We have been keeping tabs on the US news from rural Kenya and worrying, not primarily for the safety, health or financial burdens of our friends and family members. No, it is for a purer thing that we fret about our brothers and sisters these days. We fear these constant trials may cause some to lose the hope we should all carry, like an unflickering candle deep inside us that isn’t supposed to be extinguished, even beyond our last breaths. Having traveled a tough road ourselves for these past 12 years in Africa, we understand how that can happen.
We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. – Heb 6:11
After all the disruptions and new realities foisted upon Americans by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it seemed reasonable that some cosmic page might turn in January 2021, restoring fairness and order. If not by magic, maybe sanity would return through vaccines, regime change or herd immunity. Or perhaps we’d find an escape or two during the Super Bowl, March Madness, or the reopening of more schools and restaurants.
Yet as each fresh week grinds by, reality settles in. Much like the chain reaction 130-vehicle accident that recently killed 6 on an ice-shellacked interstate near Fort Worth, tribulations seemingly pile up so fast that it’s impossible to recover from one before the next one hits. It can be hard to maintain hope when the news tells us otherwise. We begin feeling clueless about tomorrow, as if waiting for the next shoe to drop.
How are His children to walk through such difficult times, according to God?
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.
According to the great theologian Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, the word “Baca” (בכא bâkâ’) means properly “weeping, lamentation” …and it may have reference to some lonely valley in Palestine – where there was no water – a gloomy way – through which those commonly passed who went up to the place of worship.
Our hearts are to be set on pilgrimage (not a place and a time to be realized here). We move intentionally, as those aware of a better destination ahead. This place is not Home and was never meant to feel completely comfortable to us. What substantiates us can only be found in Him and the upward call of His glory. God says that is our blessing.
As we pass through dry seasons, the hardest of times, even death, somehow we make them places of joyful prosperity for ourselves and others. He says we get stronger and stronger until that Day when we each see His face in Zion. Trials do not defeat us. They fuel us, adding muscle and clarifying our spiritual eyesight for the ongoing days ahead.
So, let 2021 wash over you just like 2020 did, with all of its heartaches and disappointments, and yes, even the death that is rearing its ugly head all around. Don’t ever fear being tested, broken, remade, or bonded in stronger ways to those around you. Stand in the middle of it all, head up and ready for what you have been told by God to do in this life, however short it may be. Walk on through Baca, my friends. Keep being a blessing to the heartbroken and needy all around. There are surely better days ahead.
By Bob Mendonsa
Blindsided by 2020
20/20 vision represents the standard for normal eyesight as determined by a routine eye exam. However, after being slapped silly by the year 2020, it’s as if we have all woken up in a strange new darkness, groping around without the clarity normally afforded by our dependable surroundings. Perhaps when we reach January 2021 safely, Americans should adopt a new term for perfect visual acuity, one that doesn’t conjure up thoughts of months of lingering uncertainty when we hear it (The British already use 6/6 vision, the metric equivalent, so adopting their system would be easy).
Too often in 2020, we have been forced to focus on all that is messy and broken in our world –global disease, ugly politics, racial disharmony, violence, death, loss, unfulfilled expectations, and jarring life changes. To make matters worse, I have often strayed further into the morass by trying to fix things I cannot, whether through actions or misguided emotions. But 2020 has been a sobering antidote for action-oriented idealists like me. Anyone with this same “disease” has surely also reached the end of their rope at times this year and accepted the futility of sorting everything out anymore.
Being exasperated to the point of stillness has its purpose.
When the noisy clamor of this world finally falls silent in our personal “to do list” wired brains, we may find things aren’t so confusing, frustrating, or futile after all. By His grace, we may recognize instead that God is still firmly in control and at work redeeming creation all around us.
The Story of Grace Love
Her face slightly plump, skin delicately soft and shaded like toasted cocoa, Grace Pendo danced in a pale turquoise dress and oversized Converse shoes on a Sunday morning at Naomi’s Village. All the dancers surrounding her were confident and beautifully adorned as well, but Grace stood out because of her young age. Barely 3 and just a few months removed from the baby room, she was keeping pace brilliantly with 4-9-year-olds. Sound, color, movement, gross and fine motor skills, social/emotional interactions, impulse control… these features of her healthy development were all on display. We marveled at Grace’s progress, realizing again what is possible when babies and toddlers are well nurtured, continuing to receive all the necessary inputs and none of the adverse childhood experiences that produce toxic stress. But those were mere facts, and they couldn’t distract our hearts for long from the show Grace and her friends were putting on. Laughter and cheering and tears, the “side effects” of grace, held much more sway on us that September morning. For who could truly explain what God had done? We weren’t responsible for the remarkable flourishing of the little girl who danced in front of us. It had all been grace. Knowing that deep within our spirits, our reactions poured out like unalloyed worship, the kind which doesn’t require a leader, a place, or a program.
The meaning of her given name (Grace), for a previously abandoned baby girl, seems terrifically prophetic now. She simply shouldn’t be this far ahead in life already, considering her rough start. But it’s her middle name Pendo, meaning love in Swahili, that really explains who she is today. Grace Pendo has been loved consistently and unconditionally, first for 2 years in the baby room, and since then by two splendid Naomi’s Village mothers, Christine and Gladys. She shares her Naomi’s Village days and nights with two sweet “sisters”, Stella and Tekla. The attachment Grace enjoys because of our intentional caregiving model has provided her the safety, provisions, and heartfelt love she has needed to blossom.
Grace started attending LEAP Preschool on Naomi’s Village’s campus during the pandemic, even though she hadn’t turned 3 yet. We were only allowed to hold preschool for our NV kids, so we decided to add her to the program early since we had the space. LEAP Director Mary Mwendia recently submitted a report detailing just how fast Grace has progressed in less than a year, noting she is ready for the 4-year-old class now. Grace volunteers to lead songs in front of her peers, shows remarkable command of language and numbers, and has adjusted very well to the daily routines of attending preschool.
Research shows that early childhood intervention programs that focus on child directed play, are literacy-rich, provide excellent nutrition, and empower parents to learn healthy parenting methods lead to better outcomes for kids who come from backgrounds of lack. Naomi’s Village and LEAP Preschool have been hitting these important points on all cylinders and getting amazing results in the process. We expect that Grace’s trajectory can and will continue to be the norm for hundreds of local Rift Valley children over the coming years. God has given us both the charge to do this and programs that have been proven to be successful. Grace’s story, while emblematic of His ongoing redemption, will not be the only one we share over the coming years.
