Beauty from the awful, Day 3 in Uganda

Julius (who is getting married to beautiful, smart Hope very soon) working with the kids at the school in Kitange.

Julius (who is getting married to beautiful, smart Hope very soon) working with the kids at the school in Kitange.

Sometimes God works great beauty out of what seems to us most awful.

We saw that on Monday. (I was unable to get onto Internet to post this blog yesterday, so I’m a day behind.)

Rachel with three little friends

Rachel with three little friends

We first went to the Kitanga slum in Kampala. It’s far smaller than the Kibera slum in Nairobi, but we also got a far more personal look into it. A little over five years ago I visited this slum and met a pastor who had begun a church in it. When he started sharing Christ with the community, children and teenagers began coming to him. They either weren’t safe in the homes they had or they had no homes to go to. The pastor began letting them sleep in the church, and then moved in himself with his wife so they could keep the children, especially the teen girls, safe at night.

So Kitange had a good church. It was a start.

The new school in Kitange

The new school in Kitange

Well, just a few months ago Kitanga also got a school. Preschool classes all the way up through 5th grade meet in a building on the edge of the slum, and administrators plan to add another grade each year. When we pulled up near the school in our vehicles, Kitanga children, most dressed in their uniforms, flooded to greet us. They showed us the inside of their school, and presented a small program. I asked their principal if they have to pay school fees, and he told me they use a sliding scale, and that many do not pay anything at all.

There’s some beauty!

Anna and this little sweetheart spent the entire morning together.

Anna and this little sweetheart spent the entire morning together.

We went back outside, threw a couple soccer balls into the field, and the older boys were off, leaving the girls and babies free to show great interest in us. I listened to a couple of folk tales from the ringleader of a group of 11-year-old school friends while the soccer girls swung babies onto their hips and played with toddlers.

Light the World has an active ministry in the slums. DSC_0048Several of the children at Mercy come from there, and Mercy works with their families to try to rehabilitate them until they are able to take the child back. L the W also offers microfinance loans to women who need them.

So after a little while, we split into groups and went with LtW staff members to visit some of the families in the neighborhood they are working with. We all have different stories, but I will share mine with you. My team (Dave, me, our Em, Emily Mascari, and Anna Lindus) had Wilfred as our leader. We went first to Florence’s home. Florence is leading a women’s prayer and Bible study group in Kitanga. She and her husband Moses accepted Christ a few years ago. She runs a small duuka (shop) next to her house and hopes to expand it to provide

Moses, Florence, and their little girl, Asfa

Moses, Florence, and their little girl, Asfa

more income for their family. We entered her home, taking our shoes off at the door so we did not make a mess on the tarps spread across the dirt floor. They sat us on the couches that nearly filled the room, honoring us while they sat on the floor. Florence took their baby from Moses and we learned a little of their story. Their baby, Asfa, is five years old but looks about two. She had a fever when she was very young and it resulted in brain damage that has left her mentally at the age of a baby and physically with very stiff limbs.

DSC_0056I have to be very American here and say this: any middle-class American would enter the slums and say, “This is no place for a child to grow up.” That is what our first impression would be.

That impression would be wrong.

The best place for Asfa is exactly where she is. Her parents adore her, and it was clear not only by the ways they looked at her but by her physical condition. Her skin was clean and perfect, with no pressure sores. The entire time her parents were talking with Wilfred, Florence was unconsciously doing physical therapy with Asfa, stretching her feet and hands, moving her elbows and knees, making her stand up for a few seconds and catching her when she tottered. Florence showed me the notebook she keeps for Asfa’s medical records, carefully filled out with every time they could afford medication and the illnesses and treatments she has had.

Beautiful.

Moses sang us a song he wrote about his faith in Christ, about how we should all bear fruit because we are connected to the Vine. That, too, was beautiful.

Asmin and I

Asmin and I

Dave prayed over that little family, and as he did, I was so glad to once again see Wilfred and Light the World in action. Wilfred knows that the best thing for both children and their parents is for the child to be in the home God placed him in. When you take a child permanently away from parents, they lose hope and motivation. Of all the children at Mercy, only a few are adoptable because all of the others have some form of family who can—and who deep down want to—care for them. Wilfred wants to share Christ with the families and work with them so they can become fit families for children. Then fathers work hard to pay school fees and put sufficient food on the table, and mothers can really care for their children.

We next visited Asmin, a Muslim lady, at her home that she has made clean and even pretty with a lovely curtain separating the sleeping and living areas. We asked if we could pray for her, even though she follows Allah. She said yes and prayed first before I prayed over her, asking that she would know the Christ who will draw her close to God. Asmin has a sweet presence about her, and she hugged me, drawing my head close to her own, when we finally left her.

This little girl was put in Dave's arms in the slums.

This little girl was put in Dave’s arms in the slums.

Then came the surprises. Someone came up to Wilfred and told him of a baby that was in trouble, so we trekked through some narrow paths, avoiding line-drying laundry around our heads and water runoff at our feet. When we arrived, neighbors handed Dave a tiny little girl (at least we think it is a girl). Nine months, they said, and she couldn’t have weighed more than 10 or 11 pounds. They told Wilfred the father had abandoned the family, and the mother goes off working but does not care for her baby. They were angry about the state of the baby, and the women’s raised voices drew several drunk men to the area. “Take her,” they told Wilfred. “She needs care.”

