May 12th is a day that I will never forget. Just before midnight, Karly and I woke up in our tent to a horrible noise. We had no idea if it was person or an animal. I thought to myself, “this is Africa, you hear noises at night all the time.” But there was something different about this noise. We then heard the metal front gate violently clang back and forth and soon after we heard glass break from the pastor’s house. It confirmed our suspicion that something was terribly wrong. Loud pounding from the house followed. People yelling. We could see lights and shadows outside our tent. We heard quick footsteps run down by our tent followed by the sound of someone being beaten. They finally stopped and went back inside the house. The man was Len, the husband of the director of Circle of Hope. Eventually he limped by our tents saying “we are getting robbed, hide yourselves.” Karly and I sorted through our belongings in the dark, trying to find anything that we could use as weapons. We decided that a small pair of scissors and Karly’s stethoscope was the best that we could do. In that moment, the thought of dying became real. My wife was next to me and my mother-in-law and sister-in-law were in the tent next to us. Karly and I turned to each other and said, “I love you.” I remember I closed my eyes and prayed over and over for God to protect us. I could still hear noises coming from inside the house. I felt helpless. I didn’t know what to do. Do I stay in my tent? Do I take off running in the pitch black and try to get help a mile a way? After the noises stopped, we continued to stay quiet in our tent. It felt like forever but the whole robbery and waiting time ended up being about 45 minutes. Following the silence and some whispered phone calls to other team members, we ran to the house.
One by one we gathered in the living room. For every person who entered, a brief wave of relief hit, but we were still missing some people and the tension was thick. I’m sure it was only minutes before the three pastors supporting Len came to the door, but each second seemed to drag on. As he entered through the door, the visible evidence of the beating he took knocked the wind out of us. The medical people in the room tended to his wounds, while others barricaded the broken house door with the kitchen table. We were still missing one more person— Isaac, one of the Malawian men that was staying with us. Eventually there was another knock at the door. The room fell silent and I called out asking who it was. “Isaac” he replied. The room filled with sobs of relief. Isaac had run a mile down the hill in the dark to get help and returned with some villagers. Over the next hours, more villagers gathered around the house and eventually the police came and took statements. They left two armed police officers at the house for the rest of the night but no one went to sleep.
We quite literally counted down the minutes until daylight. That morning, our team met to decide what to do next. There were 12 additional team members on their way to Malawi, including my dad. They would land in a few hours. Do we go home? Do we stay? Where do we sleep at night? We were all a combination of dazed, traumatized, and in shock. We decided to stay at a hotel in Lilongwe, about an hour away. Although it was much more expensive, safety was our first priority. As we left the Grace Center to go to Lilongwe, we met with our kids. We told them that we were going to Lilongwe for the day but that we would return tomorrow. The children gathered in a circle and prayed for us to send us off. When we picked up our team, we broke the news to the team in the airport parking lot. We had to give them the option of turning around to go home. All but one person decided to stay.
After putting all of our stories together, we discovered that 15-20 masked men had robbed us. They broke into every room of the house except the room that our director was staying in. That was the room that had our passports and money in it. There were 6 tents surrounding the house, and 5 of them were occupied. The robbers sliced through the only empty tent with a machete—a tent that we had set up about 5 hours before the attack. If they had come to any of the other tents they would have found people, money, and valuables leading them to check all the other tents. Also, there is typically a light on the house that shines down toward where our tents are set up. However, a team member turned it off that night, and she doesn’t know why she did it. Although it was a traumatic experience, it could have been far worse. As we prayed to be hidden, we believe God blinded the men to our five occupied tents. If the attack happened one night prior, we would have probably cancelled our team’s flights to Malawi and we would have all gone home. If the attack happened one night later, there would have been people in the tent that was slashed open. God’s timing was perfect. And He protected us that night.
The robbery took more from us than just physical items. It robbed us of the full African-experience. Bucket-showers, going to the bathroom in a hole in the ground, sleeping in tents, walking up a long hill everyday, eating food that most of us would not normally pick—all the stuff that we typically joke and complain about became the things we missed so much. That night also robbed us of time with the kids—time to love them after they had been through so much. It stole over an hour of socializing and chapel with our kids in the morning and over an hour of playtime in the afternoon. Everyday before we left to go back to the hotel, an 8-year old boy named Josephe would ask if I had to go back to Lilongwe today. When I told him yes, he would walk away with watery eyes. And every day my heart broke all over again.
Circle of Hope had to cancel the trips of all the summer teams that were coming after us. Some people were robbed of experiencing this amazing place for the first time. Others were robbed of returning to a place they fell in love with. Sponsorship was also impacted—many people that come for the first time develop a special relationship with a child and leave sponsoring them. As team members tell friends and family about their trip, that leads to more sponsorship. The kids are used to having Americans with them the whole summer, something they really enjoy. This year, three teams worth of time and love was taken from them.