So if we get overwhelmed by struggles sometimes, that’s understandable. But let us never forget that beyond all that portends evil there lies a far better thing. Redemption, the very work of God, has never ceased to claim new victories on even the darkest of nights. In distraction, despair, or even doubt, we might overlook the divine swirling all around us. Yet if we surrender control we will rediscover – in the beauty of sunsets, mountains, and gracefully dancing little ones, the joy of family or the merciful touch of a loving friend – that He’s still there working, even when we have nearly lost all hope.
And we will be reminded that 2020 and all the struggles left in its wake could never stand in place of the glory of God.
By Bob Mendonsa
Originally posted June 2016
It almost ended there, in a dark cylindrical shaft, not two feet across, and fifteen feet below Earth’s sweeter surface.
Floating in raw sewage, the Kenyan baby boy survived because of a simple misunderstanding of buoyancy. By wrapping him in a plastic bag that miraculously trapped air around his tiny newborn frame, his mother unintentionally saved his life. He had only recently departed one watery milieu inside her womb, attached and warm, nurtured by every maternal heartbeat… safe. Then after sensing warm light and briefly hearing her voice, he was jarred by a sudden splash as he landed in human waste, having been dropped down a pit latrine. He now lay confused and alone in a dark hell, an unforgiving vertical tomb with no relief in sight.
The reason she left him there to die may never be known. Some candles, when lit in storms, blow out quickly before brightening any scene.
At least six hours passed that night from the time the latrine had last been used until another woman came to relieve herself. Getting positioned, she heard distinct whimpers from the damp hole beneath her and began screaming in horror at the thought. Baby cries, a human child in need… how could it have gotten down there, in such a terrible place? A clamorous crowd quickly surrounded the outhouse, at first unable to accept such news from her without coming to a quiet to hear for themselves. Distant pained screams welled up from underneath their feet. A cellphone flashlight confirmed the truth. Someone caught a glimpse of his flesh, a tiny eye peeking out of the foul darkness now wrapped in fearful suspense.
A man of uncommon bravery stepped forward and volunteered to attempt a rescue. Someone found a rope and quickly tied a butcher’s hook to the end. He leaned in headfirst as far as he could, fighting the rush of blood to his head, uncertain darkness, and sewer gas. With his ankles supported to prevent him from plummeting further into the pit, shoulders scratching against earthen walls on either side, he strained to see. “Pole, pole! (Slowly!)”, he yelled as the infant came into focus. Within seconds, he managed to snag the shopping bag by its handles with the butcher’s hook.
Angels must have celebrated the moment, as an unwanted baby boy was cradled by his hero and brought skyward, to thrive in the hopeful light of day again. There could have been no worse odds against being rescued, and all the more when he was so utterly helpless and weak. Parallels exist for we who also once lay dirtied, unable to save ourselves, and who were suddenly plucked and brought up to live in the brightest place, full of wonder and solidity. Only God does such things – sends saviors into bleakest night to rescue the dying.
His first name, given by the hospital in Narok, was Abandoned. Within a half hour of hearing about this boy, I knew that he was to be called David. Later, we looked up the name and discovered that it meant “beloved”, confirming that this was to be the handle that defined his new identity.
Twenty-one days passed, marked by prayers and worries, as he lay in a hospital bassinet undergoing treatment. And then he finally came home one sunny Wednesday, as sure as the happy ending of a perfect play.
The NV gates opened and we smiled and cheered until our faces hurt. We sang and danced and passed him around before sharing his celebration cake. We remembered our own stories and what it felt like to be clean again, to start over with a forever-fresh slate in a crowd of the redeemed.
We worshipped God, who finds the hopeless in deep narrow pits of despair and brings them home to live in wide-open places, full of love and song and purpose. And we did so, aware that even the best of these places is shadowy at times, unable to compare to the home that awaits us on that Day, farther up and brighter still.
Life and color, loving touch, early literacy, healthy attachment, nutrition, and the riches of a giant worldwide family will fill David’s future. For the next two years our baby moms will give him their expert attention, caring for every aspect of his babyhood. There will be those glorious toddler years to follow, bounding around the hallways of Naomi’s Village, singing in the dining hall, heading to the beach every December, and opening Christmas gifts with his siblings. He will begin at Cornerstone Preparatory Academy in 5 years, and we will put a solid stone under every one of his dream steps.
And perhaps one day, by the grace of God, this beloved boy will stand tall and tell his story to thousands. If so, it will be one that is too awful and too beautiful to be true at the same time, a vivid echo and a reminder of the greatest story ever told.
By Bob Mendonsa
When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Kenya about 10 weeks ago, we knew that Great Rift Valley families faced a mountain of challenges ahead. Jobs would be scarce and money even tighter than usual for those normally living on less than $2 per day, which described the bulk of the families with students at our schools. A scarcity of healthcare resources would also threaten tens of thousands of valley citizens living in close quarters under the effects of poverty.
When schools are in session, our LEAP Preschool and Cornerstone students receive a nutritious breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday, plus morning and afternoon snacks. Because we have a RN on staff and a well-stocked pharmacy, we manage most illnesses, provide free medications and also give deworming treatment to all pupils every 3 months. Our students receive filtered water to drink, counseling, spiritual care, and a world-class education. But as the pandemic has dragged on and our schools remain closed, we have become increasingly focused on how to meet these vital needs for community children who attend Cornerstone and LEAP Preschool.
In March, we began hosting outreaches at Cornerstone so that we could provide for these needs effectively (watch this short video for a better understanding of what happens).
These events have been supported through our COVID-19 Relief Fund, which many of you have given to. Yet despite our best intentions, a few recent follow ups have challenged us to see that we could be doing more to assist these struggling people we have grown to love.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
– Maya Angelou
On May 14, a desperate father showed up unannounced at Cornerstone’s gate asking for old cardboard boxes. Recent heavy storms and flooding had so damaged his home that his family, including Cornerstone third grader Celine, were getting colder and wetter by the day. A few days later, our social worker, nurse, and community development coordinator paid this family a visit.
What they discovered touched their hearts. Celine’s family lives in a tiny $10/month rental with gaps in the walls and a leaky tin roof. Her parents had used plastic bags to create a ceiling and limit rainwater leakage. Sections of cardboard boxes had been used as partitions to create “rooms” just large enough for one sleeping space, a sitting room, and a cooking area. Despite their lack, Celine’s mother had managed to cheerfully decorate her sitting area with fabric wall coverings and bright patches of cloth. The home had a dirt floor, no plumbing, and no electricity. Additional cardboard patches had been used to block the inflow of cold air between crudely fitted wall timbers.
Reading these anecdotes from our social worker Theresa, I thought about the Celine I know who runs joyfully around the hallways of our beautiful campus and plays on the playset we installed last year. Julie and I read storybooks to her third-grade classroom weekly when school is in session, opening up new horizons with the turning of every colorful page. Each time we do, we reflect afterwards that we can almost hear brain cells wiring as they sit at rapt attention, soaking in every detail. Celine also loves to participate in the weekly chapel with the lower primary school, led by our loving Chaplain Tony.
