oh, Lord, show them Your mercy!” I prayed.

After being home a week, I still find myself processing much of what I experienced. At times, I feel numb, as though I watched several news clips from thousands of miles away. Other times, my heart moves me to tears as I remember their stories, feel their pain. Yet no matter what I am feeling, I definitely am driven to pray -– to ask my heavenly Father if there is anything else He desires me to do in light of this horrific situation, yet incredible opportunity.
*Name changed for security reasons. For more information about current and future volunteer needs, e-mail [email protected]. Also see BP stories from Dec. 16 with updated news of Southern Baptists’ ministry among Pakistan’s earthquake survivors here.

    About the Author

  • Kirsten Stowe*