But Wilfred, without talking to the mother, was not ready to just take the child, so he had Dave hand her back (Dave was all set to take her, but we know we are also, to put it plainly, CLUELESS about the bigger picture!) because he wanted to get out of there before the crowd got too agitated. He will send Julius (his assistant who does a lot of work in the Kitenga slum) to the house quietly to make more inquiries—and then he will probably take the child.

We discovered this house in the Kitenge slum was where our son Patrick was found

We discovered this house in the Kitenge slum was where our son Patrick was found

We visited one more house, another Moses who has a child being cared for at Mercy. He showed Wilfred the progress he is making so that his girl Prossy can return home.

That was, honestly, enough to process and pray about for an entire day, but we were also scheduled to visit the hospital, with its rows and rows of metal beds with children in various stages of sickness, their parents camped out on straw mats by their sides because they have to administer the majority of the care. I first prayed with a woman whose two year old came down with a fever four days ago. His body still radiated heat, and she patiently urged juice down his throat, sip by tiny sip. She was so calm, and I couldn’t help but think how frantic I would be in her shoes, watching my child grow more listless by the day, knowing that hope was slipping away.

I checked on the soccer girls who were holding babies and chatting with mothers. As I walked down the hall to find another group, I passed an open doorway and saw a room that, though full of beds, held only one boy, skeletal, sitting up on a crib at the far side of the room.

Skin stretched across cheekbones, neck reduced to the size of the spinal column, eyes that were far too big for a shrunken face. I’d seen faces like his in pictures of concentration camp victims, but never, never in real life.

I pretended I didn’t notice the open door and continued down to check on the other group.

But on my way back I was with my friend Angel (I lived with her during the five weeks I was in Africa several years ago), and she said, “Mama, do you want to visit here?”

Holy Spirit took over, and I said yes without thinking much about it. We met Agnes and Eugene, and they introduced us to Earnest, who is 7 (same age as my PJ) and who began having diarrhea 4 months ago, and is now vomiting and coughing besides. I put my hand on his foot, and felt his cool, thin, dry skin. We looked at the x-ray and prescriptions given by the doctor (not that we could do a thing, but it just felt like a way to express sympathy). We listened to their calm recitation, and I fought to keep my face as smooth as theirs.

I asked if I could pray. Both said yes, and Agnes told me that she was a believer in Jesus. “God is my only hope now,” she told me.

“He is our only hope all the time, really, isn’t he?” I said.

Her smile stretched wide and she nodded.

Suddenly, just before I began to pray, soccer girls filed in. They laid hands on me, and I let what was in my heart spill forth in words, and I knew the Holy Spirit was groaning in far better utterances than my limited language in the very presence of God.

In the middle of my prayer, I felt something cool and dry touch my hand, and when I opened eyes, I saw that Earnest had put his small hand on top of my own, his fingers curled over mine. That did it. I had to turn away and sob quietly.

The girls filed out, and I stayed behind to talk more with the parents. Eugene showed me the medications the doctors prescribed and admitted that they could not afford it all. I told him I would be back.

I gathered Angel and Rachel (our two wonderful Ugandan guides for this day) and Dave, and Rachel came up with a plan. We went back and told Eugene that we would take him with us to the pharmacy and buy him the medication. Then Rachel began telling him he needed to accept Christ. “Dave,” Rachel suddenly said, “Do you have anything to say to Eugene?”

Dave, taken off guard at first, said no, but then he asked Eugene why he had not yet made the decision his wife so clearly had. “I’m not ready,” Eugene answered.

So Dave simply and wonderfully reminded him that it is a gift, unachievable by ANY of us, EVER. We have to simply accept it. “Do you want to?” Dave asked him.

“Yes.”

“Then there is nothing standing in your way. Your sin does not keep you from the grace of God.”

Dave wanted to be sure that Eugene was not making this decision simply because a muzungu was asking him questions. “No, no,” Eugene answered, and then he prayed with Dave while Agnes beamed, and she and I clasped hands and lifted them to the heavens in thanks.

We drove with Eugene to the pharmacy down the hill and filled the prescription for his son. Dave gave him his email address, Rachel gave him her phone number, I waved at him from the van window, and he was gone.

The ride home provided time to pray and think because we got trapped in a traffic jam caused by an 18-wheeler that was trying to fit into an incredibly narrow driveway. (I’m always amazed at how patient people are here with this. School children gather to watch; men walking by stop to give advice; and cars and bodas wait patiently until the truck moves out of their way.)

By the time we arrived home, it was time to grab a quick bite and go to Light the World Church’s cell groups. Most of the team stayed here for the group Wilfred and Vena host, but Dave and I, along with our Em, Julia, and Britta (and Ugandans Isaac and Rachel) headed up the hill in the dusk to a cell group that meets nearby. They welcomed us in and translated all they said into English. Babies nursed, one little girl came and sat on Dave’s lap, and a small boy sitting in a chair in the corner fell asleep and didn’t even wake up when his chair toppled over.

And through all the life that was happening, the members shared testimonies and requests and we sang and prayed and even cried a little. And then, in the dark, we trekked down the rutted dirt road by the light of Julia’s iPod.

The water was off when we arrived, so Wilfred heated water on the electric stovetop, and we had jerry-can showers.

It was a beautiful day

*Please pray for Earnest, Eugene, and Agnes. Pray for Earnest’s healing. I’ve been thinking about him much today.

*I will write about today later (we visited Jinja, where an American friend of mine works with a women’s jewelry-making business—beautiful stuff and a very cool model).

*Tomorrow we are painting at the babies and toddlers’ home and playing with the children there. Julius already rescued the undernourished baby from the slums, and tomorrow I will be going with Isaac to take the baby to the hospital for a checkup and some testing. Please pray for this, too.

