When I first arrived here I had just gotten to know most everybody's names. The girls were the easy part, each one with her own distinct haircut, height, and manner of dress. The boys all wore the same three t-shirts that had been donated in mass along with the same navy blue trousers and all had the same height. After I had finally mastered most of their names they all went one day and got haircuts. I couldn't tell the difference between thirty boys all wearing the same three t-shirts, navy blue trousers and freshly shaved heads.
Now, after first showing up almost four years ago I can recognize as somebody walks into the dining hall just by hearing their footsteps. There are the fast, long paces of Victor, he knows where he wants to go and isn't wasting any time. That's the slow shuffle of Samito, never walking in straight line, always glancing around from left to right as if he was daydreaming. There is the thumping of Virginia, wanting everybody to know that she has arrived. There are the quick, light steps of Ofeita running away from the dragging feet of Jose. I have to replace Jose's sandals every month because he can't walk heel-to-toe. He just shuffles around driving his toes into the ground.
But, after first showing up almost four years ago, after knowing these kids just like my own family, it's time for me to leave. This is the last post I'll put up here, the last story to tell.
There are a myriad of things I could reflect on, a millions different experiences, thousands of stories, hundreds of people. But if there is one thing I wish I could transmit to you for you to fully grasp the entirety of my time at the orphanage, the thing that will stay with me the most, it would be the smells. Stay with me for a second here. Smell is a terribly powerful memory indicator. I think it's because for most of us, scent works in a more subconscious level than sight or sounds. I've discovered this more and more especially as I am removed from things that are brought to mind by certain scents. One day I may be reminded of the scent of the hand soap from my grade school, another day the interior the truck I used to drive, perhaps the food concessions at a little league game.
Other scents conjure memories and emotions far more specific and vivid and evocative than simple time or place, memories that move me for no discernible reason. All of a sudden my nose catches a scent so distinct for some unknown reason from the millions of other scents I've sniffed in my lifetime that and I'm transported to the dinner table at my grandparents, sharing a meal as we did oh so many times. Another occurs while driving on the road as the breeze comes through the cabin carrying with it the scent of wildflowers and suddenly I'm not driving across African grassland but am transported on a road trip across the great American West with friends. Walking through the market and catching a waft of a vendor frying eggs for sale and suddenly being thrown in the kitchen as dad prepares breakfast on a Saturday morning before starting the day's sundry chores.
The memories, the ones that give me pause and transport me to a time and a place so foreign to this one that I've inhabited for nearly four years, the ones that without warning or explanation move me to tears of both unexplainable sadness and indescribable joy are not focused on the scents themselves, nor an activity or place, but the memories associated with them. The ones that grip the core of my being are the ones where I'm surrounding the people I love, I miss dearly, and care about deeply.
I know that soon those scents and those unfathomable pauses will come not because I'm overcome by things and people which are once again familiar, but by those I am leaving behind here. The scent of fresh cookies being sold to the kids at elementary school as I am returning home for the day hand-in-hand with the kids. The hint of thyme on the evening breeze, sitting around complaining about how late the rains are. Grilling chicken inside of a broken down wheelbarrow. The dust settling in the evening as I lay out staring at the milky way, sitting with kids who are constantly puzzled at the joy it gives me admiring God's creation.
One evening I found myself sitting around rather melancholy in such a moment as I contemplated that I live a very long way from all my family and friends and everyone I'd ever loved when one of the little girls we have here came over to sit with me. She could tell I was a little out of sorts and asked what I was thinking about. I said I was thinking about my family and that is what was was making me said. Without missing a beat, she just said, "Hmm, I don't know why you're sad. I'm your family, and you're my family, and here we are together." I then had to explain to her that my tears were not because she made me sadder but in fact the opposite. Then she asked me to stop hugging her so tight.
The memories I take with me are of teaching and coaching little Victor to pass 7th grade. Spending hours with him studying and then hours more praying and fasting and interceding while he was taking the exams. The memories I take with me are of putting out kitchen fires and killing snakes. The memories I take with me are of sitting around with my battery powered radio one evening when the power was out and the dining hall was lit up by candles. The radio then started a program of only Glenn Miller songs (remember, the radio is weird). That night I taught the kids swing dancing till the batteries died. The memories I'll take with me are the first day we sent kids off to stay with their relatives for Christmas and only about eight kids stayed behind, including three little girls that had no family to go to. I spent the evening with sitting with them and holding them while they cried themselves to sleep having no family to go and visit.
Like the memories, the photos are of the things I'll remember. They are not of the imposing mountains, the sunny beaches, the starry skies, the building we built, the events and activities, but of people.
I know you're not supposed to have favorites, but I do. It's also hard not to be impartial when you have certain kids that are always setting things on fire and other that aren't. The one's I'm drawn to are not because of anything they've done. The thing is, as I've explained before, nobody is without anybody. Everyone has an uncle, and grandparent, a mom, and older brother or sister who has left the orphanage, a cousin that goes to the same school. There are only a small handful of kids that have absolutely nobody to rely on. In part, it's because they completely realize that they are forever dependent on God. One such family is Jose, Jordao and Dorcas, who have absolutely nobody to rely on other than their senile Grandma—Jordao said one day, "I think Jesus is calling her because she has got to be getting close to going." The ones without family are the ones looking for it, for care and a connection, for protection and love.
