BURLINGTON, Ontario (Christian Examiner) – The story of baby in box by her mother's graveside, probably left there by her extended family caught the attention of James Cantelon, founder with his wife Kathy of WOW, Working for Orphans and Widows ministry. It is the story of Martha, a two-year-old HIV positive girl in a Johannesburg orphanage.
One of the nurses told Cantelon that Martha, nameless when she was brought to them, had only a few weeks to live. As he stood by her crib and held Martha's hand, Cantelon was overwhelmed with sorrow.
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
"We've connected," he wrote, "but I feel eclipsed by her suffering, staggered by her life experience, humbled by her dignity."
Eventually, even though he felt such a strong connection to her, he had to leave Martha there.
"Of all the thousands of suffering faces I have seen over these past few years in Africa, it is her face that stands out from the rest," he said. "And it's her grip that slays me still."
WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
Cantelon's book, When God Stood Up: A Christian Response to AIDS in Africa, is a picture of the minister's mind and heart.
Including journal entries from Cantelon's travels, songs and sermons, his research into what the Bible says about caring for the helpless, Scripture, and stories from his long experience in Africa, the book serves to portray both the enormity of the problem of HIV/AIDS in Africa and one man's response to his calling to help.
Many times, Cantelon was staggered by the faith of Africans he met, people who did not know when they would be able to eat again or whether their family would survive. He felt challenged by the richness of the spiritual lives of the people served by his ministry.
"Could it be that as we reach out to alleviate their material poverty, they reach back to alleviate our spiritual poverty?" he asked.
In one of his most vivid stories, he follows a doctor on his house calls to minister to women and children who are suffering from AIDS or other conditions. During one visit, a group of women who were about to pray before the doctor's arrival want to lay hands on Cantelon to pray for him in gratitude for his visit and his mission.
He called it the first prayer meeting that he, a veteran pastor, had ever attended. Afterward, he said, "I'm totally at peace. I've been in the presence of the King."
ADVOCATING FOR ORPHANS AND WIDOWS
According to Cantelon, "A Christian response to AIDS in Africa has got to begin with faith, not religion."
Cantelon urges churches to forget the stigma of sexual sin that is associated with HIV/AIDS and remember that women and children are victims of a culture that preaches they are valueless.
The WOW ministry works to show orphans and widows that God loves them. "Every school project, every borehole, every mobile medical appointment, is carried out in the name of Jesus," the site said.
Developing the African church to embrace HIV/AIDS sufferers is a major part of Cantelon's vision. "We reach increasing numbers of widows and orphans every year by partnering with key, existing Christian leaders and organizations on the field," the site said.
Cantelon wants African churches to treat every child with the sacrificial love that God feels for us and that Cantelon feels for countless Marthas.
"If [a child] doesn't have a name, give them one," he writes, heartbreakingly. "Let no one pass through life unnoted and unnoticed."
At present, When God Stood Up can be downloaded for free here.