Monday, July 27, 2009

Widows and Orphans

Having coordinated ten Lighthouse Project trips, I’ve heard every excuse in the book for not hosting. Some reasons are legitimate, some less so. A caller once claimed she couldn’t host because the trip was coming up too soon. Next time she had a few months’ notice, but she couldn’t plan that far ahead. I tire of the charade; sometimes I wish people would just say they’re not interested.

Copious notes taken during the course of myriad phone conversations show I can expect to speak with ten callers to come up with one host family. While I try not to judge callers’ decisions, it appears many people choose not to host when they reasonably could. Others can reasonably host, and do. But my favorite callers have good reasons not to host, and choose to anyway. They understand they can make a difference in the life of a child, and whatever legitimate excuse they might have voiced is silenced by this more substantial realization.

Justine called me for the first time one morning when I was in Missouri with the Lighthouse Project. Running late for Vacation Bible School, I begged out, asking if I could call her later in the day when I had time to do the conversation justice. She agreed, but I fretted all day that her first impression of my availability might discourage her from hosting. Back in my hotel room that evening, we spoke. As she shared her story, I was relieved to find it would take more than a conversation deferred to discourage her.

Justine had always wanted to adopt. She and her husband discussed it, opting to pursue it after they’d had biological children. Son Alden arrived. Two and a half years later she was eight months along in a pregnancy when her husband fell ill; one day later, he died of complications related to diabetes. Justine was left to deliver daughter Lilly alone.

She grieved, but found the hardest part was the demise of her dream of a large family. Over time, she began researching adoption online. Hong Kong stood out based on cost and openness to single mothers, but almost all available children had moderate to severe special needs. Justine decided to wait, believing Hong Kong was not in her future. She bought a house, her parents bought next door, and she began home schooling. Life was good again; she was content and hoping for no changes.

But two years ago, she began a word study of every use of “widow” in the Bible. As the months passed, she handwrote most Biblical references to the subject. God’s concern for widows clarified, she discovered that in almost every passage, orphans, too, received specific mention as recipients of God’s special compassion. Within a year, God rekindled her desire to adopt; Hong Kong was her clear directive. As she shared her plan with her children, family, and friends, she found unanimous support.

Beginning her home study, she hoped to adopt a child between the ages of Alden, now 9, and Lilly, now 6. Her agency balked at her plan to adopt out of birth order, preferring that she make her new child the youngest. Justine was open to physical needs like blindness or cerebral palsy; Down syndrome was on the list of special needs she did not expect to consider. But scanning a list of Hong Kong’s waiting children, an eight-year-old boy with Down syndrome tugged at her heart. Already traveling a circuitous path, both Justine and her agency altered course. The agency allowed her to sandwich a child between her two biological children, and Justine realized the little boy she’d seen with Down syndrome was her son. Wondering why such a precious soul waited alone over eight years, she concluded he was “just reserved for our family.”

In November 2008, Justine heard about the Lighthouse Project trip through a friend’s blog. She hoped to host next time in Tulsa, but we were already in town for the January 2009 trip before she was aware of it. When she got word that we’d be returning to Tulsa a third time, her initial reaction was dismay since she obviously couldn’t host in the middle of her adoption. She might need for her own adoption the $1000 it cost to host a child. Worse, if she hosted, she’d fall in love, want to adopt, and be unable due to Hong Kong law prohibiting concurrent adoptions through other sources. God reminded her she had $1076 in a memorial fund in her husband’s name, and brought conviction that her reason not to host was flimsy. Would she let a child stay in a dismal orphanage with a hopeless future because she might be hurt if she opened her heart? She had the money, and she had the time. The only issue was fear of emotional injury. All the while, God was asking, “How selfish can you be?”

Not very, as it turns out. Justine did call as I flew out the Missouri door toward VBS, and she was still polite when I finally called her back over twelve hours later. When she told me about her special needs adoption, needing to fund her own process, single parenthood, and busyness home schooling, I knew her excuse for not hosting would be more watertight than most. Remarkably, after listening to all the obstacles and mentally rehearsing my speech for when she would end, “God bless you, but I can’t host,” those words never came. Instead, she matter-of-factly told me her husband’s memorial fund had waited for just such a time, she planned to host, and to send her the details. Justine had enough potential excuses to fuel several of my callers who decline to open their homes; she didn’t use even one, choosing to give a little of herself to give a second child a chance at a future. “I’m just going to follow God’s leading,” she declared.

