It’s amazing what you find in your phone’s files. Only a few days ago I was aboard a long flight to Uganda when I stumbled upon the original ‘draft’ of a chapter within my book ‘The Sisterhood’. It was a memory indeed as I re-read this, plus perfectly appropriate because I am in Uganda again, but this time with a number of our Hillsong Lead Pastors from around the world. We are visiting with Compassion and Watoto because many of these women have never had an opportunity to do this and both organisations are deeply woven into the Colour Sisterhood movement.
All that aside, the chapter stirred my own heart and may well stir yours also. It’s called ‘Rats, Rebels, Stilettos, and Cleavage Seed (The Afflicted)’. I have included the full chapter below and invite you to read it (perhaps for the first time or perhaps for a second time) and allow God’s Spirit to stir again. If you are unfamiliar with the realities of this part of the world, then take a few moments to step into something that might surprise you. I often say that the world is still a wondrous place, yet she is so full of need and tragedy. Heaven needs our hearts open and soft to His constant leading and all He has for those whose hearts are towards Him.
Let’s always remember that together we can bring change and hope to others.
The photos below are from our current Compassion trip to Uganda.
RATS, REBELS, STILETTOS, AND CLEAVAGE SEED (The Afflicted)
A natural seed needs soil, and it’s no different with spiritual seeds of destiny and calling. Destiny seeds that will become the food and hope of many need to fall into the good soil of our hearts. However, in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, Jesus teaches that not every seed sown by the Father brings forth—some will be snatched away before they have a chance to make a difference; some will flourish for a moment and then be lost because the depth to sustain is lacking; and some will be choked by the cares of a world that endlessly competes against the will of God on the earth. But then Jesus goes on to say that other seed will fall on other soil, which with time and nurture will go on to bring forth either a thirty-, sixty-, or hundred- fold return. I don’t know about you, but I want to be a “hundredfold girl.”I want to steward as well as I can what God has entrusted, and to that end it felt like the Gardener Himself was turning the soil of our hearts in preparation for something grand He had in mind. Lessons and principles were in play, and I pray that anything we learned throughout these years will be added blessing to your story and journey.
Certain statements carry a flood of memory and colour, not least these two: “Bobbie, women are stampeding in their stilettos to the tent” and “Madam, you don’t just have a small infestation, you have a kingdom of rats in your ceiling.”
Both memories relate to the territory we were entering in Africa, but the memory of the rats reminds me of two young boys whose unfettered emotion deeply affected seventeen thousand women. Allow me to give you a little background to this part of our story.
A Partnership Hatched in Heaven
Our relationship with Marilyn Skinner had grown and blossomed. She had come and spoken her first-ever message, and despite a wee meltdown on her part, involving what to share, wear, and where to get a decent haircut before landing in Australia (adorable), the Colour girls had generously leant into the passion and wonder of this little world changer.
The Skinners had facilitated a remarkable ministry to both the orphan and the widow. Over many years, they had fine-tuned their response to the massive need in Uganda by creating holistic villages, their proven strategy being to build clusters of three-bedroom brick houses, each of which became home to eight orphan children and a mother. The mother was herself often a victim of abandonment, abuse, widowhood, rejection, HIV/AIDS, or worse. These clusters then become a beautiful village family—the children and mothers are adopted forever, with the security of both a future and hope. These beautiful children (who now number in the thousands) are cared for, raised, and educated in a way that is completely inspiring—and which in turn is producing young citizens who will ultimately challenge and change the future of Uganda, and therefore Africa. The “Watoto” story (Watoto means “children” and is also the name of their ministry) is, in my opinion, one of the finest stories of collaboration and solution on the face of the earth.
The Colour Sisterhood had stepped enthusiastically into the fray with them. As Marilyn cut her teeth on her first conference message, we cut our teeth as a Sisterhood on our first global endeavour together. After she spoke at the conference, I took the stage, cast vision again relating to our Sisterhood manifesto, and seeded our first concerted humanitarian project. I don’t know if it’s possible to be bold and tentative at the same time, but with both realities surging through my body I posed the question: “Girls, perhaps we can combine our strength, gather our girlfriends, and build one of these houses for Marilyn? Or maybe two or three . . . or maybe five . . . or maybe (eyes wide open and eyebrows lifted) . . . fifty!”
