The stories of African orphans – written by the missionary who befriended them 13 years ago – are rare, raw, real accounts of their lives they thought nobody cared to read or hear about. For others who’ve been abused and rejected, their pain is still too difficult to share – even with the woman some have called “mama Becky” for over a decade. For the author and her spiritual children, writing their memoirs validated lives marked by purpose and destiny.
A prestigious group of Christian leaders agreed at its recent convention, bestowing an award on the author who earned the trust of boys, girls, young men and women whose stories she’s privileged to tell in heartbreaking detail on their journeys to discovery of personal value and worth.
The orphans’ stories of abandonment and suffering, along with tales of their heroic supporters, recently received First Place-honors among writers and speakers, including renowned worship leader Michael W. Smith at a ceremony in Tennessee.
No longer nameless and faceless, the children and young adults are honored with publication of their memoirs in “A Bruised Reed,” the title of the winning book, and a term the prophet Isaiah used to describe God’s care for broken people.
“I know you bore your souls in hopes that other children will be spared some of the pain you went through,” author Becky Spencer wrote, dedicating the memoirs to more than a dozen young men she first me in 2006 on a mission trip to Swaziland, Africa.
“To those of you whose pain was still too raw to voice it, we will be here for you when you’re ready,” Spencer told the young adult men who banded together as boys to survive unimaginable suffering and terror as orphans.
The book of memoirs, which earned the Golden Scroll Award at the Advanced Writers and Speakers Association (ASWA) annual gathering, highlights the men helped by the ministry Spencer co-founded with her husband, Tracy.
“A Bruised Reed” also chronicles the lives of girls and boys rescued from hunger, abuse and rape, and their welcome at a care home the Spencers’ non-profit, Grand Staff Ministries (GSM), built in Swaziland with funds from donors in the United States.
For her advocacy on behalf of widows and orphans, Spencer is known as “The Fight Lady” among Christian leaders, including New York Times bestselling author Eric Wilson, who praised “A Bruised Reed.”
“These pages brim with the hope of transformation and the honesty of hardship and heartache,” said Wilson, author of Fireproof, October Baby and Samson, in endorsing the memoirs. “You cannot help but be encouraged, challenged and inspired.”
The acclaimed worship leader was awarded the Golden Scroll Lifetime Achievement Award for his distinguished service in ministry with Spencer and other winners. As honored guest, Smith led worship and appeared in a group photograph with the authors, including Spencer on Aug. 28 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee near Nashville. Several literary genres were represented, and plaques were given to first- and second-place winners.
Her third trip this year to Eswatini – the country changed its name last April – didn’t end with needed rest for Spencer at home in Buhler, Kansas after six weeks of ministry in Africa. There, the Spencers met ministry partners, visited the home, feeding kitchen and preschool GSM oversees, and traveled to the homesteads of children whose education is funded by American sponsors.
Instead of returning to her home, Spencer booked a flight to Nashville at the behest of writer and speaker, Linda Evans Shepherd, who said the missionary/author’s book impressed literary judges. Shepherd, the AWSA founder, presented an award for the memoirs, just like the story of the abused girl Spencer had visited days before in Eswatini.
It’s that reward – rescuing children – Spencer strives for. “I’m grateful Jesus lets me be part of what He’s doing. All the praise goes to Him. If there’s any crown for me, I will joyfully fling it at His feet, for He deserves the glory,” Spencer said.
One rescued treasure is now shining. The girl – withdrawn, hungry and neglected like many orphans – was taken to safe haven at Shepherd’s Care Home, where she celebrated one year of loving family nurture this August.
“What really brought home the fact that she’s thriving in our care home is the response of a pastor who had not seen her for a year,” Spencer said after receiving the award. “She ran up to Pastor Walter (Mgodlola), threw her arms around him, and hugged his wife too.
“He acknowledged she was thriving physically, emotionally, spiritually and emotionally in our care,” Spencer said. “We are just so, so grateful for what God is doing.”
Like the girl’s amazing transformation, Thabisa and Nomsa are treasures discovered in deep spiritual darkness, children who are beginning to flourish in the light of Shepherd’s Care Home.
Here is Spencer’s account – one of 18 or so memoirs – told by children rescued from horrific conditions:
“Seven-year-old Thabisa’s heart pounded when she heard the key rattle in the lock of the front door. She hurried through the dark one-room house to her little sister, Nomsa, hoping to keep the four-year-old quiet when their dad burst through the door.
“But she needn’t have worried. Nomsa was limp, too weak to rise from the dirty foam mattress she was lying on. The girls had been out of food for days now, locked inside with no way to beg for help from a neighbor. People had quit listening to their cries a long time ago, avoiding the stench of their waste that permeated the air around their mud and stick building.
“Thabisa cringed at the sound of her father’s footsteps. Her body went numb at the sound of his belt sliding through the loops of his pants. His abuse was worse than being alone and hungry. He slowly unzipped his pants and reached for Thabisa. She had no energy to fight back, no will to resist him when he called for her to come closer.
“Didn’t anyone outside the locked door know what was happening to Thabisa and Nomsa? Couldn’t anyone help before he used them again?
