JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (BP)–Squeals of delight echo down the hall as the toddlers rush to their friend at full speed.
“Who loves you?” Glenna Francis asks as she bends down to hug the two boys. “Your Father in heaven loves you, that’s who.”
The boys smile and clap with delight. Small hands reach up to grab Francis’ finger to lead her outside.
At first glance, this might seem like a normal reunion between grandmother and grandchildren — but it is far from that. The two boys, as well as the 11 other babies in this home, are orphans. They live in House of Hope, a temporary home in South Africa where Southern Baptists are sharing God’s unconditional love with orphaned babies and toddlers.
Many babies have been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic sweeping Africa. Some suffer from the disease themselves.
No one understands their need for a loving touch better than Francis. The International Mission Board missionary grew up as an orphan, too. Her mother died when she was only 13 months old. Her father remarried, but a year later he and her stepmother drowned, leaving Francis and her younger brother orphaned.
The brother and sister bounced around from home to home for years. Finally, in her high school years, Francis found a permanent home in Houston with an aunt and uncle.
“People cared for me when they didn’t have to,” Francis recounts. “My aunt and uncle did it because they wanted to touch my life. Now, I am doing the same. I am touching lives that otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to know Jesus’ love.”
The short-term orphanage is a temporary home for babies and toddlers. As social services try to find permanent homes for the children, House of Hope offers them a safe haven.
In Africa, orphans are traditionally absorbed by the extended family and everyone lends a helping hand. But with AIDS leaving behind 12.1 million orphans in sub-Sahara Africa, the extended family is fast becoming overextended. Temporary homes such as House of Hope are popping up all over South Africa in an effort to meet the increasing needs, Francis explains.
Just then a muffled cry from the baby room draws Francis’ attention. The baby crying is almost five months old but you couldn’t tell by looking at her. She still can’t control her own head and is about the size of a one-month-old. The problem: She has full-blown AIDS.
As Francis changes the diaper, she sighs and motions for a fellow worker to step up and see the new lesion on the baby’s leg.
“My heart just breaks for these kids,” she says. “We are close to having a missing generation here in South Africa because of AIDS.
“These children need to know that they are loved even though they may have HIV/AIDS. Some of them are going to die and they need to know Jesus’ love before that happens.”
Francis notes that many are afraid to hold and love the children. She knows that stigma firsthand.
“To understand the emotional problems, you almost have to have walked in their shoes,” she says. “That’s something I’ve done. I identify with almost every child that comes through here. I’ve been abused and tossed aside and know all about rejection.
“This could have been me,” she says. “I could have been any one of these children.”
Francis’ goal is to show the children the unconditional love she found through Jesus Christ. She constantly talks to each one about how Jesus loves them and has a big plan for each of their lives.
Sitting down, Francis tries to take a small break from feeding, changing diapers and playing — but six children crawl to her feet immediately. The grandmother smiles and starts singing “Jesus Loves Me,” much to the delight of the toddlers.
“God prepared me for this all of my life,” she says as she plays with a six-month-old. “These children just steal your heart. I pray that someone else will come to love these little feet as I have. They may only be babies, but they need hope, too.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: GIVING HOPE.