In that faltering and yet faith-filled moment, new vision was cast and our first-ever tangible strategy involving the girls from Oz and the vulnerable of Africa was conceived.
The miracle is that over the years, the girls have not only built one or two houses—they’ve raised millions of dollars for homes in Watoto and other initiatives. I think the $20,000 seeded in the envelope (and spoken of in the previous chapter) has easily grown into the hundredfold (and more) category. We used that initial finance to create a starter kit for the girls to begin their fundraising.
We All Weep
As God began unfolding His plan among us, you didn’t need to be literally on African soil to hear the cry of the afflicted. I recall a moment in the darkness of my home and study—the only light in the room was from my computer. I may have been far from violence or harm, but my heart for some reason was with my sisters in Uganda. Since meeting Marilyn, I had made it a priority to visit that distant land annually and (like many who visit Africa) had fallen deeply in love with the place.
As my own family slept, I recalled my first visit to Watoto. Gary and Marilyn had walked Brian and me through the village paths, and the perfectly kept and cared-for homes of the children and mothers were beautiful. Manicured flowers framed each front door, and behind each house fresh laundry could be seen blowing in the gentle Kampala breeze. And children—children were everywhere to be seen. We stopped for a few moments in one of the leaders’ homes. As refreshments were served, we sat quietly. When overwhelmed, I tend to become quiet. Gary asked how I felt. For a moment his words hung in the air, and then I said, “Gary, I’m sorry, I think I just need to weep.”I put my face in my hands and let emotion have its way.
The entire room had gone very quiet. Gary sat on the chair opposite and simply responded, “It’s okay, we all weep.” The grace and miracle-working goodness of God cannot be denied in these settings. When you observe a village of healthy, robust, joyful children, from newborns and toddlers to high school age and beyond, and then consider that these children were once abandoned or dis- carded or tragically orphaned, it is deeply overwhelming. To hold a chubby, smiling baby and then be told, “This little one was found in a public pit-latrine toilet” will render any caring heart speechless. If anything this side of eternity is a shadow of heaven’s amazing grace, this ministry is.
It was in this context that my heart and mind were with my sisters. As I sat in the darkness of my study in Sydney, I found myself imagining a precious African sister in heaven, her life cut short because of disease or neglect. And then, as strange as this may sound, it felt as if I suddenly heard her speak from eternity, asking “Who will take care of my babies?”
Death is merely a transition from this life to the next. Perhaps heaven opened my ears to hear the conversation; perhaps a young woman was being ushered into heaven and her first question was:“But Lord, who will take care of my babies? Who will watch over my children?” God wasn’t joking when He dropped those words about orphans to rescue into my spirit on that Italian coastline.
God was again highlighting what He needed from us—a host of willing women who would care for sisters that they may never meet this side of eternity, a host of women who would care for their left- behind babies as though they were their very own.
A Constant Reminder
As a constant reminder of these words, I have in my office a framed image that I shot from the car window as we traversed the dusty Kampala traffic. It’s a photo of a Ugandan woman—it’s hard to judge her age because trauma takes its toll, but she is possibly in her early thirties. She is in a rusty old wheelchair, almost antique in style. She doesn’t look well; she has a baby on her lap and she is holding her head in an attitude of despair.
As my world fleetingly passed hers, I captured her world, albeit in a photo. Above the haunting image now hanging on my wall, I wrote those same words: “Who will take care of my babies?” Alongside is another image, of forty-two baby footprints (printed on gift cards that I purchased) from a clinic in Kampala where abandoned babies were brought. One day in eternity, an angel may well introduce us to a beautiful woman who lost her battle with HIV/AIDS—and perhaps the angel will tell us that it was this woman’s child we helped, her child we supported, her child we made our own through collaboration with our girlfriends. Now, won’t that be a grand and glorious moment? I hope they have Kleenex tissues in heaven.
Rats, Rebels, and Child Soldiers
So you may well ask, “Bobbie, where do rats, rebels, stilettos, and an odd-sounding cleavage-seed offering come into the picture?”
