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no greater LOVE
By Levi Benkert Candy Chand
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Levi Benkert and Candy Chand
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLABUK, ETHIOPIA: APRIL 7, 2009
THE EARLY MORNING FOG hovered over the grass huts scattered along the Omo River.
In the distance a few women ventured out, gathering sticks to build a fire. Soon the scorching sun would burn across the sky, baking everyone and everything in its path. For the most part the little village was peaceful, except for one small hut where a young woman was giving birth.
But this was not a joyous occasion.
Inside the hut, the distraught woman struggled through labor, knowing that when the baby was born, there would be no celebration. She understood that the events following this birth—like others before—would haunt her forever.
* * *
"It's a girl." The young woman's husband spoke, if only in a whisper, as he held his tiny infant for the first time. While he used a sharp rock to cut the umbilical cord, his wife's tears flowed freely, running down her cheeks to the dirt floor.
"Take her away," she pleaded, refusing to look into the eyes of her newborn child. "I don't want to see her!" she cried, gesturing frantically toward the low opening in the hut.
Placing a small cloth over the infant's face, the baby's father made his way outside. Crouching in the fierce heat of the morning sun, the man scratched his fingers into the dirt, spit into his hand, and rolled together a small handful of claylike substance.
Brushing the cloth from his daughter's face, he looked into her eyes—for just a moment. The muscles inside him tightened. Shutting off all natural instincts, he methodically followed his well-thought-out plan. Tilting the infant's head back, he opened her mouth and fed her a handful of dirt.
Then, laying her in the dust, he rose to his feet and reentered the hut, leaving his daughter to die alone.
He didn't look back, determined not to watch the helpless babe struggle for breath while the life drained from her tiny body. He knew from experience that within a few moments, it would all be over.
But this time was different.
Unlike thousands of children before her, on this day, for this child, death was not to be.
* * *
SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA: FEBRUARY, 2009
I promise, I never saw it coming. I was in Northern California unwinding the final shreds of my failing real estate development company.
"Don't go too far without me," I called to my children, who were making their way down the sidewalk leading to the park. We'd moved into the downtown neighborhood—a project I had developed—only three months earlier, and we were just settling in.
"Hurry up!" eight-year-old Nickoli called out, as he danced from foot to foot on the newly laid sidewalk.
"I'm coming! I'm coming!" I snapped, a bit harsher than I would have liked. I had always prided myself on being a good dad. I'd even been interviewed in the newspaper as a young entrepreneur who successfully balanced work and family. But lately, I found it difficult to be mentally present.
I knew the distance that was growing between my family and me was wrong. It killed me every time I thought about it, but the truth was, no matter how badly I wanted to be with my kids, I was preoccupied with my deteriorating business. Everything was falling apart, and the fact that I was failing as a father seemed to pale in comparison with the threat of bankruptcy and the need to lay off employees who'd given everything they had to make the company viable. The dreams I once had for an environmentally friendly urban village, blossoming from blight, were turning into a nightmare of epic proportions.
Over the past four years, I'd seen my development business go from one secretary, who worked out of my garage, to a successful company with fourteen full-time staff and more than a hundred consultants and contract employees. I was heralded as one of the youngest and most successful businessmen in the city, often asked to speak at conferences and events about my thoughts on the market and how I'd become so successful by the age of twenty-six.
Then, with the collapse of the real estate market, I watched the entire business crumble and evaporate to nearly nothing.
The crash had done more than wipe me out financially. It had wiped me out emotionally. I was tired. Tired of putting everything I had into something that was not working. I was tired of stealing time from my three kids, of asking my wife, Jessie, to endure another late night alone while I stood in front of another planning commission pleading for project approval, all the while sensing that no banker in his right mind would fund construction in a time newspapers were calling a "once-in-a-century recession."
That, of course, was on the inside.
Outwardly I put up a positive front, trying to encourage those around me that there was hope the business would survive. But in my heart, I knew it was over. I'd finally come to the realization that I couldn't pay my employees. I also knew there was absolutely no money left to refund to my investors. The truth was, I couldn't pay anyone a dime.
And the guilt was killing me.
I worried about the unknown. I worried about lawsuits and dragging my family through it all. I wondered what things would look like when it was over. And more than once, I realized my life insurance policy made me worth more dead than alive.
Despite all the unknowns, there were a few things I knew for certain: people were going to blame me. They'd say I should have seen this coming. And they'd want answers. The problem was, I hadn't seen it coming. And I had no answers. All I knew was that the market had crashed and the equity we once had was gone. To make matters worse, experts were saying, the pain was not over, and the downturn was about to create a wave of home foreclosures across the country, hitting places such as California the hardest. There was no doubt: my Midas touch was gone.
