Save Africa's Kids Now
updated 12/05/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 12/05/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST
The Russells have come to Africa with other families from their Los Angeles church to put into practice the teachings of their pastor, Bishop Charles Blake. From his pulpit at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ—a congregation of 22,000 faithful, including some of the most famous names in Hollywood (see box)—Blake is the driving force behind Save Africa's Children, a program he started in 2001 to secure futures for the more than 12 million African youths who have lost a parent in the AIDS pandemic. "African-Americans must be for Africa what Jewish-Americans have been for Israel," he says.
Blake's call for action is hitting home: Donors to his cause have given more than $4 million to 320 facilities for orphans in Africa, and last summer Blake and 40 congregants toured a dozen such sites in Zambia, South Africa and Kenya. "After my mother died, I was abandoned," 15-year-old Kosiya Pakalli tells them during a stop in Zambia's capital, Lusaka. "I begged for my food and slept in the gutter." After four years on the street, Pakalli now lives in tidy cinder block barracks at Lazarus Project, a privately run refuge that has received $10,000 from SAC. Pakalli tells the bishop he hopes one day to be a doctor. "And I say, thank you for that dream," he says.
As Blake and his group drive through the city, visiting areas far from the typical tourist zone, street kids approach their cars, selling trinkets, fruit, even live rabbits. "These children are as precious as the children of the President of the United States or the Queen of England," he says, his voice a thoughtful whisper compared to the booming magnetism that packs the pews back in L.A. One group of street kids runs away as Blake steps out of his car, apparently intimidated by the imposing visitor and his entourage of supporters. But 58-year-old Dorothy Chipetah invites him into her one-room home. On a battered couch under a lone bare bulb, she talks of her three adult children, all dead from AIDS. She is now the sole caretaker of seven grandchildren. "What will happen if I die?" she asks, gripping Blake's hand. "My children will be in the streets."
Blake consoles her, shares a prayer, then finds a way to lighten the mood by asking her to show him her garden. "Are these collards?" he asks as his eyes fall on something familiar. "Well, will you look at that!" But the next day, outside a tin-walled daycare center in South Africa, Blake seems at a loss to hide his dismay at the conditions around him. Children mine a garbage pile for food, and many of the adults nearby, although it is not yet noon, are clearly drunk. "There's nothing for these people," he says. "Nothing. Not even hope."
Half a world away from home, Blake is flashing the fire that made him an L.A. institution. Raised in San Diego, he is a second-generation minister who, as a 16-year-old, badgered his father into allowing him to give his first sermon. After college, Blake attended a seminary in Atlanta during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. As student body president, he led fellow seminarians to the march on Selma. "We were met by the sheriff and the sheriff's dogs, and I thought I was going to die," he recalls. "But that's something I was willing to do." Back in California, he was appointed pastor of West Angeles, then a congregation of just 50, in 1969.
Blake says his first trip to Africa in 1989, to visit a pastor he had met in L.A., was transforming: "It was like I'd come home. I discovered that we did not just arrive here on earth in the Americas." Since that trip Blake, his wife, Mae, and their three children have continually looked to Africa for what he calls "personal revolution"—a reminder of life's challenges and rewards beyond the comforts of home. After forming SAC with a $1 million donation by congregant Denzel Washington, Blake put a call out to thousands of the nation's African-American churches. "I asked for money to send to Africa's children," he says. "I told them we could not ask anybody else until we showed we had done the best within the black community."
Along a dusty African road, Blake reaches a tenement complex near Johannesburg that shelters 30,000 transients. There, 73-year-old Caroline Mabunda ushers Blake into her school. "When I came here, this was a terrible place, not for children," she says, proudly presenting her 116 students. "But now look." A retired teacher, Mabunda was walking her grandchildren to school one morning several years ago when she noticed a group of street kids silently following her with their eyes. "I realized they were envying my little ones," she explains. "It touched me." From that beginning emerged an elementary school that Mabunda supported entirely with money from her monthly teacher's pension—and now with funds from Blake's followers. "My little pension, it just stretched," she tells Blake. "I don't know how, I really don't know how."
Her words inspire him. On his last night in South Africa, Blake is the guest speaker at a gathering of 5,000 people, many of whom have walked miles to hear him. He preaches a message of cooperation, of people walking together toward mutual salvation. "African-Americans are drifting aimlessly. We are confronted by crime and delinquency," he says. "I feel that our redemption will be to connect with our African brothers and sisters. To connect with them in a way that will lift and help not only Africa—but ourselves."
Champ Clark in Africa