I’ve never really bought into the notion of “heaven on Earth”. The phrase gets tossed around flippantly, describing everything from perfect vacations to post-intimacy euphoria to a good burger.
When we enjoy great moments – rare and temporary harmonies of circumstances, events, or emotions – and liken them to heaven, there are subtle but damaging implications. Our innate Tower of Babel mentality risks exaggerating elements of life on this terrestrial ball to the level of the divine in our minds, tempting belief that things only need to be properly combined in time and space to reach heaven’s greatness. Love, health, pleasure, beauty, contentment, and other good things take on an unbalanced significance. God then grows smaller, His scope understandable, and His kingdom within reach of our efforts. We forget that He is not merely a larger and better man, with a hidden and flawless formula for happiness, one that can be solved with a bit of skill or luck. Salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, a gift that cannot be earned or constructed by man’s efforts, must be received for one to know God’s forgiveness, to live freely and with purpose as His child here on Earth, and to ever see Heaven. Even after that, Heaven must remain a future destination, beyond the pale of this life.
But as it is written:
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” – 1 Cor. 2:9
Although we may accept this truth as God’s word, it is still comforting to experience revelatory moments in the course of our lives that draw us heavenward, away from this earth and its ordinary affairs. In much the same way that confirming signposts aid a driver on a long and uncertain journey over unfamiliar roads, encounters with God help us navigate confusing stretches, spur us to cover more ground, and reassure us that we are still heading to our desired destination.
With few exceptions, spiritual encounters like these have primarily inspired my writing on this blog over the last 4 years. Absent the unexpected joy of personally witnessing God’s power on display at Naomi’s Village and Cornerstone, I would likely have never begun to write. I had not discovered the joy of using this creative form of expression, nor had I ever been moved to describe prior life experiences with such passion and regularity.
For emphasis, here are two recent examples when God shifted my focus from the everyday to the glorious, to glimpses of Home beyond the shifting sands of the visible.
Lately, Julie has speculated that David might be a bonafide angel, rather than a mere human, because of the consistently sweet aura he exudes to everyone. To her, he personifies blessing. Running down the hall at NV when baby naptime is over, I remember her words. My heart rate goes up as I kick off my shoes on the cold plaster walkway outside that special room, preparing to scoop him up and feel his silky cheek against mine. The door swings open and I find him, our beloved one, ambling across the colorful rug unclaimed. He picks up his pace and hurries my way, reaching up with chubby arms. His smile rewards me, reconfirms my calling, and echoes the timeless Redeemer who dissolves brokenness into joy.
I picture this baby becoming a boy, becoming a man, helping countless others escape from their pits, living a gospel ending to his story, before fading to join Heaven’s celebrating crowd. Somehow in a brief flash, I grasp David’s long transition from a narrow and dark latrine to celestial streets, glistening with gold, and never tears. I can make out a picture of the former place where it all began, but the latter blurs. My mind is void of proper shapes and even the hues needed for me to form an image of that otherworldly place. I have not yet seen Home, after all. I sit in the gentleness of the baby room, just as I am, and take a rest stop for a while. Jesus did this 2000 years ago, when he wore skin, and knew my trials. I thank Him for David, a reflection of baby Jesus, the parallels and lessons too vivid to ignore.
There are other times, when the dining hall at Naomi’s Village almost bursts at the seams with love, as our kids and staff sing on a Sunday morning. I join in, hoping that Heaven’s song will someday sound like African children, whose voices bounce off a perfectly pitched cypress ceiling like this one, and reverberate around every neuron receiving joy signals inside me. Paying closer attention, I see individual faces, caught up in worship, as free as children should be. Bittersweet memories of their prior sufferings randomly flood my cerebral cortex, brief flashes of those days before the gates opened and they finally had a place to belong. As my spirit reaches out for Him while in this mix of emotions, I wonder how He must feel about this scene. A vision comes – big kind eyes looking down, beaming at what has become, and not dwelling on what was. I thank Him for this room, and for the thousands of days we have spent within its walls, with people He joined together in love.