Now, the dichotomy of Celine’s two worlds crashes in on me. But for her, who daily bears the brunt of such poverty, waiting for school to reopen must be like an endless nightmare. I have never, and will never, walk in her brave little shoes. I try to imagine sleeping on a dirt floor, cardboard walls and wind whistling past, with little girl fears swirling all around.
Her father, his pride weighing less than his love for her, knew this better than me when he humbly came to our gate in search of cardboard that day.
Jane, Joseph, and Geoffrey
“Every kid needs at least one adult who is crazy about him.”– Urie Bronfenbrenner
As we conducted our outreach to over 180 community families on May 12, one humble grandmother approached Theresa with a concern. As the primary caregivers to Cornerstone 5th grader Jane Wanjiru, her LEAP student brother Joseph, and 2 older brothers, she and her husband now faced a housing crisis. Due to recent heavy rainfall, their small home built with pressed dirt bricks and sticks had partially collapsed. This disaster had forced the grandmother to break African custom and move in with her son and his family of 7, which included Cornerstone 9th grader Geoffrey. One small homestead now housed 13 people under one roof, in the midst of a pandemic.
This dedicated woman had long been the champion for education of her extended family’s children, especially after her grandchildren’s biological parents abandoned them for jobs in Nairobi. She often thanked our teachers during home visits before her house collapsed. They tell us she praised Cornerstone for providing assignments, following up on students’ work during the pandemic, and donating nutritious food.
Not surprisingly, she has begun to help her family to get back on its feet. This determined grandmother has already made plans to build her family a new home made of stones with a cement floor and metal sheet roof. She has pledged to raise the money for all but the metal roofing sheets, for which she has asked Cornerstone to help.
Her fortitude and character have been like a hitching post in the storms of life for her grandchildren. They can make it because she is there for them with the support needed to help them stand firm. This story, though anecdotal, drives home an important point. When children face traumas like abandonment, abuse, parental violence, drug abuse, or natural disasters, studies show having one steady person as an attachment figure can make all the difference in how they cope and develop in healthy ways.
Every day we awaken to new stories from our social workers, teachers, and nurses. Each precious child’s family has unique struggles, some we never hear about. We often wonder how they get through lives filled with so many uncertainties and fears. And we equally marvel at the provision of God, who loved them so much that He showed up in the midst of their sufferings and brought them a school flush with enriching programs and practical provisions for their kids. Why did He come to them and not some other people group?
It took the power of God to steer Julie and me where He really wanted us to go. Seventeen years after our first visit to Kenya, we still cannot fully explain what happened. Why us?
Questions dissolve into another brilliant forever sky, stretched like His masterpiece over the jagged ends of high peaks above the Great Rift Valley of Kenya. Julie and I are rolling downhill again into its midsection on a May morning, ready for whatever comes next. We honestly don’t try to figure out all of yesterday’s answers anymore. Challenges brought about by the pandemic and a recent flood are keeping us firmly focused on today.
It’s better this way, to live moment by moment, as participants in the middle of a God-wrought redemption. Much like our faithful Land Cruiser somehow navigates safely from high on the escarpment face to the valley floor daily, though pitching wildly back and forth on jutting stones, fishtailing in slimy mud, or pushing through herds of livestock, we know that God will also navigate us through the uncertain terrain of the day ahead.
Thank you all for continuing to provide the means for us to help children and parents and grandparents like the ones mentioned above. We trust you are also receiving your rewards now, and will again one day, in a place untouched by disease and storm.
Oh, the mud splattered victims
Have to pay out all along the ancient highway
Torn between half-truths and victimization
Fighting back with counter attacks
It’s when that rough God goes riding
When that rough God goes gliding
And that rough God goes riding
Riding on in.
– from Rough God Goes Riding (Van Morrison, The Healing Game, 1997)
Thirteen years after we first stepped onto the plot of land God drew us to in 2005, an unexpected stream of water began flowing across the center of our Naomi’s Village property in late 2018. Surprised and dismayed, we sent a facilities department worker to track it up the mountain road to its origin. He discovered a pile of sandbags blocking a roadside drainage ditch that normally carried rainwater downhill towards a bridge equipped with large culverts feeding into a sizable riverbed. Despite the infrastructure constructed to accommodate it at the bridge, these sandbags were now diverting water from the drainage ditch to our community and our children’s home property.
Puzzled and annoyed by the blockage, we sent workers to remove the bags. The stream at Naomi’s Village dried up within minutes. We discovered that a group of motorcycle drivers who make money by ferrying passengers up and down the mountain road were the culprits, and they had a viable reason for placing the sandbags. Because the drainage ditch had not been completely dug all the way down to the bridge by the Kenyan government, any rainwater would flow to the end of the ditch, spill over, and flood the road surface down to the bridge crossing. During rainy season, this made motorcycle and small vehicle travel difficult. Additionally, the surface water threatened the integrity of the bridge itself. In fact, in 2012 and 2014, the bridge had been entirely washed out by improperly managed surface water from the mountain road.
While we waited on the government to finish their work on the drainage channels before the next rainy season, Julie and I were in the US for a large part of 2019. Unbeknownst to us, the people of the community around the sandbag site and a collective of motorcycle drivers agreed with government officials to construct a more permanent fixture to divert water our way. A large stone channel was designed and built where the sandbags had been found, complete with a wall on its downhill side. The wall was intended to bank flowing water into two large round culverts which passed perpendicular to and underneath the road surface. This meant that all future rainwater had to travel towards the community around Naomi’s Village. This manmade diversion was completed in September, one month before a record 8-month spate of rain began falling in October 2019.
Meanwhile, we were constructing our 4-year-old LEAP classroom building on NV’s property, including adequate drainage based on historical precedents for the area and our property in particular. Construction finished up in late September before the rains began. Because of the sandbag incident from the prior year, we installed a large culvert as a precaution so that any future diverted water could safely pass under the building’s foundation. Sure enough, some water began flowing through it as soon as the rainy season began in October. Our staff paid little attention to it in our absence, however.
After we arrived back in Kenya in November, the amount of water flowing across our property suggested a problem at the sandbag site again, so I drove up to investigate. Discovering the newly constructed setup that was diverting 100% of the mountain’s rainwater to Naomi’s Village, I was unhappy and felt that our community and ministry had been wronged. I called an area government official, who came to site. We met with a community elder and were told that the course the water was currently taking was “the natural course of the river that had been there since I was a boy.” Despite Julie and I protesting to the contrary, plus the obvious fact that the manmade diversion was the only thing making the water flow towards NV, he and others kept promoting that position over the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the rains kept falling in greater volume. Our preschoolers’ available play space became more compromised and dangerous. Government officials were informed several times and did nothing of substance for us. A few weeks later, in exasperation, we asked Naomi’s Village facilities workers to knock down the end wall with sledgehammers. This left the stone channel and culverts intact and maintained about 50% of the water flowing in each direction, a reasonable compromise.
