A Story Can Fuel a Dream
by Dr. Bruce Main
March 12th, 2015

"What's God's plan to make it believable to the world that God is good? We are the plan! There is no other plan."- Gary Haugen, Founder, International Justice Mission

"What's your favorite food?" I asked.

Staring back at me was 13-year-old Ernest- a lanky adolescent living at the small orphanage called SafeHaven in the Lilongwe region of Malawi. That small sub-Saharan country has 12 million people- 1.2 million of them orphans, mostly due to the AIDS pandemic. SafeHaven is a residential program which houses eleven boys. Ernest had come from the streets at a young age, where he slept under cardboard boxes and hustled change from tourists. Through the support of UrbanPromise International, Ernest has been fed, housed, and educated.

"Pizza!" Ernest grinned.

His enthusiasm made me wonder how common this North American staple was in Malawi. "Do you get pizza often?" I wondered.

Ernest paused, furling his eyebrows. "Once, I had it once. Once on Christmas when I was a little boy."

After I said my goodbyes to the boys and got in my car, I turned to the director of the SafeHaven. "Is there a chance we could throw a pizza party for the boys?" With a wink and a nod he agreed.

Little did I realize that finding a pizza parlor in the middle of Malawi was no small chore- Pizza Hut and Domino's have yet to arrive. My host located a Lebanese-owned chicken shop that made pizza on the side. Extra thick crust would not be an option, but they did promise something that resembled American pizza.

Few moments in my life have provided such joy as when the eleven SafeHaven boys came walking through the front door of the Chicken Shop. For many it was their first experience in a restaurant. They were visibly excited.

"Mr. Bruce," said Ernest before his third big bite. "Thanks for the pizza, but what we really need is books."

I was surprised by this. Seldom do teenage boys ask me for books. "What kind of books?"

"Any books. Biology. Chemistry. History." Ernest wiped a piece of cheese from his lip. "You see, without books we cannot pass high school. If we cannot pass high school, we cannot go to college. If we can't go to college, we will be poor!"

What could I say at that moment- what would you say? No? Sorry? I can't get you the books you need? I did what you would have done- I promised to help. Upon coming back to the U.S.., I got some churches to collect books- old textbooks, novels, non-fiction. A few months later we mailed a container of books to the boys.

Four-and-a-half years later I was back at the orphanage. Ernest was sitting across from me- older, bigger, and more inquisitive. "What do you want to be?" I asked.

"I want to be a neurosurgeon."

I was shocked. How does a kid, rescued from the streets, even know what a neurosurgeon does?

"A few years ago," he went on, "you sent us some books. There was a book about a neurosurgeon who grew up in Baltimore. The book was called Gifted Hands. It was about a man named Ben Carson. If he can do it, I can do it."

"Does Malawi need a neurosurgeon?" I wondered.

"Yes," came an emphatic reply. "Malawi has only one neurosurgeon. He actually lives in the U.K. and only returns at the request of the President."

One neurosurgeon for 12 million people? But now an orphan boy wants to become the only neurosurgeon in Malawi. A book can change a life. A story can fuel a dream.

"Does he have the academic ability?" I asked the director of the orphanage when we were out of earshot from the boys. "Yes," replied Gibozi. "He just did remarkably well on his government exams- especially in the sciences." This was encouraging.

When I returned to the United States, I contacted the president of the university from which I graduated, sharing the story of Ernest. I begged for scholarship money. I was told to have Ernest apply; they would try to work out a financial package.

Ernest applied. Ernest was accepted.

Six months later, when I returned to Malawi, I walked through the gates of the orphanage. Out of the front door, across the dusty lot, ran Ernest waving his acceptance letter. It was tattered and dirty. Obviously it had been circulated around the village. "everyone has seen it," Gibozi later confided with a smile.

I entered Gibozi's office with Ernest, reviewed the acceptance letter and examined the financial package. With all the scholarship offerings, we still needed $15,000 per year. At that moment I remember thinking: fifteen thousand dollars is a lot of money. We can probably feed 500 Malawian kids for a year with that money.Then I thought, why am I even entertaining the question? In America we'll spend $150,000 on a student's education, only to have them work at Starbucks. Here is a young man who wants to be the only neurosurgeon in Malawi, and I'm struggling with spending $15,000 per year. It's absurd, isn't it?

But the moment I'll never forget is when Ernest asked if we could pray about the situation. Here's what he prayed: "Dear God, thanks for not abandoning me like my parents did. Thanks for sending Mr. Gibozi and the SafeHaven orphanage to looks after me." Even with so few resources, so many broken promises, and so much hardship, Ernest found a way to be grateful. A sobering reminder for me!

What will happen to Ernest's dream? I'm not sure. He still sits in Malawi, hoping that he'll get a chance at a university education in the United States. One day I hope to hear him pray again, "Dear God, thanks for not abandoning me!" What's God's plan to make it believable to an orphan boy that God is good? Young men like gibozi- who give their lives to create places like the SafeHaven- they are the plan.


In 1988, Dr. Bruce Main founded UrbanPromise Ministries in Camden, NJ to equip children and youth with the skills necessary for academic achievement, life management, spiritual growth, and Christian leadership. Selected by Christianity Today as one of the country's "“50 Up & Coming Leaders Under 40,"” Bruce speaks nationally and internationally at mission conferences, colleges, churches, and business seminars. 

More of Dr. Bruce Main: http://www.urbanpromiseusa.org/