I could write pages, sharing personal stories about how I found comfort in meeting God briefly in the midst of the ordinary. Yet I’ve still wished for all of it, the rest of Heaven. Perhaps that is the point. Nothing here should fully satisfy the children of God, for even the best highlights remain soft and shadowy hints of what is to come. And while there may be no heaven here below, God still reminds us of what awaits, when the yearning is over and we run through those final gates to live with Him forevermore. I think Bono felt the same way I do, when he wrote his great anthem of holy discontentment, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.
Remember the words to this song as you continue to manage life’s hills and valleys. Enjoy these numbered days, by keeping your heart set on an unending stay with your Father in a Place beyond the margins of your own mind’s concept of beauty, a Home perfect enough to defy all description. That is my hope. If you believe, then sing it with me, with a voice as loud as your life.
I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one.
But yes, I’m still running.
You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Oh my shame, you know I believe it.
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.
– U2, The Joshua Tree, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, 1987
By Bob Mendonsa
With the big kids away from our children’s home at Cornerstone on school days, it has been strangely quiet at Naomi’s Village. I swear I hear crickets chirping and the wind whistling down the empty corridors sometimes. Yet all is not lost.
There are still 7 uniquely beautiful and hilarious babies populating a bright and lively room down the hall from my office. Most days I end up on the multicolored rug, crawling around talking in high-pitched singsongy tones along with Julie and the baby moms, or playing a myriad of silly games that help developing neural pathways connect in healthy ways for our littlest family members. Noelle’s ebullient grin, Sammy’s mischievous laugh, Annemarie’s swaybacked waddle, and Evelyn’s gorgeous face and genuine hugs await me on every visit. David the Beloved never stops giving away those free million-dollar smiles, which seem to lower my blood pressure somehow. Andrew jabbers from a bottomless well of happy, and infant Grace waits her turn to be held and kissed on her pumpkin cheeks. After 30 minutes or so, I return to my desk, or enter my next meeting feeling younger, refreshed, and filled with the love I received.
To consider such rich diversions as mere obligation would be tragic. Every moment with a baby, if distracting worries can be set aside, offers a window to the divine, that which was lost before and is struggling to be made whole again in each of us. An exhibition of intricate and meticulously ordered creation is gradually coming to life before our eyes, yet it can be easy to miss if we hurry past the moments, disengage, and focus on the forest instead of each florid and fruitful tree. I have been guilty of this far too often, but this ever-renewing baby room has been teaching me lessons about the value of life. I’m learning to appreciate how it all starts, and how easy it is to rush past it, to leave that simple and magical baby-life behind, as if it were some covering we needed to shed to be a better form of ourselves.
Toddler lunchtime at Naomi’s Village also ranks as one of my favorite daily happenings. I can always hear when it is about to begin. A distant familiar din of gleeful voices heralds the group’s return from a late morning walk around the community with toddler mom Mercy, who is as close to a pied piper as I could imagine. They have been out chasing insects and lizards, picking flowers for Aunt Doreen in the kitchen, greeting neighbors, and singing trail songs. No doubt they have made a few new friends along the way. Moses (4), their de facto mayor, usually leads the parade down the long driveway to our home and makes sure the rules get followed.
After lining up for hand washing, they scramble to their assigned seats, with surprising orderliness for an army of eleven hungry tots. They wait patiently for bowls of beans and rice, or warm beef stew, or grilled chicken and chapati (a Kenyan flatbread favorite that is only served on Wednesday). Housemothers, security guards, housekeepers, and administrators often filter in and sit nearby, engaging them in conversations as they enjoy lunch. Toddler Jacob serves as comedian, while Virginia oozes pure sweetness with every full-faced smile.
I try to make time to get to the dining hall during this happy half hour and receive my personal blessings. One of the kids will often see me come in, shout out, “Uncle Bob!!”, and point as all heads turn my way. Before I can even reach their tables, I am enveloped by a wave of smiles and little raised hands, all waiting for individual high-fives or handshakes. Kenya is a warm relational culture, and people value a personal greeting between friends. Children learn about this very early in life. I shake hands with some of the eleven toddlers, tickle a few, hug and kiss others. I say each of their sweet names, and notice something about them that day. The color of a shirt, a new haircut, a bandaid covering a scratch, how big they are getting – anything to connect on their level and communicate my love for them. But I am losing ground with every moment, because there are eleven of them, and their outpouring of affection is overwhelming my feeble attempts to keep up. Tugs on my shirt, squeals of delight, my name spoken over and over… love like a sweet cloud hangs in the air.
