Uganda on my mind

Since announcing two days ago that I'm returning to Uganda in January, I've been thinking about this land and the people I met there SO much. It truly captured my heart in a way that no other place I've visited has. I find myself yearning to wake up naturally to the first light from the sunrise, to watch the monkeys playing in the trees, to not know or care what time it is, what the wifi password is or what's going on in social media land. I am beyond excited to go back in January and am praying fervently that Matt can come for a bit too, if it's God's will. Join me in praying for doors to be opened and finances to come through if it's what's meant to be! I'm also SO excited to share that The Archibald Project (the rad organization that I went to Uganda with in March and now work for) just opened up applications for three Media Missions in early 2015! You can find all the details here. You guys, I cannot put into words how life-changing and AMAZING the media missions are. To use your artistry and photography to serve the orphan...to see people connect with a child's story through your photos...to see people being moved to HELP and GIVE just because you shared an orphan's story with them...it's unreal. Apply!!

For now, I'm looking forward with MUCH anticipation and excitement to the day I touch down again in the Pearl of Africa. XOXO!

more alike than different

Orphan. That one word. Orphan. It leaves such a bitter taste in your mouth, doesn't it? Rest with that word a minute. It'll make you squirm. It'll make you uncomfortable. At least, it does for me. Children. In contrast, "children" brings to mind images of laughter, kite flying and the ice cream man. Tiny toes and wiggly bundles of giggling, sticky, smiling little ones.

The thing is, these orphans I met and grew to know and came to love in Uganda, they are children. They are just children. Children with beautiful smiles and the best laughs. Children with dreams and talents and futures. Children who love to play and run and giggle. Children who think snack time is the bomb and who sometimes steal each other's toys and then cry and steal them back. They're just children. We are all more alike than different.

We have a duty as followers of Christ to "defend the cause of the fatherless." (Psalm 82:3) We are all called to be convicted for orphan care. We are called to love, to serve, to speak for these littlest ones. But I also think we are called to love them as ourselves. To see them as we see our own children, whether those are our actual kids, or siblings, or neighbors, or kids we babysit, or teach. Let's stop backing these beautiful children into a corner, stop labeling them with that limiting word. Orphan. The reality is that they are, simply, children. They are individual. They are deeply, deeply loved. They were absolutely desired by the Father. They have a purpose. He has plans for them. Their lives were not an accident.

The beautiful kids who live at the Arise and Shine babies home are full of life and love and joy and laughter. They are just like kids here. Their circumstances are different, their pasts are full of hurt and pain, they lost their innocence too soon maybe, but they're still just kids. There's more similarities than differences between them and kids I know here in America.

they think selfies are hilarious.

they think beards are pretty fun to play with.

this colored dentist-office toy can keep them entertained for awhile.

they pretty much love snack time, especially when said snack is consumed on a motorcycle.

those hand-clapping games like pat-a-cake? they're really entertaining in africa, too.

they have a yard full of toys and friends and they're still content just shaking some keys for awhile. look how fun KEYS are! loud noises!

they'll never turn down a piggy-back ride or a good game of airplane.

sometimes they need to take a little rest from playtime. they're getting too old for this!

any game that involves a mzungu (white person) and funny noises is automatically awesome.

always down to steal an iPhone and play pretend with it. and also create 149 new contacts and call jamaica.

swing sets are their jam. does that ever end, really?

 

Kids. They're just kids. Awesome, bright, beautiful kids who will grow up to be amazing, inspiring and wonderful adults. All they need is a chance. We are called to give them that chance. In the coming weeks, we'll be sharing lots of ways to get involved. Even if you aren't called to adopt--orphan care is for you. Orphan care is your calling and your obligation. We're all in this together. I think you'll find, like I did, that we're not that much different after all.

things emma taught me

Sometimes the words about Uganda are there, and sometimes they're not. They're never there when people ask me about the trip. "How was your trip?!" They ask. "Good!" I reply. Good? Uganda wasn't good. It was beautiful and heartbreaking and joyful and sad and tragic and wonderful and dirty and serene and life-changing and soul-filling. It was all of these things and so many more, all at once. But those words are never there when people ask, nor could I very easily explain it all even if they were. "Uganda was good," I say. "It was really good."