*I do have pictures. I’ll try to post some tomorrow. Sleep beckons.

Thanks for reading,

Jen

Seeing Ugandans Light the World, Day 1 in Uganda

Lots of us got our hair "done" while sitting on the "sideline" of the soccer game.

Lots of us got our hair “done” while sitting on the “sideline” of the soccer game.

Four and a half years ago I stood in front of Light the World Church’s several thousand members while Wilfred prayed over me and Patrick and the adoption process. At one point while he prayed, I looked up. Thousands of arms reached toward me and toward heaven, and tears spilled onto my face.

I have never forgotten that moment.

All of us with all of the older Mercy kids.

All of us with all of the older Mercy kids.

This morning I stood before Light the World Church again and told them how much their prayers meant to me during that time. Dave and I both thanked them for loving children so much that they are willing to care for so many of them—in particular for the one who became our son.

Tears threatened to spill again.

Anna Lindus with one of the toddlers at the Children's Village.

Anna Lindus with one of the toddlers at the Children’s Village.

I have learned so much from getting to know fellow believers from other cultures. Our God is BIG, and though we must all worship Him in spirit and truth, the different styles preferred by various cultures merely points to yet another facet of our diamond-brilliant God.

Dave offered 10,000 Ugandan shillings (equiv. $4) to anyone who would catch one of the chickens at the Village. Sela took him up on it.

Dave offered 10,000 Ugandan shillings (equiv. $4) to anyone who would catch one of the chickens at the Village. Sela took him up on it.

So today we joined together with brothers and sisters in Uganda, at the 5,000-member-strong Light the World Church with its crooning preacher (he’s also a very well-known Gospel singer in Uganda) and dancing choir and its insistence that all we have and are belong to God, so we might as well surrender it and enjoy the ride.

The girls loved it. Anna Sezonov (sorry, Anna, if I’m butchering your name—everyone’s asleep, so I can’t ask anyone how to spell it) shared her testimony in the first service. She did a great, great job—emphasizing the truth that she’s had to trust in God through difficult times.

Wilfred showed Dave all the projects they want to do at the Village (including an extensive garden--already happening) and they came back w/ 2 giant sweet potatoes, which we'll eat at some point this week!

Wilfred showed Dave all the projects they want to do at the Village (including an extensive garden–already happening) and they came back w/ 2 giant sweet potatoes, which we’ll eat at some point this week!

Wilfred took us on a tour of the church (which was new to me—they had to move from their old location b/c the surrounding ground was too swampy) and told the girls how it was started. Here’s a quick recap: four boys who went through secondary school together accepted Christ. As they began growing in their faith, they began meeting for prayer under a mango tree, and they felt led to start a church. At the same time, homeless children began moving into their 8 by 10 meter shack—simply because the guys were welcoming to them. The church began with a small group and kept growing. The guys rented a larger place, and more children came. Now, ten years later, the “guys” are in their late twenties, Light the World Church is a 5,000 member church with all kinds of ministries in the community, and Mercy Childcare (LtW’s childcare branch) cares for about 100 children. Mercy has a home for its older children (five through 20) and has bought an acre and a half of land and is building a children’s village on it. One home has been completed already, and the babies and toddlers are housed there. We visited both the older kids and the babies yesterday, playing a match with the older ones (and a few village children as well) and rocking babies to sleep.

Eaden with a child from Mercy

Eaden with a child from Mercy

In the fast falling darkness (dusk is a short-lived event here) we drove home and ate a wonderful dinner that Mama Cici (full name Fluyencia) prepared for us. Wilfred and Vena run their guesthouse with simple hospitality, and the girls are getting a bit of a look at what home life is like—a home that welcomes everybody.

All for now.

Playing with the boys. This is Sez (Anna S) squaring off with Isaac, one of the older boys helps a lot at both Mercy and at Wilfred and Vena's house.

Playing with the boys. This is Sez (Anna S) squaring off with Isaac, one of the older boys helps a lot at both Mercy and at Wilfred and Vena’s house.

Sorry for posting this late (well, early for us). I couldn’t get internet access last night (amazing that we have it all!), so I’m posting this in the morning. We’re heading to the Kutenga slum to play soccer with the kids and visit some homes there, and then we will visit a cancer hospital.

Thanks for reading,

Jen

Countdown to Africa

Dave, Emily, and I leave for Africa in four days! We are very grateful that the three of us are able to go together—what a privilege!

I’ll post updates on the trip right here on my (Jen’s) blog: www.jenunderwood.org. If I’m able, I’ll upload some pictures as well. Here’s a bit of what we’ll be doing:

WHO’S GOING?: Twelve of Dave’s soccer players will go on the trip, along with one of his assistant coaches (Lauren Lindner Anderson, who was a former player and student years ago), and two of the girls’ moms.

WHERE AND WHAT? We do have a schedule (though it’s pretty flexible, as it needs to be): In Kenya the girls will play several soccer matches, one of them with girls from the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy in the heart of the Kibera slum. Our girls will also attend classes with the KGSA students.

We have also connected—through Jody and Aaron Hoekstra—with a woman named Mary who started a babies and toddler home outside Nairobi. I had heard so many wonderful things about Mary from Aaron, and when the opportunity came up for us to visit her and her babies, we jumped at the chance.

In Uganda, of course, we will see Wilfred (the director of Mercy Childcare who helped so, so much with Patrick’s adoption), his beautiful wife, Vena, and their two young children.