And then on Wednesday last week, something happened that perfectly exemplifies why I’m receiving as much love in return from my children at Naomi’s Village as I’m giving to them. As I circled those toddler lunch tables and stopped in front of tiny Tekla (2), I looked down and saw that she had torn off a piece of her prized chapati and was holding it out as an offering to me. I had not even said hello yet, nor laid a hand on her sweet head to convey my love. She was already waiting to do something nice for me! Her soft caramel colored face conveyed a twinge of pain and uncertainty as our eyes connected, then shifted to the gift of bread she was clutching. She seemed aware, almost supernaturally so, that I was in need of some love too. Tekla was already reflecting what she’d learned about giving since arriving here after her mother’s awful suicide in December – that we can surrender a portion of our own to comfort another. I gently received the small corner of flatbread and popped it in my mouth, and returned to her a pure smile of thanks. Communion came to mind, as the value of her shared bread flooded my torn soul.
I’ve not been quite the same since that little girl made things so simple and clear once again. Jesus was reminding me that He is the bread I truly need for life. When I seek Him, I will find Him and be filled, even if I am a small and broken vessel like Tekla (and I am). After He has filled me, I can be a wellspring that overflows, unafraid and able to give to others in need.
As these babies and toddlers grow steadily, like trees destined to be a mighty forest, I hope I will never forsake the riches of observing each budding branch and leaf, in expectation of seeing Him work, and of hearing His gentle voice again. Work, worries, and worldliness must find their proper measure. God will show up often before these tender seeds become high oaks, and I don’t want to miss His displays of love and grace by getting lost in the weeds of life. Lessons necessary for my own spiritual health will come from raising these broken children, more precious bread that I must have to truly live.
I have always known that it was His intent to redeem and restore our traumatized babies, toddlers, and children through the ministry of Naomi’s Village. But with time, it has become clearer to me that he also intended to do the same for our staff, and for countless others. That should be no surprise. For we too were once orphans, adrift, alone, and in fearful shape. But through the blood of Jesus, the Father of all Life has cleansed and renewed us, brought us home and called us His children forevermore.
By Bob Mendonsa
Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you. – St. Augustine
The Great Rift Valley, a geographical feature spanning almost 4,000 miles and portions of both Africa and Asia, has been called the most significant physical detail on the planet that is visible from space. In Kenya, that valley is deepest to the northwest of Nairobi, with spectacular views available from the highways leading through Naivasha and Nakuru, two popular tourist destinations. The lower of the two main highways winds precipitously down the side of a massive escarpment face, treating uninitiated travelers to a dizzying mix of Out of Africa grandeur and jarring moments of sheer terror as oncoming trucks execute tight passes on its harrowing switchbacks.
After snaking past miles of dense forests and rocky overlooks, small brightly painted roadside vendor buildings, hopeful roasted-corn sellers, and occasional baboons, the road dumps unceremoniously into Maai Mahiu. Entering this particular truck stop town after the preceding array of sights can feel like being awakened from a pleasant dream by bad news. Drought has taken up permanent residence here, rendering the landscape a featureless brown, its monotony broken only by clumps of scattered garbage, run down shacks, bent signs, and crumbling building facades. Noisy semi trucks clog the center of town, spewing exhaust fumes and creating jams, while small dirty children mix with sickly stray dogs wandering around aimlessly. The absence of hope hangs like a sentence over the town, which seems forever destined to be stifled more than others. Significant commerce falters year after year, corruption and crime flourish, and citizens stay fixed in the crosshairs of systemic generational poverty.
By contrast, the upper highway drapes like a thin ribbon over the peak of the raised 9,000 foot ridge, allowing a much more direct route from Nairobi to Nakuru, both situated at much lower elevations at both ends. At various times, this mostly 2-lane stretch has been listed by different online publications as one of the top ten most dangerous roads in the world, due to its deadly combination of speeding, unsafe passing, and drunk drivers. Just before the halfway point lies a junction called Gichiengo, which is partially known as a smaller hub for those seeking prostitutes, drugs, illicit brew, and pornography. A connecting rural road, partially paved on its upper half, drops off suddenly into a long, winding descent connecting the towns of Gichiengo and Maai Mahiu. Along this transit down the side of the Kijabe escarpment are turnoffs to numerous Christian ministries, including Rift Valley Academy, Kijabe Hospital, CURE Intl. Hospital, Moffat Bible College, and further down, Naomi’s Village.