I think most of the time, people want the 30-second version anyway. They want "good" and "cool" and "awesome." So in this space, I'm diving into the long version. I'm confronting the heartbreak and the confusion and the joy and the lessons. And I'm honored to bring you along with me.

***

The night before our first day at the babies home, our friend Mary gave us some advice about what to expect and what to do when we visited. She told us about the special needs children and to not be afraid of them, to interact with them and play with them just like all the other kids.

I'll be honest, I'm scared of children with disabilities. And I'm ashamed of that. When we walked through the big green gates that shield the babies home from the outside, I had no intention of starting off my day and my experience with the special needs children. It was a little bit nervousness about what to do with them and how to engage them but mostly selfishness stemming from the fact that they couldn't indulge my need for giggles and kisses and interaction like the other kids could.

And then there was Emma.

Emma, short for Emmanuel, "God with us."

Emma was the first child who grabbed my hand at the babies home. While my teammates busied themselves holding the babies or pushing the toddlers on the giant woven swing, Emma grabbed my hand and grinned up at me and I sat down next to him and he climbed right in my lap. He touched my face and my hair and never said a word but smiled at me all along. Mary's voice echoed in my ears about the special kids needing love and attention too. I sighed, and hugged Emma, and just like that we were pals.

Emma has disabilities. He doesn't talk. He is extremely strong and can be very aggressive. He wraps your ponytail through his fingers and pulls and it hurts. And it's hard to get him to let go. He will take your hand and pull you on a walk around the whole compound and you'll find yourself surprised by the strength of his grip. Sometimes Emma will throw himself down to the ground and slam his head against the concrete. The sickening thunk echoes in the pit of your stomach where dread lives and it's the worst sound in the world. Emma's eyes will go unfocused for a minute as he lays there and then he recovers and sits up and is back to whatever he was doing beforehand.

I quickly learned that the head-throwing happens when Emma is corrected. When you tell him "nedda" ("no" in Luganda) or "stop" or "don't," he will throw his head. Maybe he has some history of abuse or trauma associated with that, I have no idea. All I know is that when Emma senses tension or disapproval in your voice, he reacts by violently throwing his head and shutting down.

But if you gently correct Emma, it's a completely different story. Instead of "nedda," we would say "gentle, Emma, be gentle" in a soothing voice. We would grab his hand and take him for a walk to make him stop doing whatever he was doing. And if we caught him mid-head-throw, we would hold him and stroke his hand gently and he would calm down. One of the aunties taught us that. Emma just needed some extra attention and a little extra work. Don't we all?

Emma taught me that gentleness is paramount. When people make us mad, when they hurt us, our first instinct is to react. To make them STOP. Maybe even hurt them like they hurt us. But of course, we are called to gentleness. To serve one another. To approach situations with kindness and love. When Emma pulled my hair or bit my hand, it hurt. And I did not want to sit there and stroke his hand until he calmed down, I wanted to tell him "no!" and walk away. And then I think how God must feel when we hurt him. How much it must pain Him to sit with us until we calm down. How it would be easier to push us away or walk away and find someone else who actually appreciates him. But God never gives up on us. He never will. So in many ways, I saw so much of myself in Emma.

Emma taught me to delight in the simple things. Emma sat with me for awhile one day, squeezing a tiny rubber ducky next to his ear, a grin splitting his face every time he heard the squeak. Squeeze, squeak, grin. Squeeze, squeak, grin. He would hold the duck up to my ear, squeeze, and wait for my reaction. I would laugh obnoxiously, and then he would smile from ear to ear, and the whole thing was weirdly, hilariously funny. A rubber duck squeaking. We did that for awhile, Emma and I and the duck.

Because of his disabilities, it will be hard for Emma to get adopted. It will be hard for people to look past the surface issues, the things that are readily visible. The inability to talk, the aggression. But like most of us, I think all Emma needs is a chance. Given the right resources and a loving, steady environment, who knows what he could become. The aunties at the babies home are AMAZING and give all the children every ounce of love--it's superhuman, what they take on and how well they love these kids. But it's still Uganda, and there's still only so much that can be done for a kid like Emma.

Emma will probably not remember me. He doesn't know my name. But I'll never forget Emma, or these things Emma taught me.