As I struggle to find hosts for kids for whom precious little hope exists outside traveling on such a trip, Justine sends out e-mails to her friends, asking them to consider hosting a child alongside her. She lamented tonight that she hadn’t yet found anyone. Meanwhile, her “yes” is far more moral support for this discouraged coordinator than all the “God bless you”s with which I’ve ever been rejected while promoting the Lighthouse Project.

Oh, that enough families would follow God’s leading so that none of our sixteen Lighthouse Project kids have to stay behind in Russia, staring down hopelessness! God can bless, and I trust He will, but it happens through people who, like Justine, put others before themselves to be part of that blessing.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"He Just Won Our Hearts"

Eyes brimming with tears, Egor waited alone at the St. Louis airport. Each of the other orphans in his group had a family. Where was his? The translator tried consoling him, reminding him the plane had arrived 30 minutes ahead of schedule and his family was driving from far away.

On time but for the plane’s early arrival, Egor’s family had fears of their own. They’d felt God’s Spirit moving when they first saw Egor’s photo on this humble blog. (Unmasked, 4/22/09) Everything pointed exactly to him, yet questions of their adequacy gnawed. They weren’t sure they could afford Russian adoption. Maybe people would stare.

Mutually allaying their concerns, the van continued toward the airport, and Egor tried to believe that someone who’d treasure him was coming. The moment they finally saw each other, hope, trust, and love replaced the fear. Egor had wished for a mama and papa in his orphanage interview a few months before, and he’d soon find they’d been worth the wait. The family would make their own discovery: a son and brother whom, until recently, they’d not known they were missing. (Eager, 5/28/09)

Egor’s family calls Michigan home. With only a few weeks’ notice, their hearts adopted Egor and they planned their trek to Missouri. They expected to love Egor, to make him their son.

The depth of that love surprised them.

From the first meeting on, Egor conquered his fears. Day two, getting into a go-cart, he shook visibly. The car rocketed off when he was too aggressive with the accelerator; chastened, he drove the first lap Buick-tentatively. Emboldened once around, he then drove as maniacally as the rest of the kids. It made an impression: asked at the evening program what his favorite activities had been, he gave the go-carts a serious “thumbs up.”

His family reveled in the special relationship he developed with each of them. He watched baseball nightly with his soon-to-be older brother. While he didn’t really understand the game, he knew enough to cheer whenever Chandler did. Not seeing a reason to wait until his adoption is finalized, he playfully teased his future sisters, demonstrating a sense of humor and personality in spades. He started pillow fights with Arianna. Older brother Riley took seriously his self-appointed role as Egor’s protector, and sang a song in his honor at the evening program. Egor had a kind and generous spirit, too. Gum is a prized possession amongst all Russian orphans. When the baby of the family asked Egor for his penultimate piece of gum, he didn’t hesitate. Two other sisters saw his largesse and asked for the last piece. Egor eyed the two of them, then tore the remaining stick in half and gave each a piece, leaving none for himself. He proved a quick study in chivalry. Seeing his new dad opening doors for his new mom, and not wanting to be outdone, Egor started opening and closing the car door for her. When Egor gallantly tried to open the doors at all the stores they went to, it hardly mattered to his mom that he frequently wasn’t strong enough, and that she had to help him anyway.

In the ten days they spent together before Egor’s return to Russia, he smiled perpetually. Nobody stared, except a few small children. Almost all the comments were positive, focusing on how cute Egor’s smile and enthusiasm were. He flexibly went along with whatever they planned. He had fun and instigated it. He sought help from his family; that they might let him down rightfully never occurred to him. Miracles happened.

Two dear and saintly ladies adopted the family during the week. At a sweetly informal ice cream sundae party Egor’s family hosted for them in the hotel lobby, the ladies ate up the family’s story, encouraging them to follow God’s direction. At the end, each pressed a check into a Michigan hand to help them do so. Their message was a clarion call: you are sufficient for this!

On the way to Missouri, Egor’s family had expected to be obedient to God no matter what. Having met him, their act of obedience was transformed into an act of love when Egor won their hearts. The day after they arrived home in Michigan, his mom was feverishly filling out adoption paperwork, explaining, “We love this kid. We want him, and we want him now!”