The two years that frame these random statements were 2007 and 2008. We had outgrown our own facilities and “the troops”were graduating into Sydney’s largest indoor venue, seating twenty thousand in its raw state. The women in our nation took up the challenge and turned up in force, with the venue sold out weeks in advance. Marilyn was again among our speakers. By this time, our collaborative efforts had graduated from building houses for the orphans and widows in Kampala to ventures into the northern regions of Uganda where a fierce civil war had been raging for more than twenty years, with an evil warlord ravaging the land and the people. Joseph Kony’s strategy for war was the brutal abduction of children. The child soldiers of northern Uganda had appeared on the radar of the world, and God was sending many, including the Skinners (and the Sisterhood), into the fray to face the ongoing aftermath.
I was aware of the problem, and as a church we had committed to provide financial help for the Skinners to take their much- needed ministry into the war-affected region. I also knew the Sisterhood was still within a unique season, where God was awakening, stretching, and breaking our hearts for the plight of those less fortunate, and it was in this context that I found myself preparing for Colour. As I did, I stumbled across a 2006 documentary titled ‘Invisible Children’, directed by Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole, American teenagers who had captured the reality of the lost children and the horrific situation on our beloved Uganda’s borders.
Brian and I had recently commenced a renovation to our home, so we had moved into a little holiday cabin out by a local river, where I was preparing for the coming conference. It wasn’t grand by any means, literally two tin sheds joined together and converted into a little weekend retreat. It was compact, to say the least, with an outside toilet and shower—a perfect retreat and party house for our growing family and the entire youth group, who loved the semi-camping, wakeboarding river atmosphere. We had moved into this humble setting two weeks prior to Colour and then (of course) Brian had gone away for ten days, so home alone I was.
All was fine except for the occasional movement in the ceiling. I assumed it was simply river wildlife, the odd possum or lizard that takes up residence when a cabin is not occupied. When the pest man visited, I was given fabulous news: “Madam, you don’t just have a few rats in your ceiling . . . you have a kingdom of rats in your ceiling.”
Well I’m no sissy—you’re talking to Warrior Princess Daughter, right? Rats are definitely not my favourite, but what could I do? Brian was away, Colour was bearing down like a baby in a birth canal, and I didn’t have time to be precious. Organize rat bait and let’s be done with the little intruders. What I didn’t realize was that these little critters would take ten days to die—I naively thought they’d take the bait, go in search of water, and die conveniently on the riverbank. But no, no, no! For ten long days and ten long nights this “kingdom of rats” died in my ceiling and paper-thin walls. For ten days I would hear them scuttling, stampeding, and thrashing like madmen around my little cabin. I’d be asleep and then a sudden “rat death roll” next to my pillow would startle me awake.
I came home late one night and slowly opened the cabin door, half expecting a pack of revenge-seeking rats to attack me. In the remoteness of it all, I was so thankful for my two big white fluffy killer Golden Retrievers, who I confess may have been coerced into accompanying me everywhere I went around that little cabin.
In this intense, sleep-depriving setting, I found myself watching ‘Invisible Children’, the thirty-minute documentary that showed the plight of these children who, to escape the threat of night raids and abduction by the rebels, would walk miles from their homes each evening to the township of Gulu and sleep wherever they could find shelter. Amid hundreds of children sleeping practically on top of each other in any public or well-lit space, this film tells the story of two young boys.
The film crew pressed into the darkened, damp corner of a public building and asked two young teenage boys what had happened to them. One of the boys started to tell his story. His brother had been taken captive and his family had been torn apart—and then he paused, and a wave of emotion descended. He began to cry, and his cry became a wail from the very depths of his being—a wail of sorrow, pain, and loss, a gut-wrenching wail of deepest, deepest despair. The film crew went silent. When silence needed to give way to compassion, one of the interviewers leaned over and said: “It’s okay, Jacob, it’s okay, it’s okay.”
As I write this, I find my own emotions raw again. In our media- instant world, we are often exposed to suffering. Tsunamis and earthquakes, war and devastation are a constant on our television screens, but it’s not often we are exposed to the traumatic cry of the human heart—and when we are, all the dynamics change! As I sat alone in my remote little rat-infested cabin, watching this film again and again and again, I found myself weeping again and again and again for these children. At times I found myself on the floor, overwhelmed with grief for the injustice and insanity of it all.
Dilemma and Quandary
Perhaps it was a good thing that Brian was away and that only Jesus (and the rats) witnessed the breaking happening within my heart. But now I was in a dilemma. I was deeply aware, I had crossed yet another line in the sand, and I couldn’t deny their lives by turning my face away. Every fibre within me wanted to show this film at Colour within our special Sisterhood sessions. I wanted to share this film and I wanted the women to hear this young boy’s lament.
