In 1999, Lillian Klepp AKA Mama Lilly heard a speaker at an Aglow Convention talking about the plight of orphans and widows in war-torn South Sudan. That had a very profound effect on her.
The speaker was Caroline Cox and as she spoke about the atrocities going on in the southern region of Sudan and showed horrifying images of women and children being brutalized, Even after the presentation was over and they had left for the day, Lillian could not get those images out of her mind. Later she prayed, asking, “God, what can I do?” And the answer she heard was loud and clear. “Sell everything you have and give to the poor.”
- That had to be quite a surprise. What was your husband’s reaction when you told him what you felt God was asking of you?
- It was, indeed, a surprise, and at first, I had no idea how I was going to tell my husband Dennis about what had happened and what I had heard God instruct me to do. I was home for about a week before I worked up enough courage to tell him about my experience at the conference and when I did, his response was to ask a very pointed question. He wanted to know why, out of the 12,000 women in attendance at that convention, I was the only one to whom God issued that directive. I didn’t have an answer. So I continued to pray about it and ask for God’s guidance and after a while, I began to feel very strongly that we would one day have an orphanage in Sudan. Dennis remained unreceptive at first, so I just continued to pray and fast about it. I knew that if it was God’s will for Dennis and me to go to Sudan, he would change Dennis’s heart. And in the meantime, I read everything I could find about Sudan, learning as much as I could about the area. Of course, the more I read the more I felt the pull to go and see for myself if it was as bad as I’d read and heard. Not long after that, I was given contact information for a person working in the ministry in Sudan and after following through with that, I got a call a few months later telling me I’d been cleared for a visit. Dennis had prior work commitments, but he didn’t mind me going, so I found some friends from my church who were willing to go with me and we headed to Yei, Sudan not knowing how to speak the language or anyone who lived there.
- So by then was Dennis ready to sell everything and move to Sudan?
- A. Not quite. When I returned I knew more than ever that I wanted to be in Sudan building an orphanage and I also knew I needed to start raising funds, so I resigned my position as children’s pastor at our church. Dennis was still struggling with the idea so I kept praying and not too long after that, Dennis began to believe that the Lord really was calling us to go to Sudan. We decided he would go ahead of me and do the preliminary work like finding land for us to build an orphanage on. He left in April 2001 and I followed him there the following June. In the two months before my arrival, Dennis had met with the village elders and they had given us 90 acres of fertile land with teak and mango trees growing on it.
- By then, you were both in your 40s and Dennis had some serious health issues. Most people would be afraid to leave the states under those circumstances, especially because of the health concerns and the unavailability of doctors where you were going. Weren’t you?
- Oh, yes, of course we were concerned. But we also knew that if God was calling us He was going to take care of us. So we stepped out in faith. Over the years, not just since we’ve been in Sudan, but throughout the course of our marriage, we’ve learned that illnesses are opportunities for building our faith, developing perseverance, and demonstrating the power of prayer and God’s healing touch. Don’t get me wrong. Life in Sudan was very difficult for us to adjust to and there were times, especially in the beginning, when we most certainly wanted to feel sorry for ourselves. But God had a way of gently rebuking us and reminding us that he is the faithful one.
- One of the first children who came to you after arriving in South Sudan was little Caleb. Could you tell us about him and what made his story so special?
- A. Not long after we began building our first orphanage a man came to us because he had heard about what we were doing. He brought his newborn baby boy with him and asked us to take the child. We explained that we could not and he thanked us and walked away. A week later he came back. This time the child was wrapped in a piece of torn sheet. He explained that his wife had died during childbirth, that he was out of work and had no money and that the child had been living off sugar water fed from a spoon for the two weeks. I looked at the tiny infant and my heart broke. I knew if we didn’t taken him that he would most certainly die, so I took him from his father and held that sweet nameless baby against my chest as I watched the father walk away. As we took care of the baby, making do with what we had because there was nowhere we could go to get provisions for an infant, Dennis and I began to bond with him. We decided to name him Caleb, after one of the spies that Moses sent to scope out the Promise Land. If you recall the story, you will remember that most of the spies sent out came back with scary stories about giants possessing the land. But not Caleb. He’s the one who said “Let us go at once and possess it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Caleb knew the Lord would help them be conquerors. I always loved that story in the Bible and at the time I felt it represented the faith we were going to need to take care of this tiny infant left in our possession and help us as he grew into a young boy. From the very first day, Dennis and I knew we wanted to make him part of our family, but adoption is frowned upon in Sudan. However, officials eventually recognized that there are literally millions of orphans throughout Sudan left as a result of the war, so we received the blessings and permissions we needed to begin the adoption process and in 2009, we officially adopted Caleb and he became a member of the Klepp family.
For information on sponsoring a child, please visit www.HRTN.org.
Most recently, Lillian has written about the experiences she and Dennis shared in South Sudan in Adventures Under the Mango Tree: A Story of Hope In War-Torn Sudan (Creative Enterprises Studio, 2014). It is available at booksellers throughout the US.
Mama Lilly is available for interviews. Contact Diane Morrow Diane@BarnabasAgency.com