Just as I have long known and only more fully realized here, my relationship with God is also fully realized when I am truly dependent on Him. Not just dependent for happiness, peace, forgiveness, and spiritual niceties, but for food, water, health, life. In the same way, I feel the kids here who grasp and have the simplest, purest picture of what Jesus does for them are the kids that have nobody to run to when it gets hard. As difficult as it is to imagine, we are not the first place the kids run to with problems. But for some there is nowhere to run. Little Victor has nobody to help him. Victor has a testimony that will break your heart, and his mom lives shouting distance from the orphanage. Victor is the kind of kid that come Friday I'll give him some spare change to get a pop after school or some fresh sugar cane and he instead offers the money to his mom, not out of fear or obligation, but because he knows that it truly better to give than receive.
In line with the immeasurable joy that comes from seeing a life transformed by Jesus also is the ache and frustration of those that don't accept the truth. For every Little Victor that has not only been spiritually changed by Jesus, but his entire destiny rewritten there are countless more that end in tragedy. People that make tragic decisions and set their lives on a tragic path and you spend you time trying to speak to them and reason to them for them to see that the decisions they are making are taking themselves on a path they can't come back from. It is the absolute definition of tragedy, in which their decisions seal their fate. I have written about so many kids that we have sent off to jobs and training and schooling. How many times have I written about when they came back?
People that come here and experience a family that loves them and treats them as equals. And when it comes time for them to make their own life, for some that is the last we hear of them. One boy still has a horde of younger siblings here in the orphanage and almost three years after for a job in another city and he has never looked back, come to visit, or even check in. If I call, he will eventually pick up on maybe the second day of me trying. Always cordial and polite, as soon as I tell him I'm standing right next to his younger sister who would love nothing more than to hear from him the line goes dead.
You can even say that it's like the prodigal son. They are people that, in some respects, the best parts of their lives have come from the orphanage—the first place where they weren't always sick, the first place where they didn't have to go labor everyday, the first place where they weren't shuffled around between relatives, always a burden and unwanted, the first place they knew they wouldn't have to fight for food, the first place they knew they had a bed to go to at the end of the night and wouldn't be living in abandoned houses, the first place their relatives didn't lock them out of the house at night, burn them with coals for not returning with enough money after a day of begging on the street. It's like the prodigal son, except they haven't come back yet.
One thing that has deeply encouraged me is 10%. That's where the bar was set. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus encountered ten lepers who cried out to him from a distance. Jesus told them to go find a priest and they were healed as they went. The, only one came back to thank him. You think receiving a sentence like leprosy—destined to die a slow and painful death over many years, possibly decades, cast out from society—to have that erased, your destiny changed by God himself would merit the lepers going back to Jesus. But only one did. If Jesus only got ten percent, how much can we hope for?
And that probably sounds like a real drag. I've only invested in these kids from three or four years and I am distraught knowing that some of them will leave and never look back. Like the multitude that followed Jesus after he gave them all bread and fish, he told them to all go back home because they were only in it for the food.
I know that part of it is my maturing process, but this is the first thing I've done where you don't get to say that the payoff just at the end of the year. It's not cramming for tests at the end of the quarter and then you're done. It's not doing development on a project and then passing it off another group for the next stage of development and testing, finishing a remodel, completing a roof. It's not even like working on a car, because while things here are clearly breaking down all the time, my cars never improve, they just stave off death for another day. It's not even like prepping for a concert and then there is a big performance, or leading new Christians through discipleship where you see the growth and struggles in vivid leaps and bounds. This is the long approach, the realistic approach. Only a fool goes to a third grader and says, "You are going to learn everything you need to now right now. Recall these lessons later as you may need it."
One of the most vivid experiences of my entire life was a certain trip to the toy store with my dad. Normally they were great occasions. A new whiffleball bat, a puzzle, a board game. It was near Christmas and I was in second grade. As we walked in the door my dad said you can have up to fifty dollars total. It was amazing. There was no Christmas list and then hoping and praying you got what you wanted. It was cutting out the middleman. I got vetoed on a Nerf gun, but got a board game and set of Legos. It was turning out to be the best Christmas ever.
And then the happiest Christmas ever turned in to the worst Christmas ever. As I carried the bags to head out the door, my dad asked me to hand it over to the marine that was at the Toys For Tots donation table. I was speechless, dumbstruck, did as I was told, and I went home empty-handed. In the car ride home I must have gone through all twelve stages and grief and then looped right back around whichever stage is responsible for being just plain pissed off. I got home, was sat down, and explained that while I was having the worst Christmas ever, it meant that another young boy that ordinarily wouldn't get anything would be unwrapping the toys that I donated. I was assured that one day I will understand that, just as Jesus said, it is better to give than receive.
I understand now.
