I've seen famine before. I've been in Sudan and Ethiopia, and witnessed skeletons walking. But this time it is different because I am witnessing the beginning of a famine, and I know what is coming.
In Zimbabwe, I met with hundreds of people who told me they have nothing to eat. It's not even as if it were possible to go and buy food. In six of the countries of southern Africa, there is almost nothing left to purchase outside of the major cities.
The official figures issued by the United Nations inform us that 14 million people may go hungry. Millions could die during this famine. Witnessing its beginnings made me realize just how terrifying the situation is for the churches in these countries.
In Malawi, I met with the senior church leaders of all the major denominations. They told me they desperately need help before it is too late. Last year's poor harvest led to starvation for many, but this year's harvest was far worse.
In Zimbabwe, the drought wiped out a promising harvest, leaving people with nothing. The church is the only institution that exists in every village and community. These churches are ideally placed to help their people but have nothing to offer.
At this vulnerable time, southern Africa's Christians are enduring not only immense physical and emotional trauma, but also a monumental spiritual struggle. Several pastors told me that Muslims and cults from outside the region are offering food to hungry families willing to convert to their faith. Think about that--starving Christians in southern Africa are converting to Islam because Muslims are promising food to keep them alive.
I met a Muslim grandmother in Malawi. She was sitting with five of her grandchildren. All three sets of their parents had tragically died from AIDS.
"We are only alive because of the church," she told me. It's a little Baptist church that has practically nothing, but they've given all they can to try to support this family and others like them. She affirmed that the church was the only hope for her family's survival, and then, amazingly, she asked me to pray for her.
"Please pray that I may have eternal life. Please also pray that I may live long enough to keep the children alive."
On behalf of evangelical churches in the United States, World Relief is responding to the crisis in southern Africa, delivering food to our hungry brothers and sisters, and working with local churches to distribute food to their needy communities. We have a unique opportunity--and a massive responsibility. One Episcopal priest, surrounded by some 50 children in a school we had enabled him to build, pointed his finger at me and said, "In three month's time, Clive, these children will be dead unless you do something!"
That's the burden I bear today. Our brothers and sisters need our help. I don't want to face the indictment in heaven of a brother or sister standing next to me, asking why I stood by and watched them die.
I leave the last word for Sara, a mother with five little children whom I met sitting outside her hut in Zimbabwe. Her husband is dead, and she is sick. She is a Christian.
"Please tell my brothers and sisters in America that we do urgently need food. But please tell them not to worry if they can't help at the moment, because the Lord will provide."
That's the kind of faith that breaks my heart, because I know the Lord provides--but He left us to be His hands and feet here on Earth. Eighty percent of the world's wealth has been entrusted to the people of North America. He gave it to us so that we might prove to be stewards who minister to the needs of His people worldwide.
That is the challenge of this hour. If we fail to meet it, we'll all have blood on our hands. It's the heart-cry of Jesus: "Let My people live."
Clive Calver is president of World Relief. For more information or to contribute to their relief efforts, call (800) 535-LIFE or visit www.worldrelief.org.