“We’re getting closer now,” the driver says. When we turn on a pocked dirt road, no one needs to tell me we are there. My four year old son, Jacob, laughs out loud as the bumps toss us about. But, as we venture further, shell-shocked silence settles. Rivers of people part and stream past our windows. Children splash barefoot through mud, sewage, and garbage; threadbare cloth scraps hang from dusty bodies. Chickens and goats chase, pause to peck through trash, scatter at our vehicle’s “honk.” Behind the surging corridor of people, corrugated metal scraps shelter women washing laundry in buckets, children crouched in dark corners, and all manner of items for sale – produce piled on blankets, used shoes, bags of charcoaled wood, raw meat covered in flies. A sign on a blue metal shack proclaims, “House of the Lord.” People duck into narrow gaps labeled “Pool Hall” or “Beauty Salon.” Beyond these ramshackle structures, gray cement tenement houses stand like stern sentinels. Brightly colored laundry cascades from every window. Over it all hangs the putrid stench of burning trash and diesel fumes.
And everywhere, the people. Separated only by a pane of glass, in eyes staring into mine, I read curiosity, disdain, the obvious question, “Why are you here?” With every turn of the wheels, the cityscape of people, garbage, and cement rushes into greater desolation. Rapid-fire, desperate vignettes assault our senses. Beside me, my husband, David, weeps. The disheveled crowd presses in ever denser as we approach a high-walled compound. A massive blue metal gate creaks open.
And, in a split instant, our descent into darkness bursts into brilliant light.
Young girls sing and dance in unison in a spacious oasis. I, the stoic one, begin to sob.
Fighting for composure, we climb out of the vehicle. The Sisters greet us, draped in crisp white saris with a cross pinned to their shoulders and the signature blue trim of the Mother Teresa order of the Missionaries of Charity. Here, in their corner of the world, the ghetto casts its ominous shadow; but tended gardens, well-kept buildings, and, most of all, the hope of Jesus shove triumphantly back.
“Come,” Sister Fidence, a large, brilliantly smiling African, invites us. The echo of singing and chatter compel us down a sun-drenched hallway and into a starkly empty room. Twenty or so young children sit at a long wooden table, eyeing us eagerly. We hover in the doorway, unsure, until a few hurtle across the room and into our arms. Soon we are swamped in arms and legs and smiles – little bodies starved for touch. Jacob’s blonde-hair disappears in a multitude of hands reaching to touch this novelty. We wipe away tears. We want to hold them forever. How can it be that these beautiful little people are abandoned, alone in the world with no one to assure them of their belovedness, save for the Sisters?
Sister Fidence motions for David and I to continue. We tear ourselves away. My heart accelerates. Now we are so close to him that I can scarcely breathe. We have come so far and been through so much. Now the moment is here. All the months of waiting, longing, praying tumble through my mind…
We first heard about him eight months prior. When my dear friend Julie and I were in high school, we used to tell each other that we were going to adopt babies someday. Julie and her husband were ready. Her mother, Sue Anne, volunteered regularly at the Mother Teresa home and wrote to her of the babies available for adoption. Julie forwarded the email to me, to help her “process.” I read about Baby #3, and my heart shattered. I wept for more than an hour straight over his birth story; even after the tears ran dry, I could not be comforted.
Adoption was not in our immediate plans at the time. In fact, our second-born son, Justin, was only four months old. I prayed and prayed for someone to adopt the baby whom we later learned was named “Josephat.” My heart burned whenever I thought of him, which was constantly, until I could stand it no longer. I called David at work.
“Make sure you’re sitting down,” I told him. “I have another one of my crazy ideas.”
Knowing me well after seven years of marriage and having experienced many such strange occurrences, David was spared a certain amount of shock when the words tumbled out, “Ok, what if…. we adopt Josephat and raise him and Justin as twins!?”
Gently and reservedly, he responded, “You are crazy! We’ll have to talk about it when I get home from work.”
Craving a bit more input, a “random idea” floated through my head that maybe there was a clue in the meaning of his name as to whether or not we were truly called to adopt Josephat. My spine tingled when I read, “The Lord has added to me another son.”
James 1:27 haunted us in the days ahead, “Religion that is pure and faultless before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”
We trail Sister Fidence into a ward crowded with bright blue cribs. Another sister kneels beside a baby. As if in a dream, I walk between cribs, acutely aware of small brown eyes all around, watching my every move. The sister smiles and nodds as I pick up my son, Jedd Josephat Briggs. Tears overflow.
He studies me with big, confused, liquid brown eyes as we weep and tell him how much we love him, how we have ached for this day. Then he cuddles close to me, cheek-to-cheek, the culmination and the beginning of a love affair that has forever captured my heart.
I clutch him close for the longest time, trying to believe he is finally mine, unwilling to relinquish him into the arms of other family members – new father, older brother, and even uncle and grandparents who traveled with us.
The others weave around the room from crib to crib, talking and playing, touching and picking up. So many little ones, about thirty, from sleeping newborns to jabbering one year olds. Jacob plays peek-a-boo and evokes gleeful giggles.
When David finally insists that it is his turn to hold his new son, I pick up a crying baby. He snuggles close and protests vehemently when I try to return him to his crib. He is comforted again the instant I pick him up. I pause for a moment beside a motionless baby, covered in flies. He is obviously very sick. I wonder how much longer he will live. My heart breaks again and again.
As evening approaches, the Sisters bring us a bottle and food for Jedd. Reluctantly we tear ourselves from the ward, many a baby protesting our departure. We hover by the vehicle in growing shadows of night, fighting for words to express gratitude. Sister Fidence interrupts our feeble attempts in her lyrical African accent, proclaiming that she is so thankful for us. She says we are giving her much hope, that in the midst of so much misery, we would come so far for one small child. She tells us that sorrow and despair threaten at times to overwhelm. Her eyes darken with memories of children too sick, too abused, too broken to save. She tells us we are giving her courage to continue.
I gaze into the radiant brown eyes of this woman, burning with unearthly intensity, into the eyes of one who has abandoned all that she loves and all earthly comfort to “take up the cross and follow Christ,” to serve the poorest of the poor. Into the eyes of a woman who has committed her every breath to the work that Mother Teresa described in her book, Love of Christ, “For the worst disease in the world is not leprosy or tuberculosis but the feeling of being unwanted, unloved, and abandoned by everyone. The greatest sin is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference to those on the fringe of the social system, who are exposed to exploitation, corruption, want, and disease.” I wonder in absolute bewilderment that anything I could do would impact this modern day hero.
As the ponderous gate yawns open, I cradle Jedd to my heart. Sister Fidence stands waving in the middle of the muddy road, until masses of people and gathering dusk swallow her back into the slum. Oblivious, Jedd drifts off to sleep in my arms.
In the murky night, I make out little except the periodic flicker of an oil lamp illuminating a dilapidated shack. These tiny lights defy the darkness, like the flame that saved my son’s life, like the flame that is now entrusted to me.