I turned 57 last month. People try to offer me a senior discount, and I am far too vain to take it. I hate to admit that it could actually apply to me.
I think of life as it was in our community when I graduated from Lodi High School in 1970, and I am amazed at the changes. There were no VCRs, pocket calculators, fax machines, personal computers, personal copiers or cell phones. The list goes on.
I just returned from Swaziland and the Free State in South Africa. While I was there, I was able to talk to my wife over the computer via Skype using a video camera, at virtually no cost. Amazing! So different from how things were when I began taking missionary trips 25 years ago. Yet much of the world has not changed at all over the last century or more.
I was conducting strategic planning workshops for leaders in each of those countries, as they are involved with the ministry of Global Teen Challenge. The mission of Global TC is to "develop outreach programs to help youths, adults and families with life-controlling problems become established in society through faith-based mentoring, counseling, education, job training and micro-enterprise development throughout the international communities."
Today there are more than 200 million people worldwide who are drug users. More than 800,000 women are trafficked across international borders. More than 1.8 million deaths are caused by alcohol abuse each year.
AIDS has killed more than 25 million people. In Swaziland alone, more than 40 percent of the population is infected. Twenty percent of households there are run by children 13 or younger because their parents are dead. Globally, more than 10 million children have lost their parents to AIDS.
No continent, country, culture or color is untouched by this global epidemic. I had the good fortune to work with some wonderful people around the world who are making a difference. Proverbs 24:11 says that we are to "rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter." That is a major role of the Body of Christ, as I see it.
I was able to spend time with Ntswaki, a 3-year-old girl at the Bethlehem Children's Center in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Two-and-a-half years ago, her CD4 count was 29. Those infected with AIDS whose CD4 count is under 200 die within days.
The leaders of that facility were allowed to take this orphan child from the hospital to care for her at their center, where they made her as comfortable as they could, prayed for her and loved her as much as possible for the few days she had remaining to live. In a photo I saw, she looked like a holocaust survivor.
Today, Ntswaki is a healthy, vibrant, smiling child of 3 with a CD4 count of almost 5,000. The doctors say, "Impossible!" We say, "A miracle!"
Experts say that the population of Swaziland — the country hardest hit by the AIDS pandemic — will be wiped out by 2050 if the current infection and death rates continue. Yet we are seeing miracles every day. Not one sick child who was brought to the Hawane Lighthouse Foster Home in that country has died from AIDS. This has been the case for the 13 years the ministry has existed.
In Swaziland, 70 percent of the population earns less than $1 per day. The Global Teen Challenge ministry served more than four million meals last year to needy people there, much of the preparation and serving done by former addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes and homeless children. Whom the Lord sets free is free indeed.
This year, I took teams from Vinewood Community Church in Lodi and First Baptist in Stockton to the City of Refuge in Jamaica — what a fitting name — to assist in construction projects to provide new facilities for the orphans there. Many of these children would be dead if not for Christian believers who reach out to them with the compassion of Christ.
I also ministered throughout the nation of Cuba again this year. We have raised money to expedite construction of a new church in Juaey Grande, Matanzas Province. The government has done everything possible to stop the project, but the Lord is prevailing.
I asked the pastors' wives and women in the churches there what their greatest struggle is. Overwhelmingly, their response was, "Going to bed at night not knowing how I will feed my family tomorrow." Don't believe anyone who says Castro's government cares for the masses. Christians, in particular, are persecuted every day!
It's easy for us to forget about the needs of the many, many people who live in poorer regions of the world because it doesn't affect us on a personal level. And yet, it does.
Proverbs 24:12 says, "If you say, 'But we knew nothing about this,' does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?"
My challenge to us all is to look around and ask the Lord what we can do to help someone in need. Then do it.
Rick Souza is a longtime Lodi-area resident. He is president of Aerie, Inc., owns the Lodi Baseball Club and is a missionary with the Assemblies of God. His ministry has taken him to many countries around the world, where he has built churches, Bible schools, orphanages and Teen Challenge centers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.