The Battle for an Orphan’s Heart

Beth, at orphanage, 2004 (c) Colleen Briggs

Beth, at orphanage, 2004 (c) Colleen Briggs

There were no surface clues to the shadows of her soul. She was elegantly dressed, silver-hair perfectly coiffed. I met her recently at a Pamba Toto sale. She engaged me in conversation, warm and articulate. She questioned me about Sanctuary of Hope, the home for orphans in Kenya that Pamba Toto benefits. I told her about my own two children adopted from Kenya and the yearning I feel for all children to belong to families.

From there, very quickly our interaction spiraled into deeper recesses. She shared that she herself is all too familiar with the scars of orphan-hood. Her parents died when she was a young child. She gratefully recounted the care of an aunt and uncle, but her eyes filled with anguish. Softly she confessed that still she struggles to believe her intrinsic worth as a human being, even after decades of therapy. She wrestles crippling fear that she is all alone in the world.

Her transparency reminded me starkly of the currents that run incessantly just below the surface of parenting my adopted children. Sometimes the undertow shocks me and many times leaves me feeling inadequate and overwhelmed. We’ve successfully snatched our children from the war-zone, but the echoes of cannons still reverberate in their heads.

I’ve hunkered down in the front-line trenches through volunteering at Mother Teresa’s Home for Abandoned Children in Huruma, Kenya. I am grateful for these experiences that scar my heart, that open my eyes wide to the vicious warfare that two of my children endured for the first 14 and 18 months of their lives.

In an earlier blog entry (click here to read Offering), I wrote about the distress I felt during my first visit to the “Crippled Children’s Ward” at Mother Teresa’s. Thankfully, the Lord allowed me to return many times over the following years. I treasure memories of interactions with some of the kids there.

In January, 2011, as I scanned the ward, I caught sight of Pios lying on a bean bag, intermittently wailing. I couldn’t decipher if it was a sad or happy cry, or simply an affirmation to the world and to himself that he existed. I knelt down next to him, but he was lost in a parallel reality. Every few seconds, his body convulsed and his right arm jerked to the left side of his head. Over and over, Pios rhythmically beat his own ear. I looked closer; his ear was bruised and swollen. This methodical motion had not been part of his repertoire when I visited him the previous year. I engaged him in eye contact and began to mimic his babble, “ma ma ma.” His eyes flooded with delight as he changed to another non-sensical phrase, which again I imitated. I couldn’t find any rhyme or reason in our simple game, but he no longer hammered his ear. I held his hands and pulled his body up and down. Somewhere buried below his heartbreaking disabilities, an enchanting soul cried out, “I am here!”

He was happy, and so was I. But, I had to leave. He protested for a few minutes, and then settled back into his routine of wailing and beating his own head. No one even seemed to notice. It was simply a familiar refrain in the cacophony of the Crippled Children’s Ward.

Don’t get me wrong. Mother Teresa’s Home for Abandoned Children is a sacred, holy sanctuary where every child is considered to be, as Mother Teresa phrased it, “Jesus, in His distressing disguise.” If not for the whole-hearted, utterly sacrificial service of the sisters to the poorest of the poor, if not for these women who follow Jesus into the harshest, most desolate recesses of the world, most of the children there would not even be alive. When other orphanages are too full to accept one more child, the sisters joyfully receive yet another cast-off bundle. They baptize, name, and nurture each precious creation of God. It’s just that in a home of 125 residents and 16 sisters, with a smattering of hired local workers, there are not enough caregivers to go around.

It’s just that God never intended for children to be ware-housed.

In contrast to the obviously disturbing sights and sounds of the disabled kids’ ward, the baby ward feels like paradise, at first. But below the surface and beyond the visible, it is also an insidious snake pit of lies.

In 2011, members of a short term mission team entered at the beginning of nap time. Babies were settled in their cribs. Team members wandered, enthralled, as we absorbed the sweet innocence of one tiny being after the other. As we moved through the room, a baby began to whimper, another joined in, and soon a mighty chorus swelled. That day we were only passing through, returning later in the week to serve. Helplessly, we left the room, trailed by the longing lament to be held, to belong.

My oldest son returned with the team to volunteer, and described his experience: “Today, I went back to Mother Teresa’s. I spent the whole day with the babies. There are four wards. There are the babies, the kids older than 2, the Crippled Children’s Ward, and the Disabled Women’s Ward. For the duration of the morning, I was with Mrs. Susan, a member from my team. We began by walking around and saying ‘hi’ to all of the babies. When Mrs. Susan began dancing with one of the babies named Cigi, she was having the time of her life. But when Mrs. Susan set little Cigi down, she looked like what I can only describe as ‘scarred for life.’ She would just shy away whenever Mrs. Susan reached for her. Thinking about it, I realize that the children there are used to it. When you set down a baby at home, they may cry for an hour. But the babies there, they only cry for a minute BECAUSE THEY ARE USED TO IT. It’s just mind blowing. THEY ARE USED TO IT. It happens all of the time. Every day. That’s all.” Jacob Briggs, age 13

When these little ones cry, and no one responds, the enemy is ready and waiting to pounce like a lion tracking the weakest member of the pack. “You don’t matter. No one cares. Just give up. You aren’t worth loving,” are the seeds he maliciously tosses, seeds that grow festering roots that entwine and suffocate the heart.

Make no mistake, the enemy has no mercy. Babies and children without parents are easy prey.

I know. I’ve witnessed the invisible assault over and over at this particular orphanage. I also know because we adopted two of our children from this institution. More than a decade later, we still tenaciously uproot from the soil of their hearts these lies that shaped their struggling self-worth, in the vulnerable days before conscious memory.

When our adopted son was ten, we were aghast to discover that he shop-lifted several small items from a local store. Stealing was completely foreign to our family culture. We asked him why he would do such a thing. He said he had no idea. We prayed about it, helped him memorize Scripture, and did everything we could think of to flush out this disturbing behavior. We enforced consequences like returning the items to the shop owner and confessing what he had done. We required him to do chores to earn money to buy the items.

But after the third incident, we realized that his stealing was compulsive and buried in something we couldn’t access. We enlisted the help of a therapist and skillfully she dug to the root. He and we learned that every-day moments of minor deprivation trigger subterranean emotional memories of lying alone and powerless in a crib. The pain overwhelmed his rationale to the extent that he coped by exerting control over his environment, by taking something. Before therapy, he was completely oblivious to a lie embedded so deeply in his soul that it caused him to act in ways that filled him with shame. But he felt powerless to tame his response in the heat of the moment. Bringing the lie into the open air was like rooting out a dandelion. Exposed to truth, it withered and died. Now my son openly shares with friends that he used to steal things, but not anymore. What was once his downfall has become a courageous core to his testimony of God’s redemptive work in his life.

If you are parenting a former orphan or contemplating accepting the call, take heed. My American friend from the Pamba Toto sale who was adopted by relatives, the children at Mother Teresa’s, and my own adopted kids stand as testimony to the assault of lies they have endured. If you need help now in the battle or want to prepare to care for an orphan, I highly recommend any resource by Karyn B. Purvis as an empowering place to start.

If you know a child who experienced orphan-hood, do everything within your ability to combat the lies that wage war in their souls. Give them an extra ounce of compassion, look beyond disturbing behavior, maximize every opportunity to affirm their worth as human beings, pray for their hearts to heal, and encourage their parents.

Extracting the lies is a long, tenuous process; but hanging in the balance are souls of immeasurable worth to God and to the world.

3 thoughts on “The Battle for an Orphan’s Heart

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