Their last full day together, Egor’s family visited a cave. The floor was slippery, and he was afraid. As he grasped his long-awaited mama’s hand and clutched it until they were back in the light, she imagined the times in the future when Egor will face frightening situations. He’ll have to trustingly hold their hands. He’ll find they’ll be there for him, helping him along, when he wonders if he can make it. Likewise, they will hold their Father’s hand. Their Father will be there, too, guiding them along, when they’re not sure they can make it. He’s already led them this far, to a little orphaned Russian boy whose most wondrous wish at last is coming true.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


It’s near the end of another Lighthouse Project trip; we’re in Rolla, Missouri, this time, a town I’ve passed through driving I-44 toward Tulsa, Oklahoma, to plan and coordinate my trips there. It’s small town America, memorable only since I love Rolo candy, so if you’d told me my last time through that next time I’d stay a week to help a new coordinator run her first trip, I’d have found the claim dubious, at best.

When Elaine first wrote to me asking about running a trip to Rolla, it was on the heels of my January Tulsa trip. I’d just arrived home and was recovering from the almost unspeakably exhausting task of coordinating a trip, so I begged out of calling her right away. Not to worry, she said. She’d just gotten home five days earlier with her new twelve-year-old daughter from China and was recovering herself. I was on alert that Elaine was either very na├»ve about the rigors of running a trip, or else she was strangely ambitious, maybe had a Wonder Woman suit under her clothes.

Elaine was the first potential coordinator I didn’t manage to scare off with my description of the grueling task of coordinating. Through hours and hours and hours of conversations, we discussed how to present the project to callers, the merits of every potential host family, where children should go, everything I’d found that worked and didn’t, running Vacation Bible School, producing the evening program, how to promote the kids while they were in town, how to entertain the translator and chaperone, where to buy Russian Bibles, how to troubleshoot a palette of problems, and myriad other subjects too numerous to count. Elaine listened, understood, and followed through with aplomb. The truth is she doesn’t have a Wonder Woman suit; she’s got a whole closetful.

It wasn’t her fault I left one part off.

I didn’t tell her about the impotence she’d feel as the trip sputters toward its conclusion and there are kids left for whom a draining of her mental resources is insufficient to finding families. I neglected to tell her how she’d feel when she’d done everything, absolutely everything she could think of, and the world keeps turning and nobody notices that a few kids have been on a wild goose chase halfway around the globe. I didn’t say that if you’re conscientious, you’ll ask yourself a thousand times what you could have done but didn’t, what stone you left unturned, that sends a child back to the orphanage thinking there is no one, in Russia or America, who wants to be mom or dad. She didn’t hear that when you finally assuage your conscience realizing you did everything you reasonably could, and then some, resultant comfort is minced since it hardly matters to a still-motherless waif who depended on you without their even knowing it. And the most deflating epiphany might come at the end if families you thought were committed back out later, leaving you no time to further mine the nooks and crannies of resourcefulness.

The secret is out tonight. When Elaine left this evening, she told me to call her if I came up with any brilliant ideas, but her phone’s not ringing. There are three children for whom there is no one; worse, one child is on his second trip. It’s not for lack of spreading the word or praying; Elaine’s been on the radio, sent out a crazy number of press releases, sent 300 letters to churches, made roadside signs advertising the evening program, contacted homeschool groups, offered free housing to out-of-staters to entice them to host a child, and talked herself hoarse. Three kids wait, oblivious to, and unaided by, the efforts expended on their behalves.

Ten-year-old Vasily has the freckles I fall for. Most kids, the first time they meet you, ignore your attempt at basic Russian pleasantries. Not Vasily. My butchered “Preveyet, Vasily! Kak dela?” was met with a hearty “Haroshow!” and outstretched hand for shaking. Freckles? Check. Fun-loving? Check. Friendly? Another check. Vasily’s my favorite child on the trip, but I’m left lamenting that my enthusiasm was less than contagious.

Unobtrusive Vladimir, ten, is Vasily’s polar opposite. Vladimir bowed his head and cried during the question and answer segment of the evening program when he got a question about his visit to the local fire station. He didn’t have a parent to engulf him in a reassuring hug and help him through his shyness. When the trip is over, it appears he still won’t.

