The Ackers’ extended family includes (from left to right) Abraham, Saudi, Barakat, Shelah, Jade, their daughters Kaelah and Anna-Grace, and Lino. CBF photo
ATLANTA – The story began in 2001. Jade and Shelah Acker were working in Sudan at a camp for former child soldiers. The United Nations had demobilized more than 3,000 boys from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and approximately 350 boys were living in this one camp.
“We formed strong relationships with some of the boys and got to know their stories,” said Shelah. “Some of them did not know if their families were dead or alive, and some knew their families were in government controlled areas they could not go to.”
When the camp closed, the Ackers traveled to another part of Sudan to work on a relief project. They were surprised to find several of the boys from the camp there, living on the streets and doing what they could to survive. The Ackers advocated on their behalf again and again when the army came to reenlist them. By 2003, several of the former child soldiers had become part of the Ackers’ extended family, and with insecurity in the region they arranged for nine of the boys to go to school in Kenya.
Now, the Ackers’ home in Uganda is always full of people. Commissioned as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel in 2004, the Ackers moved to Uganda in 2008 after previously serving in Senegal. They purposely selected a home that would be large enough for their children and their extended family of boys. Shelah is a native of San Antonio, Texas, and Jade is a native of Birmingham, Ala. They are both graduates of Samford University in Birmingham.
In addition to the Ackers’ two young daughters, their house is home to Lino, a teenager from Sudan the Ackers are in the process of adopting. So far, four of the former child soldiers have moved to Uganda from Kenya to be near the Ackers, living in a smaller house on the Ackers’ property. And then there are three ministry workers, who work out of the Ackers’ garage office.
“We work mainly with people who have been in conflict, which means they have often lost their homes or lost their families, and they are living in a strange place,” said Shelah. “So our whole ministry is committed to providing a refuge for people – a spiritual refuge and a spiritual home, as well as a physical refuge for them. So I feel like providing a home is what we do; it is essential to our ministry.”
One evening as the Ackers’ family and extended family sat around the dinner table, one of the guys shared that they had never said the word “daddy.”
“It hit me very hard at that moment to think that we have the opportunity to show these young people what it means to have a family that cares about them,” Shelah said. “Sometimes I wonder if all this is just too hard, but that moment made it all worth it.”
UNICEF estimates that 300,000 child soldiers are currently fighting in conflicts around the world. Seven of the nine boys, now teenagers and young men, who are part of the Acker’s extended family were directly involved in the Sudanese civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2005. An estimated 2 million people were killed and 4 million displaced during the conflict.
Saudi, one of the young men, began fifth grade at the age of 15. Now, he’s nearing the end of high school and dreaming of being a politician. He wants to return to his village as a leader, providing education, training and resources.
“These nine guys have had a chance to continue their education, and they’ve done so well,” Jade said. “They speak English, Swahili and Arabic. They have skills that can help them in the future and allow them to make a positive impact on their communities.”
Jennifer Wilmore, who served with the Ackers this spring through CBF’s Student.Go program, witnessed the bond the Ackers and these young men have. Saudi told Wilmore that meeting the Ackers was “an act of God.” He said they have inspired him to want to go out and do something for his community.
“These guys have impacted our lives in so many ways we cannot hardly remember life before them,” Shelah said. “To describe how much we love them and care for them is difficult – it’s something God has given us for them. We feel God brought them into our lives, and it’s really a miraculous story. When we met them, most of them were teenagers and now they are young adults, so we feel our parental role has shifted toward being friends and mentors.”
The relationships they’ve built with the young men from Sudan are just part of the Acker’s multifaceted ministry in Uganda. They recently started three projects which they hope to develop and raise funding for this year:
• Provide educational opportunities to 20 youth from the Democratic Republic of Congo who were former child soldiers or children displaced by war.
• In the Ugandan village of Greek, facilitate the construction of a multipurpose center, which will serve as a school, place of worship and community meeting place. Attacks on the village, including cattle raids, have forced the community to move six times in the past few years.
• In the Ugandan District of Kaberamaido, to train 10 widows and 10 former militia members in agricultural methods that will generate income and improve their quality of life. Rebels in Uganda previously attacked the people in Kaberamaido, displacing them from their homes. Now the fighting has stopped and the militia has been disbanded allowing the community to replant.
“For me, being the presence of Christ is about being here daily and investing in people’s lives,” Jade said. “Not just projects, not just buildings, not just ideas or goals, but day to day being with people, hearing their needs, hearing their struggles and in some way, in whatever ways we can, meeting some of those physical needs. I guess that is being the presence of Christ.”
To financially support the Fellowship’s ministry, give online at www.thefellowship.info/give
or use the envelope included with this issue. As CBF career field personnel, the Ackers’ salary and ministry expenses is supported by the CBF Offering for Global Missions.
CBF is a fellowship of Baptist Christians and churches who share a passion for the Great Commission and a commitment to Baptist principles of faith and practice. The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission.