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Some of My Favorite Words

I recently traveled to China for a business trip, where, among many other things, I was privileged to meet face-to-face for the first time with a colleague I’ve been corresponding with via email for the past 7 months.  This woman is our (my boss’s and mine) lifeline into the Chinese culture and language.  She travels with us throughout the mainland, serving as our translator and, in a lot of ways, a business partner.  Throughout the year, she goes on our behalf to scope out factories and find places with quality products and good working conditions so that our business can remain viable.  She emails me pictures of her family and her adorable toddler daughter.

Market in Hong Kong

Market in Hong Kong

Prior to our arriving in China for this particular trip, she worked to ensure we had what we needed to get our visas, made travel arrangements for in-country transit, and secured our train tickets.  She and her husband picked us up at our hotel daily and helped us communicate to order a meal or to negotiate a new pricing structure for our business in the new year.

One of the workers in the Flower Market in Hong Kong

One of the workers in the Flower Market in Hong Kong

During dinner one night, I asked for recommendations on a good place to buy a souvenir for my husband.  We were one week away from the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival, celebrating the Year of the Horse, and I wanted a small keepsake to bring home for Clint.  She asked some of the others at the table, and they all sat there scratching their heads.  This part of China is not accustomed to having many tourists.  They were stumped.  No one knew of a place.  Oh well, I thought.  Maybe I can find something for him when we get to another city. 

Little Buddha statues in the Flower Market in Hong Kong

Little Buddha statues in the Flower Market in Hong Kong

The next morning, she and another gentleman in our party dropped us off so we could take care of our business in the care of another English-speaking counterpart.  They returned three hours later, after having gone to countless shops, scouring the streets for a place where they could find a suitable memento for me to take home.  She walked into the room where we were sitting and handed me a beautiful statuette of a horse and refused to accept any money for it.  It was their gift.  I was completely humbled, stunned.  I struggled to find the words to express my gratitude and I fought back a few tears because it was such a touching gesture.

Year of the Horse statuette from my friend

Year of the Horse statuette from my friend

Finally, I was able to eek out a genuine “Thank you.”  Through broken English, I heard her say the same thing she told me whenever I thanked her for the train tickets, the rides back to the hotel, paying for my dinner–I heard her say some of my favorite words: “Esther, we are friends.”

We are friends! What a beautiful thing.  At this point in my life, I have done quite a bit of international travel.  Going to countries where I can’t read, communicate, or understand the language, making it difficult to get around on my own, has given me an increased appreciation for special people like this precious woman, as well as other friends of mine around the world, whose hospitality has gone far beyond what was generally expected.  Every time I find myself in the presence of these acquaintances, I welcome these comforting words: “Esther, we are friends.”

Chinese lemons

Chinese lemons

I am reminded of the passage in the New Testament book of James that says:

And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. – James 2:23 (Emphasis added)

I am a foreigner on this side of heaven.  I am constantly reminded that I don’t quite fit in to this world, but I have the advantage of knowing that I am a friend of God.  He is always available to help me navigate the difficult challenges on this adventure called life.  Through the words of my colleague in China, I felt Jesus whisper, “Esther, we are friends.”

Night view of Hong Kong from The Peak

Night view of Hong Kong from The Peak


On October 2nd, 2013, I received news that my dear friend and respected mentor Mark Junkins entered into the presence of the Lord.  While my soul rejoices for Mark, my heart breaks for his precious wife, their wonderful sons (and their wives), and also for myself because of the significance and profoundness of this earthly loss.  My relationship with this amazing family has defined several different stages of my life since we had the pleasure of encountering one another for the first time several years ago.  Mark’s wife Phyllis asked me to share some remarks during his funeral service last week (this service was a celebration of a good life and a great God).  It was my high honor to offer others insight into the kind of man (and family) represented there.  A few people have asked for me to share those remarks.  I have dedicated this post in loving memory of a truly faithful servant of Jesus Christ.  And in the words of Mark, “Press on!”

With our adopted parents at our wedding July 2013

With our adopted parents at our wedding July 2013

Good afternoon. On behalf of the Junkins family, I would like to say thank you all for making the effort to join us today, either by your physical presence here or through the web. I know there are people all over this country and the world who have expressed their desire to be with us, and for whatever reason, were not able to be here.

I’ve spent a lot of time with Phyllis and her family over the past few days, and they have asked that I express to you how much it means to them all of the things that you have done—all of the phone calls, your presence, the food—all of it has been a tremendous blessing, and words cannot say “thank you” enough for what you’ve done.  I appreciate, personally, having been able to be a part of this over the past few days and would like to say that I appreciate you joining us in celebrating the life of an incredible man—Mark Junkins—and worshipping our great God whom Mark so diligently served.

My name is Esther Camealy and I first came to know Mark and Phyllis in 2009 as a graduate student at Mississippi State.  I had a couple of friends at Columbus Air Force Base.  One friend in particular named Anthony Riggan persisted in telling me about his Bible study teachers who invited people out to their house to hunt armadillos.  I had lived in Mississippi all my life and had never heard of anything as redneck at what was going on in McShan, AL.  So I went for a visit one Saturday afternoon, having no idea how much my life was about to change.  What I thought was a casual invitation into the Junkins’ home was in actuality a permanent invitation into their hearts.  Mark and Phyllis quickly adopted me into their family.  In fact, when Travis moved away, Phyllis redecorated his room and started telling people that it was Esther’s room!  But don’t worry, Travis, I’ll be happy to let you stay there tonight!

