I wrote this entry for the Hope’s Promise blog about my dear friends, Brian and Debbie Lee. Decades ago, when I was a twenty-something campus staffworker with InterVarsity, they were leading teams of students to serve in Kenya. One summer they brought back necklace gifts with little hand-carved bone pendants for all the staff. As I received mine, a tangible piece of place I had already longed to go since high school because of the influence of my dear friend Julie Fairman who grew up there, I remember thinking, “I will go someday.” Seven years later, I finally went, although for quite a different reason than a short term mission – to bring home our adopted son. Through the years, our lives continued to intertwine. Brian and Debbie are one of God’s greatest gifts in my life…
How do you become the kind of person who changes the trajectories of other people’s lives? How do you inspire and influence others in eternally impactful ways?
Although they are far too humble to self-identify as possessing this kind of power, scores of people across the world mark turning points in their lives after meeting, knowing, and serving alongside Brian and Debbie Lee. Numerous accounts testify that the Lees are catalysts for charting or changing careers, adopting children, questioning deep-seated cultural values, and altering very perceptions of reality.
The Lees have ministered to college students for three decades as staff-workers with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). They serve year-round at a college campus in Montana and have led hundreds of students on the IVCF Global Project (GP) to Kenya every summer for more than twenty years. Katie Jamieson remembers, “Through a summer with (the Lees in Kenya), my eyes were opened to the reality of true poverty and of how deeply God loved the world, the whole world. Having honest and real conversations with fellow students and Brian and Debbie after walking through slums and visiting orphanages reframed my world view from one of middle-class America to a more holistic and global perspective.” But the changes in Katie’s life were not only in terms of how she sees the world. During a second trip to Kenya, she served alongside her husband Brendan as GP staff with the Lees; and, as a result, they decided to adopt a child from Africa. They brought their daughter, Lilia, home in 2010.
Although the Lees have never been employed by Hope’s Promise (HP), they are behind-the-scenes heroes of HP Kenya’s ministry. In fact, they introduced HP staff to the Karau family. In 2006, Pastor Jepson and Edith Karau opened and became house-parents of the first HP Kenya home as well as Country Coordinators. The Karaus’ son joined Kenyan leadership as Associate Country Coordinator, and he and his wife currently parent the children of the second home. Additionally, the Karaus’ daughter serves as Administrator. From the very beginning, the Lees networked with students, IVCF staff, and church connections to raise up support. Many current donors began supporting HP through their efforts.
Lisa Lee (no relation), longtime friend of the Lees for about twenty-five years, recalls a pivotal moment in Debbie’s life in 2006. “I listened while she tried to make the decision to quit a nursing profession she had worked hard at and start a business to earn money to support Hope’s Promise in Kenya: Pamba Toto, Swahili for ‘adorn a child.’ What a wonderful thought, to adorn orphans with the love of Jesus in the form of a loving family.” Debbie continues Pamba Toto to this day, donating profits to HP Kenya and, through her advocacy, raising up many child sponsors.
When HP decided in 2010 to organize the first team of donors to Kenya, the Lees volunteered to serve as co-leaders. The fabric of HP’s current Connection Teams (CT) is heavily woven with threads of their expertise, training, and even their very statements. Any member of a CT will hear the words, “You can’t un-see what you see.” Holly Leonard, wo went with the Lees on an IVCF GP, remembers, “Brian and Debbie’s passion for the cause of orphans is contagious. The first time I witnessed the plight of the orphan first-hand was twelve years ago in the slums of Nairobi with Brian and Debbie. Brian’s words after that experience are forever burned into my heart and soul, ‘You cannot un-see what you saw today. You are no longer ignorant to its existence and you therefore have a responsibility to respond to it.’ The impact that had on me would eventually lead me to work (for Hope’s Promise) for five years. Their years of experience working with orphans and around extreme poverty have given them an incredibly beautiful perspective on the Gospel. The way they live and love reflects that in such a way that others can’t help but to take notice and be intrigued.”
The Lees have also inspired numerous people to join HP Connection Teams. Diane Joy, her husband, and their three children served with the 2012 team because of the Lees’ influence. Diane says, “What we’ve seen over the years is the agony of their heart as others are hurting, whether physically or spiritually. The longing in their eyes when they speak of someone who has yet to know the love of Christ and relationship with Him. The tears and heartache when a child, whether in Kenya or on a college campus is physically or spiritually orphaned and in need of HOME! They aren’t putting on a face or a front to make others want to do good or advocate for others. They simply stay connected to Christ; and because of that, they feel and do deeply whatever Christ asks of them. Their very being is a testimony of Christ’s love and care for others. God used their lives and the relationship they have built with us to send us to Kenya and to see orphans in a whole new way. Because of that experience, we adopted a daughter (from US foster care) we never knew we would have. We’ve been allowed to see life in a way that we were blind to before. I would say we hurt more deeply, we love more deeply, we find joy in smaller things. We are not and will never be the same.”
Tina Dennison served with her two daughters on the HP Kenya 2017 Connection Team due to the Lees’ influence, and asserts, “I can think of no better examples of selfless love demonstrated through a deep passionate desire to bring the love of Jesus to the hurting orphans of Kenya. Year after year they put enormous effort into helping to change and better the lives of orphans in Kenya.”
Perhaps the most difficult respect to earn is that of those who know us best. Who see not only our selfless service, but our weariness, discouragement, and dark sides as well. Thus, perhaps the most poignant testimony of the Lees’ influence is that of their daughter, Hannah, who currently serves as HP Child Sponsorship Coordinator, “For the past thirty-two years, my parents have shown me that ministry never stops. Ministry is not just a two-week missions trip. As a follower of Jesus, ministry is every day. I can remember countless times when there would be a knock at the door from someone in need. Someone who needed to talk. Someone who needed advice. My parents would drop everything to talk with them because they saw each conversation as an investment in this person’s life. Working with college students for over three decades, my parents have seen the fruit of investing in the lives of individuals. Hundreds of college students have followed them to Kenya since 1998 and many of them have chosen a life of ministry in international missions, medical ministry, or other areas. I was one of those individuals. Because of their influence, I chose to go into the nonprofit field. From the ages of 12-18, I spent my summers in Kenya. Each summer I saw and experienced something new and life-changing; and, as my dad would say to the team, ‘You can’t un-see this.’ I knew that my life back in the States was not reality. Life in the slums was reality. Life with AIDS was reality. Life as an orphan was reality. I came back each fall to my life and became increasingly frustrated with the priorities of those around me. It was because of my parents and their determination that their children would not grow up living ‘small lives’ that spurred me on and eventually lead me to a field of study in college that has launched me into the work I do now—working with children who, due to no fault of their own, are left alone in a world that is so overwhelmed with their numbers that they are swallowed up into statistics instead of the embrace of a family. I am forever grateful to my parents for their selflessness, their compassion, their love for Jesus and their heartbeat for the world.”
If I may be so bold as to summarize how to influence and inspire other people based on the Lees’ example, it’s really quite simple—in the most complicated, costly kind of way possible:
1) Live what you say, and
2) Invite others to join you.
Then, may it be said of each of us, as Lisa says of the Lees, “Brian and Debbie are the pebble and I am one of thousands of ripples whose life and heart has been enlarged…”