I still remember the moment I was glad for social distancing.
I’d been given the news that, as South Africa embarked on its lockdown in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, 9.6 million school children in South Africa would be going without food.
The school feeding scheme in South Africa forms a vital form of social support. For many children in the country, it is the only meal they can reliably look forward to each day.
As a journalist, I had just finished five consecutive interviews with various leaders from civil society. They were desperately concerned about how the children would get through the next few months.
“I am highly and extremely worried about what the kids are eating,” one lady who usually runs a feeding scheme for 150 children in one of Johannesburg’s townships had told me. “And there’s just nothing, absolutely nothing I can do about it.”
After hours of similar conversations, I could hear my voice beginning to crack from emotion. At the end of the last interview, I hung up the phone, put my head into my hands and cried.
It was then that I was glad that for social distancing. In normal times, I would probably have been having that conversation face to face. Crying would have been awkward, to say the least.
At least this way I could sob without being seen.
I felt a mounting sense of heaviness and desperation. How could I sit in my home doing nothing while millions around me were going to bed with empty stomachs? I felt like I needed to do something, and yet, in the circumstances, I did not know what.
And then the text message came.
It was from a sister in my ward, a perennial do-gooder. She told me about an old age home that she had been assisting. The home had permission to remain open during lockdown and was now helping to feed the extra mouths that usually relied on feeding schemes that had been forced to shut. They needed food, and lots of it.
At first, I planned to simply go to my friend’s home and drop off some food donations. But then a thought occurred to me. What if I were to open up my home as a collection point? What if, instead of simply donating to the cause, I created my own “forcefield” of influence?
I created a digital poster for distribution. I double-checked the legality of what I was doing. I collected plastic containers and lined them up outside my gate. Then came the hard part: sending the poster, along for an appeal for help, to my neighborhood WhatsApp group.
There were about 250 participants in the group, and I knew some could be harsh critics. What if they attacked me for suggesting that people leave their homes in order to drop off food? What if I was accused of inadvertently spreading the virus? What if I exposed one of my three young children to COVID-19? To be completely honest, I was terrified.
After re-writing the message about 20 times, with my heart in my throat, I finally pressed send. A few minutes later I received a message from a stranger.
“We would be happy to put a box of food together for you,” he said. “Thank you for this.”
For the second time in a few days, I felt my eyes fill with tears.
The phone calls started shortly thereafter. There were people I had never met who had heard about the project from a friend and wanted to help. Friends—local and international—wanting to transfer cash from afar. A sister from my ward sent a truck from her local wholesaler. And a seemingly unending stream of strangers silently deposited maize meal, rice and canned goods outside my gate.
In the end, I raised R100,000 in cash and food donations. Some sisters from my ward sewed 150 cloth masks. Instead of helping one home, we were able to help three. Hundreds of families were assisted at a time of desperate need thanks to the combination of many small efforts. Galvanized by this experience, my friend went on to organize a nonprofit organization called Bubele (meaning kindness and generosity in Xhosa), helping unemployed people to clean up the city and receive food parcels in return.
What did this experience teach me? It taught me the sacred interlink between faith, hope and charity.
Taking that first step of faith was truly difficult and scary for me. But the result?
A sense that our Heavenly Father knows and is mindful of each one of His children. A greater feeling of love for my fellow men. An ability to better see the potential in everyone around me. An inkling of charity, in the truest sense of the word.
The sweetest part about it, though, was hope. I felt that feeling of despair begin to dissipate. I felt, as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland puts it, that when I when I exercise faith and determination, I can keep moving, keep living, and most importantly, I can keep rejoicing.1