When Phyllis called me Wednesday morning with the news of Mark’s passing, I didn’t hesitate.  My husband and I immediately packed our bags and drove from our home in Huntsville to help with whatever we could.  As I sat down to pen Mark’s obituary, I was struck by how many times I used a variant of the word “serve.”  I started to replace some of them with other words, but none were more appropriate.  Mark embodied the Biblical model in Philippians 2 of a servant leader.  Out of all of the things I know of Mark, all of the wonderful things I could say about his life, what I know is that he did everything he could to point other people to Jesus Christ.

He served his country as a diver in the US Navy and led many soldiers.

He served his community through leadership roles in various civic organizations.

He served his industry by leading with professionalism, positivity, and passion for people and Southern Pine–something that transcended cultures and language barriers around the world and commanded respect from leaders in his industry in every hemisphere.

Mark served his church here at Mt. Vernon in the capacity of an elder, teacher, advisor, and disciple-maker.  In his service to Mt. Vernon, he and Phyllis were uniquely qualified to reach and lead some of our nation’s brightest military men and women training at Columbus Air Force Base.  He and Phyllis had a special gift of hospitality unlike anyone I have ever known.  They have adopted almost every student pilot who has ever walked through the doors of Mt. Vernon’s Pre Flight Bible Study.  As a result, Mark has had a profound influence through which he has left an indelible impression on the hearts of countless airmen currently stationed all over the globe.

Mark also served his family as the God-ordained head of his household.  As a husband and father, he took seriously his responsibility to be the incarnate expression of Jesus Christ to Phyllis, Travis, John Mark, and countless others who looked to him as a father figure in their own lives.

Mark absorbing Lincoln's wisdom at Gettysburg. Mark: "One of my favorite quotes from Lincoln: 'I do not like that man; I shall get to know him better.'"

Mark absorbing Lincoln’s wisdom at Gettysburg.
Mark: “One of my favorite quotes from Lincoln: ‘I do not like that man; I shall get to know him better.'”

Travis and John Mark, he was so proud of the men you have become, and he dearly loved the beautiful women you have chosen to be your wives.

Phyllis, there is no doubt that Mark was completely and faithfully devoted to you.  Some of my favorite memories of all time are of the two of you together.  I cannot recall the number of times I would drive home from a weekend with you in pain; my sides splitting, my head pounding, and my cheeks aching from laughing so hard.  What has amazed me over these days is that there are a lot of people that don’t know this side of Mark; they have only known the serious part of him. I treasure those moments.  Mark was one of the funniest people I have ever known and he thrived off of expressing his love to you by making you laugh.

Secrets don't make friends!

Secrets don’t make friends!

Secrets don't make friends!

Secrets don’t make friends!

Possibly one of the funniest nights of my life.  I can't remember a time I have ever laughed so hard

Possibly one of the funniest nights of my life. I can’t remember a time I have ever laughed so hard

You and I have talked much over the past few days that Mark was an observer of human nature, and as a man I deeply respected, I was an observer of Mark Junkins and his relationship with you.  Whenever he would say funny things, I would write them down.  And I have a list of a few of those things I would like to share with you now.

During a recent phone conversation with you, you told me that Mark had come home from the mill for lunch in the middle of the day.  You prepared pork chops, homemade mashed potatoes, and fresh vegetables. After watching Mark gulp down the delicious gourmet morsels, you asked him what he thought of the meal.  He simply quipped, “Adequate.”

Whenever I would come for a visit, Mark would wait until you were paying attention to tell me that you were “often wrong, but never uncertain.”  He would also remark about your “speech unencumbered by the thought process.”  Whenever he’d say these things, you would retort that his “deportment needed improving,” at which point Mark would poke his head around the corner and threaten you with “hide and watch,” his eyes shining, a grin stretching from ear to ear under his thick 1981 Navy-issued mustache. These playful, loving remarks always indicated to me that yours was a beautiful, healthy marriage.  It was obvious that you both still enjoyed each other’s company after all these years.  Your marriage has been a true example to me as a newlywed of a Christ-centered foundation full of laughter and joy.

Mark & Phyllis enjoying a dance together at Travis & Kelly Jo's wedding

Mark & Phyllis enjoying a dance together at Travis & Kelly Jo’s wedding

Cutting a rug at Travis and Kelly Jo's Pennsylvania wedding. Me: "Who knew Mark and Phyllis had moves like THAT?!" Mark: "Mark and Phyllis."

Cutting a rug at Travis and Kelly Jo’s Pennsylvania wedding.
Me: “Who knew Mark and Phyllis had moves like THAT?!”
Mark: “Mark and Phyllis.”

You know that I loved Mark like a father.  His loss is profound, but I can assure you that God was not caught off guard by his passing and He will see you through the days ahead.  In Lamentations 3:22-23, Jeremiah reminds us of this: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

Phyllis commissioned this painting titled "Divinely Bovine" from me for an anniversary present for Mark in May 2013

Phyllis commissioned this painting titled “Divinely Bovine” from me for an anniversary present for Mark in May 2013

Look around you this afternoon.  You are surrounded by people who loved Mark and who love you, people whose lives have been made infinitely better for knowing your family.  In these days when it may seem difficult to feel God, I pray that you will experience His presence through the love and support of so many of these friends and family represented here today, and many who regretted that they were not able to be here but have committed to pray for and serve you in so many ways.

There are so many more things that I would like to share, but I will close with this.  These two things remain for us to do: to grieve our great loss and to trust that God is good.

The Blessing of 28

It’s hard to believe that another year has come and gone.  I’ve been so busy lately with everything I have going on, that this birthday has completely snuck up on me.  27 has been a great year, full of many God-ordained accomplishments.  I published a book, went to Africa, became engaged to the incredible man God has been preparing for me for so many years, and so much more.  Since I didn’t have time to come up with a new list this year, I am posting the list of Life Lessons I created last year.  I hope you enjoy.


Esther’s Top 27 List of Life Lessons

 27. God is good.  Life is not.  Don’t confuse the two.

26. You can’t control how other people act and behave, but you can control how you react. Don’t react fast. Respond only after you understand the situation. Don’t react if you can ignore it. It is okay to be angry.  It is never okay to be cruel.  Forgiveness is not an emotion but a choice. 

25. You win some and you lose some; always remember that you win some.  Sometimes you need to lose in order to win at the end.  Don’t stop just because something is in your way. Taking ownership of failure builds the foundation for success.

24. In work and business, when they need you more than you need them, you have succeeded.

23. Embrace awkward—if for no other reason than it makes for a great story.

22. Enjoy every season of your life.  Don’t rush dating or marriage.  Use your single years to work on becoming the type of spouse you hope to someday be.

21. An ending really is the opportunity for a new beginning.

20. One of my favorite lessons from Business school:  Celebrate the “small wins.”  Getting that first win is difficult, because objects at rest tend to stay at rest, but once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win and another… 

19. Dreams don’t only have to exist when the lights are out and your eyes are shut.  But don’t just talk about them—do something!  There’s a big difference between knowing and doing.  Knowledge is basically useless without action.  If you never act, you will never know for sure.  Where there is a will, there is more than one way.

18. When it comes to living in a fallen world, you can either have freedom or you can have peace.  The two are mutually exclusive.  Freedom always comes at a high price.

17. There is no alternative to hard work. The harder the challenge the sweeter the victory; the higher the climb the sweeter the view. It’s as true in life as it is in business: Your greatest problem or challenge is your greatest opportunity.

16. Kindness and hard work will take you further than intelligence.  If you have the choice to be right or kind, choose kindness every time.  It’s not so much what you say that counts; it’s how you make people feel.

15. Learn to say no.  Learning to focus on creating healthy boundaries makes life easier.

14. Shakespeare said it best when he said, “To thine own self be true.”  Love yourself first.  Be sure you know you deserve to be loved. If you don’t think yourself worthy, ask “why?” and find the ridiculousness in the answer. Once you stop trying to impress others and start to be yourself is when you’ll truly become happy.  The one with nothing to hide is always the one left standing tall.

13. An anonymous proverb says, “Blessed are the flexible, for they never get bent out of shape.” If there is anything you can count on in life, it’s change.  Roll with it.

12. Motivational speaker Charlie ‘Tremendous’ Jones says, “You’ll be the same person in five years as you are today, except for the people you meet and the books you read.”  Reading can open doors that no keys can.

11.  In The Count of Monte Cristo, Mercedès Iguanada says: “I see God in everything—even in a kiss.”  This is a reminder to appreciate all of the simple things in life: the sunshine, the sky, the shoes on your feet, and the heart beating in your chest—to look for God in all things.  Be grateful always.  In all things, good and bad, give thanks. Every day may not be good, but there’s something good in each day.

10. Laugh (out loud) until you cry.  George Bernard Shaw said: “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”  You are never too busy to laugh; neither is a situation ever too serious for a smile.  Don’t get caught up in your own sense of importance.  When you let go and laugh, it’s infectious. Everyone around you feels it. 

9.  Never be too proud to ask for help.

8.  Be careful when you use the word “maybe.”  Make sure that it doesn’t always mean “no.”

7.  Dancing is always free.  Turn up the music, kick off your shoes, bust a move, and shake all your cares away.

6.  When life ignites your spirit or when life tries to destroy it, this is just a reminder of how closely related they are.

5.  When life gives you lemons, make lemonade…but do not try to sell it.  Instead, give it away for free.  Leave things better than you found them.

4.  There is no feeling sweeter than being debt free.  Money makes life easier only when the money is yours free and clear.  “The rich rule over the poor and the borrower is slave to the lender” – Proverbs 22:7.

3.  Growing up with a family in the funeral business, I saw very clearly the need to take advantage of every opportunity to let people in my life know how much I appreciate them.  Don’t wait until the visitation to express how much someone means to you.  Death is what makes life precious.  The time is now.

2.  Be sure to remember that the phone and computer are last resorts to communicate.  Sometimes it’s best to go out of your way to get in the way of someone special.

1.  Probably the most profound lesson I learned in Business school:  Never let the urgent crowd out the important.  Walk slowly, watch the sunrise, write letters, skip rocks, call your mom, journal, talk to old people, smile at strangers, and eat lots of ice cream.


A Different Kind of Journey

The focus of this blog has primarily been what God has been teaching me through various travels.  For a slightly different twist, please visit my wedding website to read about a different kind of journey God currently has me on!

Feeding the Multitudes

After working at one orphanage Monday through Friday, we made our way to a different orphanage on Saturday to spend some time working with their kids and to teach a Bible lesson. This particular orphanage is home to 30 children. Since our visit was a special event, the orphanage decided to invite children from the surrounding communities to come and hear our Bible story and have lunch there. Prior to our coming, we paid a small fee to the orphanage that was to cover the cost of food for all of the guests. We were told by the staff to anticipate no more than 160-170 kids since that was the most they had ever had at one of their community-wide events.

We arrived and began our time with the kids in the chapel on the orphanage compound. African praise music played over the loudspeakers while we waited for the children to pour in. The service began with an introduction of their new American friends and a few worship songs (some in English, and some in their native tribal tongue – Kikuyu). We joined them in dancing, jumping up and down, singing loudly, laughing, and praising God together.

The chapel overflowing with children listening to the Bible story

Then Katie and Rica taught from the story of Jesus feeding the multitude in Mark 6:31-44. The chapel was packed full of little bodies crammed tightly in the pews next to each other and filling the space on the floor around our feet and in our laps. The children listened intently to the story from scripture. Little heads stacked on top of each other with their faces pressed against the glass lined the windows from the outside around the perimeter of the chapel as some of them stood on the tips of their toes to get a spot where they could peer inside. Large groups of children crowded the doorways outside trying to secure their place to listen. This was a glimpse of what it must have been like for Jesus in Mark 2 when he healed the paralytic after his friends had lowered him through the roof. Mark 2:2 says, “They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them.” But this was not the only glimpse of the Gospels that came alive that day.

Sweet little girl holding a Beanie Baby we gave her right after the Bible story

When we concluded our teaching time, we dismissed the kids to line up outside for a hot lunch of rice, beans and maize, and an orange slice. It wasn’t that the chapel was small; the children there that day numbered nearly 500–a few hundred more than we had anticipated. Standing there watching the smaller children get their plates first and begin filling the grassy hillside nearby, I felt the sun shining down on me and my heart was filled with wonder as a smile danced across my face. The others formed a line from the serving table to the little dirt road adjacent to the chapel. The line wrapped around the back of the chapel and followed the road as far as the eye could see.

Children standing in line for food

God had revealed himself to us in that moment–bringing to life right in front of our very eyes the exact scripture we had taught the kids just a few moments prior. Then our faith was tested. The orphanage staff had only anticipated and prepared for 170 kids maximum. We ran out of food. But the God who can feed 5,000, and then 4,000, can certainly feed 500. The ladies were busy in the kitchen (with help from several of our team members) cooking more food and cleaning what seemed like endless piles of dirty dishes to replenish them for those who had yet to eat.

Hurriedly washing piles of dishes so every child could be fed

More and more dishes!

Praise God that every child was fed that day! Many of them, very small children, had walked unsupervised for an hour or an hour and a half or more from the surrounding villages because they had heard the Americans were coming to tell the stories of Jesus and to share a meal with them. As we walked the food to some of the younger children already seated in the grass, the plates scorched our fingers. Yet, these children ate from them with their tender hands.

A child eating a piping hot meal of maize, beans, rice, and an orange slice with his fingers

For many of them, this seemingly meager meal by American standards was the best they had eaten in several days. Some of them had shoes that were so worn through, their little toes were exposed, or the soles had been diminished to the point the bottoms of their feet were calloused.

A child’s toe poking through his shoes with the soles worn out of them

Oh, the things we take for granted! It’s so easy to get lost in our own affluence to the point that we don’t even recognize how wealthy we are. Until recently, I have never really felt “rich”. But as Americans, our standard for these things is a bit skewed. I think this is one of Satan’s greatest deceptions in our comfortable culture. We have a heated and cooled shelter to live in with a choice of fine foods and clothing options for every day. Most of us carry change in our pockets, wallets, or purses, and have more to spare lying around in our cars, on our counters at home, or in a drawer somewhere. Chances are that very few of us know exactly how much of it we have. This is unique to rich people–to have so much “extra” money lying around that we don’t even know where it all is or exactly how much of it we have (Andy Stanley, Be Rich). The truth is that more than half of Kenya’s people are poor, and 7.5 million of those poor live in extreme poverty (Rural Poverty Portal). Per capita income in Kenya averages about $360 US dollars/year (Rural Poverty Portal). This means that 58% of Kenyans live on less than $2/day ( And Kenya is considered relatively stable compared to other African nations.

Look at those captivating eyes!

I don’t believe God intends this to make me feel guilty about my station in life. God ordained that I would be born in the United States of America and afforded the opportunities that have come my way. I had nothing to do with those things. But to those who have been given much, much will be required (Luke 12:48). I have a responsibility to be generous with the blessings God has poured out on me. And as I become aware of the needs of those around me, I have an obligation to respond. Paul addresses this in 1 Timothy 6:17-18 when he says:

Command those who are rich in this present world (that’s you and me) not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.


