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
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
Each of us is born with 100 billion relatively unconnected brain cells, all that we will ever possess. These separate during fetal development into different domains in the brain, areas that later specialize for receiving inputs from our 5 senses, controlling automatic functions like our heartbeat and breathing, processing emotions, formulating speech, and a host of other critical functions. By adulthood the average human brain has wired itself, with 100 billion living neurons connecting through a quadrillion chemical synapses. This entire complex process is tied to a carefully scripted DNA code found at the microcellular level, too small for an eye to see. That script, a 20th century discovery, only further betrays the identity of a Writer, as does the glorious complexity of His ongoing work inside every hardened skull.
I have often found divinity in the simple exercise of slowing down to marvel, to wonder at how it all comes together in magical experiences that make life more than Darwin’s hollow arguments. And when the worship center in my cerebrum lights up in vivid yellow, His loving thoughts endow mine once again. Perhaps that is the physiological expression of salvation, a thing just below the surface, ready to well up at any time in tears and longing and song.
Hearing his name at the same instant that it escaped my mouth triggered a mental connection that aroused pangs of dormant grief. I knew immediately to look across the table at her, expecting she would mirror my emotions. Fathers share inexplicable emotional bonds with their children. Synapses connect over space and time, neurochemicals mingling with each other despite the laws of science. Sure enough, Emily’s face was twisted by a bittersweet expression, her skin flushed red and eyes brimming with tears.
In February 2018, Sam Baisden, my dear nephew and Emily’s cousin, died suddenly from the catastrophic effects of an accidental gunshot injury at age 25 in Kingwood, TX. When my sister Leslie came to my med school graduation in Galveston in June 1992, she was so excited that he was growing inside her. Sam came into the world the day after Christmas that same year, the first grandchild on my side of the family. He grew up strong and rambunctious, an athlete with a soft heart. Sam ran track and starred in baseball at Kingwood High School. When Hurricane Harvey devastated his community, he and his father Barry spent weeks together as a two man volunteer team doing demolition and restoration work for friends and neighbors in Kingwood. Sam bought his own home in late 2017, only a few miles from his parents.
Just a few months later, he was gone forever. We didn’t get to tell him goodbye. The void Sam left has not been filled, and may remain as an ache for years to come. Pictures of him and the things he once possessed do him no justice. We want to be with him again, but cannot. He has been taken away for now, his death a jarring reminder of life’s impermanence.
I, like the cheerful Stanford team members and a collection of Naomi’s Village and Cornerstone staff, had been listening to Julie deliver some wonderful news over lunch at Ubuntu Café in Maai Mahiu, Kenya. She recounted how Susan Brown, a Christian Union leader on this Stanford team, prayed for a baby to come to Naomi’s Village long before her trip. Then, just that morning, Julie had heard from social worker Flo about an abandoned 15-month-old baby boy named Samuel at the Safe House in Naivasha. We were asked to consider taking him at Naomi’s Village, and our leadership team agreed to do so.
As she mentioned his name, Julie added that she felt Samuel didn’t sound right for a baby, but we already had a toddler named Sammy. The obvious next choice then popped into my head and out of my mouth – “Sam”.
And that is when I knew God had done this. Choking back my emotions, I stepped away and called Leslie, waking her up at 5:30 a.m. in Texas to tell her the news. God had brought us a little Sam, by His grace, as a blessing. Our loving Father, always intentional and perfect, does not leave us alone and hopeless in our brokenness. He intended for us to know through this act that life was not over, though mourning may last for a time.
The rest is mere icing on a joy cake, the usual stuff of Naomi’s Village fairy tales. Sam turned out to be a chunky, warm, lovable boy who fit right into our family. In all the days since Jan 27, 2011 when the dream began, I can scarcely remember a happier one than his arrival day, when our 84 kids and a dancing crowd of adults paraded Sam across the lawn and into the great room. He seemed to love every minute of the revelry, showing no signs at all of stranger anxiety, despite his age.