Heartbreaking as the story is, there are other tales like it but, at least, these girls are safe.
Other lives, like Colani Mncube’s, now shine, thanks to care from spiritual and financial supporters in America like Penny Takeda, whose support predates GSM’s ministry in Eswatini. Mncube is a diamond treasure- albeit an older one – of Takeda’s and GSM’s mining for precious lives in Eswatini’s shadows.
“GSM changed my life in a very big way,” said Mncube. “I have been to school and have a degree today through Grand Staff (and Takeda), and I am forever grateful for that.”
The Spencers met Mncube on one of their early trips to Swaziland, and supported a ministry that housed and fed him and other orphans. When the leader lost integrity with Tracy and Becky, they continued relationship with Mncube and his friends, even providing financial support for college- and vocational-training for them. Today, Mncube remains close to the Spencers, and is considered an asset to GSM.
In words he shared with Spencer, Mncube recounts some of his life without loving care from adults.
“I know what it’s like to be hungry.
“My parents and grandparents died, and I was living in the streets of Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland. I was not quite seven-years-old.
“Each day was spent trying to get food. There was no fun. No games. No baths. No tooth-brushing. No school.
“I stayed together with five other little boys. They became like a family to me. We all shared whatever we had – food, clothing given to one of us by a Good Samaritan, money. All six of us shared one blanket. I can still remember curling up into a tight ball so I wouldn’t use up more than my share of the blanket during cold nights.
“We relieved ourselves in bushes around town since we had no toilet.
“We also slept in bushes around town. At one point, we managed to put together a little shack from cardboard, plastic, and wood. But when it rained, the primitive hut provided no shelter. We had to walk into the downtown area, where we hid in the shop verandas. Night security guards treated us like garbage, berating us for being in town during late hours and beating us.
“In the mornings, we would split up to increase our chances of someone finding piece jobs to do to try to get some food. On good days, I could convince a vendor on the street to allow me to carry large crates of produce, sweep the sidewalk, or do other jobs in exchange for one piece of fruit.
“Sometimes I stole food from street vendors. I would pretend I was just passing by, but I was really eyeing the food to make a plan about what I would quickly take. Maybe a piece of fruit or a vegetable, maybe a King’s pie pastry, or maybe even an ear of maize roasting over a slow fire. As soon as I thought the vendor wasn’t paying attention, I would grab the food and run away with it as quickly as I could.
“At first, my heart would beat fast and my hands would sweat with the fear of being caught. But soon it became a big challenge to get away with the theft. If the vendor caught me, I was beaten. The punishment was worth the food. I never felt guilty. I was so hungry and had no one to take care of me.
Mncube recalled one of the darkest days, and the saddest:
“Sometimes people would beat me and my friends in the streets. Men also tried to sodomize me and the other guys. I learned to run very fast. One of the five boys was caught by a man who succeeded in sodomizing him. The boy received injuries from the attack, but we couldn’t take him to the doctor. The sores got infected, and he ran a fever. He died a few weeks later.
“Losing my brother was the saddest experience of my life.
“One of the worst memories is something that happened to be personally. It was winter, and I was downtown looking for bread or potato chips late at night. I was distracted by the sound of tire blowing out, resulting in the driver running into the car in front of him.
“After watching a few minutes, I heard a man calling to me to come across the street. Since I was used to begging for food and money, I wasn’t concerned; I hoped to receive some help from this man.
“As I neared his car, he told me he had some clothes for me in the his boot (trunk). I smiled and moved closer. Very few people were downtown at that time of night, and those gathered were still watching the scene of the accident.
“The man opened the boot but, instead of pulling out clothes for me, he grabbed me by the arms and dragged me quickly across the rough pavement, injuring my back.
“He bundled me up in the boot and drove away with me. I screamed loudly, but no one answered. I could hear other cars passing by and horns honking now and then. The smell of petrol burning pressed down on me, and the blanket wrapped around my face became damp with my breath.
“I was terrified. My heart was a big lump in my throat and, after screaming so much, I had trouble swallowing past the rawness. As we drove further from town, I worried about my friends who would wonder where I was that night. I tried not to think about my family or if any aunts or uncles who were still living would ever know what happened to me.
“Fear tortured me as we left the sounds of the city and traffic. When the car finally stopped, I heard the man slam his car door. The smell of cigarette smoke drifted into the boot, and I screamed again, gasping for air as my terror nearly suffocated me. But their was no one to hear my cries.
“Finally, my abductor opened the trunk. He unwrapped the blanket from my squirming body, managing to keep his hold on me the whole time. When my head was free from the blanket, I saw that he had a large knife in one hand. I knew he was going to murder me.
“He dragged me out of the boot, using one hand to hold me and the other to keep his knife ready. When he told me to pull down my pants, I knew that what he planned to do to me would be worse than death.
“My voice was raspy, nearly nothing left after screaming for so long. But I struggled to make noise and kept wrestling away as much as my shaking body allowed.
“I don’t know if I prayed, but suddenly the sound of his cell phone ringing cut through the night. While he juggled to answer it, I managed to bite him with all my strength. He lost his grip on me, and I took off running through the trees and bushes. He came after me, but all those years of running from the street vendors and police gave me an advantage. I outran him.”