Most distressingly, Andrei, age 13, a two-trip alumni, must face his friends in the knowledge that visits to two states were not enough to find someone who wanted him. He still has his glasses from the first trip and wears them religiously, even though it’s not cool, so he’s earning better grades in school. The cynic within me tonight taunts me, saying scholastic improvement is irrelevant, since it looks as if no parent will ever see his report card.

It’s God’s program and the results are His. Elaine knows that. I know that. We’ll take comfort in that later when the kids are gone and there is truly nothing else we can do. But right here, right now, the kids still hope and they still have a chance. Watching the clock tick down toward Monday morning’s departure, we think we should do something. Just what is less clear. And when you’ve done everything you can think of and it’s still not enough, feeling impotent comes naturally.

So I’m sorry, Elaine, that I didn’t tell you the greater the effort, the greater the letdown when that effort is still insufficient. But I’m even sorrier for the kids who will go back, wondering what’s wrong with them, having met so many people, but not one parent.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Happy Birthday, Katya!

Working through interviews of kids for my July 2008 Lighthouse Project trip, I waded through an overexposed interview of a then- thirteen-year-old Katya. Amongst other things, she mentioned she was doing leg exercises, and I didn’t think much about it at the time. Understanding arrived past midnight on a July 2008 night at the airport as I met the kids in Michigan. Katya lagged behind, struggling to walk. She apologized to the translator for slowing the group and not walking better, and explained the stilted gait as cerebral palsy.

Katya was an immensely sweet girl, but the day before the kids returned to Russia I still had no leads. At VBS that last morning, a nice lady came to meet Katya; it was her fourteenth birthday. They shared the day and ate birthday cake together. By mid-afternoon, the family was “100% committed” to adopting her. Based on this assurance, I promoted only other children with a confident serenity that Katya had already found her family.

Happy Birthday, Katya, right?

Wrong. The next day the kids returned to Russia, though they had scarcely arrived home when the family changed their minds. They gave a few reasons, excuses, really, and nothing they hadn’t known at the time they were 100% committed. Not that it mattered: Katya was gone, I now knew she had special needs, and no other family had expressed interest.

Katya’s second chance would have been Tulsa in November 2008. When a last-minute, dysentery-inspired orphanage quarantine kept her, and six others, at home in Russia, it was Katya my heart ached most for. But the Lighthouse Project returned to Tulsa in January this year to give those quarantined souls, and a few newcomers, their chances at families. Katya came on that trip, played the piano, sang a solo at the evening program, and slept in what she proudly told the translator was a “princess bed.” Mid-week, her host mom whispered to me they loved her and how well she fit in their family. A decision to adopt was followed by a flurry of paperwork finished at breakneck speed.

Earlier today, less than six months after Katya’s departure, her parents-to-be stood in a Russian courtroom. The judge asked Katya why she wanted to go with people who’d traveled halfway around the world for her. The answer was as simple as it was profound: she wanted a family. There was no reason not to; the judge approved the adoption. Providentially, it was Katya’s fifteenth birthday. While she got what most kids her age already have, it was the well-chosen gift she wanted most: a family.

So to a very special family, congratulations! I pray for you the best adoption ever. May you be as blessed as you have blessed.

To Katya, I wish you the happiest of birthdays! Bring joy to the family that has brought such joy to you. You’ve found your family. You’re a daughter.

What a difference a year makes.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Meet the Missouri Russian Orphan Lighthouse Project Children This Evening!

The Russian Orphan Lighthouse Project announces a free program of Russian song and poetry to be presented on Wednesday, July 8, at 7:00 p.m. Thirteen Russian orphans are spending July 3-13 in Missouri with host families, giving them the opportunity to meet Jesus and, hopefully, a forever family.You’ll have a chance to meet children available for adoption: Sergei, 11; Vladimir, 10; Anton, 13; Ekaterina, 13; Andrei, 13; Daniil, 10; Xenia, 9; Luba, 13; Anastasia, 13; Vasily, 10; siblings Alexei, 14, and Evgenia, 12; and Egor, 9. The program will be held at First Assembly of God, 1608 N. Oak in Rolla. Even if your only desire is to support the children, you are welcome. If you know of other Christian families interested in adoption, please urge them to attend. Please call Elaine Harrison at (573) 465-3222 or Becky De Nooy at (616) 245-3216 for further details.