Yet beneath all that newfound joy was an undercurrent of melancholy, a reminder that life’s losses can never fully be swallowed up by these triumphs. I tried hard to hold them back, but tears still fell for Sam Baisden, a boy I missed every bit as much as the day I last hugged him in November 2017.
Standing there in a room swirling with frenzied excitement and colors, I realized anew that our best moments have a bittersweet hem. Life is a brilliant and messy ride, not unlike the best roller coaster ever, but with unexpected and terrifying explosions along the way.
Finding Sam’s cherubic face in a sea of others, I saw him for what he is, a gift of coming moments, days, weeks, marked by both joy and sadness – a gift of life and love and uncertainty…a gift of God.
The Lord gives both death and life;
he brings some down to the grave but raises others up. – 1 Sam 2:6
For Samuel James Baisden
Dec 26, 1992 – Feb 25, 2018
If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 4:11
The birds sent up a chorus of twittering, the only noise that broke the silence of the morning other than the sound of gravel crunching under my feet as I trekked up the walkway from the Naomi’s Village guesthouse to the main house, where I would meet the Land Cruiser that would take me, Nurse Ann, and 15-year-old Joel to an eye surgery in Nairobi.
Joel and I have bonded over our shared love of art. Because of Joel’s eye problems, he’s prohibited from playing soccer with the other kids during free time because of the risks posed by rapidly flying projectiles of mud, elbows, and black-and-white soccer balls. So, instead, he and I spend time drawing. He has a “how to draw” book that teaches step-by-step methods for drawing pirate ships, monsters, animals, and we take turns pushing a sketchbook back and forth as we complete each consecutive step, finishing a clomping Frankenstein and a fire-spitting dragon together.
We also share a love of books. Joel tells me his favorite books are Tom Sawyer and Oliver Twist, which of course prompts me to recommend Huckleberry Finn and A Tale of Two Cities. He’s reading the Harry Potter series for the first time and is starting the second book, laughing at Dobby’s antics. He tells me he loves school.
Joel has been having serious problems with his left eye for years, to the point where he has to squint to see anything but blaring white light out of it. He had two surgeries before I came to Naomi’s Village. On Tuesday, he had his third.
When Joel asked me after an evening of working through his 8th-grade math homework if I would come to the surgery with him, of course I said yes.
We bundled ourselves into the Land Cruiser and bumped and jostled and wove our way through the traffic-packed roads to the eye hospital, a blue and white box with sterile fluorescent lighting, and sat on one of the navy couches. Joel was matching his fingertips together, wringing his hands, cracking his knuckles. I asked him how he was feeling.
The surgery itself only took thirty minutes, but we waited in the office for hours. When Joel came out, his eye was still affected by the localized anaesthesia the doctor used, but the consciousness of the pain soon to come already crumpled his features, as much as he tried to hide his fear. On the drive back, a bumpy “shortcut” through the back roads of Kijabe where we were tossed around like popcorn kernels in the backseat, I read aloud to him from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as the letters on the page shook and the light of the day waned. His eyes were closed and every so often a tear trickled uncontrollably from his left eye.
I have put off writing this blog post for a while, long enough to break my resolution to try to write once per week, because I don’t know if I have anything profound to say yet about my time at Naomi’s Village. It’s not for lack of profound material: every day I am dazzled and my expectations are subverted and I am filled with laughter and tears. I am walking around each day with my eyes wide open, noticing as much as I can, talking to as many people as I can, hugging as many gap-toothed kiddos and ruffling as many heads of hair as I can, but sometimes it feels like the staggering volume of data my eyes and ears and taste buds and brain are receiving is too big to synthesize.
I am learning. I’m learning that it’s okay to admit when you don’t know something. I’m learning to greet everyone I pass and to spend time talking with the staff, who know so many stories and can offer an incredibly unique perspective. I’m learning what it feels like to be a cultural outsider, and I’m learning what a blessing it is when the insiders welcome you in despite you having nothing in particular to offer. I’m learning names—hundreds of them!—and faces and favorite foods and birthdays and who’s good at which sport and who likes which movie. I’m learning Naomi’s Village isn’t perfect, that there is still so much work to do. I’m learning that there are problems I can’t fix. I’m learning to be patient and show grace to both myself and others. I’m learning to watch and to listen.
