By the age of 32, David Nixon watched as his life spiraled out of control. He had lost his house and was living in his van with a Doberman and a wolf … he was a jobless, absent father who had just ended a 30-day crack binge; he had nothing, writes author John Donnelly. And then Nixon heard the voice of God inside his head. “I am going to save you,” the voice said. During the next several years Nixon rebuilt his life, turning it over to the Lord. Nixon finally knew what God wanted him to do — he was going to build an orphanage for Africa’s AIDS orphans.
Now, in “A Twist of Faith,” veteran reporter Donnelly takes readers across Africa, bringing an on-the-ground look at the thousands of American Christians devoting time, energy and billions of dollars to support African children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. However, he writes, “far too often those heading to Africa are guided by nothing more than their heart.”
It is in the Republic of Malawi in southeast Africa, that Donnelly meets Nixon, the down-and-out carpenter from North Carolina, who, after a religious awakening, leaves home and sets out to build an orphanage. Tracking Nixon’s progress over four years, Donnelly recounts the many mistakes the evangelist made and the lessons he learned while building and running the Nlira-Wanga Orphan Aid Homes, or NOAH. One of Nixon’s biggest obstacles was winning the support of the village chief who openly attempted to sabotage the construction of NOAH. The chief questioned Nixon’s plan to educate only the orphan children and not include the children from the village.
Addressing this question, Donnelly meets with Kerry Olson, founder of the Firelight Foundation, whose philosophy is to support communities by listening to their ideas. Olson tells Donnelly that most community members want to keep the children in the communities — not put them in orphanages or send them overseas for adoption. “No one ever sees the relationship between the child and the loving grandmother,” she says. “But that love means the world to the child, and that should be preserved whenever possible.”
Donnelly learns that the U.S. government actually discourages the building of orphanages in Africa as research has shown that orphanages are not the best way to care for children. Donnelly speaks to others who agree that orphanages create psychological disorders and adjustment issues for children when they eventually re-enter society.
Going beyond faith-based organizations, Donnelly reports on celebrity philanthropists from Oprah Winfrey to Madonna, and questions the good they are doing in Africa. Ultimately, learning to listen to the needs and ideas of the local Malawian villagers, David Nixon did eventually succeed in building NOAH, now a school and feeding center that serves 350 local orphans. According to Donnelly, Nixon’s story is repeated hundreds of times every day throughout Africa: Americans trying to do good in a place nothing like home. For Nixon, being in Malawi not only allowed him to save souls, but the experience allowed him to save his own soul.
This is a story told with great honesty and respect, both honoring the central role of faith in inspiring compassionate action and sharing the hard lessons to be learned when the best of intentions go awry. Ultimately a story of hope and a call to informed action, “A Twist of Faith” is highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to serve God’s most vulnerable children. — Reviewed by Richard Fischer