First, Mitch Hildebrant had to get past his ego.
As the 36-year-old president of the Bethesda Christian Broadcasting group, Hildebrant had a great job, a good salary, a nice home and all the power and trappings that come with career success in America.
“My ego got in the way at first,” admitted Hildebrant, talking about grappling with the decision that he and his wife, Charlotte, made to become full-time missionaries to Swaziland.
Hildebrant quickly discovered that his ego was no match for God’s plan for his life, however.
In August, the couple will leave for the small African country that has the sad distinction of having the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world, with about 43 percent of its population now living with the virus.
While there, they will run the Mbabane “care point” for the faith-based organization Children’s Cup International Relief, which provides meals, health care, job training and Christian education for 300,000 orphans in Mozambique, Zambia and Swaziland. The Mbabane care point feeds and educates 7,000 orphaned children daily.
The country, located in southern Africa between Mozambique and South Africa, is the size of Connecticut with a population of about 1 million.
“We’ve sold everything we own. We’re down to four suitcases between us and we’ve never felt more free,” Hildebrant said.
Or richer, say the couple who will finally see their dreams of parenthood fulfilled, albeit in a different way than they planned.
Infertility dashed the Hildebrants’ hopes of having their own biological children, and the adoption plans they pursued also fell through. But Mitch believes they will help fulfill the Bible’s command to become “earthly fathers to the fatherless” once he assumes his new duties of youth discipleship, training and marketing for Children’s Cup.
“Now, we’re going to have a whole bunch of kids,” he said.
The Hildebrants spent five years leading short-term mission teams to various countries all over the world, but it wasn’t until an August 2009 trip to Swaziland that they felt the pull to stay. During that trip, both of them were having the same spiritual response to the ministry work there.
“One night while we were there, Charlotte said to me, ‘It just feels…’ and I said, ‘… like home here.’ We finished each other’s sentence,” Hildebrant said.
Tears still flow freely for the Hildebrants as they recall a specific child who drew them to Swaziland. One day, they urged a mother with a severely ill infant to bring the baby to the Children’s Cup clinic the next day. That night, the baby died. Death is so common — and the struggle to survive so challenging — that the family didn’t openly mourn the baby’s death.
“There were no tears. Nobody cried for the baby. For them, it was almost like a relief,” said Hildebrant, who feels called to care, and to act, so that other babies won’t die.
“Somebody needs to cry for them; somebody needs to cry for these babies,” he said.
Given the reality of the AIDS epidemic, which has devastated whole generations of the population, the Hildebrants know there is no quick fix to Swaziland’s problems. While much of the country professes Christianity, men who are diagnosed with HIV often seek the counsel of indigenous healers, or witch doctors, who sometimes tell them that having sex with a virgin will heal them of the disease, Hildebrant said. That has led to child molestation issues, as well as the spread of the virus. Long term, only education of the youngest children will lead to lasting improvements in AIDS prevention, he said.
“It’s too late to change the behavior of many of the men, but our hope is to educate the younger generations, beginning with the little boys,” he said. “It will take generations to change.”
Swaziland is one of the few remaining monarchies in Africa. Ruled by King Mswati III, the country practices open polygamy in marriage, which contributes to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The king is often criticized internationally for his politics and policies, but he has been welcoming of Children’s Cup and its ministry, gifting the charity with 15 acres on which it will build its Dream Center — a job training and Christian discipleship facility.
With people in Swaziland expected to live an average of just 30 years, “it is vital to educate the youth for a sustainable future,” Charlotte said.
Her ministry will be among the women of Mbabane. As a 1990 music major at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, Charlotte will put her musical abilities to work and teach English.
In a place where women are second-class citizens, she knows her own life will change dramatically due to safety concerns. She will have to curtail her activities — never venturing out alone at night — while in Swaziland.
Charlotte grew up in Rapid City and her mother, Linda Rames, still lives here. Rames admits to having “mixed feelings” about her only child moving to Swaziland, but said she wasn’t surprised by their decision.
“Before they left for Swaziland, I said to them, ‘Now, don’t you get any ideas about moving there.’ But I had a feeling, even then,” she said.
Rames knows her daughter and son-in-law are doing the Lord’s work.
“It was meant to be. The Lord wanted them over there,” she said. “They’re so crazy about kids. They’re going where they belong.”