All hell broke loose. Our water line from the mountains, which travels underground alongside that road, began to be severed intentionally. Death threats were made by another local elder from the mountain community to many people, including directly to Julie and me. Despite meetings at the diversion site to try and allow a government engineer and administrator to work out a compromise, the people would only accept one solution – that 100% of the water be diverted again towards Naomi’s Village and take “its natural course”, which they insisted it had once done in decades past. When we disagreed, they told us we should sell our property and move. We were lied about, threatened, and treated with contempt for offering to provide funds to dig the necessary drainage channels near the bottom of the mountain road to accommodate water. We tried to speak up and be understood and we pled on behalf of our children. But every point we made only caused the rift to grow deeper. Shouting and violence seemed inevitable at every turn, and our Kenyan staff were especially vulnerable during these meetings.
With machetes and clubs in hand, a few arrived at meetings looking ready for more than discussion. Some spoke of burning us and killing us if we ever came back up the hill again. While standing in the midst of angry shouting from both sides one day in Feb 2020, surprisingly unafraid but unable to be understood any longer, I had an epiphany. Though I’m not normally one to walk away from a matter of right and wrong, something suddenly relented inside me and all contentiousness dissolved. I could only hear and see real people that God loved this time around. And with just one more spark, they were about to erupt in terrible violence towards one another. Calmly, I began to raise my voice above the din, begging for them to stop yelling and fighting. Naomi’s Village was surrendering the matter. No water drainage issue was worth the cost of people killing one another.
In order to restore peace, we rebuilt the wall that same day with NV money and returned to our daily lives. We then met to figure out an internal solution at NV, considering the idea of adding a river water feature for the preschoolers. A private engineer designed a few options to help us, but expenses held us up. Meanwhile the rains fell harder each week. Inside, we felt increasingly defeated as we watched the on-site river growing in width.
Every time I passed a motorcycle driver on a nearby road, bitterness welled up in my spirit, like acid spoiling my peace. The faces of Kenyan locals, once lovely to me, seemed tinged with a scowl. Was I projecting my own frustrations back upon them? Something was just not right anymore. We had come with a vivid call from God to this community, willing to surrender ourselves for those in need, and to never allow discouragement to send us packing. Where had all the grace gone? Why couldn’t we get some from them in return when we needed it? We felt wounded and alone, though not among our staff and kids, who were suffering in the same way.
On the evening of May 5, everything changed. After months of rain, a massive section of earth supporting the Kijabe Railway line along the escarpment above us suddenly gave way. This disaster released millions of gallons of stagnant water, stones, and mud in a vicious flash, sending them straight down the mountain road and through its communities.
At around 8 PM, with the roads empty due to a government mandated 7 PM curfew, an ominous rumble began. Fearful locals streamed outside their homes among hills overlooking the sunken mountain road, which had always looked as if it had been built on top of an old riverbed. The sound grew louder, portending a catastrophe. Unable to run away, those with a view watched in horror as a gigantic torrent of mud and stones hurtled past, destroying the manmade diversion and gutting the road. The flow uprooted large trees and demolished numerous farms in its wake. Although nobody was injured or killed, livestock were swept away and lost forever.
A significant part of the flood waters struck Naomi’s Village, flattening and twisting fifty yards of heavy steel fencing on each side, wiping out the center one third of our property with mud and debris, and causing significant damage to the LEAP 4-year-old building. Only the day before, we had approved a budget for a drainage system for the smaller river that had been flowing through our property. God had other plans.
As day broke the following morning, we drove around in our Honda Quad and 4-wheel drive Land Cruisers to survey the damage. Only one of the four local bridges remained partially intact, making access to Naomi’s Village tenuous. Roads were devastated, with few being passable. Fences were down everywhere.
Two local community members died in the coming days, unrelated to the flood. Families held traditional Kikuyu burial services within the devastated area, so we provided assistance from our drivers and four-wheel drive vehicles to carry caskets and mourners from a mortuary across the muddy bridge and to their homes. Sorrow and joy mingled on faces, much like the mud and rainwater swirling around our feet.
Every day, the rain has continued to fall as we repair roads with loads of quarry stones, tow stuck vehicles out of the mud, ferry passengers across raging waters, deliver food, water and other supplies, and struggle to repair our fencing and finish the drainage system. What might seem like drudgery is instead a constant adventure, a chance to serve and be served in the middle of a purposeful maelstrom.
We have supplied masks, a forehead thermometer, pulse oximeter, medication, construction supplies, tools, and workers to the community elders who are leading relief and repair efforts. On Sunday May 10 we participated in a day-long meeting at a local church, wisely mediated by our Member of the County Assembly (M.C.A.), an elected official. This meeting led to reconciliation between Naomi’s Village leaders and the community leaders from the mountain area where the water was being diverted our way. Both sides publicly apologized, multiple community members spoke about the effects of the tragedy and gave suggestions for how to solve our water drainage issues, and there were numerous compromises achieved.
Having our fences down at NV for the past 10 days has opened more than our property. Our hearts and actions towards our community have been much more outwardly focused and intentionally loving. Without God’s sudden and deliberate action of sending this flood to strike Naomi’s Village, we might never have made those changes. And other community members have helped us around NV by pitching in to work, giving to our efforts, and praying for us.
The destruction of the manmade water diversion on the mountain road took away the motorcycle drivers’ business and opened up two-way discussions about the need to better handle the water flowing down the mountain. Ever since that time, unimpeded rainwater has followed the road’s course. These lessons were painful ones for the entire community. Yet despite some initial stubbornness, we all came to the table, reconciled, and agreed to work together. God had to make those things happen. We know now that those doors would not have opened in another way. New friendships have begun to spring up from the soil of enmity, and hope is now our community’s mantle.
In the end, we will finish the robust drainage system that diverts the majority of water around NV and LEAP, allowing most of it to pass through our community instead of down the mountain road. Barring any further catastrophic events, we are confident that future rainy seasons can be accommodated with this system. But if not, the group agreed to consider adding 2 other solutions on Sunday, which was another step in the right direction.
So, if any of you feel your trials have gone on far too long, or that the storms in your life may not end, I say remain faithful to Him and wait. Perhaps God has yet another storm ahead, one with greater purposes hidden in every drop of its glorious and healing water. Do not fear His ways. Remember that when the hearts of His children are at stake, He will do whatever it takes to keep them soft and full of love for one another. And He knows how to do that best in the most surprising of ways, even if it means you end up covered in life’s mud, laughing and crying at the same time.