In Jinja we will get to see a friend I worked with when we lived in Sterling, Kansas. Sarah now works as a designer and project director in Jinja, Uganda, and will show us the work she does with the African women who make crafts for her company.

A few more games, work with the soccer ministry run by Light the World Church in Kampala, processing/prayer time with the girls each night, a church service at LWC, a visit to a cancer hospital… It’s full, but not so planned that we cannot stop to help someone or spend more time with people or take a detour.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? We covet your prayers for this trip. We know that God uses trips like this in significant ways in teenagers’ lives, and we expect that from this trip as well (He uses it in our lives, too!). Please pray that all of us will be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading on this trip and then beyond it when we return to Chicagoland. Pray that we will spread the sweetness of Christ wherever we go on our trip (including airports and guesthouses), and that we will be a true encouragement to the believers we work with. Pray that we will be a great support to these brothers and sisters in their Gospel work.

Thank you!

Dave, Jen, and Emily Underwood

Living in GRACE

We leave for a trip to Africa on July 7. Dave and I will go with 12 girls from his soccer team, our oldest child (Emily), one of his assistant coaches, and two soccer moms to Kenya and Uganda.

Dave gave each girl going on the trip a copy of Kisses from Katie, and he asked me to write devotions for each day of the trip using Scripture and sections from the book.

“I would love to,” I told him.

Well, I still “will love to,” and I probably will post many of them here on the blog, but I have to admit that the book sent me into a spiritual funk for about a week—sorry for the silence.

Kisses from Katie is the story of a young suburban-raised girl who decided to visit Uganda during Christmas break of her senior year in high school. Then she just had to go back after graduation for a gap year before college. (I know, this sounds eerily like the story of Jody—who rescued our PJ). Katie’s “job” for the year was to teach kindergarten, but she soon felt led by God to rent a house, and abandoned children began showing up on her doorstep. She is now in the process of adopting 13 Ugandan girls and lives full-time in Uganda, coming back to the States only for visits and fundraising purposes. Her life is filled with sharing Christ—through words and actions—with the poorest of the poor.

I’m not doing enough. I’m not doing enough. This nasty chorus ran rampant through my mind as I read the book—though I knew that was not Katie’s reason for writing it and I also knew it wasn’t good theology.

What dug my spiritual funk deeper was the fact that I had bought a rug for the living room the day before beginning the book. Like we needed a rug, I thought as I read about Katie raising money to pay school fees for the children in her village. I should have sent the money to World Vision!

(BTW, I felt quite a bit better about the new rug when we spread the old rug out on our grass for the yard sale we had last weekend. Sunlight exposed a LOT more than my living room lamps did. The all-ivory rug may have worked for the empty-nesters we bought the house from, but with our six kids, their friends, our dog—yeesh!)

As I read further, I defaulted to guilt wallowing, and God felt very, very far away.

I know now—and knew then—this kind of guilt is not from God, but I was stuck and digging in deeper. Saturday morning, I woke tired, glum, discouraged already. But this was yard-sale-for-Africa day, filled with opportunities to meet neighbors, make new friends, share life.

Oh God, I prayed, I don’t have the strength for this, and I am so spiritually bankrupt right now. I can’t do this. But rather than drawing me closer to God, my prayer made me more convinced of my failure.

But a beautiful thing happened as the day went on. One of the soccer moms came and helped, and we had genuine fellowship. I met a lovely little woman from Syria who asked me to pray for persecuted believers in her native country. Before she left, she pronounced Christ’s blessings on us and our trip. I met another neighbor, large with her third child, who had moved in just that day down the street. I liked her; Dave hit it off with her husband; Em was ready to babysit. Dave had fun conversation with our next-door neighbor when he asked, “So why are you going to Africa?”

As soon as the yard sale was over, though, the cloud descended again.

All week Dave gave me funny looks when I answered, “Fine,” in response to his, “How are you?” Finally, on our early Sunday morning run (yes, we’re running again, and, oh, I am so sore!), he didn’t let my “Fine” slide by. “No, you’re not,” he pressed. “What’s up?”

“I’m missing God,” I cried. “I just feel like I’m not pleasing Him, that I’m so filled up with self I’m missing Him. I’m trying and trying, but all I can think of is what I’m NOT doing, and then I feel guilty and farther away than ever.”

Dave didn’t let that answer slide by, either. He pushed quite a bit on my faulty theology—and I said, “I know, I know! My head sees it, but what do I do with my heart?”

What ultimately led to a breakthrough was this question he asked: “If you’re so far away from God, then what was going on yesterday at the yard sale?”

That stopped me. I’d gone into the yard sale with dread, with a lack of strength and purpose—with guilt at my attitude.

But somewhere during the day, I’d forgotten ME. I’d forgotten to try so, so hard. I’d let go of guilt and let others minister to me (oh, how Christ works through His body!), and in the process I was able to share myself with them and others. I’d felt joy and peace—and I know where those come from. (Galatians 5:22)

Later on Sunday morning, when I had a few quiet minutes to be still, I wrote in my journal: “If MY doing never truly accomplishes anything—for myself or anyone else, then why do I try so hard? If I really believe that my ‘righteousness is as filthy rags,’ then doing more in my own strength, out of my own guilt, accomplishes no good.”

Not long ago, I listened to a sermon by Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei Church in Portland, about the importance of the Gospel in our lives AFTER salvation. He said something like this: We Christians have little problem seeing our need for complete grace for salvation, but then we act as if we have to accomplish the Christian life on our own. We need the Gospel just as much after salvation as we did before.

