Free at Last
Seven years ago, Sandy Shepherd got an unexpected phone call as she headed to her daughter's high school musical rehearsal. A mother of three, living in affluent Colleyville near Fort Worth, she was already beginning to imagine life as an empty nester. She wasn't thinking about changing the world.
On the line was Deacon Neel Choate from her church, First Baptist. He told her that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had just picked up seven Zambian boysall part of a touring choir they both knew. First Baptist had hosted the choir previously. Choate said the boys needed a place to stay or they would spend the night in jail.
Could she house all seven overnight?
Shepherd took a deep breath. For two years, Shepherd had passionately supported this choir, utterly unaware that she and her church were being duped.
A Baptist missionary, Keith Grimes, had recruited the boys to tour America with his ministry, TTT: Partners in Education. Grimes had made big promises to the boys and their families. He had inspired them with talk of salaries, an American education, and stipends for families back in Zambia. Grimes had also claimed the tour would raise money for Kalingalinga, the grindingly poor shantytown that provided its fresh-faced sons for these tours 6,000 miles from their homes.
It was a brilliant scam. The ministry never paid these Zambian boys a dime or built new schools. It pocketed all the sponsorship money.
When the fraud was discovered, Shepherd and others had done everything they could to stop it, but had failed. Not even Grimes's 1999 death had ended the boys' enslavement. His kin took over and kept the captive choir out on the road. The boys spoke little English. Their mother tongue had no word for slave.
By the time of Deacon Choate's phone call, Shepherd was disengaged from the choir. She had channeled her outrage into outreach. She had joined other American Christians aware of the scheme, and they had built a village school, using their own resources even as Grimes's deception continued.
In January 2000, the choir scam imploded. After the boys sang in a Houston church, they quit in disgust and exhaustion. Their manager telephoned the INS, demanding their immediate deportation to Zambia.
How could Shepherd now invest more emotional capital in this tragic mess she'd already failed to defuse? She answered Choate with hesitation in her voice: "I don't know if I want to get back involved in this."
Choate laid out the boys' plight. The teens had done nothing wrong. The INS only had housing available in a federal jail. Could she meet him at 7 at the church?
Shepherd sighed. "I guess I'll be there," she said.
As Shepherd drove her van to her church through spotless neighborhoods of Texas-sized trophy houses, she begged God: "Lord, I don't want to be involved in this anymore. Why are you calling me back?"
A song she sang in First Baptist's choir popped into her head: "Yes, Lord, yes, I will answer the call."
That night, the seven choristers slept in her home, and the course of her family's life was changed foreverespecially through the Shepherds' relationship with Given Kachepa, then a skinny 13-year-old orphan.
Days later, TTT staff began peppering the Shepherd household with aggressive phone calls concerning the fate of the boys. Nobody was safe. The couple found other hosts. But Kachepa was soon homeless again. Without hesitation this time, Sandy and her husband, Deetz, took him in and enrolled him in the eighth grade. During the following years, the Shepherds included him in every family portrait, paid for braces on his teeth, and coached him through high school and into college.