Above all, I’m learning that any change I make here must be in the smallest of ways. Many days, I feel unequipped, underqualified, unnecessary—not only in the face of the overwhelming tragedy that makes up so many of these kids’ stories, but also in the face of the joy and plenty here. What can I, a mzungu who only knows a handful of Kiswahili, can’t dance, and loses all the points in volleyball actually contribute to this well-oiled machine that seems to run just fine without my help? Anyone could have ridden to the hospital with Joel. Anyone can sit in a waiting room. Maybe not just anyone could have made out the bouncing print of Harry Potter at twilight on rutted roads, but I hardly think my near-memorization of Rowling’s canon shines out as an outstanding quality for effective service.
But I am the widow from Luke, coming with two meager pennies clinking in the emptiness of my purse, and dropping them into the collection jar. I’m here to give what I have, not what I wish I had. That’s what I’ve been learning this past week and a half. I can’t solve all the problems or revolutionize already well-working systems or fund all the initiatives. I can’t even be the best friend of every kid.
But I can wake up each morning and pray for God’s will to be made manifest in small ways. I can shake each auntie’s hand and remember their names and ask them about their families. I can draw pictures for the little ones and read Bible stories during evening devotions and paint decorations. I can fail at volleyball and give everyone a good laugh. I can have patience with visitors and dig deep for the energy to answer the day’s hundredth cry of “Auntie!” I can ask kids about their lives and care enough to remember the answers. I can help grade English compositions and encourage my fellow interns and dust off kids’ knees after they trip on the playground. I can keep my eyes open, learning and empathizing and caring, even when the seeing is uncomfortable.
After all, that’s why I’m here.
By Erika Depalatis – Naomi’s Village Intern, Summer 2018; Rising Senior at Stanford University
Child of God
We drove 6 miles down the steep muddy hillside, having just returned from three long but fruitful months abroad, away from our “other” 82 kids at Naomi’s Village. This had been our lengthiest separation ever, during which over 30 inches of rain had fallen in the Maai Mahiu area, leaving its roads a rutted and treacherous mess. Despite the jarring transition from smooth American highways to these challenging conditions, we had missed our Kenyan children badly enough to banish any thoughts of ever pulling up stakes and moving back to the US.
Once, during one of our many euphoric moments at Naomi’s Village on a day long past, Julie expressed her love for them to me with a term of motherly endearment – the Adorables. This kind of love, which is also shared for and by Emily and Will, is a given love, and one worth more than any treasure. If you know it, surely your neck hairs stand on end when you feel it, as mine do simply composing these words. Since January 2011 when the magic of Naomi’s Village began, this group of beloved redeemed have hugged, laughed, and cried their way into our hearts. Inside the two of us, colorful bits of each child now help substantiate who we are, as thin threads combine to make a quilt, if woven together deeply and intentionally.
The cypress dining hall ceiling resonated with the soaring voices of children on Sunday morning, spilling from open windows as I parked our mud spackled Land Cruiser by the gate. My favorite church service on Earth had begun. We hurried in, our small voices joining a multitude of others as the Great Rift Valley filled again with the worship of God. Disparate choruses emanating from community churches, rescue centers, and children’s homes echoed off the rock facing of the escarpment, reverberating back with a peaceful hum over thousands of struggling homesteads dotting the rain soaked landscape.
Crippling worries and burdensome traumas, some the fresh results of a difficult week gone by, were forgotten for a while in order to give glory to the One who alone is worthy of praise.
Our kids sang wholeheartedly, knowing they belong to Him now, no matter their pasts. No more glorious sound exists than a chorus of those set free, every heart in consonance with the pleasure of true Hope. Such holy moments give me a divine inkling of the eternal worship already happening in the throne room of Heaven, into which I will one day enter.
