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