Truckers stopping overnight for rest and entertainment around either Maai Mahiu or Gichiengo find desperate women and girls willing to take life-altering risks so they can buy food, pay rent, and cover school fees and health bills for their children. Hundreds work around these 2 junctions, surrendering their bodies for only about $2, sometimes to violent and controlling men. Fully 30% of women in this business are HIV+, according to 3 studies conducted since 2011.¹ Unwanted pregnancies happen regularly, often the result of a lack of funds for birth control pills. Late-term pregnancies and needy babies can seem like costly work interruptions, and panic has even caused desperate mothers to abandon or kill newborns. Fathers are no more than a fading concept to so many children, the disappointing ache of their absence becoming the keystone anchoring a deeply rooted lie they have come to believe – “I am of little value to anyone.”
Case in Point:
Janet Atieno, 39, died quietly in her small house near Maai Mahiu on Jan 16, 2017, her 75-pound body no longer able to muster the strength for another day of fighting. She had succumbed to the effects of one of the most efficient killers of marginalized people in modern history. Her six fatherless children were inconsolable, left to soldier on alone, in the wake of losing their gentle, loving mom.
Her life had begun in western Kenya on the shores of Lake Victoria in the town of Oyugis, as the second-born of four kids. Her father later moved their family to Maingi, just down the hill from the aforementioned Gichiengo, after he hired on at a local quarry. As she turned 20, Janet had Paulette, who is now 19 and married with a child of her own. After that, Janet continued having children, though she never married. Margaret (17), Dominic (11), Lloyd (9), Archibella (7), and Denzel (19 mos.) all followed as products of unstable interactions with transient, uncommitted men. Like millions before them, these men blindly rejected one of life’s greatest joys for lesser trinkets like sex and money, ran from themselves, grasping at ghosts and shadows in the shape of bottles and pills. They did not see that their greatest masculine destiny was to be found in an intangible, yet indescribably valuable matter – being a loving, present father.
Janet’s struggling family had become part of the Naomi’s Village community because of Janet’s inclusion in a redemptive outreach to provide food, vocational training, and Bible teaching to ladies needing a way to escape lives of prostitution. A gracious family who donated regularly to the outreach, the Kleins, had raised funds and helped build a home outside Maai Mahiu in mid 2016, relocating sickly Janet from the Gichiengo rental where she and her kids were facing eviction. Because their love for her compelled them to take compassionate action, Janet lived out her last 7 months just a few miles from Naomi’s Village on land that Bonface and his wife Margaret own, with her children’s needs taken care of. Julie, Emily, and I met her in that small, well-kept house in December, along with a family from Grace Community Church in Arlington, TX. Though frail and bony, she emanated grace and hope from behind sunken eyes. I had never before gotten to know the mother of any of our orphaned children before they became parentless, nor did it even occur to me that Janet would die so soon.
On the Monday morning in mid January when we got the call that Janet had passed on, we were headed along the upper highway to Naivasha to buy groceries. Hearing the crushing news from Bonface, we listened as he informed us that he had gone to pick up Janet’s body in the Naomi’s Village Land Cruiser, and was now driving down the lower highway with some of her family to Naivasha, taking her to the mortuary. We trickled along upper and lower margins of the Rift Valley towards Naivasha, converging at nearly the same point, but never meeting up at that time. By late afternoon, when we stopped at Janet’s little home in the dusty farmland back near Maai Mahiu, we discovered Bonface, Anne, Flo, Peris, and Oscar visiting her grieving kids. A few extended family members had already arrived and sat mourning together. We delivered food items and tried to help fill the deep void of Janet’s absence for a while, now gathered in her tiny living room on another spot along that ancient geological gash. The fading amber sun symbolically sank below the distant horizon of our ever-spinning Earth.
