The Weakest Reed

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.

How I dreamed of Africa, heard voices and went anyway. Twice.

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Today, I had the honor of writing a guest post over at one of my friend Cate’s (two) blogs.  She has had Uganda on her heart lately and, as you know, it’s a very important place for our family.  She’s an amazing woman of many talents and she also has a lovely fashion blog called Wild Ruffle.  Because we went to high school together, I’m pretty sure she witnessed some of my own awkward adolescent fashion experimentation, so everyone please be nice to her for my sake.  ;)

Be sure to visit her Be The 1:27 blog and read about her heart for  Uganda and also, for fun, check out her fashion blog too! Below is my guest post:

Just to be clear, this isn’t a post about how international adoption is the absolute answer to…well, anything necessarily. This is a post about how God calls each of us to a unique purpose and never wastes a thing, even our craziest dreams, dumbest naivetes and what often feel like some of our most painful losses or failures, to achieve his plans.

When you’re a white lady who grew up in the suburbs disclosing that you “have a heart for Africa” can get you into some interesting situations. And I certainly got a range of responses when I would tell people that we were pursuing adoption from Uganda: Awkwardly-veiled insinuations about how we must be following the trend of African adoptions a la Madonna and Brangelina. Embarrassing and inappropriate (but generally well-meant) expressions of gratitude for “that great thing you are doing for those kids over there.” Concern for how we were going to be sure we didn’t bring home a child who had AIDS or was otherwise “broken” in some way and might burn down our house or hurt our other children. And there were definitely encounters with voices who demeaned what they perceived as a savior complex inherent in what we were doing. Or were generally skeptical about transracial adoption. Or wondered why we didn’t just adopt a child closer to home. Some voices were more malicious than others and some of those more difficult voices even had the ring of truth. Sometimes the voices were my own. But only One voice was important. It’s that voice that I believe was whispering to my heart (the kind of voice Cate mentions in this post) from the time I was a little girl.

Growing up, I was interested in Africa the same way some kids are interested in trains or princesses or horses. When I look back, I’m a bit embarrassed that I was so (excuse the pun) all over the map. Yes, Africa is a gigantic and diverse continent but as a kid we begin learning in generalities. And so in the same way a young girl would simply declare that she loves princesses and no one would expect her to specify that she was interested in Alfhild, the Medieval Danish princess who may or may not have existed as a true life pirate leader, I was simply into Africa. And, of course, the ways I pursued this interest were limited by the social and cultural contexts in which I have lived. My favorite animal was a zebra. I pored over National Geographic like most girls my age did Teen Beat. In school, whenever we had to choose a country/famous woman leader/ mythology on which to report, I would be likely choose Egypt/ Hatshepsut/ Isis. My favorite classic movie was (I bet you can see what’s coming next) The African Queen. I studied French because of the three languages offered at my high school it was the most likely to be used in Africa. And when it came time to choose colleges, I placed great emphasis on the ease and ability of going abroad somewhere in Africa and studying anthropology. Of course like any good freshman I changed my major, but I developed a deep interest in community development, and still dreamed of a life abroad in sub-Saharan Africa doing meaningful work (I had at least managed to narrow it down that far by then).

When my junior year came, I could hardly believe IT was actually going to happen. This thing that everything had been building towards! I chose a community development program in Uganda, packed a huge blue backpack and some very tropical-weather inappropriate corduroy bell bottoms and left the country for the very first time on my own. I imagined myself never wanting to come back.

It was absolutely amazing to be there. I experienced some of the Africa I had always dreamed about, but Uganda was also, of course, a more nuanced, modern and complex place than I could have imagined. I learned enough of the language to make small talk with the pineapple vendor in my neighborhood, crossed the Nile on a boat during a thunderstorm accompanied by hippos and men wielding very, very large guns, learned from my host mother about the plants she kept in her garden to ward off malaria, spent some time in a wildlife preserve in a grass hutch with signs posted telling us to beware of the lions after dark, worked on a project with incredibly resilient street children who were facing and overcoming issues like AIDS, hunger and female genital mutilation, got a taste of what it was like to be in the minority, and got scared witless when bombings shook the public and shopping areas I frequented and got the news that guerillas had just murdered Westerners in the location we were literally on our way to visit.

So after all that rambling, it may or may not come as a surprise to you that I ended my trip absolutely ready to go back to the United States and even more absolutely unsure about whether or not I could ever see myself living my life in Africa. I knew I wanted to visit again and perhaps even spend extended times there, but I just didn’t know anymore what a white, middle-class American woman could offer a people and a place like Uganda. By far, the biggest take-home lesson of the trip was that the best projects in Uganda were being run by Ugandans for Ugandans. Though I was so encouraged by all the good work happening, I felt like a bit of a fool and a bit of a failure and a lot deflated after my dreams appeared to be coming to nothing.

Fast forward 6 years. I was married and living in Washington DC working on issues related to foster care and adoption. My husband and I had explored several different avenues for growing our own family through adoption including domestic, special needs, foster-to-adopt, embryo adoption and several international options. None of them, though, had quite inspired my husband to move forward wholeheartedly. I was tired of pushing and knew how ridiculous and dangerous it would be to strongarm him into something like parenthood through adoption. I knew I had to step back and let God work if we were really meant to do this. As I did I faced the reality that, yet again, another lifetime dream might have to die.

A few more years passed. Suddenly, I felt my eyes and ears being pulled again to East Africa. It was if God had tuned my heart to the Uganda station. Leaving out the details of a process filled with hairpin turns and gut-yanking ups and downs, in some very specific ways God guided me and my now-totally-onboard husband to a very specific little girl in Uganda. In the process we did some dangerously naïve things, faced some very painful losses and were mercifully guided past some landmines that might have been incredibly problematic for our family and for families and children in Uganda. But 11 years after my first trip to Uganda and decades after the start of my dream to adopt, we were traveling to Uganda to meet our daughter for the first time. And I know that God directed every step. Might be an odd thing to say, especially for this white girl who grew up in the suburbs of Minnesota, but Africa, Uganda specifically, has become part of our family history forever.

Our every waking moment is flooded with voices and with distractions and with obstacles to keeping in step with His plan. Sometimes, we even feel we have good reason to stop moving forward altogether because we’re just never going to get it exactly right. We can be so paralyzed by our desire to do it all perfectly and see it all work out just right (as defined by our own human understanding) that we neglect to do anything at all. What it all comes down to is that we can (and others will) question our hearts, our motives, our dreams, our hearing, our actions, our understanding… but ultimately, there’s only One voice that matters. We don’t have to have perfect understanding, perfect plans or even perfect motives in order to end up in the best place. There is just so very much grace in which we are standing (Romans 5:1-2), anywhere we are standing in Him! That grace in which we’re treading propels us along even when we don’t quite realize we’re moving. Giant and gentle waves of grace move us up and forward even when we feel we can’t propel ourselves anymore. All of this that we do- the hearing, the starting, the stopping, the restarting, the planning, the doing- it doesn’t have to be perfect because He is.

Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails. Proverbs 19.21

One Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing this message, Rachel. I’m so happy that you pursued your dream!

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