By Bob Mendonsa
The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.
St. Augustine of Hippo
Weeks of planning, prayer, and preparations finally ended on Monday, Nov 25, 2019. At 3:30 a.m., lights flickered on, and 62 groggy but excited children began dressing, washing faces, brushing teeth, and boarding Naomi’s Village buses. Within half an hour, 82 people, adults included, were headed southeast from the Great Rift Valley towards Nairobi. Two hours later, the ebullient crowd settled in seats aboard Kenya’s Nairobi–Mombasa Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), also known as the Madaraka Express.
The SGR got this moniker when its first fare-paying passengers rode in its speedy electric train cars on June 1, 2017 (Madaraka Day), the 54th anniversary of Kenya’s attainment of self-rule from Great Britain.1 Since then, millions of Kenyans have safely traversed Kenya using the new railway, which boasts a 5-hour transit time between the country’s capital Nairobi and the large Indian Ocean city of Mombasa (roughly half the normal driving time).
The SGR runs beside the now obsolete narrow-gauge Kenya–Uganda Railway, once known as the “Lunatic Express” for the colossal waste of resources and human life suffered during its construction. Completed for $9M from 1896 -1901 under British colonial rule, the railroad was constructed by 37,000 British Indian laborers and skilled artisans who immigrated solely for the project. Over 2,500 of them died from diseases, animal attacks, work injuries, and violent encounters with Kenyan tribesmen displeased with the passage of the railway through their land. On the other hand, the Nandi tribe lost thousands of men fighting against the advance of this “iron snake” before they finally laid down their arms. On completion, the Kenya–Uganda Railway stretched from the port at Mombasa to the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile River. This helped connect commerce between the Indian Ocean and Uganda and also gave strategic control of the Nile River to the Brits.2
Today, the East African Railway Master Plan calls for Kenya’s modern SGR to link with other SGRs being built in neighboring countries in East Africa. At $3.6 billion, the SGR is Kenya’s most expensive infrastructure project since its independence from Britain in 1963. China Road and Bridge Corporation, the primary contractor this time, hired 25,000 Kenyans to complete the railway.3
Our children watched the beauty of their nation’s countryside roll past from the comfort of coach seats costing $10 apiece, a small price to pay for the experience of seeing elephants and other wildlife. None had ever ridden a train before, and most had not seen elephants in their natural habitat. Had they been told the sad and colorful history of how the first railroad had torn a terrible swath of destruction and death across their land just 120 years before?
By midafternoon, the happy throng pulled up in front of the sprawling Flamingo resort in Mombasa, a city now known as much for its tourism as for the still vital port it surrounds.
Because of careful planning and discussions with the kids to prepare them, they adapted quickly to their room assignments and roommates. Each received loving supervision, a comfortable bed, warm showers, plenty of clean clothes for the 4-night stay, new swimsuits, and a daily devotion time including worship and a short lesson. The resort was all-inclusive, with hearty buffet meals including lots of fun new foods, a variety of tropical fruits and desserts, sodas, and twice daily snack times. But the biggest draw, according to almost every child, was the swimming. Flamingo sports a huge pool with slides and a waterfall, an activities staff, and music pumping from poolside speakers. The white sandy beach and warm tropical water of the ocean provided a second place to swim, play games, and search for seashells. For some of our children, this was their first time to see an ocean, and the excitement was palpable.
Some small ones started out with floaties and stayed on the pool steps in the shallow water at first. But little by little, day by day, they grew braver, gaining confidence as they learned to stay afloat, put their heads under water, and ultimately swim independently. Squeals of “Uncle Wamai!” or “Auntie Allison!” preceded demonstrations of newly gained levels of skill, feats of bravery, or just plain silliness.
Special things happen at eye level between an adult and child in a pool that don’t happen elsewhere. Buoyancy equalizes heights, we tune out everyone else for a time, and we see each other more clearly somehow. Adults bond with children and gain their trust while supporting them in water – in the process imparting love, exhibiting faith in their ability to succeed, and showering them with joy over small but not insignificant victories. It shouldn’t surprise us that the water is an ideal place for healthy bonding, considering a baby’s attachment to its mother begins underwater during a 42-week long gestation in the womb. A preborn infant feels her movements, smells her, and even hears her voice, beginning the critical process of brain wiring.
For previously traumatized, neglected, and developmentally delayed children, healthy play and safe relationships with nurturing adults can make a world of difference in helping them to heal, to catch up, and to reach milestones they might otherwise never attain.
Seven-year-old James Kibet lives with a significant shortening of his left femur bone, the result of a prior infection that destroyed the growth center near his hip and fused the hip joint. These differences mean a leg length discrepancy of about 4 inches, a severe limp, and a compensatory curvature of his lower back. Despite his challenges, James never complains or avoids opportunities to gain new skills. Watching him fight with his whole heart to learn to swim, grimacing at times and grinning at others, made us all stronger and more resolute. He embodies the words of former polio sufferer and later Olympic athlete Wilma Rudolph, who said, “The triumph cannot be had without the struggle.”4 If James has that kind of fight, then we shall never give up until every stepping stone has been placed in front of his eager feet and a road is laid to the doorstep of his success.
On the last day, we rented out 5 glass bottomed boats for a short cruise around the bay and a visit to an offshore sandbar near a coral reef. The kids saw dozens of exotic species of fish and other tropical wildlife, swam in the perfectly azure waters of the Indian Ocean, and made memories that will last a lifetime.
Christine Rebecca somehow managed to catch a tiny clownfish, not unlike the Nemo character in the Disney film. She proudly carried it around in a small bit of water for an hour or so, showing everyone its gorgeous colors before setting it free again as we headed up the beach for lunch. Later, she said wistfully to Julie, “This has been the best day I’ve ever had” with a twinkle of sincerity and soft smile that made all of our love efforts worthwhile.
For didn’t we all say such things when we were young and innocent, and not just once? To be there for one of those unadulterated moments in time, a snapshot reminding us that Eden once was and will be again, was to take in a fresh breath of new life.
The days passed quickly, the tide coming in and out each morning, inexorably and beautifully, welcoming new horizons with it. We all grew closer, like grains of sand clumped together, His thoughts of love for us too many to count. I suppose my days and my years are lessening in number while theirs blossom and take preeminence. Yet I have so much left to impart to them before they take off into the world. Precious times away from school and work, opportunities to see and learn new things, and to be with each other like we have been on these trips…these are the vital cords that bind families and childhoods together, substantiating them as more than the sum of their parts.
Julie and I had planned to stay on another day after they left for home. As they loaded in buses headed for the SGR station, I marveled again at the glory of it all. God has given us a rich and colorful family, full of life and excitement, challenges and blessings, and enough love to last a lifetime.