In Acts 13, Paul and Barnabus are speaking to people who have just trusted Christ. The two missionaries “urged them to continue to rely on the grace of God.” (emphasis mine)

It’s so, so easy to abandon grace in our daily lives. My tendency is to forget that I have no ability to please God on my own; I feel I must do more, do more, do more to make Him like me. What heresy! And it has such terrible results: guilt, broken sleep, fatigue, a broken spirit.

I wasn’t relying on God to work in me and through me last week. I put far more responsibility on myself than He ever wants me to have. HE guides; HE convicts; HE leads and directs.

I must live in the Gospel:

I need rescuing, every day, often from myself.

And my God is a God who saves.

I want to see

Bartimaeus the beggar was sitting alongside the road when he heard a great crowd pass by. “Hey,” he asked someone nearby, “what’s going on?”

“It’s Jesus!” they said.

Now Bartimaeus may have been blind, but he was in the know. He had heard of Jesus.

And Bartimaeus had no shame!

I love this about him. He understood his great need, and he let go of inhibitions and the desire to please people.

“He shouted, saying, ‘Jesus, Son of David, take pity and have mercy on me!’

But those who were in front reproved him, telling him to keep quiet; yet he screamed and shrieked so much the more, ‘Son of David, take pity and have mercy on me!’” (Luke 18:38-39, Amplified version)

This past Sunday night our church held its monthly prayer/worship night. Philip, who is from Uganda, led the service. “We must realize how desperate we are for God. Only then will we really seek Him,” he said. “People in my country are desperate because their needs are obvious, as basic as food, medicine, jobs. Great needs and loss surround them. Here in the U.S., we are not so desperate for physical things. But if we want to really follow after God, we have to realize that we are just as desperate spiritually. Then we will seek Him.”

It reminded me of something I heard a pastor from Ghana say. He was asked what advice he would give to U.S. believers. “You have a decision,” he said. “Will you seek God out of desperation or devastation?”

Bartimaeus recognized his desperation. It was easy for him to: he was blind; he was a beggar.

We, too, are desperate. Appearances may testify otherwise, but Scripture tells us that without Christ, we are blind, lost, and imprisoned (Acts 26:18). We are sick and injured (Jeremiah 17:9). We are walking dead—true zombies (Ephesians 2:1).

It just isn’t easy for us to realize this in our culture. If we’re not in a place of being devastated, it’s really easy to forget that we are desperate. We distract ourselves with stuff and activities and media, and our desperation stays hidden.

But when we don’t realize our desperation, we don’t cry out. We politely ask for growth and help. We share requests and sometimes remember to pray for others.

But desperate prayers are different. Bartimaeus is a good example of that. Out of desperation he cried out! More than that, he screamed and shrieked! He was NOT going to let anything keep Jesus from hearing him. Even when the crowd “reproved (him) and told (him) to keep still, … (he) cried out all the more” (Matthew 20:31).

Jesus, of course, answered Bartimaeus’ plea for mercy and pity.

“Then Jesus stood still and ordered that (Bartimaeus) be led to Him; and when he came near, Jesus asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Bartimaeus) said, ‘Lord, let me receive my sight!’”

Jesus will answer our pleas, too.

But we have to ask. Really ask. Desperately ask–because Jesus knows our hearts. He knows when we’re simply going through the motions, mouthing prayers, checking devotions off our to-do list.

We MUST recognize our desperation to cry out authentically. Desperation is an absolutely necessary step. All other steps follow it. Again, Bartimaeus serves as an example: out of desperation, he cried out; Jesus met him and healed him; and then Bartimaeus followed Jesus. Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has healed you” (Mark 10:52). But because Bartimaeus realized he been saved out of desperation, he saw with greater than physical sight. He knew his way was now with Jesus. “(He) began to follow Jesus, recognizing, praising, and honoring God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God” (Luke 18:43).

I often want to skip right to the following part and the praising part. I want to be a witness to others.

But an acknowledgement of desperation is a prerequisite for all of it.

God, I need you desperately—and I need to know that I need You.

Help me, please.

I want to see.

Suggestions, please

I am working on another book proposal for the story of Patrick’s adoption. For this latest version, I need a 75-word summary. What I have written below (in italics) is not really a summary, but the guidelines said to think of this as what might go on the back cover of the book, so I am assuming it needs to actually grab attention. If you have a few minutes to read it and then have a suggestion for me, please message me or leave a comment. Thanks so much. Jen

Patrick playing in the snow this past winter. What a dude!

Amazing to think he was once that sick!

A mother dies of AIDS in Uganda, and her 9-pound, 16-month-old son is taken to an orphanage. A teenage girl from Chicago arrives there only days later, takes him in, and nurses him to health. A friend from the States visits and falls in love with the baby, and the friend’s husband, back at home with their three kids, begins praying about adopting this little boy he’s never met. 

The journey to adopt Patrick begins.

Remembering the Miracles

the Underwood fam, summer 2012

the Underwood fam, summer 2012

A few weeks back I wrote a piece for our church’s newsletter about how we adopted our son, PJ. Writing it in such a short form reminded me of what an amazing story it is, so I’m sharing it with all of you.

Miracle 1: In 2007 a high school student went on a church mission trip to Uganda. She was so touched, she convinced her parents to let her go back—alone—two days after her high school graduation. Miracle 2: A Ugandan mother, Eva, dying of AIDS, managed to keep her infant son alive even though she dared not nurse him for fear of passing on her disease. Miracle 3: After her death her friends took the 9 pound, 15-month-old baby to Mercy House orphanage. Miracle 4: The high school student, Jody Schwartz (now Hoekstra), arrived in Uganda the day after Eva’s dying baby was taken to Mercy. Jody asked if she could try to save the baby’s life, and she did.