Our NV staff unanimously voted on Wednesday to bring in the youngest four, since 17-year-old Margaret was already boarding in secondary school. Baby Denzel had been recently tested and needed immediate treatment for ongoing secondary illnesses. He arrived through the gate amidst a jubilant wave of singing and dancing, a mere 3 days after being held in his mom’s arms for the final time. His older siblings accompanied him that day, and when it came time for me to speak in the dining hall, it felt appropriate and necessary to speak tenderly to them first, rather than to the assembled crowd. My initial words were plain and unplanned, “I’m truly sorry that your mom is gone.” Before I could say more, 11-year-old Dominic’s hand shot up to hide a face bursting into tears. All I could do next was to walk over and put my hand on his head and let him cry for a moment while the room fell silent, allowing a moment of unhindered grief. We then collectively reassured the 3 older children that those in the room understood what they were going through and were determined to love them and see them through the days and weeks ahead. Several children, most notably Joshua, John M, and John N spoke tenderly and confidently to them, with words streaming out from empathy pulpits only their healing youthful hearts had a right to stand at. The sharing of Denzel’s welcome cake that day, usually enjoyed more as a celebration ritual marking inclusion in our family, seemed more importantly to be emphasizing to the 4 that we would never turn our backs on their needs.
The 3 older children would not officially return to stay at NV until 4 days later, because we felt it best that they mourn with the extended family until the weekend passed, since many of them had traveled so far to be there with them. In the meantime, we started Denzel on a regimen of twice daily liquid meds that were necessary to preserve his life. Our loving baby staff struggled with having to force feed a terrified 19-month-old a very bitter tasting concoction when they had not yet formed trusting bonds with him.
On the 3rd day following his arrival, I went to the baby room and opened the door, finding all 7 babies on the rug. Most were watching a DVD, but Denzel sat staring into space, a glum expression firmly locked on his face. I didn’t enter, instead calling each one by name from the door. Noelle and Sammy ran over at points to repeatedly shake my hand, while Evelyn and Annemarie waved sweetly. I received an angelic smile from David, and also one from Andrew, who was crawling around cooing. But Denzel kept scowling as I said his name and called out to him in Swahili. Then surprisingly, he calmly stood and walked over to me, saying “baba” (father) with his hand out. I opened the door wide, took his tiny hand and allowed him to lead me around our courtyard to the swingset. Next he turned and headed for the gate where the vehicle he rode in had first arrived, all the while repeating “baba”. I was later informed that Baba was the name he used for his oldest brother Dominic, who he had come to depend on as his mother’s health declined. When we got to the gate where he had come in 3 days before, he tried to squeeze through the bars. I picked him up and held him, comforting him for several minutes, and letting him know softly that his brother would be coming to live here soon. His sweetness overpowered me at points, and I quietly told God I would do anything to help fill the void in his heart. After taking him back to my office for a piece of candy to distract him, I arranged with Bonface for Dominic and his other siblings to come visit right away.
The next afternoon, Dominic, Lloyd, and Archibella came home to live at NV, now a week removed from Janet’s death, with faces still marred by shock. God showed mercy and providence by having their new home be one graced by several people they already knew and loved. They were given countless hugs, cakes of their own, fresh new clothes and shoes, and the best beds they had ever slept in. Smiles broke through at points, though had they not, we would have surely understood. All of us have accepted that this might be a harder recovery than what we are accustomed to.
The following Sunday, we gathered for church to celebrate 6 wonderful years since we first opened NV. Just 6 days after they had come to NV, the 3 were already laughing and enjoying a celebration video that included photos of all 76 children now living in their family. I marveled as Lloyd ran past me with his new playmates towards the basketball court after church, a genuine smile of glee plastered across his face. Glancing up at the mountains as I have countless times before, I breathed in, renewed with a certainty that I am at home here.