As you and yours celebrate this coming Christmas season, may you slow down to see in the faces of your children and grandchildren the things that remind you that life is precious, wonderful, and worth swimming in. And may you draw closer to them and to the God who invented joy and perhaps remember at least one of those “best days you ever had”. I’m thinking of at least one right now and it has already made my heart feel lighter.
Thank you, Christine Rebecca, James Kibet, and the rest of my kids at Naomi’s Village. For in your inimitable way, you have taught us all something deeply valuable once again.
By Bob Mendonsa
Founder and E.D. – Naomi’s Village, Inc
1Wikipedia contributors. (2019, December 2). Mombasa–Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:58, December 2, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mombasa%E2%80%93Nairobi_Standard_Gauge_Railway&oldid=928825347
2Patowary, Kaushik. Lunatic Express: The Railway that Gave Birth to Kenya (Feb 2019), Retrieved from https://www.amusingplanet.com/2019/03/lunatic-express-train-that-gave-birth.html
3Wikipedia contributors, ibid.
4Keenan, Marney Rich. Wilma Rudolph (from an essay by Wilma Rudolph edited by Keenan in the Chicago Tribune, Jan 8, 1989). Retrieved from https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1989-01-08-8902230553-story.html
These are the days of miracle and wonder. And don’t cry baby, don’t cry, don’t cry.
– Paul Simon, The Boy in The Bubble (Graceland, Warner Bros. Records, 1986)
Our memorable and dichotomous day began on the winding mountain road up to Eburru, a remote town perched above Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. Potholes and dust, ruts and rocks, and the occasional darting wild animal made driving seem more like an arcade game. My Land Cruiser lurched and roared, swerving around obstacles and bouncing its passengers like popcorn in a pan. Despite that, happy chatter filtered forward from the back. Our son Will had arrived home in Kenya just 3 days before, fresh from an internship with the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. Naomi’s Village administrator Veronica and boys’ teen house parent Patrick had also joined us, adding to the fun. They were all catching up after a year apart.
Yet uncertainty dampened our mood, mixed with a tinge of heaviness and fear. We felt uneasy about what was coming, as when distant rumbles sometimes portend a gathering storm.
We were headed to two of our boys’ grandmother’s home to visit, unsure of how we’d be received. The younger of the two had been relocated there in June because of some unhealthy behavior dynamics between him and some other Naomi’s Village children. His older brother, now 18, left in anger and hurt a week after his brother. The whole matter had been heartbreaking, because these two had been living at Naomi’s Village since 2011. Our family seemed incomplete with them gone. We were still trying to pick up the pieces and ensure that all our beloved children were being cared for properly. It felt at times like sifting through the aftermath of a sudden accident, trying to salvage what had been shattered.
After miles of climbing and a few missed turns, we finally located the boys’ rural family homestead, a cluster of modestly built wood and metal houses set in the verdant hills near Eburru’s iconic peak. Sadly, we discovered the older boy had absconded the day before. The younger one and his relatives were more receptive than expected. We hugged the 16-year-old boy, greeted the others, then sat and took turns sharing our news. He had been doing chores, herding livestock, and helping harvest his family’s crops. Humorously, he casually mentioned toting a large machete around to defend himself against lions and cheetahs in the surrounding forest. This typified our young man, who had always been strong and unbowed in the face of danger. We chuckled, imagining lions would be no match for him.
His older brother, however, had been taking actions that indicated he was running away from his issues and reacting out of fear and pain. After talking with his family, Patrick learned that he had been getting some unwise counsel from a disgruntled former NV employee and his wife, who had even come there recently to visit.
Over a hearty bowl of rice and potatoes and a hot cup of chai, we encouraged the younger boy with the news that we were considering building some housing for him closer to NV so that he could come back to school soon. His countenance brightened even further at hearing this. We also passed off some new athletic shoes for him and his brother, gifts from some dear friends in Wilmington, NC. Rebuilding trust with him after the tough decision we had to make will be like this – one crucial stone at a time, laid in love.
After promising to return in a week and leaving a phone number for the older boy to call us, we said our goodbyes. We left in a hurry, because we had a second major purpose to fulfill by day’s end.
Reversing course, I dropped the nose of the Toyota hardtop downhill, reaching almost twice the speed at which we had ascended. Navigating consisted of mostly controlling its momentum on turns and harnessing gravity’s power on straightaways. Julie held on for dear life and lobbed her usual warnings, but they went hopelessly unheeded. I had a glimmer in my heart’s eye for what lay ahead. Less than an hour later, I practically skidded the truck sideways into the dirt lot outside the Safe House, a festively painted transition home for abandoned children in central Naivasha.
Everyone piled out and the fun began. Violet Najuma (meaning “flower” and “abounding in joy”), a pinch sweet, undersized 2-year old came first. A team of housemothers and our social worker Peris had already arrived, beating us to her. She got plenty of kisses and passing around, despite her sleepiness. We heard how she had been abandoned near Mount Suswa, and was battling tuberculosis. Having been on anti-TB meds for 2 months already, she was not contagious.
Kim Ramsey had sent us a photo the night before of a 3-year-old girl named Stella (meaning “star”), left by her aunt at the Safe House 6 months back. We were told that Stella’s mentally incapacitated mother kept dropping her off at her sister’s, then returning later to reclaim her for short periods. After dealing with this disruptive pattern for almost 3 years, Stella’s aunt finally brought her to the Safe House, hoping that a more stable home could be found.
After inquiring, not only did we get to meet and spend time with Stella, but we were offered the opportunity to take her home to Naomi’s Village too. Nobody batted an eye about saying yes after spending a minute with her, marveling at her sparkling eyes, soft features, and tender personality. Whoever characterized love as something you fall into had it dead right.
As we stood there marveling at this blessing, a caregiver walked by carrying a sad faced baby boy with a big chubby head. As a chorus of “awwww’s” filled the courtyard, we began to murmur the same questions simultaneously. “How old is he?” “What is his story?” “Do we have enough cribs in the baby room?”
We were informed that his name was Leon Taji (meaning “Lion” and “Crown”). Leon was 18 months old and had been abandoned by both his mother and father in a nearby rental apartment. The landlord found him alone and crying in an empty room, with no clues as to the whereabouts of either parent. After a month of fruitless attempts to reach both parents’ cell phones, Leon had been officially declared an orphan.
I know right then that God spoke to me, because the day’s date suddenly entered my mind – August 8. Taking all three children home that day meant we would have 88 kids living at Naomi’s Village. God isn’t random, and the Bible contains numerous examples of Him giving incredibly specific instructions to His children. But I rarely get to understand His will quite so clearly. When I do, obedience follows with much more confidence and joy. Secondary confirmation came from the fact that the Bedwell family from Grace Community had been praying for months for a baby to arrive during their trip. All three Bedwells were standing there in that courtyard at the Safe House as God fulfilled their prayers in triplicate – a baby for each Bedwell!