The miracles kept coming. Seven months later, I went on our church’s 2008 mission trip to Uganda. I spent a lot of time with Jody and the little boy she’d named Patrick, and thoughts of adoption began creeping into my mind. One night on the trip, I prayed, “Lord, if You want this, please talk to Dave about it. I don’t want to adopt this child based on my desire alone.” The night after I returned home, Dave said, “While you were gone, God kept bringing Patrick to my mind. I think we should pray about adopting him.”

Still more miracles happened. When Patrick’s biological father, Abusolom, was discovered to still be alive, we were advised to abandon the adoption, but Abusolom, weak with AIDS and unable to care for his other children, was glad to hear Patrick would be in a family (this is truly a miracle!). The U.S. approval was completed in record time, and I flew to Uganda exactly one year after my first trip. Five weeks later, after Orphanage Director Wilfred and I witnessed countless miracles in the court process and with government officials, Patrick and I flew home.

And on February 13, 2009, all six of us Underwoods were together for the first time.

Shopping advice? From me?

No one—and I mean no one—comes to me for Christmas shopping advice.

I’m not a good shopper at any time of the year. As my husband and older daughter say, “You start grumpy and just get worse.” They generally refuse to go with me—especially if they know the stores will be crowded.

Despite this, though, I’m actually going to share some shopping tips in this blog entry.

If you like the idea of giving gifts that give back, then you might be interested in some of these very cool businesses and nonprofits that allow you to do just that. Giving these items won’t help you to buy more with less money, but you’ll know that every purchase enables an organization to do more for someone who desperately needs hope.

IF YOU’RE SHOPPING FOR PRETEENS/TEENS

Check out www.mudlove.com. This company, based in Winona Lake, Indiana (home of my wonderful in-laws and my alma mater, Grace College), sells made-on-site clay bracelets and necklaces. The most popular version is stamped with a word or phrase, and you can even custom order a word or phrase that has particular meaning to you. Twenty percent of each purchase goes to provide clean water in Africa, and $5 spent provides an African with clean drinking water for a year. My girls (ages 8, 12, 13, and 15) ALL love them.

www.entertheventure.com doesn’t have a whole lot of items for sale, but I love the heart behind this small nonprofit, which was started by some young friends of ours. They have African-made bracelets and necklaces made out of rolled paper. If you haven’t seen these, don’t think, “Paper? Tacky.” They’re NOT. Plus, each one purchased helps support two children’s homes in Africa: Jerusalem Children’s ministry and Springs of Hope.

BIG-TICKET BEAUTY

www.handandcloth.com sells gorgeous, one-of-a-kind blankets made from used saris by women rescued from the slave trade in Bangladesh. I’ve featured this ministry before on my blog (https://journeytojen.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/blankets-handmade-by-women-women-handmade-by-god/).  These are perfect buys for the person who appreciates beautiful, handmade artisan items (hmm—maybe that describes you yourself!). They start at $98 dollars and go up to around $200. Check out the blankets at the website—which itself is beautiful—and read their story while you are there. “Blankets handmade by women. Women handmade by God.” Wonderful work!

TWO OTHERS FOR WOMEN AT RISK

If you want something other than blankets made by women rescued from the slave trade, visit www.warinternational.org. The acronym WAR, standing for Women at Risk, was started in 2006. You can find jewelry, accessories, home décor, and children’s items made by women in 13 countries, including the United States.

www.stoptraffickfashion.com has t-shirts, jewelry, and totes/bags made from recycled materials. Many of their t-shirts express the heart of the women who run this website. One with a barcode also has the logo “People are not products” and several sport the logo “free.loved.radiant.”

LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING

Need to shop for kids, men, women—want to spend a little for this one, more for that one? Go to www.tenthousandvillages.com. Gorgeous jewelry, decorative items, and woven/knitted items for women; toys and games for children; even things like chess sets, bookends, and bicycle-chain frames for men. Their website is very easy to navigate and has some very helpful tools. If you click on the “gift ideas” tab at the top of the page, you can shop for holiday items, for men, women, or children, or by type of item.  You can spend a little (items as low as $4) or a lot. They also have shops (there is one near me in Glen Ellyn, IL). You can find a shop locater on the website.

FOR THE COFFEE LOVERS

Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee Company has “Drink Coffee. Do Good” as its motto. It started with farmers in Rwanda (the founder saw the effects of the genocide and had to do SOMETHING) and now works with farmers in Haiti and Thailand as well. They sell 100% Arabica, fairly traded, fresh roasted coffee. They sell ground, whole bean, and decaf, teas, and coffee accessories at www.landofathousandhills.com.

LOOKING FOR HANDCRAFTED CROCHETED ITEMS?

My husband just told me about this one, and I checked it out and love their website. What a great story! A group of high school guys learned to crochet simply because they wanted unique ski hats on the local slopes. Others dubbed them the Krochet Kids. Long story short (if you want to know the whole thing, visit the website), they taught these skills to women in northern Africa and then Peru, and they sell these handmade items at www.krochetkids.org. Each item carries with it the signature of the woman who crocheted it, and you can visit the website to learn her story.

AND, FINALLY, FOR THE PERSON WHO HAS EVERYTHING

Buy them a goat—bet they don’t have that. Seriously, go to  www.worldvision.org or www.compassion.com and look under “ways to give.” The gift catalog has items like school supplies, ducks, and clean-water wells. You can honor someone with your gift, and that person will receive a card telling about your gift and what it will accomplish.

