Ten years ago, nestled in the cozy living room of a newly-acquainted Kenyan pastor and his wife, Pastor and Mama Karau, eating chapatti and ugali, I never could have imagined that someday we would ride an elephant together in Nepal! From that first meeting, I was intrigued by these new friends. The devastation of human warehousing at institutional orphanages had broken my heart the year before when my husband and I adopted our son from a Mother Teresa Home for Abandoned Children in Nairobi. In 2002, I returned as an InterVarsity staff-worker with a team of students from my campus. I longed for their hearts to be shattered into action as they witnessed the situation of the children while volunteering in the orphanage for three weeks, but also for them to witness alongside me the mystery of the Mother Teresa sisters, who served the poorest of the poor yet radiated other-worldly joy. At the Karaus’ house that night, my students and I discovered that same brilliance in the eyes of this pastor and his wife, who served the impoverished people of Mathare Valley, the second largest slum in East Africa. I wanted to know their secret.
From that first fateful encounter with the Karaus, God knit our hearts together. When I became unexpectedly “stuck” in Kenya in 2005 for 7 ½ months, trying to extract our daughter from Kenyan adoption laws, the Karaus surrounded us with their love and care like a family. Near the end of my sojourn, we began to dream of opening a small children’s home for ten of the many destitute orphans they encountered daily in Mathare Valley. As the story unfolded over several ensuing years, I came on staff with Hope’s Promise, eventually serving as Director of Orphan Care; and Pastor and Mama Karau were hired as HP Kenya Country Coordinators, opening Sanctuary of Hope (SoH) #1 in 2006 and SoH #2 in 2008. Currently they care for 23 children.
The oldest SoH child is now 12 years old. Our staff team in Kenya is wrestling with how to best guide the children through adolescence and into independent adulthood. In Nepal, young adults like Kemi, who have grown up in HP’s model of small families with indigenous house-parents, are living examples of how to do it well. And so HP invites Pastor Karau and Steve Kariithi, HP Kenya Associate Director, to Nepal for some ministry cross-pollination.
Eagerly Pastor and Steve engage Nepali staff in discussions about what it is like to bring an orphan home, laughing affectionately as they remember a boy who was terrified of rain in the house (a shower) and soberly recalling children who eat until they vomit. No matter the culture, they agree, children cry in the night: orphans terrified that love will go away yet again. Pastor and Steve ask for input about guiding teenagers through relationships with the opposite sex, about setting boundaries, and encouraging goal-setting.
Aside from connecting with Nepali staff, Pastor Karau is the Pied Piper. Whether in Kenya, leading a group of visitors through the teeming slum of Mathare Valley or far away in Nepal, kids are drawn to him like a magnet. When we first meet the House of Hope’s Promise kids in Kathmandu, he can’t resist teaching them a “gratitude song.” In another town, he is a human jungle gym for the five “ninjas” of the House of New Life.
I’ve learned a lot from him. When Pastor Karau focuses on a child, that pint-sized person becomes the most interesting, engaging, valuable human being on earth. I want to be like him.
One particular day in Nepal is a photographer’s dream – we are going on a field trip to a paradise garden with ten adorable children dressed in their Sunday best. And then my battery dies, and my second battery mysteriously refuses to work, although I clearly remember charging it before I left the US. Battling disappointment, I ask the Lord to help me receive what He has planned for that day instead.
I settle on the lush green lawn with a few other team members and children who are creating drawings for their sponsors. Anushtha and I companionably press crayon to paper. Another team member interrupts my artistic reverie and directs my attention to Binu, just a few feet away, meticulously imitating my pattern. I catch Binu’s eyes and we smile. Side-by-side, we create. I am transported to another time and place, to memories of an adult who focused on me and convinced me that I was the most valuable person on earth. My Dad and I loved to color for hours together on the kitchen floor. He is gone now, but his deposit into my heart from childhood carries me to this day.
I notice that Binu has added her own interpretation of the pattern to a section of her page; I copy it on mine and show her. When we are finished, I write on my drawing before giving it to her, “To Binu. You are a very talented artist. Thank you for drawing with me!” The next day she shyly hands me some beautiful pictures, inscribed “to Colleen Auntie.”
After I return home, I locate Binu’s original profile, curious about how she came to Hope’s Promise Nepal. I discover that her mother died after a long illness and her father worked endless hours in construction to eke out subsistence living. With no other safe place for five year old Binu to pass the days, perhaps she played hour after hour at her father’s workplace. With her obvious artistic giftings, I imagine her drawing in sand with a stick, creating a masterpiece, immediately erased by wind or foot traffic.
My day with a fistful of crayons and Binu affirms what Pastor Karau so masterfully teaches me: it is always about one child at a time. Perhaps we can’t impact all 143 million, but we can make a difference, one by one.
In some ways, Nepal is the end of the road for me. Two of my own children, a boy and a girl adopted from a Kenyan orphanage, have always been the fire in my bones to rescue orphans just like they once were. Now the fire burns a little closer to the home-front. Persistence in convincing former orphans that love will not go away, and unraveling the damage of trauma and neglect can be a demanding commitment. But, I have learned, it is a road filled with the secret of those glittering Mother Teresa sister eyes, the proud gaze of Nepali house-parents, the brilliance of a slum pastor’s smile: the Presence of Jesus.
And so this week I will resign from my formal function with Hope’s Promise as Director of Orphan Care. Your partnership on this journey has meant the world to me, and I look forward to continuing our mutual campaign, albeit in a different capacity for me, to convince orphans (and, indeed, every living person) around the world of their boundless beloved-ness.