When life presents challenges, the popular radio host turns to her faith and her listeners for strength and comfort.
One of my favorite things about doing my radio show is hearing people’s stories. Every night, without fail, someone will call to wish a spouse happy birthday or congratulate a child who’s graduating. Then as their story unfolds, I realize that it was the whole reason God had me in the studio that night—to make that connection, to have that conversation, to share a prayer or piece of Scripture, to share a memory or song.
Years ago, when I was in my twenties, I went to a tiny church—there were maybe 50 or 60 members—where the minister, Pastor Mike McCorkle, preached a life-changing sermon. I asked him about it recently, and he doesn’t even remember what he said. I do. I’ll never forget.
He imagined that when he stands before the Lord, when he dies, he’s going to be asked two questions. The first is “What did you do with me?” Did you give God your best or just the scraps? Was faith just an afterthought? Did you put Jesus at the center of your being? And the second: “What did you do with the people I put in your path?” Every person you encounter, your family members, your teachers, your friends, your coworkers, even strangers, are put there for a reason. Did you honor them? Did you respect them? Did you take the time to get to know their story?
The conversations I have with my listeners are real. They know I’m going to be honest with them and they can be honest with me. Most of them know about the joys in my life and the deep sorrows I’ve had to face. None of which I could have gotten through without my faith.
I met a homeless woman on a blistering hot day in Philadelphia, and in my efforts to help her and people like her I started a charity called Point Hope (named for one of the coldest places on the planet: Point Hope, Alaska). A woman at a refugee camp in Ghana sent me an e-mail asking for help. I figured it was some sort of scam at first, but when I followed it up through friends at World Vision, I discovered she was indeed real. Since then, I’ve made dozens of trips to that refugee camp, adopted children from it and supplied it with fresh water, schools, medical stations and adult career and farming programs.
Someone was put in my path, and I felt compelled to respond.
I have 13 children—10 adopted, three biological. I’m heartbroken to say that two of them are already gone from this world. Sammy came from an orphanage in Ghana. We knew he had sickle cell anemia when he became part of our family, but he blossomed in our home. He loved to eat, to laugh, to tease, to draw, to paint, to dance. On the night the adoption was complete, he said to me, “Mama, I always thought I would die alone in the orphanage.”
As it was, he died in our arms at age 16 from complications of sickle cell. The doctors did all they could, but they couldn’t stop his heart from failing. Before he passed, Sammy pointed to me and my husband, Paul, and put his hands in the shape of a heart. Now when I am struggling and missing him, I whisper a prayer. Sometimes even within the hour, I’ll be led to something heart-shaped in nature, a seashell on the beach, a sandstone on the path. Signs from God that my son’s spirit lives on.
My world shattered a year ago, on October 2, 2017. That night, my beautiful son Zachariah Miguel Rene-Ortega, the last child I carried in my womb and gave birth to, chose to leave us. He was just 18 years old and had been battling depression. These have been the hardest months of my life and that of my family. I miss Zack every minute and hour of every day. Despite the heartache and grief, I praise God for the life I live. I know that God is looking after us, and that knowledge—along with the love and understanding of family, friends, and so many others—has kept me going.
One of my most endearing memories of my Zacky illustrates what his heart was truly like and truly capable of. When Zack was just 10 years old, a girlfriend from church let me know that the African Children’s Choir was going to perform at our church. I had been working in Ghana, West Africa, for five years and had adopted two young girls from there.
My girlfriend knew I’d love the music, and even though the choir children were from a different country, my adopted girls might like seeing other children from West Africa. We’d arrived home late the night before, after a long drive from snow-covered mountains, and woke up in time to get to the 10:30 a.m. service and the choir performance. The sink at home was full of breakfast dishes; the living room was a makeshift laundry center for ski gear. Snowboards and sleds leaned against the side of the porch.
After the service, I took my daughters to meet some of the young performers. The director of the choir, a middle-aged man from the Midwest, approached me with a broad grin, grabbed my hand and pumped my arm as he exclaimed, “Thank you! Thank you! We will be happy to come to the farm for lunch.” I tilted my head to one side and said, “Excuse me?”
“Your son, the little boy in the green shirt, just told me you have a huge farm with lots of goats and cows, and then he invited me to bring the choir to lunch. Normally the church sponsors a lunch for us at the cafeteria or a local restaurant, but your pastor is not here today,” he said. “I guess no one thought about how we would feed the children.”
The man’s enthusiastic smile was met with my bewildered expression, and just as I was about to explain that my house was filled with ski gear and my fridge was all but empty, Zack appeared at my side. He put his arms around me and said, “Mom, I told him what a good cook you are and how you feed all the orphans in Africa. Can they come home and have lunch with us?” His impish face was absolutely adorable, and his smile did to me what it always did: made me absolutely incapable of saying anything but yes….
Thirty children, eight adult chaperones, plus the director and his wife. That meant 40 guests along with my own household of 10…. My mind raced into action. I hurriedly called my husband, Paul, and asked for help. He had just dropped our teenage girls off at the farm. He agreed to rush back to the farm and start picking up skis and snowboards. I called two of my adult children, Tangi and Trey Jerome, to help as well.
When I got home, the skis, snowboards and damp gloves had all been snatched up and tossed in bins, the dirty dishes in the sink were shoved in the dishwasher and a huge pot of water was already on the stove and beginning to boil. Within a half hour, the bus arrived and 30 children between the ages of five and 18 started spilling out.
It was freezing outside, and I knew their bodies had not yet had time to acclimate to the cold, so the children were not the least bit interested in staying outside to look at our goats, horses or even the zebra. They all ran into the house trying to get warm, and although my house is a good size, together we filled up every room.
The food was ready soon, and we provided lunch. Once everyone had eaten their fill, the kids sang. Even more beautiful than the songs they’d sung at church.
After two hours of breaking bread and sharing stories and songs, the director said the choir had to leave; they had a long road trip ahead of them. The kids gave us hugs and prayed for us, then filed outside. As the bus rumbled up the long drive, light snow began to fall. I was ready to collapse into a heap when I heard Zack declare, “I hope it snows really hard and the bus gets stuck and they have to spend the night here with us!” That was one time I was so grateful that his prayers were not answered!
Zack was like me in many ways, one being that he had a big heart for others, especially those who were hurting or in need.
I won’t hold my last-born biological baby again until eternity. I won’t stroke his long, beautiful hair or feel his breath against my skin. I won’t hear his voice—except for the few recordings I have—until I see Jesus face-to-face. I hope the Lord won’t mind if I rush to hold both Zack and his older brother Sammy in my arms before getting the tour of paradise.
In the days and weeks after I lost my boys, I did not know if I had the heart to go on. When Zack took his own life, I had to step away from my radio program for three weeks before I could find the strength and courage to put my voice back on the air. The outpouring of love, support and prayer from my listeners—the hundreds of thousands of you who in that moment stopped in your path to consider where my heart was—restored me.
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Check out Delilah’s new book, One Heart at a Time: The Inspiring Journey of the Most Listened-To Woman on the Radio (RosettaBooks).