Lord, teach me how to be rich in good deeds and generous and willing to share the blessings you have so graciously lavished on me. Keep me from allowing the material things you have given me to cause me to put my confidence in my own abilities. Continue to remind me that every good and perfect gift comes from you alone, and not by any good that I have done. Help me to look for opportunities to bless others with the things with which you have blessed me. Don’t let the material wealth I have experienced be a distraction from you and all of the riches you offer.  You alone are sufficiently satisfying.




I managed to make it through most of the week without connecting with any particular child.  In an effort to love on as many of them as possible, I began to feel like I was missing out on the blessing of having a relationship with one specific child.  So I prayed that the Lord would divinely place one in my path to love and play with.  On Thursday, a young man I hadn’t noticed all week approached me in the yard and began kicking and volleying a soccer ball around with me.  We played together for a half hour or more and then he showed me his bunk and all of his belongings.  He told me about his sisters and his school work.  He endeared himself to me so quickly.  In the short amount of time we spent together, I could feel my heart melting for this kid.

Playing soccer

And then…he asked me for my wristwatch.

I wish I could tell you that I didn’t bat an eye, that my immediate response was to oblige.  But I said “no.”  It was a gift my dad had given me a few years back.  Besides its sentimental value, I really liked some of its special features.  I promised him I would send him a brand new watch all his own when I got back home.  Sure, the logistics of sending one to him would be tricky and it would take several months to reach him, but it would be a brand new one just for him.  I would get it in whatever color he wanted.  But that didn’t seem to appease him.  He wanted the one around my wrist.  Still, I said “no.”

Friday morning, before heading out to our last day at this particular orphanage, I snuggled deeper into my warm covers and curled up to the books of Proverbs and James anticipating a word from the Lord.  And then it hit me…right where it hurt most.  I quickly shrugged the sleep out of my tired eyes as I read these chilling words:

Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act.  Do not say to your neighbor, “Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow”– when you now have it with you. -Proverbs 3:27-28

And then in James 4:17, I was confronted with this difficult truth:

Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.

Conviction.  The painful discipline from a loving Father.

When we arrived at the orphanage for the final time, Simon and I exchanged letters.  He asked me again for my watch.  I could still feel the raw scourges from the figurative beating I had received earlier. I reluctantly took it off my wrist and put it around his.  I explained to him how special it was and that when he saw it to think of me and to remember how much God loves him.  I have no idea why it was so hard for me to let go of a silly watch–one I knew I could replace for $10 at Wal*Mart as soon as I returned home.  It was a difficult lesson for me in holding loosely to the things of this world.  I am not extra-spiritual.  This was a test I failed once and almost didn’t pass again.  What if God had demanded of me something bigger?  Something truly painful?

So excited to get this watch

I stole away to read the words Simon wrote to me in his sweet 13-year-old handwriting.  He told me about himself and his school work, things he liked to do, and his favorite Bible verse (Psalm 128:1 –  “Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways.”).  Then he shared with me a poem he had written.  The first verse began with:

“Oh! Why! Why! Why was I born a son cared for by nobody.

Neglected by everybody.

I think I was born a son by accident or by a mistake.

My life is in tatters for at home I am a loner and when it comes to my matters they say yes, they say I am a bother.”

I continued reading the remaining verses of his poem. The tears burned as they filled my eyes and rolled down my cheeks.  My heart burst into pieces inside of my chest.  This sweet, precious child that had been so happy to play with me over the past few days was broken and hurting inside and had decided to share with me a small glimpse into his world.

My awesome little buddy

God heard my simple prayer to connect with a single child.  Little did I know His plan for our bond would be to use this precious young man as a divine instrument to shine His light on the dark, selfish places in my own heart and to break my heart with a series of life-changing interactions that I pray will never leave me.

Loving on BOTH of the kids God blessed me with in Kenya

The Cheese School Road

Kenyan flag – with a traditional Maasai shield

In the days leading up to our trip, I did my research on Kenya so I could be a responsible, informed traveller.  But nothing I had seen or read could prepare me for what was to come.  We spent our first night in country in Nairobi – the bustling capital city and one of Kenya’s major centers for trade and culture.  The following day, we began the trek through some incredibly rural provinces and villages before arriving at our next destination.

Cow in Villager’s Field

Sheep grazing along the roadside

All along the way there were hundreds of people lining the roadsides standing or sitting idly by — very few of them with wares to sell.  This is due in part to Kenya’s 40% unemployment rate.  These men, women, and children have nowhere else to go, nothing else to do.  According to the World Factbook, 75% of Kenyans struggle to survive as farmers with low agricultural productivity.  I imagined the poverty to be staggering.  I was stunned to discover it was way worse than that.

Kenyans on the roadside at a political rally on our way to the orphanage one morning

Young ladies carrying wood logs across their backs

Stopping for a quick photo-op

The place where we stayed throughout the week is a mere 20 miles from the primary orphanage where we worked.  Due to road conditions, it took us between 1.5 – 2 hours daily to make the trip one way.  Because of the deplorable conditions of the roads and the potential for crime linked to the disparagingly high unemployment rates, we had to leave the orphanage every day in enough time to make the trip back to our lodging facility before sunset.