Those are the lessons I'm hoping stay with the kids. Not painful lessons that they will carry with them until one day they realize it was true all along, but that one day when they need to call on it, they'll know the right thing to do and the way to act and how to please God. That is the long approach. Whenever there was something (usually work) I didn't want to do I was told by my dad the reason to work was that it would put hair on your chest (my dad had it easy only having sons, because that motivation is clearly not universal to both genders). I try to get the kids to realize that when we have work and chores that the purpose is to prepare them for everything to come. Sometimes, work is its' own reward. When you are faced with a tough choice, it's always better to follow Jesus, even if it means life will get harder, because that's the great paradox we follow, that to live your life is to lose it. And those things I picked out at the toy store, I ended up unwrapping them at Christmas several days later.
When Peter is out fishing, Jesus calls to him, "Follow me." He doesn't say, "Let's go to Starbucks and have a chat," or even come right out and say, "Hang out with me for three years before everybody I know turns their back on me, including you, and I die a horrible death." Even after Jesus is resurrected, he asks Peter to follow him again. This is right before Jesus ascends into heaven. Peter obviously didn't know where to go, but he agreed to follow.
And now it's time for me to follow Jesus somewhere else. In some respects it will be easier. I'll get a job (Lord willing), find a place to live, and look for that special someone. I believe the common term used to describe it is "settling down". I would like to know what part of it is settling down. I went from bouncing around during college, never having to do maintenance and home repairs. I went from not having kids to taking care of fifty of them. I got to skip the newborn phase but got them as they were colicky 4 year-old, ten year-old boys running around breaking bones, filthy teenage boys that you wonder if he is going to wear that t-shirt till it falls off his body or if he's going to shower sometime, and moody teenage girls that you just have no idea what is upsetting them (answer: nothing, and yet everything).
Settling down is the scary part. I came to Mozambique knowing at the deepest part of my being that it what God made me to do. And I leave with that same trust. It does not mean that either decision is any less scary. It doesn't mean I have an idea what I'm to do any more than I had absolutely no idea what what to do when I came to Nampula. I just know that it was needs to be done and I am thrilled by just knowing that much.
I was talking with a group of friends before I left to come here way back in 2010. They were mentioning all the exciting happenings I'd miss by not being in Seattle. One friend was joking and had asked just why I had to go to Mozambique. My answer was, "I have to. It's what God made me to do." The answer caught them off guard for its simplicity and unexpected profundity and halted the lighthearted mood of the conversation. There was then about a minute of silence and staring off into the abyss, each one wonder for him or herself, "Wow. Then what did God make me to do?"
This is not my sunset, this is not the close of my book. It is the close of one chapter, the end to one part of the story. Better parts are coming, and worse part are coming too. Happier and sadder and fuller and richer and more fulfilling and challenging. Yes, even more challenging than life in Nampula. This is not the cliffhanger where it looks like all is lost for our hero—stay tuned till next week to find out if he makes it! I'll make it. Because I know what I was made to do.
I enjoy weaving stories. I can't say that there is a defining thread or current that courses from one episode to the next. I don't even know that many of the stories are that coherent on their own. But I do love telling the stories. There are plenty more stories to be told here, but they're not for me to tell. They will left to tell for someone else. As the children here that I've come alongside with have grown, are growing, and will be writing their own stories someday. They will be nurses, lawyers, farmers, engineers, mechanics, chefs, policemen, carpenters, teachers, pastors, fathers, and mothers. They will struggle mightily, fail spectacularly, and succeed monumentally. I won't be here to see their story unfold. I won't be here to participate in it, to help it, to mold it, to encourage and chastise and correct and encourage and celebrate in it. But he story will be written because I am not The One writing it.
The scary thing is that I don't know what I'm going to do. Much like coming here. That's why it is fun and crazy. I believed that if God was truly calling me to Mozambique than he would also provide for me after I got back. I still believe that. It's hard and scary to trust, but I do.
There are many things that I will remember from my time in the orphanage, but there is one set of memories I'll keep with me the most. Not of chasing after bandits, nor going to the beach with the kids, nor coaching basketball, sneaking into the high school and substitute teaching, attending feasts, watching movies projected on the wall, staying up past midnight huddled around the radio listening to soccer games. The things I remember the most are entirely different. Sitting around chatting in the evening.
Planting and gardening with the boys.
Playing soccer on Saturdays.
Doing homework, teaching multiplication tables, having spelling bees.
Laughing at absolutely nothing over dinner.
The movie Up, aside from being the only movie I've ever seen that made me weep within the first five minutes, features the most unassuming, profound, life altering quote I've heard from any movie.
When the old man Carl sets off on his adventure and his house floats away tied to a thousand balloons, he is joined by a young tag-along named Russell. One day, Russell was reminiscing about his dad: "And afterwords we'd go get ice cream at Fenton's. I always get chocolate and he gets butter-brickle. Then we'd sit on this one curb, right outside, and I'll count all the blue cars and he counts all the red ones, and whoever gets the most, wins. I like that curb.
"That might sound boring, but I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most."