ANY OTHER IDEAS???

If you have other ideas, please leave a comment and share! I’d love to hear your ideas.

Thanks for reading! I sure enjoyed pulling the list together.

Great numbers of the least

Joseph Stalin reportedly said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” and there’s a lot of truth to that statement. In the last week I’ve been reminded of a lot of numbers. I’m going to spout a few of them at you in the next couple of paragraphs but please know that the numbers are not the focus.

On Saturday I attended a training seminar at our local World Relief center (http://worldrelief.org/). Did you know there are 43.7 MILLION refugees in the world? Eighty percent of them are women and children.

On the radio last week I listened to an interview with Kathi Macias, an author who has written a fiction series on sex slave trafficking around the globe. More than 27 million slaves live in our world now. Two million of them are children exploited in the sex slave trade. This trade touches nearly every single country in the world and has a very real presence in the United States—not just in cities but in small towns as well (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/corban-addison/modern-slavery_b_1214371.html) (http://kathimacias.com/kathis-books/).

On Saturday night—and again on Sunday—I spent time with Wilfred Rugumba, who is very special to our family. Wilfred is the director of the orphanage where Patrick, our youngest, lived before becoming an Underwood (http://www.mercychildcare.org/). Wilfred reminded me that there are between 143 and 210 million orphans in the world. The number of orphans in sub-Saharan Africa is greater than the total number of children in Denmark, Norway, Ireland, Canada, and Sweden.

Those are overwhelming statistics! Obviously they overlap—a lot. Many of those refugees are also orphans. Many orphans are the ones abducted into the slave trade. But regardless of how you slice and dice it, it adds up to a lot of people. A lot of hurting people.

Sometimes I can forget these numbers. I can go for a few days, a week, maybe two without actively remembering that every minute people are being abused, sold, orphaned, displaced, and widowed. There have been other times in my life, though, when I have felt paralyzed by the thought of the vicious evil being done in any given moment.

It is in those moments when I have been reminded that God NEVER forgets. I CAN forget. I can get wrapped up in my days that are filled with activity. But God never forgets. If He knows the number of hairs on my head, He certainly knows the numbers of those being abused and exploited. He knows exactly how many stomachs are hungry. He knows how many children are wailing or dazed with grief over dead parents. And they are not just numbers to Him. They are faces, hearts, and souls to Him! And He is present in their pain. He is there when the young girl or boy is sold for sex. He is there when the widow watches her child grow listless and blank-eyed because hunger has dulled everything. He sees every village that is marauded for political or ethnic reasons.

He was there during the Armenian massacres, and there during the Holocaust and there during the Rwandan and Cambodian and Bosnian genocides and others we don’t even know about. He is in Darfur today.

And He is not untouched.

My God, what a heart You must have! We cannot blame you for these atrocities—though we try. These are crimes we commit against each other, crimes we allow because we are too concerned with our own safety and status quo to be bothered. But You are bothered. I know that with our present-day, developed-world mentality, we tend to ask questions like, “How could a loving God judge our world? How could a loving God hold us to account when we cannot see Him?” But even if God did not hold us guilty for how we have forgotten and disrespected HIM, we would stand condemned for how we have disrespected and abused and ignored His image that is seen so clearly in the children of the world. In fact, some moments, when I read about atrocities done to children and defenseless women and oppressed people groups, I think, “How do you hold back, God? How do you keep from not just wiping us completely off the face of the earth?” Even with the Western, rights-focused bent that I must fight for the rest of my life, I am more amazed by His mercy in those moments than offended by His judgment.

Yet He has not wiped out. He has given grace. He continues to love His Western, privileged church even when we fail miserably at being His hands and feet to the oppressed. He allows me to approach Him daily, hourly with my comparatively small frustrations and complaints.

I am amazed by this God. I am humbled by this God.

And I pray that these two attitudes—amazement and humility—will lead my heart and my hands and my feet into becoming more and more like His.

Jackfruit

NOTE: It’s been finals week–ugh!–which is why I haven’t blogged lately. This post is the piece I wrote for my final writing class assignment (also this week). It’s about my time in Uganda but probably won’t fit into  the book about Patrick’s adoption.

“Jackfruit”

The pimply jackfruit sits on Vena’s knees like a second pregnant belly, the size of a basketball but misshapen, yellow-brown. The stink of rotten onions fills the small car—Vena picked it well—and Wilfred puts the windows down.

The look, smell—the dense weight—it would never sell in a U.S. grocery store, the muzungu thinks. But machete through the ugly rind and what a treasure. Pineapple-banana scent, warm yellow color, exotic tulip-shaped fruits nestled, jewel-like, in a yellow velvet pulp.

The muzungu peers her neck to catch fragments of the sky between the shacks, leaning buildings, trash heaps that crowd the narrow alleys and streets crisscrossing this hill-mountain. She shifts Patrick on her lap so he can see their upward climb. He points and jabbers, waves at children. Wilfred turns this way, that way—a fun maze without the fun.

At the very top is a flat space, with a large concrete building that looks as if a wrecking ball swung through it a few times but then gave up. Wilfred crunches to a stop on the rubble that is working its way out from the structure. Men, young and old, squat on the ground, sit on chunks of cement and in blown-out window ledges, stand around in small groups. It is a Sunday, but, judging by the looks of the area, this may be the scene every day of the week. Two young men approach as they get from the car, and Wilfred huddles with them, slips them some cash.