“It just seemed like I could never get full.”
Mncube has worked for GSM in recent years, and may rejoin the staff at Shepherd’s Care Home.
The home, along with a feeding kitchen, preschool and church located on donated land, is supervised by GSM staff and parents. It is administered by GSM’s board of directors in the states, with funding from generous donors. The church meets in the dining area of the feeding kitchen – and may soon outgrow it.
Twenty-seven children and one adult recently received Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior at the church, Shepherd’s Care.
Currently, nine children are nurtured at Shepherd’s Care Home, with 11 more homes to follow the first. Love for abused children, food for bloated bellies, and truth about the Good Shepherd are staples of the ministry. As needed funds become available, an elementary school is planned for the site.
As the fight lady – she relies on Isaiah 58 and James 1:28 in defense of widows and orphans as pure and undefiled religion – Spencer writes that political and religious leaders in Eswatini bear some guilt for abuses of children. She uncovers the misdeeds of a pastor, who used donated funds for personal gain, rather than for food to fill hungry bellies.
One of the abused is a 14-year-old girl who this year moved to Shepherd’s Care Home from a homestead where other siblings, including twins, are slaves to their grandmother or “gogo” in the Siswati language. With difficulty, the gogo manages nine other kids orphaned by their parents, or through intentional abandonment.
“Tema came to us three months ago,” Spencer said. “The twins are nine but don’t look like it. They look like they’re five or six. So it’s obvious they’re under a lot of oppression,” Spencer said.
At Shepherd’s Care Home, house parents and ministry partners oversee the welfare of children, and monitor the progress at home and in Christian schools of others whose education is funded by GSM donors.
During six weeks in Eswatini this summer, Spencer said: “We were able to hire new house parents, a smart couple (Good Enough and Mbali). They’ve worked with kids for years. Both are excellent with children. The kids just absolutely fell in love with them.”
Besides a husband and wife ministry-partner, GSM also recently welcomed a volunteer from Kenya to help with kids struggling in school, and with a deaf boy who has learned to write his name, letters and numbers with help from the young female tutor.
By the end of October, construction of an upstairs office and apartment for the ministry should be completed. A generous partner, who has provided loving financial, emotional and spiritual care to orphans for many years, bought two all-wheel drive vehicles this summer to navigate the hilly terrain surrounding Shepherd’s Care Home.
“On this trip, what we kept seeing – even when we had innumerable challenges – was the hand of God…every single thing….it looked impossible but God made a way. Just favor, favor, favor. The time was so limited but He just paved the way over and over and over again.
“We are really full,” Spencer said, adding GSM is planning to open the elementary school by January 2021.
Like with her research for the book, Spencer boned up on facts about Swaziland before traveling to it the first time but, once there, she relied heavily on the first-hand narrative of a pastor from the United Kingdom.
Kevin Ward had served Swaziland as a missionary for several decades when the Spencers showed up in 2006 and, among other things, he shared the following facts with them, which were updated for publication in “A Bruised Reed:”
Swaziland is the last absolute monarchy in the world. The king, Mswati III, has reigned since 1986. There are about one million people in the kingdom.
Surrounded by South Africa on the north, south, west, and by Mozambique on the east, Swaziland is the size of Vermont. It is a country of cool mountains and hot, dry valleys.
The country is a polygamous society. Many times when a man brings home a second wife, the first one abandons the family for another man, leaving her kids with a woman who doesn’t love them or want them. The sense of abandonment and rejection is overwhelming.
Swaziland has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world. Because of the lowered immune defenses from that disease, Swazis also have more tuberculosis than any other country.
Almost two-thirds of all deaths in Swaziland are caused by HIV/AIDS. Almost half of all deaths of children five years and younger are caused by the disease. And more than one-third of tested pregnant women are HIV positive, leaving infants at high risk for the disease.
Statistics on HIV/AIDS are based on those who actually get screened. However, a huge stigma remains, and many individuals haven’t been screened. Experts there believe up to half the population has HIV/AIDS.
There’s a pervasive myth that having sex with a virgin cures AIDS.
Another biblical theme for GSM is Matthew 25, where Jesus talks in verse 32 about nations represented by sheep and goats, identifying them as people who provided food, drink, clothes, shelter and care to those sick, in prison, and marginalized in society. “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the lease of these, My brethren, you did it to Me,” Jesus told his disciples. (NASB).
“We had a vision of the orphaned, abandoned, and vulnerable children in Swaziland, so much like little lost lambs. And we knew that the Good Shepherd’s staff was grand enough – great enough – to meet every need.
“But His plan was to do it through people.
“Through me, and through you,” said Spencer, a musician and former school teacher, who adopted four children into the family of four biological sons and daughters.
Like with its thrift boutique in Kansas, which is a source of revenue for GSM in Africa, proceeds from sales of “A Bruised Reed” will help fund continued outreach and ministry growth in Eswatini. The book is available for purchase at grandstaffministries.com and on its Facebook page. The Grand Staff Thrift Boutique and Bed and Breakfast, a personal business, are on Facebook as well.