The African infant in my arms needed a dad. He needed a mom. And he needed to be loved.
I couldn’t give him those first two things, but I sure had plenty of the third. As I held that little one-year-old—an AIDS orphan in Nairobi, Kenya, whom I’ll call Jeffrey—I looked into his beautiful brown eyes … and a face that knew more pain than you and I will in a lifetime. Jeffrey’s almost lifeless body, stricken with cerebral palsy, felt limp in my arms, but I was immediately taken by his smile, weak as it may be.
And I thought of three generations. I thought of my own infant son, Griffin, back at home, a smiling bowl of jelly with enough love and nutrition to feed all 36 of the children in the orphanage where Jeffrey lives.
I thought of my father, Bob Ray, who 35 years ago had started a Southern gospel group called The Anchors, and whose lifelong goal was to help children in any way possible. My dad died in 1995, not knowing that his heart’s desires would be fulfilled in the continuation of his ministry in our band, Chronos.
And I thought of myself—and how I’d gotten here.
It all started one sunny February day in 2004 when Don Tucker, founder of Africa’s Children, and I sat down for pancakes and coffee at a local dive in Springfield, Missouri. Don asked if Chronos would be interested in partnering with Africa’s Children to help raise awareness of the growing epidemic of AIDS and its toll in Africa, and also to help pass the torch of missions to our generation. After a jubilant, tearful yes, we agreed it was going to be a wonderful adventure for both of us.
In March 2005, Chronos boarded a plane for Nairobi, Kenya, and then later Durbin, South Africa. We had concerts scheduled at the University of Nairobi, Rosslyn Academy, and International Christian Center in Nairobi. The goal of the tour was to raise money for Africa’s Children, but as we began our series of concerts, we saw that God’s goal was to minister to people—and the money would take care of itself.
At the university, we were greeted by a crowd of about 800, many of them unsaved, and we fell in love with them after the first note. Their response was such that the decibel level might have exceeded a Saturday night Pentecostal tent revival service! We also had a wonderful response at Rosslyn (a private Christian high school in Nairobi) and at the International Christian Center before we headed on to South Africa.
In South Africa, we ministered twice at an inner-city project called The Rainbow Center, where we saw God intervening in the lives of people who had little hope outside of street life.
Our whole trip was phenomenal, and the band took home more than we could have ever left. There were many wonderful memories and unforgettable moments, but none more poignant than the day we met Jeffrey. That is the vivid picture in my mind that will always represent Africa to me.
We met Jeffrey when we arrived at an infant care facility around 2:30 in the afternoon to find all 36 children counting sheep. The home, in the heart of Nairobi, a bustling city filled with poverty, is run by a local organization partially funded by Africa’s Children. It’s a home for orphans, many of whom have lost their parents to AIDS—and some of whom are themselves HIV-positive.
As we toured the home, one by one the children started waking. That’s when we were introduced to the real Africa. It is the young, innocent life that yearns to become more, to become what you and I take for granted, yet is stripped of its opportunities and blessings before its face sees the light of day.
Jeffrey was handed to Alesha, our keyboardist Chris Franklin’s wife, who gladly took him in her arms for a short while before handing him over to me. As I held him, I thought of opportunities, his future, and why I was not Jeffrey. I don’t understand. I do however know my life would not have been complete without meeting him, and without holding Africa in my arms.
Jeffrey is one of the lucky ones. He has love, care, and surrogate moms and dads at the facility. But millions of other children are not so lucky.
We’re back in the U.S. now, and as our band moves forward with new opportunities, new songs, new friends, new concerts, and what seemingly is an unlimited future of ministry, I am a changed musician.
What was Africa? It was something that will reside with me through each concert. Every note and every lyric will be infused with passion that comes from my encounter with Jeffrey. We could sing to thousands and sell a million CDs, but from the stage I see only two people that matter: Jesus is listening, and Jeffrey is counting on me to keep playing.