My names are Robert Eugene Mendonsa, Jr., Dr. Mendonsa, Bob, Dad, Uncle Bob, and a few other nicknames that Julie calls me. I am a married man whose heritage originated on a Portugese island called Madeira. I have two children, Emily and Will. My vocations include orthopedic surgeon, executive director of a nonprofit, and overseas field worker. My calling is to see that an army of once broken children are raised to be redemptive leaders who will take up the cause of their suffering peers in Kenya, for the glory of Jesus Christ.
But my identity, so easily forgotten at my own peril, is that I am a child of God. That name really counts. Surely the health of His church, the work of our hands, and the joy carried in our spirits, must rest on this understanding.
I was a slave to sin, an orphan, alone and adrift in the world. He chose to ransom me, setting me free to live the life that was always written on my heart. To be awakened from years of torment, given sight from blindness, told to stand and walk, to go in peace…these parable endings exemplify but do not fully capture the fullness of the salvation I received in 1998. Twenty years have passed and there are still no adequate words for what happened to me.
We are not different from the 82 at Naomi’s Village in any meaningful way, oh Children of God. We all stand beside them and feel our brokenness and the joy of being brought in to the Father’s house, swept there by his warm and forgiving grace. With Him, all fear is gone and we may join in with their unbridled worship, should we accept our identities.
We could have our spiritual eyes opened today. We’d have to choose and would need His help to lay our false selves on the altar and accept His mantle, given by the very words of Scripture to us:
Rom 8:16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.
Gal 3:26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
John 1:12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.
2 Cor 6:18 “And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” says the Lord Almighty.
1 John 3:1 See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.
John 11:52…and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.
You are a Child of God, chosen, gathered together with others, and loved by the Father, through faith in Christ Jesus. Truth carries within it great power to heal.
Now imagine yourself in a room of the once broken, raised again to life. Look left and right at your siblings, other orphans made whole, scars and all, and accept them as your equals. Close your eyes and join the imperfect hymn they are singing to our Father. Listen for hints of the perfect home that awaits you. Let go of measuring yourself by this world’s fading standards. Instead, carrying your own precious gift of freedom, go forth and live today, tomorrow and all of your days in light of your true identity – the one He has given to you forevermore.
Who am I that the highest King
Would welcome me
I was lost but He brought me in
Oh His love for me
Who the Son sets free
Oh is free indeed
I’m a child of God
Yes I am
Free at last He has ransomed me
His grace runs deep
While I was a slave to sin
Jesus died for me
Yes He died for me
Who the Son sets free
Oh is free indeed
I’m a child of God
Yes I am
In my Father’s house
There’s a place for me
I’m a child of God
Yes I am
I am chosen, not forsaken
I am who You say I am
You are for me, not against me
I am who You say I am
I am chosen, not forsaken
I am who You say I am
You are for me, not against me
I am who You say I am
I am who You say I am
Who the Son sets free
Oh is free indeed
I’m a child of God
Yes I am
In my Father’s house
There’s a place for me
I’m a child of God
Yes I am
I’m a child of God
Yes I am
By Bob Mendonsa
Click below for a short video of a recent Sunday worship with the NV children singing Beautiful Name.
That day in March as the two sad girls shuffled dutifully across the tiny room to greet me, each extending a small dusty hand, a jarring revelation came with them. I somehow knew at once that they had never known the joy of being anyone’s princesses, of being treasured, if even for a day. Telltale signs I had once overlooked in assessing other young girls for admission to Naomi’s Village Children’s Home now caught my eye as I briefly scrutinized them head to toe. For better or worse, after years serving in Kenya, my heart and mind had become gradually more awakened by a painful sensitivity to the damage caused by poverty’s effects on individual children.
Observations and questions crowded my frontal cortex, as waves of practical data, worries, and the compassion of the Holy Spirit all competed for consideration at the same time.
Their downturned chins told the world they felt little self worth. Oh God, it must hurt to endure life feeling that way! (How many times had they known the comfort of a warm hug? Had their father ever tucked them in at night before he disappeared for good? Did family celebrate yearly on the special days when the two were born?)