Melanie snapped a shot of me making a face at her through the window of one of our busses on the drive to the orphanage one day

Our room for the week in Kenya

The statistics are mind-boggling.  Kenya is currently faced with the challenge of a population explosion crisis.  The average life-expectancy is currently 63 years.  More than 40% of Kenya’s population of 40 million is under the age of 15.  When taken into account with the nation’s mortality rates, nearly 1 in 8 children in Kenya are orphans (that’s more than 2 million children left to fend for themselves).  Less than 10% of these children are actually in orphanages.  Many of them are living in trees, fields, or are at the mercy of others in their respective villages who will look after them.

One of the village children looking longingly at the kids from the orphanage – one of the most heartbreaking images of our time in Kenya

Thankfully there are people like Houston, TX natives Mike and Sylvia Eden who have responded to God’s call on their lives to start a ministry and an orphanage in a foreign land as their hearts were gripped by these precious children half a world away.  They continue to labor diligently alongside the amazing and God-ordained members of their staff to share with the “forgotten” children of Kenya the love of their sovereign Heavenly Father.

Mike and Sylvia Eden, founders of this orphanage

On Wednesday, Mike loaded a few of us into their trusty Land Rover to show us the Primary School their children attend, as well as the construction site for the new boys’ dorm they are currently building.

The trusty Land Rover

He told us that this was the best the road had been in several months, now that the rainy season had come to an end.  As we turned down the road toward the children’s school, my heart broke again.  The mud was so thick that the tire wells in the road were two and three feet deep in most places.  Peering out the window as we drove along this pitiful excuse for a road, tears ran down my cheeks as I recognized the little boot prints of young children who walk this road every day to get to school.

2′ & 3′ deep tire tracks on the Cheese School Road

We made our way about a mile or so down the road and stopped at the construction site for the new dorm, passing the children’s school along the way.  Mike walked us through the site, sharing with us the vision God has given him for that development.  In Kenya, boys are considered men when they turn 16.  These young men are circumcised and, after several days of isolation, they are joined by family, friends, and villagers in a ritualistic celebration of their newfound manhood.  As a result, according to Kenyan law, once the boys turn 16, they are no longer able to share living space with the girls.  Unless an orphanage has separate living quarters for boys and girls, these young men have no place to live when they turn 16.  They are turned out into the surrounding communities where local village men try to introduce them to excessive drinking and other shenanigans.  Soon, the oldest boy at Mike and Sylvia’s orphanage will have his 16th birthday.  Mike’s hope is to complete the work on the new boy’s dorm within the next few months in order to continue to provide these boys with a safe and loving place to call “home” for a few more years.

Scaffolding on the Dorm Construction Site

Part of the Boy’s Dorm Construction Site

After a tour of the new compound, we piled back into the Land Rover and began to make our way back to the orphanage in time to play with the kids before having to drive back to our hotel.  The mud was thick and deep and the Land Rover did not have as much success on the way back under the weight of all 15 of us squeezed in on top of each other.  Halfway down the road, we got stuck and had to jump out so our driver could maneuver his way out of the rut we had gotten in.  We finally made it back to the orphanage, laughing about our “off-road” adventure.

The trusty Land Rover stuck on the Cheese School Road

Chris and Jack trying to decide if they really want to try to push…

But over the course of the rest of the week, God used that moment to arrest my attention. These precious kids, whom I had quickly grown to love, have to walk this “road” everyday.   A few generous donors from the US have given enough money to supply each of the children with their own pair of rubber boots so they can make the trip more easily.  Sometimes the mud is up to their knees.  After a little investigating, I learned that by Mike’s best estimate, it would take the equivalent of approximately $5,000 US Dollars to fully fund efforts to build a suitable road for the children to walk to school on everyday, as well as for the workers to get to the construction site to finish the new dorm on time. God began growing in my heart a burning desire to help raise the funds to fix the road.  I am still prayerfully considering how to begin this process, so if you have any suggestions, please feel free to share them with me.  If you would like to learn how you can share in the blessing of helping fix the Cheese School Road, please contact me and I would love to give you more information.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. – Proverbs 3:5-6

Katie’s Kisses

Disclaimer: In an intentional effort to protect the privacy of the children and the integrity of the orphanage where we worked, I have blurred out the faces of the children in my pictures for the purpose of this blog.  I have also opted not to name specific villages where we served.  If you would like more information on these ministries, please contact me and I would be more than happy to provide you with specific details.  

Perhaps the most impressionable memory from my time in Kenya took place on our first day working at the orphanage.  Very few of the plans we went with were the plans we actually carried out–by God’s sovereign design.  For a month or two leading up to our trip, a few of us who comprised the Bible story team met to discuss our vision for each day and to pray that God would take the reins.  And that’s just what He did.

When we arrived at the orphanage, we realized that the children we were expecting to play with all day long for the duration of the week were held by their headmaster in classes for an extra week.  Instead of 7 hours a day with these precious little ones, we would be lucky to get 3.  This meant totally overhauling our prefabricated agenda.  The proverb “Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be bent out of shape” was certainly applicable throughout our entire adventure.

Our first day we decided to consolidate Bible story time.  I realized instantly that God had not brought me to Africa to teach.  I watched from the sidelines as my new friend Katie read from the Word of God to the people of God.  The Lord’s anointing unmistakably saturated her teaching.  When she finished telling the story, she rounded up all of the children.

Katie teaching the Bible story on our first day at the orphanage

“Put your face in my hands,” she told them.

