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.

Mission Monday: the generosity

I leave for Uganda in roughly 36 hours. EXCUSE ME WHILE I FREAK THE EFF OUT.

In 36 hours, I'll be walking into the Indianapolis airport. One flight to New York, one takeoff, one landing. Eight hour layover, in which I hopefully get to see Chelsea. Meet up with my teammates, those of whom are flying through JFK.

In roughly 48 hours, I'll be boarding a plane to Dubai. An Airbus A380, to be exact, which my dad tells me is one of the world's biggest airplanes. Double decker. Uh, giant gulp. One takeoff, one landing. A twelve hour layover in Dubai, in which I hope to be brave and adventurous and explore the city with my camera, but will realistically probably spend 11.5 hours of which sleeping in my free hotel room provided by Emirates airline.

In roughly...I don't even know how many hours at this point, I'll be boarding a plane to Uganda. Entebbe airport will be my destination. One takeoff, one landing. U G A N D A.

I'm still pretty scared at this point, but I just keep repeating to myself that I'm moving against the fear. Sometimes it's not about the fear subsiding. It's about jumping in with the fear right at hand, whooshing in your ears, clutching at your chest. You choose to do it afraid. And someday, you realize, the things that scared you don't anymore. Hopefully someday I feel that way about planes!

Tonight I unpacked all the boxes and bags of donations people have given me to take to the babies home. I cried real tears as I unpacked these things. Bottles and bottles of medicine. Piles of clothing. Coloring books and stickers and stuffed animals. You did this. All of you, you wonderful, generous, gracious people who fill my life. I posted one Facebook status, thinking maybe I'd collect a few onesies, some wipes, a bottle or two of fever reducer. One status. And then God and you, my dear friends, rained down blessings on me. Actually, on the children and staff of the babies home, but you blessed me in the process too. Do you want to know what you collected? Do you want some numerical data? Here. I counted everything for you.

::::

19 little girls' dresses

13 little girls' t-shirts

13 little boys' shorts and pants

19 little boys' t-shirts

9 little girls' shorts and pants

32 onesies. thirty-two!!

2 swaddle wraps

1 sleep sack

7 bibs

3 pairs of socks

2 baby towels

13 baby washcloths

6 pairs of shoes

10 baby blankets

16 bottles of adult acetaminophen

23 bottles kids' acetaminophen (do you KNOW how many feverish children this will help?! I'm speechless.)

4 giant bottles of gummy vitamins

12 toothbrushes

2 tubes toothpaste

1 package of baby wipes

3 tubes of diaper rash cream

1 jar baby powder

2 pacifiers

10 baby utensils

1 brush

2 combs

1 nasal aspirator

1 package of q-tips

10 puppets

14 coloring books

6 marker sets

12 glue sticks

5 pairs of scissors

8 packages of stickers

8 packages of construction paper

6 headbands

20 pencils

12 pencil sharpeners

1 pencil case

1 story book

68 toys

28 bracelets

:::

That's 552 items I'll be packing with me to distribute at the babies home. FIVE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-TWO.

I don't even have words for this kind of generosity. YOU are the hands and feet of Jesus. YOU will be bringing smiles to these littles' faces and relief to their caretakers. YOU are loving the least of these, the ones with no voice, the 147 million forgotten orphans of this world. YOU did this. I am so very, incredibly, loss-of-words grateful for you.

"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' Matthew 25:40

In endless gratitude,

Val

Mission Monday: One Week

I leave for Uganda one week from this Thursday. One. Week. From. This. Thursday. That feels so surreal. It feels impossible to put my swirling, whirling feelings/thoughts/emotions/fears/excitement into words, but I'm going to try.

I'm reading a book, Kisses From Katie, that is rocking my world. I've never set foot in Uganda and I feel like I'm already in love with its people, its red dirt roads. The culture, the joy, the faith. I feel it so deep in my soul, like a part of me will never be returning from Uganda. And that makes me really excited, but scared at the same time.

Because I felt the same way before I went to Haiti. And when I returned from Haiti, I was in a pretty dark place. I was so...MAD. Mad at my friends who hadn't gone and seen what I'd seen. Mad at everyone who had plenty to eat but flippantly said "I'm starving" and who had roofs over their heads and 8 pairs of shoes. Mad at God who let me be born in America when so many people are born into unbelievable poverty and strife. I couldn't relate to my life. I felt like I no longer fit into my own life, which is a very strange feeling to feel if you've never felt it. I cried the first time I walked into a Wal-Mart after Haiti. I could barely talk to Matt or put the trip into words. And I'm scared of going there again.

As I dive deeper into the book, I get more and more ready to quit my life. To quit the excess, the entitlement, the belief that things matter, that my job matters, my bank account matters. I already look around my apartment and see so many things I wanted to sell, donate, get rid of. We have so MUCH. Last week I posted about my living room. My cute, "perfect" living room that I was so proud of I checked my phone for notifications all day, feeling so....justified that people thought I had it all together. I want to be proud of my love, instead of my living room. I want to be proud of how I served people instead of the outfits I wear every day.