Meanwhile astronauts still orbit, enthralled by the giant rift crossing their distant, seemingly peaceful planet, and amazed that they can see such detail from tiny windows. Safari planes crisscross the Maasai Mara, as awed tourists take in the sights of giraffe, elephants and migrating herds of wildebeest, feeling they have somehow escaped civilization for a bit to get a glimpse behind some proverbial curtain. Thousands more trickle down that winding escarpment road daily, their perspective trailing off from from the scenic until they touch down on the floor of the rift itself, some encountering scenes of stifling poverty for the first time. Others rocket along the ridge above, oblivious to what they are really passing. And beyond where the rubber meets the road, millions in towns like Maai Mahiu and Gichiengo see life through lenses chronically narrowed and dulled by the effects of desperate lack. No matter the perspective of others, this is the way things really appear at ground level when sin and suffering have an unrestrained stranglehold on life.
Yet God sits enthroned, beyond time and space, all knowing, doing as He pleases. I imagine His calm, and question whether He participates actively in, steers gently, or simply allows each stanza in the symphony of beauty and affliction playing out on tiny Earth. Does He pay particular attention to the broken towns rimming that jagged scar marking her lower hemisphere? From His divine viewpoint, I wonder if they appear like periodically brightening jewels of redemption on a necklace, reminders of His grace to save, visible during each turn of the struggling ball?
It makes my heart swell at the thought of a smile cracking open the corner of His mouth before filling His unimaginably magnificent face, as Janet’s bright and brief sparkle reached his divine eyes and then faded on January 16, 2017.
Will there come a day when the children of our children are the fathers Kenya needs, and the ripples carried forth have become a wave of unstoppable cultural change? Could there really be generations of rural women who eventually live without crippling desperation and fear, able to truly choose wisely for themselves and their precious babies? Is it reasonable to imagine a decline in the number of abandoned, orphaned, hopeless, and abused children across Africa over the coming decades? I cannot say how it all turns out. I only know that I want to carry on joyfully laboring near this jewel along that ever-reminding scar, while leaving the unanswerable to Him, until the day when it is time for my sparkle to flicker out as well.
For Janet Atieno
Sunset Jan 16, 2017
By Bob Mendonsa
A tear formed in the corner of both eyes almost simultaneously, without her making a sound. She stood stock still in front of me, a diminutive version of her beautiful mother across the desk. I had asked her gently to open her mouth, stick out her tongue, and allow me to use a tongue depressor and penlight to view her throat. Within seconds, a fearful tremor began as her eyes darted from mine to her mother’s, hoping for a way out.
Halfway through a busy morning in the Cornerstone health center, I had already seen 15 new community kids for screening history and physical exams as well as nutritional assessments. My heart felt raw from encountering so many tattered sleeves and thin limbs, uncertain smiles sneaking out from behind hopeful faces, and the signs of malnourishment and lack. At times I just felt like crying myself.
Her slight frame and hollow expression fit the news that her mother had just given me –“She’s positive.” I noticed that the brave one before me did not flinch at these words, which have carried an ominous stigma for 35 years on this continent now. She could not possibly have understood autoimmune deficiency, the need for lifelong antiretroviral medications, and the threat of early death she faced. Naiveté is a childhood grace, a temporary blindness to the full nature of things. I have come to see it as God’s design, like a divine pardon from having to absorb the more awful aftershocks of the Fall until we grow thicker and stronger.
Youthful naiveté aside, her trembling at the prospect of my exam suggested prior traumatic experiences in similar settings. Enduring chronic illness with only limited medical care in rural hospitals wears on a child born into poverty in Africa. My mind saw flashes of others like me in white coats unintentionally hurting her before, causing pain and fear in their attempts to diagnose and treat her sick body.
Philomena, my faithful translator and our Cornerstone chaplain, put both hands tenderly on the girl’s cheeks and spoke compassionately to her in Kikuyu, and for a moment I saw Jesus. Surely this would have been His play, to look directly into the eyes of the one He loved, to share her suffering, to take her fear upon Himself and carry it. Her countenance softened, as fear drained away gradually. Trust took its place, so that life could go on through another hard moment.
I calmly seized the opportunity to complete my head-to-toe examination, even catching a wry smile at the end when I gave her a high-five. We will have years to get to know her better, and we are determined to be her friend and helper through the storms ahead, to make sure that she thrives. But I am more aware now that we won’t carry our burden alone, not after that sacred moment. No, we will always and forever be just a breath away from seeing the evidence of our Savior, doing what He does, making fear a slave to love in the course of an ordinary day.
By Bob Mendonsa