It was Africa’s children who first drew Irene’s heart toward the continent. A year before she and Jeff moved to Uganda they made a trip to Kenya and Ethiopia to visit the children they sponsored through World Vision. What Irene saw there unnerved her.
Confronting the poverty unlocked feelings in Irene that she couldn’t ignore. The children who greeted her with sad, knowing eyes—ones who had been rejected, abandoned and left to fend for themselves—connected with her and stirred up emotions from her own troubled past.
“I never felt wanted or loved as a child,” admits Irene, whose military father left the family when she was born. “Even my mother considered adopting me out, but couldn’t go through with it.”
Irene’s mother went on to have seven more children to different fathers. “I became the house-mother to my brothers and sisters,” she says, describing her turbulent and unsettled childhood. She moved from home to home, enduring poverty, her mother’s depression and sexual abuse from her stepfather.
When she was 14 her mother died of lung cancer. Irene was left to take care of her younger siblings. “I spent most of my childhood protecting and defending children,” she says. “I think that’s why I feel so strongly about the children of northern Uganda.”
At age 16 she was captivated by the kindness and attention of her first boyfriend, who offered her security and an escape. They married and raised four children. After 20 years they had drifted apart and the marriage ended.
Irene decided to go back to school and get a teaching degree. Afterward, she left Australia to trek the Himalayas and explore Eastern religions, but her searching was fruitless. She returned to Australia uncertain about her future.
At 37, she hit rock bottom. She was divorced, the mother of a drug-dependent son, depressed, suicidal and living in a neighbor’s back yard with her latest boyfriend. “My life was a complete mess,” Irene says. “I can recall shrugging my shoulders and saying to God, ‘OK, now You can have what’s left of me.’ ”
It was just enough for God to work with. Shortly after that jaded surrender Irene committed her life to Christ and encountered God in a new, fresh way. “I remember crying out to God, saying, ‘Father, please be Lord of my life.’ As soon as I did this, I was flooded with joy and I heard Him say: ‘Everything will be good from now on.’ ”
Over the next 10 years Irene worked in a secular college, attended a vibrant Pentecostal church, and met and married Jeff, who shared her passion for the poor. Several years into the marriage, they made the trip to Africa to visit their World Vision-sponsored children.
“[It] completely changed me,” Irene says. “I never knew people lived in such terrible poverty. I was in a state of shock. I had a burning in my heart to redress the imbalance; but it was just a matter of time.”
It has taken time, effort and perseverance from Irene and her rescued youth to carve out the CKS ministry in this remote, war-torn region. Doing it hasn’t been without challenges, Irene notes.
“Living in Uganda, facing the daily issues of civil war, was terrible,” she says. “Nights were filled with bombing and gun shots; the days were filled with mothers crying for their children.”
Many times the war came to Irene in the middle of the night. The first time it did, Irene and Jeff were awakened by torchlight through their caravan window. Getting up to have a look, Irene opened the door and was confronted by five men brandishing guns and machetes.
“One of them put a bayonet to my chest; another had a big AK-47—he was cranking it,” she recalls. One armed man smashed Irene’s arm with a stick. Then they slashed Jeff’s ear.
Says Irene: “I thought: Oh, no; we’re dead. That’s when I realized the next face I would see would be Jesus’, so I closed my eyes and started murmuring: ‘Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ.’
“I waited with my eyes closed, and nothing happened. When I opened my eyes, I saw them lunging at me, but it was like a glass wall was stopping them. It was then I knew how much power is in the name of Jesus.”
After about 20 minutes, Irene screamed at the men, “Go in the name of Jesus!” and they fled into the night.
The attacks and subsequent victories left Irene feeling all the more determined to save the people of northern Uganda. Jeff, on the other hand, felt traumatized and vulnerable. A short time later, after traveling back to Kampala for a rest, he sent a letter to Irene asking for a divorce.
Devastated, yet pragmatic, Irene continued on with her ministry, alone. Her strength came from Christ, she says; her inspiration from the many children she helped rescue over the years. Ones like Vincent—as a 12-year-old he had watched in horror as armed rebels set fire to his hut, killing his entire family.
“This young man is now studying to be a doctor,” Irene says proudly. “He comes back and volunteers in our AIDS hospice.”
There’s also 10-year-old Francis—“a special child who was pulling along his shy friends to my tree ministry,” she recalls.
“He was the first child to sit in the dust, lifting his face and arms to the sky as he sang. One morning he sat silently, tears streaking down his cheeks. I was told through the translator that he was often beaten by his mother, a local witch doctor,” Irene says.
Irene took Francis under her wing, helping him complete CKS primary school and five years of mechanical college. Now, at 26, Francis is the founder of a 700-member community church in the area. “It is amazing and humbling for me to see God raising up His children to reach their full potential,” Irene says.
