I've gotten a new taste of what love is the past few months while trying to right the wrongs at my school in South Africa. A dormitory matron was accused of sexual and physical abuse at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. Recognizing how emotionally draining this time has been for me, people reached out with their encouragement. People I knew well and many I had never met built a bridge of support allowing me to laser-focus on doing what was necessary, moment by moment, to help each girl.
Yes, I was devastated—devastated times 150 trusting hearts. I couldn't stop thinking about the girls, every single one of them—remembering when I first interviewed them to come to the school, and their high hopes and happy smiles the day they were accepted. So many of them had already had such difficult lives: poverty, death, violence, grief. I wanted their lives at the school to be not just better but easier and free from all harm.
So that dream was temporarily thwarted.
But I can say today (as I write this, I'm on a plane to Africa once again) that the sweeping changes instituted since the report of abuse have put us on the path to a more stable and secure future than we had before. The crisis has forced the school's staff, administrators, teachers, students—and everyone associated with their well-being—to create a more open and collaborative environment. So the new birthing I spoke of in last month's column has begun.
Throughout this process, I've been sustained by my abiding faith in a power greater than my own. I've recognized in every dark moment that this too shall pass. That's the mantra that's kept me going from the moment I received the first phone call of suspected abuse.
After many days of constant conversations and working through a multitude of concerns, I was worn out, but my spirit's never faltered. I've remained encouraged by the grace and love of friends who've e-mailed, written, or called. So many people asked, "Is there anything I can do to help?"—not knowing that they already had, just by asking. Gayle was as exhausted as I but still attended every meeting with police, and parents. Maria Shriver left daily messages reminding me to hold firm to my intentions in building the school.
Every note or message felt like an embrace, like the greatest valentine anyone could receive. None came with frills or fancy bows—just its own heart-spoken truth. This last line in a handwritten letter from Sidney Poitier spoke volumes: "The universe and all your friends have your back."
To know that people care about how you're doing when the doings aren't so good—that's what love is. I feel blessed to know this for sure.
One day while I was doing the show, my friend BeBe Winans appeared in the audience. "BeBe, why are you here?" I asked during a commercial break. "No one told me you were coming!"
"I just came to see you, see how you were doing," he said. That's strange, I thought, but continued with the show. Afterward he followed me to my office and said, "There's something I came to tell you." And as I sat behind my desk, he started singing what he knows is my favorite spiritual: "I surrender all. I surrender all. All to thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all."
I sat silently, closed my eyes, and opened myself to accepting his magnificent and humble offering, this gift of love and song. When he finished, I felt a release of all pressure to do anything. I was content to just be. And for the first time in weeks, I experienced pure peace.
When I opened my eyes and wiped away the tears, BeBe was beaming. He started laughing his huh, huh, huuuagh laugh, and gave me a big hug. "Girl," he said, "I just came to remind you, you don't have to carry this load all by yourself. You can surrender all."
And in that moment I did.
From the February 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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