Kenya, 2001 (somewhere near Nairobi’s second largest slum)
Blinking in the transition from blazing equatorial sunlight to sacred shadows, we hesitate in the foyer. The sanctuary stretches before us, an ordination service for new Sisters already in progress. Rows of simple benches packed to capacity march along concrete floors. I spot an open space in the back, but two Sisters in blue-trimmed white saris hurry our way. They motion for us to follow down a long, narrow side aisle. We are the only foreigners present, and I feel awkwardly conspicuous as they lead us to the very front. One of the Sisters bends and whispers to a woman on the end of a row with children piled all around her. She shuffles more little ones to her lap and beams a welcoming smile.
We settle on the creaking bench, but I am too distracted to notice much of the proceedings. My new son of three days nestles warm and secure as I cradle his body into mine. I wrap my big pale fingers around his tiny brown hand. I feel a strange mixture of pride and apprehension. What do all of these strangers think of me as his new mother? He begins to fuss. Flush with sweat, I fumble for his bottle; then sink back in relief as he sucks contentedly.
I glance around covertly. Other mothers cuddle babies or keep an eye on children crouched at their feet. The women are probably the same age as I am. I contemplate the vast gulf between their life experiences and mine. Dignified, erect postures contrast their social status, alluded to by faded, ragged clothing and simple plastic flip-flops.
A little boy leans out down the row and catches my eye. He smiles, waves, and mouths, “Josephat!” I don’t recognize him, but he knows my son by his orphanage name. Then I realize that the children from the Mother Teresa Home for Abandoned Children perch and wiggle all down the length of the bench. I wonder if the little boy wishes he could be Josephat? Is Josephat’s adoption the fairytale ending he longs for as he snuggles into his bed late at night, alone in a crowd of sleeping orphans?
I look beyond the children. Rows and rows of white-veiled women contrast sharply with the rich, dark wood of the church. A massive painting of an African Jesus presides over the celebration.
Out of the corner of my eye I notice my oldest son, Jacob, age 4, traipsing down the aisle with my mother-in-law towards the back of the church. They follow a Sister, and I lose sight of them in the crowd. I wonder where they are going.
Then a jubilant, lilting song in Swahili swells through the congregation. Older girls from the orphanage dance, arrayed in blue and white, leading a procession down the center aisle. In their midst I spot Jacob, head held high as he carries a rose to the altar.
The music fades and a priest addresses the congregation. He describes the life to which these women are committing. He takes the rose from Jacob and places it in the hand of a postulant. He asks her to pass it hand-to-hand, missionary-to-missionary. He explains that their lives will be like the rose, continually passed from person to person. Like the rose, they will become ragged and spent. Their very lives will be their offering. Even so, they will spread hope and beauty to many.
The Presence of God seems to permeate the sanctuary as nine new Missionaries of Charity recite their vows in strong, confident voices. Their joy is palpable as they pledge to live for one year in poverty, chastity, and obedience, and to give their whole-hearted service to the poorest of the poor. I clutch my son a little tighter. Thanksgiving surges through my heart for the women whose earlier vows granted him a chance to live.
After the service, the Sisters walk the dusty, rutted roads back into the heart of the slums, carried along by lively chatter. We return in a rented vehicle. The newly ordained sisters are the last to arrive; and, as they pass through the gate, cheering and applause erupts from the crowd. The girls from the orphanage burst into song and dance. Laughter ripples through all. Joy floods the compound; and, for a moment, seems to drown out the misery just beyond its walls.
During our last visit to the orphanage before taking our son home to America, our friend who regularly volunteers at the home invites us to go with her to the “Crippled Kids Ward.” Images flash through my mind from a video she arranged to have delivered to us in the US before we came for Jedd Josephat. It contained footage of our son and of the disabled children’s ward. Just watching the video overwhelmed me with grief. With dread and conviction, I know I need to experience for myself what is there.
We cross the sun-drenched courtyard outside the baby and toddler wing. A little boy kneels on the ground, propping open a large metal door with his body. My friend pats him on the head and greets him by name. He doesn’t reply, but his face lights up at the sight of her. As I step around him, a din of noise encompasses me. My heart pounds. We turn a corner. On a cement floor covered only in thin mats, children sprawl with every imaginable disability and malformation.
My friend instructs me to slip off my shoes. The mats are spotted with scraps of porridge and drool. The smell of urine hangs in the air. My stomach turns. Cacophony swallows me as I follow her into the maze of limbs. She pauses and greets many children, introducing me. Many grunt or squeal in response. Some smile. Some, with dark vacant eyes seem oblivious to our presence.
In the far corner of the room lays a boy, his head swollen to twice the normal size and his body bent and distorted. When my friend greets him, he responds with fully articulated sentences. I smile and talk to him for a minute, trying to keep from trembling. My heart breaks for him, again and again. My friend leisurely laces back towards the door, but I head straight for it, fighting panic.
As I stand there at the edge of the mat, waiting anxiously for her, I watch the Sisters. Gracefully they move from child to child, faces alight, hands gentle and loving. It is as if each discarded child – truly the poorest of the poor, lacking even the gifts of physical health and mental lucidity – is their most beloved family member.
The stench of urine and food, the groans of misshapen bodies, fade away. Suddenly the scales fall away from my eyes, and I see clearly.
Like roses, the Sisters pass hand-to-hand, trailed by the ethereal fragrance and breath-taking beauty of Jesus.