“Irene’s love and passion for the people she works with is truly inspiring,” says Grant Windle, producer of the award-winning documentary Cinderella Children: Rescuing Children From the Ashes of War and a pastor in Brisbane, Australia. Grant and a cameraman from his church traveled to Uganda to capture Irene’s remarkable story. “What God has done through the obedience of one lady who left the comforts and security of her home to follow Him is amazing. This was a story that needed to be told.”
A Sustainable Hope
Also inspired by her work is Bible teacher Kenneth Copeland, who prophesied over Irene in May at a convention in Sydney. He told her: “This thing is not done yet. You haven’t done all you can do. It’s going to keep getting larger and larger and doing more. But it will not be by more effort on your part, it will be by supernatural multiplication and divine release from heaven.”
The enlarging Copeland spoke of is already taking shape. Irene has been given a parcel of land in the far north of Uganda that she believes is reserved for a special use. “God has just shown me 16,000 people who have been hiding from war in the mountains for 10 years. I must go and rescue them too,” she insists.
Construction is also under way—at CKS a four-story creative arts center is being built that will provide a way for local Ugandans to make and sell their crafts.
Sometimes, Irene admits, the enormity of the work feels overwhelming, especially now that she is in her mid-60s. At those times God reminds her it’s His work and He’ll bring it to completion. He has also promised her good health, protection and comfort when she feels lonely, she says.
And her work has not gone unnoticed in the international community. The breadth of what Irene has accomplished in the last 18 years was recognized by her native Australia in June. She received a government award—Honour of Officer of the Order of Australia—for “service to international relations, particularly through sustained aid for children affected by war and HIV/AIDS in northern Uganda.”
“I’ve often said to God, ‘Lift your hands off this work and I’ll go back to Australia.’ But He doesn’t.
“I just have to look at the faces of these children and realize they all need Jesus. Yes, I miss my grandchildren and the life I had. But, truly, if I was back in Australia I would not be so fulfilled. Life is meaningful for me here.
“And despite the hot sun and my fair skin, the electricity going out, and the bland food, I’m in the right place.”
Nicole Partridge is a freelance journalist based in Australia who writes for magazines, newspapers and overseas aid groups. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two children. To make a donation or to sponsor one of Irene Gleeson’s children, visit cks.org.au. To order a copy of Cinderella Children, the inspiring documentary of Gleeson’s life, go to cinderellachildren.com.
Facts About the Worlds' Children
- 2.2 billion worldwide
- 143 million are orphans
- 2 million were HIV-positiveat the end of 2007
- 25,000 die per day due to poverty
- 3 million have no shoes
- Every three minutes in adeveloping nation a childdies from malnutrition
- 9.2 million who were bornin 2007 died before age 5
- One in seven have no access to health services
- 400 million have no access to safe water
- One in three do not have adequate shelter
- 121 million are not educated
Want to Help?
Want to lend a hand? These 10 Christian organizations are a few of the many making a difference through compassionate ministry.
World Help / Forest, Va.; worldhelp.net; 800-541-6691. A nonprofit dedicated to helping children through community development, wellness programs, evangelism and relief.
Hopegivers International / Columbus, Ga.; hopegivers.org; 866-373-HOPE. A faith-based nonprofit and NGO that cares for orphans and provides a range of ministry-training options.
Partners Worldwide / Grand Rapids, Mich.; partnersworldwide.org; 800-919-7307. PW seeks to eliminate poverty through job-creation initiatives in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Feed the Children / Oklahoma City; feedthechildren.org; 800-627-4556. FTC delivers food, medicine, clothing and more to victims of poverty, war or natural disasters.
Stop Child Trafficking Now / New York; sctnow.org; 212-333-7286. SCTN targets the sex-trafficking underground, seeking criminal prosecution of the buyers and predators.
Hope for Haiti / Orlando, Fla.; danitaschildren.org; 407-805-9532. HFH provides permanent housing, education and love for impoverished, abandoned and seriously ill children in Haiti.
ZAO / Fort Mill, S.C.; zaowater.com; 888-926-9283. ZAO offers safe drinking water and more to areas of Tanzania, Kenya and Burkina Faso.
Convoy of Hope / Springfield, Mo.; convoyofhope.org; 417-823-8998. This outreach to the poor fed some 6 million people in 2008.
World Relief / Baltimore; community.wr.org; 800-535-5433. WR reaches children with efforts that include prenatal programs, food, shelter, medical care and more.
Floresta USA / San Diego; floresta.org; 800-633-5319. A nonprofit, Floresta uses reverse-deforestation projects to help the poor while teaching stewardship of the land.
—Valerie G. Lowe
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