This blog post is a rambling mess, but maybe you'll get a sense of what's going on in my mind. A rambling, jumbled mess of wonder and sadness and confusion mixed with excitement, anticipation and a feeling of complete and utter inadequacy.

Why on earth did God call ME? I don't feel like I can make a difference at all. What can God do with little, messy, mistake-prone me? and as soon as I think that thought, I realize how silly it is to put any limits on God. Time and time again, he shows us how he uses the least of His people to teach the biggest, most important things. I don't feel adequate. I don't feel equipped. I feel so....small. All I have is a camera, and a willing heart, and some time on my hands. Like the little boy with the loaves and the fishes, I feel like what I have to give is so insignificant. But it's what I have and I'm trying so hard to trust that God will do whatever it is He needs to do through me, with me. I have no idea what that is. But he's a God of big things and beautiful promises and I know He'll provide in majestic ways.

Have I ever told you how scared I am of flying? I'm terrified. I grip the armrests, white knuckled. I'm that girl that you look at across the aisle, knowing that she's two steps shy of tears. Every teeny tiny bump and I'm looking wildly around for the flight attendant. The fear only gets worse the older I get, every time I fly. You'd think it'd lessen, right? Nope. Whitney shared a beautiful quote in our Facebook group this week that really spoke to me. “Sometimes when we are called to obey, the fear does not subside and we are expected to move against the fear. One must choose to do it afraid.” I know without a shadow of a doubt that I was called to Uganda. And that calling includes flying, and flying parts of the journey alone, and it includes the likelihood of bugs and geckos in my bed, and people staring at me strangely and eating weird food and being so very far from everything I know and everyone I love. I'm moving against the fear. Against the anxieties. I'm choosing to jump in, and follow the call, even though I'm doing it a little bit afraid.

I kind of can't believe this is really happening. I'm going to Uganda. In a week.

Whoa.

XO,

Val

Mission Monday: my incredible team

Happy Monday! I expected to be way more tired this Monday morning after the excitement of the Super Bowl but let's face it--it was a total snooze fest, am I right? The game was awful (I was cheering for the Broncos) and I was so unimpressed by the commercials! Except for the "America the Beautiful" one--that one was, truly, beautiful. Anyway, another Monday, another mission post! It's hard to believe that I'll be heading to Uganda in just a little over THREE WEEKS. What!! And in that time frame, I'm also squeezing in a quick trip to southern california with my husband and family to celebrate my papa's 85th birthday. Busy, busy! I have a best friend's birthday to celebrate, husband's birthday to celebrate, Valentine's Day and a whole lot of design work in the queue. Whew, February, you're going to FLY by! And then it's Africa time, and then when I get back it's practically mid-March. YOWZERS.

Today, I really want to focus on how grateful and excited I am for my mission team. At first, the idea of spending a week with 10 total strangers, while exciting and thrilling, made me a little nervous. I'm an outgoing and generally likable person, I like meeting new people and feel fairly confident that I can mesh with any group. But there's the inevitable questions. "Will they like me?" "They all seem SO much cooler than me." "What if I totally don't fit in!" You know, the classic, 7th-grade insecurity questions that never really go away (do they?!) So I was so excited to discover, over the past couple weeks, that I think we will all get along juuuuust fine. Our fearless leaders, Nick and Whitney, set up a Facebook group for our team where we ask questions, share information and recently, answer hilariously random questions three times a week posted by my teammate Sam. It's been so fun to read people's answers and get to know each other a little better. These people are all funny, down to earth, passionate about service and really love the Lord. And not to mention they are all AMAZINGLY talented creatives!

Take Whitney and Nick, for example. Their photography is STUNNING and I absolutely love looking at their work on their website.

Or Katie, who in addition to having a beautiful Instagram feed (and thousands of followers, literally!) takes gorgeous photos as well.

Then there's Keary and Justin, who are possibly the world's most adorable couple and suuuuper talented. And they just announced they're adopting--from Uganda! Eeps!

And Samantha, the coolest photographer/traveler who I can't wait to meet. I think we'll be kindred spirits.

Kristin, who is oh-so-adorable (and a birthday girl today!) just exudes joy and happiness and I love love love her photographs, as well.

And the Shafers, whose blog post for The Archibald Project stirred my heart. Their power with words is incredible.

And last but not least, Rebecca! Her photos of her kids on Instagram make me smile every day and I can't wait to meet her and know her in "real life."

 

Not only is this trip going to be amazing and wonderful because of the people we meet and the stories we tell, my heart is so full knowing I'll walk away with 10 new friends, all incredibly talented and located all over the country. 10 friends who have a heart for Jesus and the orphan, who are passionate about using their gifts to serve. It truly is an answer to one of my heart's deepest prayers to have been given this opportunity to meet and foster relationships with other photographers who have a heart for the things I do. I know it's the beginning of a long friendship and I am just SO excited to see where it all leads.

Grab a cup of coffee and treat yourself to some beautiful photographs from the websites of my wonderful teammates. Be sure to follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and bookmark their blogs, too--we'll all be sharing stories, photos and snippets from Uganda and I know you'll want to see!

XO!