* * *
"Hello," I said, dropping five-year-old Luella's hand to pull the phone from my pocket and shift my weight to support two-year-old Ruth, who was still in my arms. The kids were silent. They knew better than to be loud when I was on my cell. Especially these days.
I rattled off some budget details to the banker on the phone. He clearly knew the deals were in trouble and was doing everything he could to get as far away as possible before everything collapsed.
"You have to list the property to see what we can get for it," he explained, as he delivered more bad news. The bank had given us a construction loan to build the homes when values were more than triple what they were now, but the loan documents clearly spelled out what we were to do in a situation like this: come up with cash to construct the houses ourselves or sell off the deal for pennies on the dollar and give the bank any leftover money.
We finally made it to the park. I let Ruth out of my arms, and she ran to the rope swing, which Nickoli had already commandeered. It wasn't ten seconds before she got in the path of Nickoli's swinging and was hit in the face with a shoe.
"I'm going to have to call you back," I said, sliding the phone into my pocket and picking her up, leaves and dirt covering her curly brown hair and tears streaming from her eyes.
"What on earth—" I said, flashing Nickoli an angry look.
"I didn't see her," he said, appearing more shaken by the incident than his sister. It took Ruth only a moment to recover as she climbed down from my arms and headed back toward the swing.
My cell rang again.
"Hello," I answered, with the most patient voice I could muster.
"Oh, hi, Steve," I said, surprised to hear from anyone who didn't want money. Steve was an old family friend who had mentored me during my formative teen years. He was now a pastor at a local church, The Rock of Roseville, and was one of the most generous, compassionate people I'd ever met.
"How are you?" I asked, relieved to be talking to someone about anything other than the declining real estate market.
"I just found out a few guys I know are heading to Ethiopia to help with an orphanage project and was wondering if you'd want to join them."
"Sounds like fun," I said, trying to humor him.
"No, really." He almost pleaded. "You've got to hear this. There's a rural tribe there that are killing their children because of some superstition. A group of German photography students traveling in Ethiopia heard about what was going on and, in order to save the kids, worked to build relationships with the elders of one of the villages.
"Levi, they were given a little girl named Bale who was only hours away from being drowned in the river by her own parents. And there are more children, Levi, just like Bale, who are going to be killed if someone doesn't rescue them. These guys I know are heading to Ethiopia for two weeks to assist with the makeshift orphanage. The Rock will be sending funds to help pay for local staff and the basic needs of the kids. We need a couple of people to make sure things go smoothly. Will you go, Levi? Will you help?" Steve asked.
"What good would I be in Africa?" I asked, intrigued and at the same time absolutely sure there was no way I was going anywhere. My business was a disaster, and I was spending more than ten hours a day trying to climb my way out of the hole. A trip to Africa, for any reason, was out of the question.
"Well, you have experience working with orphans overseas, so I figured you could help," he said, recalling my volunteer work with orphans before Jessie and I were married. "I know it's a lot to be throwing at you, so suddenly and all, but why don't you call me back after you've at least thought about it for a few minutes."
"Okay," I mumbled before hanging up, already knowing what my answer would be. I might be daring and adventurous, but leaving for Ethiopia would be crazy. The timing couldn't have been worse.
Still, there was something about Steve that made me consider the possibilities. I'd lost touch with him for almost ten years, but when my business began to fall apart, I looked him up and we reconnected. Remembering how gracious he'd been to me when I was younger, I knew he would provide a compassionate ear during those struggles.
Knowing he was a minister, I had made it clear up front when we reconnected: Jessie and I were not attending church. Frankly, although we were believers, we were tired of what we often saw: lots of people who didn't do enough to help others and, for the most part, appeared way too self-absorbed. Steve never judged us. He didn't even suggest that Jessie and I return to church. He simply encouraged us to seek God, who, he believed, always had a plan.
I had once shared with Steve that I found life uninspiring. "Even when things were going well and we had lots of money, I had to step back and ask myself, What's the point? I know that money, recognition, and success aren't the answers, but I have a hard time finding anything else that matters either," I'd told him one evening in desperation.
During our occasional get-togethers, Steve managed to offer a broader perspective on life. He once asked me about my volunteer work in Mexico, India, and Brazil. "Did you feel a sense of purpose then?" he probed, gently trying to urge me in the right direction. "More importantly, Levi, have you thought about whom you're living for?"