Passing these simple little nudges from God on to the rest only validated their collective desires. Everyone wanted Leon Taji with a holy kind of ache that didn’t need but a whiff of confirmation to fan it into action. After that the excitement became even more palpable, because we all knew the surprise the other 85 were in for. They had been preparing fervently for Violet Najuma all afternoon, and we were about to roll in with triple the blessing.
However, once again the reality of this perfectly beautiful and terribly violent world came crisply into focus again, catching us all by surprise. In retrospect, we should have expected a reminder that this isn’t Heaven and the work of love will never be enough to shed the undercurrent of pain and death here on Earth.
She came wandering up, all of 3 years old, broken. Her mother had only departed from a short visit a few hours ago, and her face told us she had been hurt deeply. She wore a vibrant red dress and her sad frown did a poor job of hiding her innocent beauty. Jane, the administrator, recounted her story, filling our eyes with bitter, even angry tears. We heard that the little girl could never safely return home to her family again after what had happened. A court case loomed, limiting her release from the Safe House for the meantime. We hugged her, held her, and gave her some candy. Nothing we did melted that pain mask she wore.
As we filed out with our 3 new children a half hour later, she began to wail. Jane said that her tears were over seeing her friend Stella leaving. All of us vowed to come back for her, to take her hand and her heart, to make her life and ours one. Scanning the fields flanking the Children’s Department Office, the Judicial Law Courts, and the Safe House, I remarked that this section of Naivasha always reminded me of the word “bittersweet”. Several of our babies had been abandoned within a mile of this lot over the last 6 years. Each one had been both a sad reminder of the fallen state of this planet and a joyous gift that alluded to a better Place beyond the pale. Daniel had been plucked near nightfall from the field across the road last year, his placenta still attached. His name means “justice”, a reminder to press on with this work that is so near to God’s heart. As St. Augustine once said, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”
The crowd of 15, new tots included, began celebrating early as we streaked across the floor of the Great Rift Valley on the Trans-African Highway back to Naomi’s Village. Thirty minutes later our gates swung wide in welcome and the three little ones trickled down that long and scenic driveway for the first time. Under a serenade of horns, drums, and cheers, they fell into the arms of a loving new family, never to be unwanted again. We could not have been prepared for the eruption of joyful worship triggered by the arrival of three children when just one had been expected.
The party went on for over an hour – singing in Swahili and English, jumping, dancing, high fives, hugs, cake, prayers, and blessings spoken over the three. Standing in the din of the assembly hall, with all five of my senses set on happy, I looked up again at that cypress ceiling, imagining God in the heavens beyond. Was He speaking to us, drawing back the curtain slightly to give us a glimpse of our own arrival day in the Place He has prepared for us? I can say for sure that after 53 years of vibrant living – including visiting 30 countries on 5 continents – being in that room on homecoming days has no comparison.
Abounding in Joy, Star, and Lion now belong in our family, each made in the image of God. The meaning of each child’s name reminds us of the Savior and His coming for them and for us. God loves them, loves me, and loves you. Despite our hurts and our failures, he isn’t finished yet. He is a God who chases the lost, changes sad tales to fairy tales, and allows both joy and sorrow to weave a brilliant fabric all around us. We might wish it otherwise, but He hasn’t ordained another plan. The Gospel is about redeeming what is broken, and we all qualify. Until every hill is climbed (or descended), the last child comes home, or we take in our final breath, there will be love to give and work to do. Let us not be discouraged.
Oh, and little girl. We are coming for you too, very soon. Count on it, sweetheart.
By Bob Mendonsa
-By Steve Sisler, Director Maendeleo Initiative
What is courage? Sometimes a word just can’t capture the essence of the reality. Courage is the choice and willingness to confront emotional agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation.
I’m sharing a story with you of what I consider true courage. I have never needed to be, and hopefully will never need to be as truly brave as Mama Kahato.
Life in rural Kenya is full of difficulties, but there may not be anything more intimidating than life here as a woman with little to no education. Prevailing culture makes having a husband necessary for survival because you have few opportunities or rights of your own, and often, little to no help from your birth family after you become an adult. So what happens when this very life support turns against you? When it turns against your child? Circumstances require a choice: stay and be beaten, abused, humiliated and demeaned, or throw yourself into the emptiness of uncertainty, knowing only that failure could literally mean death.
This is where we found Mama Kahato – taking a courageous step away from domestic abuse and her cultural “safety net”. She left knowing that with her fourth grade education, no family to rely on, and no marketable skills, she was stepping off into a void without anyone to catch her fall. Mama Kahato and her son traveled to Longonot, a small, run-down truck stop town along the 500-mile stretch of highway from the coast of Kenya into Uganda.
When our social workers found her, she was struggling to earn the few shillings needed for their daily bread. Relying on the occasional manual labor job, usually working a field, she had managed to rent a small shack for $10 a month. But even then, she refused to give up hope.
Her son, Samuel Kahato, was admitted into Cornerstone Preparatory Academy. This meant the assurance of both an education through high school, and a holistic support system to allow Samuel to blossom into his full potential. Suddenly breakfast, lunch, and two snacks a day filled Samuel’s shrunken belly 6 days a week. Laughter with his fellow classmates filled his days as he embraced this new environment, learning character traits that will shape his future self.
Through Cornerstone’s community development project, Mama Kahato was given the opportunity to secure a better safety net for her family. She joined Cornerstone’s local table banking group, contributing $1 a week from her manual labor jobs. These groups, guided by Cornerstone’s Maendeleo team, create a savings and loan system in which contributing members build a group capital that can be loaned to the same members for various purposes. Mama Kahato applied for, and received, a $50 loan to start a business. Startup capital in hand, she purchased large sacks and a hanging scale with a hook. She ventured out on foot to knock on doors in Longonot and the surrounding villages. At every stop, she would inquire if the house had any scrap metal she could purchase for 5 cents/pound. No amount of metal was too small, and eventually, as the days and miles passed, one sack would fill, and then another. Carrying several full sacks of metal, she boarded public transportation on the crowded, hour-long trip to Nairobi. Her destination? A scrap metal market where her scrap metal would be purchased for 13 cents/pound.
Now, because of her perseverance and true courage, Mama Kahato earns $70 to $100 each month. She is excited about growing her business and is already looking into renting storage space and sharing the expense of hiring a pickup truck for transporting scrap metal to Nairobi. She is creating a sustainable future and watching her dreams for her family become a reality.
For more information about Maendeleo and how you can be involved with our community development projects, click here or contact Steve Sisler at Ssisler@naomisvillage.org.