At first, they were a little hesitant.  Slowly, one by one there were a brave few children who came forward, placing their faces in Katie’s hands.  She gently squeezed their sweet little cheeks, and pulling their faces close into hers, she commanded their attention.

“Look me in the eyes,” she would say.  She would proceed, “You are sweet.  You are wonderful.  You are kind.  You are smart.  You are loved.  You are special.  God loves you.  I love you.  Got it?  Don’t you ever forget it.”

Katie, conferring her blessing

Then she would lean in and kiss their foreheads and send them on their way.  After the first few hesitant volunteers, the rest of the children all lined up in droves waiting to hear her loving message  spoken over their blessed lives.

A kiss from Katie

“Give me a face.  I need another face,” she would call out to the next one in line.

Those of us standing nearby were captivated by the moment.  What a clear picture of Jesus saying to the disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).  I stood nearby with tears welling up in my eyes and my heart caught in my throat.  These kisses–these words–spoke life into these children, and deep into the soul of this bystander.  This is the face of true ministry.  James 1:27 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

This simple act was so profoundly beautiful.  It continues to bless me.  When I close my eyes and remember our time with these kids, this is the moment that plays on repeat in the cinema of my mind.  It has arrested my attention and rent my heart. This is what it means to be the hands and feet of Jesus. I cling tightly to Zephaniah 3:17 – “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”   I have been left to consider the healing balm of having these moments with my Savior, leaning into Him as He speaks tenderly into my life.

Establishing Our Steps

Order my steps in Your Word, Dear Lord
Lead me, guide me every day
Send Your anointing, Father, I pray
Order my steps in Your Word

-lyrics from “Order My Steps” by Glenn Burleigh

Early on Friday morning, my wonderful roommate graciously drove me to the airport to meet the rest of my travel companions as we began our journey together to Kenya, Africa.  And what a journey it was!  Pam dropped me off curbside with my single carry-on suitcase and backpack two and a half hours before our flight.  I was one of the first of our group to arrive at the airport.  I checked in leisurely and took a seat near the counter to wait on the rest of our crew to get through the line and check their bags. Several of them teased me for not checking any luggage. Some of them just stared in amazement, coveting my awesome packing skills.  An hour went by and there were members of our team that still had not made it through the line.  Then another half hour.  As it turned out, the airline’s electronic booking system had a few glitches.  The system was showing a discrepancy in the name of one our traveling companions.  For another, it had her voided from the system altogether.  Because the airline was short-staffed, these issues held up the line for quite a while before the representatives were able to sort through them and service the other passengers.  Shortly before we began to board our first flight, we were all able to make it through security as present and accounted for.

Waiting for the flight out of Huntsville

We made it to Chicago on time where we spent our layover eating lunch and doing icebreaker exercises.  After boarding the plane on the flight out of the US, we were delayed over an hour because it had been determined that the smoke detector in one of the bathrooms was faulty.  When they realized they were unable to fix it in a timely manner, they deemed that particular one inoperable for the duration of the flight and we were finally able to take off.

Kenya Mission Team at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport

Since our layover in London was less than two hours, we made it to the  Heathrow London airport as our next flight was boarding.  The flight crew made arrangements with the airline to have attendants waiting for our team (there were 25 of us) to expedite our transfer to our next flight.  We were escorted through a long corridor, down a solitary staircase, and out of a back door where we were greeted by a shuttle bus driver who quickly loaded our things and drove us around the perimeter of the airport before arriving to our rightful terminal.  We piled out of the bus, hurried through security,  and made a mad dash through the crowds of travelers and kiosk vendors down the long terminal to our gate.  We ran past a handful of Russian Olympians who were perusing the shelves of one the stores along the way.  There was no time for a photo-op!  When we made it to our gate, the staff was frantically issuing us boarding passes because they had held the gate open just for us since we were such a large group.  The same glitches in the system during our first leg were issues for us this time, too.  This was not the time to sort it out.  Boarding pass or not, we were all on our way.

With my roomie for this trip, Lauren Ford, on the plane from London to Kenya (about 24 hours into our trip)

After nearly 30 hours of travelling, we reached our destination: Nairobi, Kenya!

The long-awaited arrival at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport

We stood in line for two hours waiting to get our passports and visas stamped.  We were almost there!  Finally we made it through the lines and headed down the stairs to baggage claim where we waited for several more hours.  Turns out, we landed in Nairobi…but our luggage didn’t–well, no one’s but mine.  We barely made our connecting flight from London and the bags didn’t make the switch at all.  Suddenly all the jokes made at my expense throughout the trip for not checking any bags had stopped.  The tables had turned.

Waiting at baggage claim in Kenya

Once we were able to work through the luggage situation, we began making our way to our hotel for the evening.

Melanie and Kerri finding ways to entertain themselves as we waited to leave the baggage claim area in the Kenya airport

Waiting with Jack and Brooke to leave the Kenya airport, getting really antsy to check into our hotel and get some sleep

While we were en route, we received word that some of the guests at the hotel did not check out from the night before and there was no longer room for all of us.  We scrambled to find another place nearby that would be suitable and safe and that would accommodate our entire team.  More than 4 hours after landing in Nairobi, we were able to check into a place not far from the airport.