* * *
I spent the next five minutes pushing the kids on the swing while my mind continued to wander. I knew I should call Steve back to give him an absolute no, but instead, I started thinking about what a break it might be to escape to Africa—if only for a couple of weeks. I slid my phone out of my pocket and hit speed dial for my wife. I tried to casually drop Ethiopia into the conversation and then laugh it off, but Jessie immediately set me straight. "You should do it," she insisted.
"Whatever," I said, still chuckling.
"No, really, Levi. Hang up the phone and call Steve back. Tell him you're coming. You can use our emergency fund to buy your ticket."
"No way!" I protested. "That two thousand dollars was set aside in case the absolute bottom falls out. It's our only safety net. It's there in case our family needs it for survival, for things like groceries."
"We'll be fine, Levi. My intuition tells me this is the right thing to do," she persisted. "You need to take a leap of faith."
I fumbled around for a way to respond, but Jessie was so firm that I was at a loss to challenge her. Besides, there was a side of me that desperately wanted to get away, to be alone and then return with a renewed passion for life—and maybe some ingenious ideas for saving the business. "It was while I was on a trip to Africa," I would say when asked how I'd come up with the idea that saved my investors and beat the market. The fantasy flashed before my eyes as I contemplated the beauty of it all. It could work: I would go to Ethiopia, do good deeds, find myself along the way, and come back to do even more good at home. It was well worth the relatively small price of a plane ticket.
"Just call him!" Jessie insisted, interrupting my thoughts before hanging up the phone.
I stood with the cell to my ear, stunned and confused. Maybe Jessie was right, I thought. Maybe I should just go for it.
I began to toy with the idea of traveling to Africa. There was no doubt that I was at a point where I wanted desperately to find meaning in my life. During the past year I had lost my brother to a drug-related suicide and my best friend and business partner to liver disease. Maybe, I thought, I'd find meaning in Ethiopia. Maybe this is just what I needed. My heart sped up slightly as a glimmer of hope—the first in a very long time—flashed through my thoughts.
While I watched the kids on the swings, I wondered what to do. Should I call Steve? Should I say yes?
As if on cue, a flurry of doubts rushed in: why in the world was I wasting time thinking about Ethiopia? There were meetings I was supposed to be attending, failing budgets to deal with, and an office full of people who looked to me for stability. I knew that even hinting about taking a trip at a time like this would be the end of their loyalty.
Then, suddenly, it hit me.
My presence hadn't done a thing to help our company's bottom line. In fact, it seemed the more I tried, the worse things got. The reality was, the verdict had already been delivered: we were going out of business, and I had no power to stop it from happening. Leaving for two weeks to help people was the right thing to do. Afterward, I figured, I would still have time to wrap up all the financial loose ends, and maybe, just maybe, there'd be a way to save everything after all.
Though I feared with everything in me that it might be the wrong choice, that I might regret going, I found myself punching in Steve's cell number. While I waited for him to answer, I thought, This is it, Levi. It's finally happened. You are now certifiably insane.
"I'm in," I blurted out as soon as Steve answered, my voice sounding more confident than I felt.
"Great!" he shouted, before rattling off a number for a man named Rich Lester. "You just need to get ahold of this guy. He will fill you in on the details."
After we hung up, I stood still for a while, trying to wrap my head around what I'd just committed to doing. The whole idea seemed crazy. I didn't even know where Ethiopia was, only that it was somewhere in Africa and there were lots of hungry people living there.
* * *
Over the next few days I began to develop a strange sensation that the trip to Ethiopia might be God's calling. I didn't know exactly how to pinpoint what I was feeling, but there was a quiet sense growing deep inside me that my decision to go had been divinely orchestrated.
One night, after I tried to express my feelings to Jessie, she told me she'd been praying for a long time for something like this to happen. "I don't know exactly what will come of your trip," she whispered, "but somehow I believe it will be good and that you will be changed forever."
Jessie is an amazing woman with great compassion for others. There was a time when we were a young, adventurous couple, ready to take flight at a moment's notice. We'd both shared a passion to help the world's poor and disadvantaged. Jessie and I had even spent a few months in India working with the poorest of the poor. But things were different now. We were in survival mode, with no money or time to give to anyone. The day we'd dreamed of together, the one where we had made so much money we could help people all over the world, had eluded us.
Excerpted from no greater LOVE by Levi Benkert Candy Chand Copyright © 2012 by Levi Benkert and Candy Chand. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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