My Journey With Orphan Ministries, Part 2 {Lord Move, or Move Me}

Beginning about eleven years ago God led me to an unbelievable ministry working with orphans in Liberia, West Africa. He used me, an inexperienced and overly confident girl, as His hands and feet to minister to the least of these and even save lives. I shared my introduction here, and part one of my my story here. This is part two of my story.

In Review:

At around 16 God impressed upon my heart a burden to work with orphans. The location we were living at in the Ivory Coast did not have any kind of local orphanage (for the most part it was not needed) so I did not know how this would happen. This was also when I committed my life to full-time Christian service. (It would be several years later when I knew God wanted me to be a missionary).

By this point I'd grown in leaps and bounds and had such joy in my relationship with God. I remember thinking, "I've grown so much. I wonder what else there is to learn about the Christian life? Since I know the most important things now, what will I learn for the rest of my life on earth?"

I can't help but laugh when I recall this. I really wasn't thinking this in pride, just out of curiosity as I naively thought I knew all the big things there were to know about walking with God.

Ha ha....

Me and my friend Kim.

At seventeen-years-old we were still living in the Ivory Coast and I felt my walk with the Lord growing stagnent. Despite my recent growth in the Lord and enthusiasm just a year before, I was already feeling like God and I needed a refresher. Because of our situation in the Ivory Coast, consisting of a handful of missionaries and a small African church, I knew there was little chance of this spiritual revival taking place within my normal environment. I really felt something out of the ordinary needed to take place.

The Christian singing group FFH had a song that I was hearing for the first time. Lord Move, or Move Me.

I felt the song was perfect for my situation and I prayed the words as I sang them.

Lord move in a way that I've never seen before. 
There's a mountain in the way and a lock on the door. 
I'm drifting away, waves are crashing on the door.
 Lord move, or move me.

I knew God would have to change my heart, or change my circumstances, to bring about the growth I longed for.

That was when the war started in the Ivory Coast. 

We were in Liberia at the time. My family was on a three week trip into the jungle for a leadership conference. Though Liberia had been in the midst of a civil war of its own, it was now peaceful enough for my family to take trips into the country to encourage the Christians who'd been without missionaries for years. My dad would teach the pastors and Bible school teachers, and my mom would teach the ladies. I held a children's program during the afternoons, looked after my younger brother and sister, and took care of the meals for my family. For us it was a quiet few days in the bush, to the Liberians it was a lively family camp type atmosphere with people eagerly taking in the teaching, laughing around huge pots of rice and soup, and staying up late into the nights talking around the fire.

We'd just finished up a conference in Tappita, and were spending a few days in Monrovia before heading back home to the Ivory Coast (also known as the Cote 'd Ivoire). Over the radio, we heard war and been declared in the Ivory Coast. 

Almost instantly I knew; this was it.

This was in some unbelievable way what I'd been praying for. It was surreal. How often does a war begin mere days after you prayed for God to move?

We were worried for our friends in the primary location of the unrest. We were worried about what all this could mean for our future. We prayed regularly for the situation and adjusted our plans for staying a few weeks longer, even a couple months, until things would blow over. Since Liberia and the Ivory Coast were both now at war, we decided to stay in the country that was more safe. At the time this meant Liberia.

Sitting around the table late one evening my family discussed the recent events in our lives. Joining us on our refugee adventure was Kim, a young lady who'd come to spend eight months with my family in the Ivory Coast. Heavy on my heart had been the realization that this war was the answer to my prayer for growth. I shared my developing testimony with Kim and the family, then sheepishly apologized to everyone for the inconvenience and admitted that inadvertently this war had actually started because of me. We all laughed, but each of us knew this war would have an impact on all of our lives in a very big way. 

Within weeks of us realizing we'd not be able to return home any time soon, we met a very special man and his wife.

Jefferson and Helena Zeon were the founders of the Suzie Gunter Orphanage (also known as the Jahz Jet Children's Home). Jefferson had grown up around Baptist Mid Mission's missionary Abe Gunter. He was a vibrant Christian man radiating with joy and an unusual love for children. They'd heard about my family through the Baptist Mid Missions connection and wanted to know if we had any Sunday school materials we could spare.

At the time we were living on the ELWA mission station. The Suzie Gunter Orphanage was (still is) within walking distance. I realized that Kim and I could volunteer at the orphanage by teaching school (I think it was me who thought of this...). It would be the opportunity to work with orphans God had burdened me with. Kim also was thrilled with this possibility, as she too had longed to work with orphans during her trip to Africa. 

We shared our idea with the Zeons and they were thrilled to welcome us to their ministry.

The orphanage staff and teachers.

Though I was excited for the opportunity to work with orphans, overall I wasn't a very happy person during this time in my life.

For several years I'd really struggled with my weight. I was obsessed with every pound I gained. I was constantly on one diet or another (thankfully I always used fairly healthy diets). Though I never had an official eating disorder, my mindset was just like someone who did. My unhealthy obsession with my weight was such a dark shadow on my life. Even though outwardly I was serving the children at the orphanage, and making dinner for my family, inwardly I was constantly thinking about my appearance.

This, combined with my family being stranded in Liberia, and me being uprooted from my friends and my life in the Ivory Coast, caused me to be pretty gloomy.

If there was a way to go back in time I so wish I could go back to my teenage self and somehow convince me that being overweight did not make anyone think less of me. That no one could tell when I put on a pound or two. That joy in Christ and confidence in who I am was what would make me the most attractive, not being the "perfect" weight. Nobody cared about the length of my hair, the clothes I was wearing, or weather or not my make-up looked perfect. I really couldn't control many of these things based on our situation anyway, but still managed to rob myself of joy by frequently thinking about them.