Vena hands Wilfred the jackfruit and leads, picking her way carefully in her Sunday shoes. Just over the crest of the hill, they see the slum, spilling down the side. Cast-off building materials poured from a giant dump truck, heaped up haphazardly into “homes.”

Vena nods at the women cooking over open charcoal fires, sitting on doorsteps feeding babies, hanging laundry. The muzungu follows her, clutching Patrick to her side as if he will somehow transform her white skin, her other-ness. She nods, too. Some women dip their heads, a couple even smile, but the men’s eyes are hard. The rare muzungu who comes here bears judgment or pity, neither of which builds a father’s sense of manhood.

I’m Alice, going deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.

No, that’s not quite intense enough.

The red dirt paths between the homes form channels for run-off from above. They are walking on the slick, smooth bank of a stream. The smell of waste grows stronger when the water pools, covers the vegetable scent from cooking pots. She copies Vena’s flat-footed, splayed-out steps, leans on buildings at tricky spots. If she had her arms free she could touch fingertips to the walls on both sides, elbow-to-elbow in some spots.

Down, down, down. The maze driving up the hill was nothing compared to this. How does Vena know where to go?

Then Vena stops.

“Uncle? Uncle?” she calls.

She ducks her head inside a doorway.

Excited chatter. A woman steps out, near the same age as Vena but looking older with her hair in a kerchief and her chest sloping like a soft hill all the way to her waist. She hugs Vena, pats one large, strong hand on Vena’s belly. Wilfred, who came down the hill behind the muzungu, stands by, holding the jackfruit, smiling.

Vena turns to the muzungu. “This is my cousin. We grew up together.”

The cousin tucks her head, but the muzungu reaches out for one of her hands, shakes it. The cousin’s head comes up, her eyes brighten.

“This is Jennifer. She is adopting Patrick,” Vena tells her. “She is living with us for awhile.”

The cousin motions them in. Their eyes adjust to the sudden dark. One room, no windows, though light filters in through a jagged hole high up in the wall, covered with a piece of cloth. One small, upholstered chair sits next to the door. Across from it two others are stacked, with a small coffee table perched on top. Vena takes the jackfruit from Wilfred, puts it on a shelf that holds a bag of rice, a bag of beans, and says something to him, tipping her head toward the chairs. Wilfred sets the coffee table in the center of the room and places the chairs around it.

“Jennifer, sit there.” Obediently the muzungu sits. Her knees touch the table. Patrick slides from her lap and stomps his feet, glad to be down. He beats his hands on the table.

There is a rustle just above the muzungu’s head. Halfway up the wall, the bricks jut in, forming a wide, deep alcove. A man sits up inside this, swings his legs over the side.

“Uncle!” Vena says. He slips down, one hand clutching his loose pants, the other holding his buttonless cardigan closed over his bare brown chest. He blinks but then recognizes Vena and begins chattering in Lugandan. The muzungu pulls up her feet so he can shuffle between the table and the chairs. Vena hugs him gently.

“Jennifer, this is my uncle.”

He turns to the muzungu, a smile splitting his wrinkled face. Cracked brown teeth fill the gap. Beside him Vena’s white teeth gleam. A picture perfect for toothpaste advertising.

Vena told the muzungu once that she, Vena, had such nice teeth because she had no sugar as a child. “We were lucky to get one meal a day,” she said. “No money for sweets.”

“So if a person has nice teeth, they were probably poor growing up?”

Vena shook her head. “They were poor AND their mamas cared about their teeth. The ones with teeth like…?” She pointed at her gums and looked at the muzungu.

“Stumps? Decayed?”

“Yes. Their mamas gave them sugar cane as babies. Cheap. Keeps them from fussing. Easier for the mama, but bad for the teeth.”

The uncle settles in his chair, the one near the door. Wilfred stands, uncertain, until the young cousin pulls a wooden stool out from against the wall. She and Vena hold a hushed conference, and the cousin slips past the door cloth.

They talk, the voices up and down, laughter tinging. Patrick moves down the table, wiggles his way between the uncle’s knees. The uncle asks Patrick questions. More laughter.

The muzungu does not understand, but she smiles, watches, tries to look at the room without showing that she is. Labels—the plastic ones from 2-liter soda bottles—have been fastened to the wall. Coca-Cola, Fanta, Mountain Dew, Sundrop; a red, orange, purple, green, yellow patchwork. She watches the uncle’s hand rub Patrick’s head, answers the questions he asks her through Vena.

The cousin comes back with soft drinks, lukewarm in glass bottles, small cakes in cellophane packages. The muzungu hopes Vena gave the cousin money for this.

Is her reluctance to take—masked as guilt for their spending money on her—a way to separate? She remembers the story of the three Southern pastors, firm in their conviction that drinking alcohol was a sin, being offered beer by a pastor at an overseas conference. Two refused, one accepted. When the two later said, “How could you?” the other answered, “I thought one of us should act like a Christian.”

Translation: not separate, not better. Seeing past the outside, looking in.

The cousin pulls aside the doorcloth and sits on the stoop so she can talk to Vena and still greet passersby. A few stop to chat. A few try English with the muzungu. More laughter. The bright patchwork on the wall fades as the light changes. The cousin’s shadow stretches behind her.

Vena stands.

“No, Uncle, do not get up.” She leans down to hug him.

The muzungu steps over the table, stands near the uncle. “Good-bye,” he tells her. The cousin reaches for the muzungu’s hand, holds it for a moment before Vena leads them out.

Out to where sewage smell drifts up from the water in the path.

Just like jackfruit.