To this end I found myself praying, “Father, should I show this? Lord, I don’t want to be dramatic . . . the women come to Colour to be built up and have a good time . . . Lord, you know we labour hard to make it fun and beautiful…but Lord, this exists…this is terrible…Shall I show it Lord? Is it too much…Will they hear the cry within the cry? Father, I need your wisdom.”
Well, I chose to show it. I relinquished one of my own teaching sessions and factored the film in. I sought permission from the filmmakers and I asked the girls gathered that year to sit back and see a part of the world that, for whatever reason, had come crashing into our heart-view. I guess in some ways it was no different from that Thursday morning in Sydney when several hundred of my girls leant into Mende’s story and were forever changed. However, this time it was on scale. God knew that seventeen thousand of His girls were about to converge on Sydney, and He knew that if He had his way, seventeen thousand girls would then scatter to the four corners of the earth with a new conviction burning in their hearts.
As the film ended, the vast arena lights slowly brought the gathered girls back into view, and what I encountered was insane— an ocean of faces and emotion staring back at me in silence. The entire stadium was raw with awareness and an instinctive desire to do something. I dismissed the arena for a much-needed emotional coffee (and bladder) break. During the break, conversation was measured in my back room. All our hearts had been moved in ways hard to describe. One of my team approached and said that some delegates were asking if we were going to receive an offering for this situation.
Something Needs to Be Done
To be honest, I couldn’t have agreed more that something needed to be done—but I had a conviction regarding the raising of money and the receiving of offerings at my conference. Colour gathers women from practically every denomination in the Body of Christ, and our chosen ethos is that we will not receive “cause-driven offerings” but will instead create strategies where the girls can return home to their own settings and mobilize response from there.
In this way, I feel we are respecting the vision and mission-giving of the many different churches represented. As a senior pastor, I never want to usurp vision that belongs elsewhere, and as a leader in our own nation my desire is to inspire women to involvement and possibilities in their own churches and communities. But having said that, we do feel that part of our mandate is to create ideas for those lacking in vision or strategy.
So while I was in agreement that we must do something, I was also in a quandary. I hadn’t wept in that cabin and then shown this pressing need for no reason. Yet again, a quiet prayer went heavenward; it was a moment to declare complete and utter dependence upon God.
Bobbie, What Are You Doing?
We came back into the next session, where one of my guest speakers was scheduled to teach and a short creative piece was in play before I introduced her. As I sat waiting, a strange thing happened. I suddenly felt compelled to open my purse and take out two fifty-dollar bills. I hurriedly stuffed them down my bra. I think someone along the row looked at me as if to say, What are you doing? I had a vague inkling that maybe I should receive a cause-driven offering for Marilyn and the region, but I wasn’t exactly sure…When in doubt, trust and obey.
After my guest had spoken, I addressed the women. “So, girls, regarding the film we just saw, do you think we should help?” I could see girls nodding in agreement. I then said, “So do you think we should receive an offering?” I’d never done this before, but maybe this need demanded an exception. Surely we couldn’t stand by, observe this despair, hear that cry, and not respond—the faces of those staring at me were obviously keen.
“Okay, let’s prepare something. Everyone, if you can and if you want, prepare an offering.” I pulled out the cash I had stashed down my bra, and then in all honesty God completely took over. I’m seriously not clever enough to have preconceived this moment—it was the strategic direction and urging of His Spirit. I stood there with my dollar bills scrunched in my hand and said:
“Okay, girls…do you have something to give?”
“Yes” was the overwhelming response.
“So, girls . . . what you are offering is for this need, right?”“Yes!”
“So, what’s in your hand, it’s an offering. You’re giving it, right?”
I could see them leaning forward as if to say, What is she doing? Why is she repeating the question?
“So again, girls . . . what’s in your hand is for these children, this need? It’s not yours, you’re giving it?”
“Yes, yes, yes, Bobbie!!!”
“Okay, here’s the deal . . . I’m not receiving it!”
Whoa. You could have heard a pin drop. “I’m not receiving it, girls…Many of you are desperate to make a difference in the world…You are desperate to help…but some of you feel so incapable. You feel like you have so little in your hand to offer . . . Well, we’re not receiving this offering because God is giving this back to you as seed to grow.”