Working at the orphanage I found purpose and was able to think about something other than myself, at least for the hours I was there. I was teaching reading comprehension, spelling, and a Bible and women's health class for the older girls. Kim and I hugged and held and chatted with the children when classes weren't in session.

Phonics flash-cards with the kids during recess.

I grew so close to many of the children, learning their stories of loss and fear. Some had been directly affected by the war, others were there because the war caused strain in the family, which led them to place the children in an orphanage. For kids whose biological parents were still living, being placed in the orphanage was an even harder blow. Like the five siblings whose mother abandoned them at the orphanage so she could live the high life. There were a few kids with injuries or mild special needs, and  most of the children were older than four. In all there were 103 children with about six regular care-givers, including Jefferson and Helena.

I grew especially close to the girls as I was spending extra time with them because of the girls bible study. They learned to trust me and shared stories of the war. Like the time they were all instructed to put shorts on and hide under their beds when they heard that rebels were coming through town, so as to help protect them from the possibility of being raped. They also opened up and bravely asked questions they maybe wouldn't have asked anyone else. I was made aware of things I never wanted to know about what Liberians believe about se*x, and was disheartened that these sweet girls, some as young as ten-years-old, not only knew about these human rights violations, but thought they were normal.

But despite the uncertainties of their lives, they were so loved. The Zeons were father and mother and I could see how much they cared for the children in every thing they did. Jefferson (who has now gone to be with the Lord) was passionate about life, God, and the children. He loved the children extravagantly and you couldn't talk to him for a minute without him making some comment about something he was doing for them.  He did devotions with them every single morning, lovingly made wooden beds for each child with his own hands, installed a new roof with donated money, would personally transport sick children to the hospital for care, and was constantly thinking of new ways to improve the lives of the little ones in his care. He planted a garden to teach the children responsibility while growing their own food. He preached to them every Sunday when the orphanage school building became a church. And he glowed with compassion when he would introduce me to the newest little ones placed in his care. He was the best father these dear children could have had and one of the godliest men I have ever known.

We ended up staying in Liberia for the rest of my parents term, a period that lasted about eight months. During this time my parents had the opportunity to speak at several other conferences, my dad was able to teach in the BMM Bible school in Monrovia, as well as preach in a different BMM church every Sunday, and in general be a huge encouragement to the Liberian nationals. We made many new friends, including Liberians, Lebanese and other missionaries, and hope that our influence was a Light for those who did not know Christ, and an encouragement for those that did. We could see God using us, but it would be years before we would know how much our time as refugees changed the course of our lives.

As the weeks and months progressed during our time in Liberia, we were continuously reminded that Liberia was also still at war. Little by little the rebels were drawing closer to Monrovia, where we were living. Insurgents were one by one taking towns to the north of us, and village by village drawing nearer to us from the east. Being on the coast, we would eventually be surrounded. Tensions were rising and evidences of war were becoming more and more apparent. Walking home from the orphanage one day Kim and I watched as huge logging trucks drove in with weary travelors riding on any available space, covered in red dust, clutching what few belongings they could carry. The loggers were fleeing as the rebels were taking the areas they typically worked in, and on their way out they let anyone who would fit hitch a rid.

"How close do the rebels have to be for us to leave?" I asked my dad one afternoon. He replied by saying we would leave when he felt God leading us to go. But for now he knew God wanted us right here. And miraculously non of use were afraid, despite soldiers and guns being a common sight.

My parents exhibited such trust in God and His purpose for our being in Liberia during this time. I mentioned in my previous post that my parents did a great job keeping their priorities straight in missions. God was first, then family, then ministry. Because we knew how much they valued us, and that they'd never sacrificed what was best for us in the name of ministry, we knew we could trust them now, in this very uncertain time. We knew when God wanted us to leave he would make that very clear to our dad, and then we would go.

We ended up leaving pretty much on schedule for my parent's home assignment/furlough in the states, and just a few weeks later the city of Monrovia was invaded. (Thankfully peace was brought to the country soon after with the extradition of the President/War Lord Charles Taylor and the presence of the biggest United Nations contingent in the world.)

Sadly, it would be years before I had the opportunity to go back to the Ivory Coast and experience the closure I never felt after being uprooted from my home so abruptly.

After we returned to the states I kept thinking about my experiences at the orphanage. I wrote a song about the kids and would sing it over and over again to myself.

Children of a Broken Land

We are the children
The children of a broken land
We are the children, of pain and of war
We are the children, the children of an unexpected tragedy
We are the children, of a God who redeems

For you it was the war that tore her from your arms
For you it was a terrible disease
For you your father left you, you're a burden he won't bare
For you it was the shame of poverty

I can't remember all the words, but I just thought of the song again recently as I was putting together this post.

Looking back over these eleven years of history, I can see that this war, which led to my relationship with the Suzie Gunter Orphanage, was the catalyst that opened the door to an unbelievable ministry with desperate orphans, a journey that would ultimately lead to something greater than I ever could have imagined at the time; the addition of a new adopted sibling to my family. I still cannot believe I have a little Liberian brother.

I had been burdened to work with orphans.

I prayed for growth in my spiritual life.

God moved.

Stay tuned for Part 3, where my family and I took in our first foster child.


Paula said...

If possible, I would love to get a copy of your song (music & words)! If it hasn't been translated into French yet, I would ask your permission. Looking forward to part #3!

Lana said...

Wow, I just loved your story. I spent three years in SE Asia, and I have felt unbelievable culture shock coming back this time. It does mark you as different - and I always wonder what it would be like to be a MK. I loved how it shapped your heart. *hugs*