On Lucy's birthday last month, I started a new tradition with the girls. After opening a few gifts at breakfast, we went into their bedroom and each of them picked out dresses, shoes, toys, and dolls that we were going to deliver to some of our neighbors. We pass these kids every day taking Lucy to preschool. Their swollen, hungry bellies are always barely clothed. Many times they are hauling heavy jerry cans of water or toting a sibling on the hip, never with shoes, and always looking like they need a good scrub down in a hot bath. They are always eager to see us as we cross the path, and ever so generous with handing out their joyful smiles and smirks of mischief. This day as we entered their plot to deliver gifts, they were ecstatic and ever so thankful. It was no less joyful than Christmas, a good experience for both my kids and them.
I wish the story ended there, with a happy ending. Unfortunately, happy endings are sometimes hard to come by in our little corner of the world.
The very next day, and ever since then, those kids have been back in the same rags, as if we had never brought a thing. You see, we get liquor bags blown and strewn through our yard, and my hunch is that as soon as those new items walked through the open doorway of those homes, they were as good as the liquor they were sold for. I hope those kids got at least one night holding on to their new dolls and twirling in their new hand-stitched dresses... but if they did, that's all they got.
The immense nature of the physical poverty in Bundibugyo is often overwhelming and all-encompassing. The injustice that is handed to the marginalized, defenseless (like these children) is gut-wrenching at times. However, something I've come to realize during our time here is that the need that trumps all others listed on Maslow's Hierarchy (even that of food or shelter) is the need to be loved. These kids need to be told that they are someone, that God created them in His image, that He delights in their life (because too often it's cut short, or at best they are forced to grow up way before their time...), and that He hears their cries for mercy. Jenna Murphy has done just that in the 11 months since she has lived in Uganda. And thus, I dedicate this "God in our Midst" chapter to her. She joined our team to love our missionary kids, but that love has spilled over into all she has come in contact with.
I should have known from our first night in Uganda, when I had to bring Lucy to sleep in Jenna's (whom we had just met) bed because I had two screaming, jet-lagged kids and one food-poisoned husband, that this girl was going to be a game-changer for this new BundiMom. I was desperate (as I have been so many other times since our arrival), and Jenna was God's answer to my plea for mercy. From Day 1, she has loved our kids, given their lives much-needed structure and boundaries, and yet also provided for us an unimaginable, over-the-top, amazing adventure of a first year in Uganda.
I could not imagine life without her.
One of the qualities that I admire most about "Auntie" is her universal love for all kids. Rags, or well-dressed, well-nourished or malnourished, brown-skinned or white-skinned...they were all the same to Jenna. And they knew it. Walking on the path to school, where she was the preschool teacher for our missionary kids for many months, the Ugandan kids on that path were just as much hers as ours were. They would see her coming and they would start running, "Jenna! Jenna!" as they gathered around her like a group of ducklings around a mama duck. She spent hours in their homes, picking jiggers from their feet, dressing infected wounds, or just sitting with them in her lap. To this day, I believe that she could be the most tangible picture of Jesus that those kids might ever see. And if it was a Monday afternoon at 4pm...well, let's just say, it was my favorite time of the week. I would get to hear Jenna's chorus of kids having "Community Kids Club", singing praises to Jesus that carried as far as the wind would blow.
The other character trait that I have been really blessed by in Jenna is her ability to see Jesus in anyone and everyone. I mean, this girl would look for HIM everywhere. Her desperate hunger to see glimpses of redemption in even the most destitute situations would encourage me on the hardest days when all I could see was brokenness. She was scheduled to watch my kids two days a week, intended to give me a much-needed break, but often these times would turn into an even more-needed encouragement session for a mama at the end of her rope. Being with Jenna, surrounded by her contagious laughter and fun-loving spirit was like receiving doses of tangible mercy from the Lord Himself.
We just spent a few hours saying goodbye to Auntie, appropriately in the very place that our memories began with her. 11 months...and yet a lifetime.
You will be missed in more ways than one and by more people than you can count. I thank you for pouring yourself out to our team and our community this past year. I thank you for loving my kids and my family well, and for being a glass of cold water to a lot of weary souls. Thanks to your example, I will not lose hope when injustice prevails (like seeing liquor bags and hungry bellies), I will push through to seeing Jesus even in the brokenness, and I will always thank God for you when the kids along the RMS path start singing, "Fa-la-la-la-la-la-lei-leu-ya!"
Here's to you, Auntie.
(Photo courtesy of Lauren and Derek Webber)