Two sets of eyes stole detached glances at us. We must have seemed like strange visitors to their home. If eyes are truly the windows to the soul, then these souls were in terrible shape. Their eyes, which once flickered like pairs of blazing wicks, had been carelessly killed by pinches of calloused fingers, leaving gray smoke in the place of flames. (Why does life take such a toll on some children? What did the girls think of us? Were they afraid that we were bringing even more bad news?)
Their countenances appeared drained and sad from the effects of recent shock and bad news. A baseline blunting of the scope of their expressiveness, as if they were no longer expecting good to happen, told me that they had never been the subjects of anyone’s trustworthy attentiveness. (Had either of them heard the graphic details of their mother’s recent suicide? Were they able to scream, cry, and let their grief out when they heard she was never coming back again? Did they remember their father? Did they think he did not love them enough to stay?)
Worn clothes, dirty faces, and weary postures spoke volumes about life’s current provisions for them. (Were they lying in bed with empty stomachs at night? Were they HIV+, suffering from intestinal worms, anemia, or other vitamin deficiencies? Had anyone ever taken advantage of them in the frightening darkness of this small metal home?)
Christine (8) and Anastasia (6) first answered questions from our social worker Flo and nurse Anne in timid, barely audible puffs of words, with every syllable they spoke wrapped in weakness and uncertainty. Later as I absorbed details of the story of their family from their Kikuyu great-grandparents, the two tender and broken sweethearts sat silently like statues on an overstuffed couch nearby.
Their mother had worked long hours in a distant town for wages to pay her two girls’ school fees. From our limited vantage point, we could not understand the pressures that led her to sacrifice this way, at the expense of living with her little ones. Perhaps the months of joyless struggle, limited by few real choices and untempered by rewards, made her finally decide to end it all. For her now parentless girls, hearing that Mama was dead must have made them surrender all remaining hope of a good life.
When the children’s great grandparents explained that they had health issues preventing employment, we understood finally they could never bear the ongoing costs of caring properly for Christine and Anastasia.
After an hour, a familiar blend of thoughts and emotions surfaced in sentiments expressed between the Naomi’s Village team members that were present. Ideals like compassion, justice, and unbending fortitude were leavened by a defiant chuckle we shared aloud, because we were certain that the Enemy was headed for another round of defeats. We all knew what would happen for these girls in just a few short months if we took them to live at Naomi’s Village. God’s redemption always seemed to wash over our broken children quickly and imperceptibly, with the results more evident than the process, as in time-lapse photography.
Christine and Anastasia carried basic aches, needs that if unaddressed, would lie dormant in the soul of any child. They yearned for someone to want them, specifically them, and to know their names. As all children do, they yearned to be loved wholeheartedly, fought for at any cost, and defended fiercely during the storms of life. Had we asked them what they needed and wanted, however, I doubt they could have expressed what they were missing in words.
And so, as with all good stories, this one had a happy ending too. A few short days later, Christine and Anastasia shed the disappointing garments of their pasts to live in a bright new palace, one with green grass and yellow labs and a trampoline. They tumbled unawares into a family of 77 empathetic siblings, all ready to share life, love, and everything else from a bottomless well of God’s grace. My heartaches and unanswerable questions dissolved into fresh faith again, and the joy of being allowed to love them as my own became yet another reminder of God’s merciful plans.
As for the rest, I cannot find adequate words to describe everything Jesus has done to make these two whole again. For that, you too must become a witness of His power to redeem, to love, to save, and to coronate princesses from the saddest of orphaned girls. Watch the short video that follows and then slow your pace, if only for a moment, and thank Him for these and so many other blessings.
Don’t miss the glory of the new light glimmering in their eyes now. Then stop to look in the mirror from time to time, taking stock of your own joy. And should you find that your light has grown dim from worries and struggle, let Christine and Anastasia remind you that God in heaven holds the power to make it shimmer anew. He can do what you cannot. If you only ask Him to intervene, then maybe as the night stars do, we could help to brighten the darkness of an ever-blackening sky.
You, LORD, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light.
– Psalms 18:28
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