Oh my goodness—in that split second of God-only genius, seventeen thousand feminine hearts were suddenly empowered with a choice and a challenge from above. It was as though the Lord said, “Okay, my darlings. Here is seed, go grow it into something totally miraculous.”
In retrospect, I think some may have fainted on the spot—it was a daunting suggestion. For some, it may have been easier to pop something into the offering container that day and feel— correctly—that they had contributed to a pressing need. And if they had done that, it would have been noble and beautiful, but Father God was after more. He was seeking not merely to gather and equip, He was seeking to mobilize His daughters into a force— a force that most of us didn’t have a clue we could be, a force also that would facilitate confidence and personal fulfillment. I was intentionally pedantic (and repetitive) about what they held in their hand, because it was actually commissioned money they were now tucking back into their wallets or purses (or bras).
What transpired is that many—not all, of course, but many— walked away from the day and took up the challenge. I know of girls who put their thinking caps on, gathered their friends, and grew their seed into amounts they never would have imagined possible.
Four Anglican housewives sat on the floor in the arena hallway after that session. They had no idea what they could do, but they were willing to give it a shot. One of them, Megan, told me she had fifty dollars in her hand and would have been content to give it. She and her friends, however, went on to rally their husbands, their church, and their world of influence—they hosted a gala function and grew their seed into a miraculous $120,000.
Another young girl in the ocean of seventeen thousand faces went home to America. She shared the need with her pastor, who then rallied his church to get on board. That church went on to donate $100,000 to the work of helping these children and the people in that region. The stories are many and varied, and I feel it not inappropriate to say that possibly millions of dollars were raised because God’s Spirit laid out a challenge and, more importantly, a strategy.
The miracle is definitely that a wave of financial response enabled Watoto to make huge inroads into northern Uganda, but the greater miracle is perhaps what happened in the hearts of willing women who allowed their lives and capacity to be stretched. We were in some ways lovingly tricked by the Spirit of God into discovering there is more within us than we realize—many of us had talents, gifts, and entrepreneurial skills that lay untapped till that year. Years down the track, He lovingly tricked us again with coins and a little lime-coloured tin—but I’ll save that story for another time.
What transpired in what we affectionately now call “the cleavage offering” is one of the sweetest memories and a testimony to what God’s girls can accomplish with just a little bit of encouragement. Proverbs 31 speaks of an entrepreneurial woman who observes new fields and then applies her hand. What was becoming remarkably obvious is that the genius of God, plus an ear to His direction and leading, is indeed capable of fantastic things. I will confess that when I dismissed the venue for a morning tea break, I sat down on the edge of the stage trembling—the rats and rebels, intercession, and sleepless nights had all been for a purpose.
I often say to our team that it is not simply about applying good ideas to the cause at hand, because the world is full of good ideas. Good ideas often work, but what we need are the “God ideas”—the divinely inspired strategies that enable strategic inroads into His purposes. God has strategies for all of us, strategies in our personal lives and strategies for the harvest at hand.
I want to encourage you personally. Your personal challenges are as important as the challenge of the killing fields of northern Uganda or anywhere else in the world. As much as God has strategies of intervention and rescue for the beloved orphans and victims in Uganda, He also has strategies of intervention and rescue for you. Your marriage or family situation is important to Him; your career challenge or health issue is not on the bottom shelf of importance. I want to encourage you to turn your heart and ear heavenward and believe that God’s Spirit is well able to help you. If you haven’t opened the Word for a while, open it and trust Him to give you direction.
Those of you who were around for the “cleavage challenge” will remember these years with affection. If you and your friends turned your seed into something more, well done and congratulations— and if you didn’t, there is honestly no condemnation. We’re all in this together, and the most important thing is that God is always trying to teach us that there is more within us than we realize.
That year, rats in a tin-shed cabin and rebels in a faraway land coloured my own personal reality. As a Sisterhood, we were only just entering the war zone of northern Uganda, and many of us were about to experience things that were a far cry from our everyday lives, but in the exposure to such things lay a ripple effect of fruitfulness . . . hundredfold fruitfulness if God could have His way.
Stampeding stilettos still awaited us, as did other fields, other war zones, and a myriad of other miraculous stories.