We may never know her reason for leaving. Did her mother run in fear, in desperation, or simply out of selfishness? In the end, it doesn’t matter anymore.
Found crying, hungry, and alone in a vacant rental in Naivasha, the 6-week-old beauty needed a home and a name. Staff at the local hospital in town fed her and held her regularly for 10 days and had begun to see her as one of their own, according to Stacy, the young Kenyan nurse on duty when we arrived. Seeing her for the first time, we understood what all the fuss was about.
Eyes bright and purposeful, cheeks full of chub, and soft downy hair crowning a forehead made of silk…she had a look that makes one gasp at first sight. We were in love. Her name came easily – Trinity Joy Dhahabu, the last of the monikers meaning “gold”.
Treasures may be built, bought, received, or given. But the best ones are those we stumble upon unexpectedly, and joyfully claim before someone else does first. We simply couldn’t understand how such a valuable and matchless prize had been surrendered for the taking. At times like these, it feels like the best kind of grace to be sitting on a well-prepared baby room and a loving cadre of trained baby moms, like holding a handful of aces at a poker table.
She really was going home to Naomi’s Village with us! Michael and Mary Bennett Pickens had come along for the ride, as had a few of our staff. Notably, so had Evelyn Mbugua, our dear friend and NV Board member. But most importantly, 16-year-old Millicent rode along, the first child to ever attend a baby pick up. Seeing Joy’s rescue through their varied perspectives made the day all the more special.
Driving down the driveway at the end of the day, horn blaring and crowd shouting, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with the glory of it all. God loves us and He loves the unwanted and the lost. The manifestations of His glory in the colorful garden, the acacia trees, the inexplicably beautiful buildings, and the radiant faces of dozens of redeemed children made me new inside again.
The doors opened for the Lion King baby presentation moment, and the din of the loving crowd swept her in, saying in every one of the five senses, “We love you! Welcome to Naomi’s Village, sweet baby Joy! It’s going to be OK!”
And a few hours later, she settled into a warm crib and slept the first of many nights with her six new friends in a place beyond the pale of even our wildest imagination, a place God invented.
Grace is messy and it is hard to swallow sometimes, but in the end we must accept that it is good. Our Savior willingly climbed onto a cross and suffered when we ought to have, so that we could go free. And babies sometimes are left adrift and alone, that they may be discovered and treasured by others, setting them on a course to things far better in the years to come. I don’t like that Joy’s mom left her, because I love Joy already and I hate that it hurts her. But I accept that God’s grace is better than all my fist shaking and frustration, all my questions that lack His perspective, and all my humanity. I hold her and accept that He has given her to us to love as a treasure and a joy, and I settle into the blessing once again.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” – Matthew 13:44
By Bob Mendonsa
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! – 1 John 3:1a
After 10 weeks away from them, it felt like taking a bath in grace just to see our Naomi’s Village kids for a few minutes on our laptop screen. The genuine fervor and innocence of their childlike love always takes me by surprise. Perhaps their love is special, partly because it has not been checked by the cynicism of a chaotic world and tainted by the hesitancy born of unmet hopes. But that love has also been cultivated as a well-watered seed should, soaking in all the right nutrients of the rich soil surrounding it, and bearing fruit and flowers that testify to its health. As Audrey Assad said, “Love planted deeply becomes what it ought to be.”
Some credit our world-class facilities and intentionally holistic programs and the loving Kenyans who care for our children every day. But the kids’ healthy love is also a reflection of the hundreds of child sponsors whose love-in-action funds the total care they need to flourish.
Our sweet kids were 8,800 miles away, yet we tried to hug them and feel their warm skin as we exclaimed aloud, saying every name with heartfelt joy. Our dear friend Allison Fassinger and the loving housemoms helped usher them into a small room in manageable numbers until we had shared time with everyone but the babies. Eighty exuberant children took turns telling us about their new bicycles, recent swimming excursions, infant Mabel and the other 5 babies, a pet cat named Precious who now lives in the girls’ teen house, and countless other anecdotes. Each individual kid responded with genuine warmth and pride to hear us speak their name, answered our questions, and then allowed the rest to receive their attention and time too. And every one of them extended affection to us in some way – with loving words, attempts to touch us through the screen, blown kisses, mimicked hugs, and promises to pray for us. Several asked about Emily and Will, who they consider as their older siblings for life.
To love another and receive love back is to find a bit of something glorious that lives in the center of God’s being, that which constitutes His heart. God is love, according to His word, but we can also know that wonderful love experientially. Although it might seem intuitive to lean into this truth and spend our lives on love, we often waste years and focus precious attention on filling barns and chasing shadows. In Ephesians 5:2, we are exhorted to, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Dearly loved earthly children, like the ones at Naomi’s Village, seem to follow this path almost naturally. Sure, they still have struggles with themselves and others at times. But perhaps the most refreshing surprise of many in our 8 years as a children’s home has been watching these children from broken backgrounds become wells of love, the kind that is infectious, life changing, and capable of impacting the world. We never could have expected to witness the shattered pieces of their lives reassemble into whole vessels, uniquely beautiful and filled with God’s love. Our beloved kids, from Joshua to Mabel, have gone from adrift to deeply and furiously wanted, from downcast to joyful, and ultimately from recipients to givers of love.
Julie and I have been here in the US for most of the past 6 months raising awareness and sponsors for Naomi’s Village, Cornerstone, and LEAP Preschool. We will have been in 16 states by the time we go back to Kenya for a few weeks in May to see the objects of our labor and affection – over 290 children in all 3 programs, not to mention 125 Kenyan staff we count as friends. They have become our extended family, a wellspring of vital love that spurs us on to finish what God has called us to do for them and for those yet to come.
Someday the Great Rift Valley will shed its mantle of generational poverty and leave it behind on the trash heap of history. When that day comes, the arbiters of that phenomenal accomplishment will be Kenyans. They will have been catalyzed and empowered by the love of God and His people, given the resources they needed, and provided with the traction that hope always provides.
If you haven’t yet visited us in Kenya and you are able, come soon. God’s handiwork cannot be overlooked, whether it is seen in the sunsets, the wildlife, or the joy of a beautiful child. We have plenty of room in our guesthouse, as long as you don’t try to book during the ever-competitive summer months. You can sit in a rocker and hold Mabel and drink in her tender smile. Or perhaps you’d rather help teach a class, serve in the community, or help with construction of our middle and high school blocks at Cornerstone. Maybe like me, you will find yourself choking back tears as the sound of children’s voices fill the chapel during Sunday morning worship. God only knows.
Along with whatever else you plan to pack, bring plenty of love with you. But expect to go home with more in your account than you came with, and maybe a new outlook on the way things ought to be.
By Bob Mendonsa
To sponsor a child, click here.