Saying ‘good night’ from my misquito net in our hotel room in Nairobi our first night in country

Moments like these bring to the surface fascinating things in people.  It seems miniscule, but it’s really a significant test–of our patience, of our faith, our attitudes, our responses.  For some, these were stressful moments filled with anxiety.  For others, adventure–we’ll get there eventually, and then there will be a story to tell.  These moments were simply a foreshadowing of what was to come throughout our entire trip.  It’s laughable sometimes to think we can go to a place like the rural villages of Kenya and minister to them.  Inevitably, they are always the ones to teach us about the God we serve.  We go expecting to bless them when it is us who are incredibly blessed by them.  This is the very nature of God.  In a huge way, God reminded us of the verse in Proverbs 16:9 that says, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.”  As we make our plans, it is always right to remember that His ways are higher, better.  Praise God that He establishes and orders our steps and we are not big enough to mess up his plans!

Unlikely Places

I have heard it said that God doesn’t waste an experience.  Whether I like those experiences or not, this truth has stood the test of time in my life over the years.  I recently returned from a trip to Nairobi, Kenya with a mission team of 25. We had the incredible privilege of working in two different orphanages during our time in country.  What a rich series of experiences for me.  But in order to tell the stories of what happened while in Africa, I am compelled to revisit the beginning of my journey there.

This trip to Kenya didn’t just begin 8 months prior when I first heard of the opportunity to go with this amazing team.  It actually began six years ago in a seemingly unlikely place: the streets of Brooklyn, NY.  If you have known me for more than ten minutes, chances are you have probably heard at least parts of that story.  The how and why that landed me in New York are extraordinary details I have yet to find the words to adequately express, even after all these years–but God’s hand clearly marked every single moment, each particular detail.

Park Slope, Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store in Park Slope, Brooklyn

I was working as an intern for the Brooklyn Tabernacle, serving the inner city population downtown.  For the first time in my life, I had the humbling privilege to experience life as a minority.  God used a series of situations over the course of that summer to radically transform my life and to bring healing to some deeply broken places in my heart. He also began dealing with me over and over about His concern for “the nations.”  I could walk for a mile and hear seven different languages, none of which were English.  Walking down the streets of Brooklyn, I realized the nations were at my fingertips.  God was stirring deep within me a burning desire to love and serve these people–His people.

The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir

In 1 Chronicles 16:8, the scripture says, “Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done.”  The Psalmist writes in Psalm 96:3: “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples,” and in 98:2: “The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.”  God declares through the prophet Isaiah in 56:7 that His house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.  And Jesus commands us in the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).  The point?  God is serious about using us to make Him known throughout the world.  If He is this concerned about all peoples from all nations, and if I desire for my heart to be consumed with the things that consume the heart of our Father, then shouldn’t I yearn to answer this call?

Some of the amazing ladies I worked with in Downtown Brooklyn (from the Caribbean, the US, and Ghana)

My dear friend and fellow servant from Panama

At the time, I was a broke-as-a-joke college student.  I had no idea if I would ever leave this great country.  I couldn’t begin to fathom how it would be possible, but I knew that our Father in heaven is rich and that if it were His will for me to go, I could trust Him to provide.  The desire he placed in my heart in the streets of Brooklyn has continued to burn through the years.  As a graduate student, the Lord blessed me with the opportunity to participate in a short-term academic exchange program in South Korea.

Seoul, South Korea 2008

With my language partner (Yong Duk) at a Robotics demonstration in Seoul, South Korea

My language partners – Yong Duk and Kyu Tae – Seoul, South Korea

He even blessed me with the opportunity of a lifetime to visit Israel and tour the Holy Land.  But I knew God was calling me to do more than just study and travel.  He was calling me to take the Gospel message to a people who desperately need His love.

Memorial Day flags in Israel, 2011 (Courtesy of Green Tree Photography)

Visiting the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, Israel

Photo op in the Valley of Elah, Israel

In January, a dear friend and travel companion mentioned to me that I should consider going to Kenya to work with orphans.  I attended what I thought to be the first interest meeting for the trip.  Instead I discovered that the group had been meeting for at least a month already and the deadline to commit to the trip was less than 2 weeks away. This also meant paying for half of the trip since I had already missed two previous payments.  The trip coordinator made sure to emphasize multiple times during that particular meeting that there were currently 23 people signed up and that there absolutely could be no more than 25 to go.  After a few days of thinking about it, praying over it, asking my boss for the time off, and rearranging my personal budget, it was abundantly clear to me that this was the trip God had for me.

I called the coordinator to let her know I was all in.  No answer.  She had left that morning for a trip to London.  I left a voicemail and then contacted her second-in-command.  I was so excited I could hardly stand it.  This was the realization of a dream God had given me several years prior.  But it was too late.  The trip was full.  All 25 slots were already filled.  My name was placed on a waiting list.  I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out, but I knew that I was going to be on that plane someway, somehow.

Two weeks later, I woke up from a Sunday afternoon nap to a phone call from the trip coordinator.  I answered the phone groggily.  “I just returned from London,” she said, “and I just got your message…”

“I’m really sorry to have bothered you about all that,” I interrupted.  “They told me I was too late and that they would put my name on a waiting list.”

“I’m calling to tell you that you’re going,” she told me.  “I know that you’re supposed to come with us, so I made room for you.  You’re going!”

I shook the sleep out of my eyes and let her words sink in.  In less than 8 months, I would be on my way to Africa.  God had made a way for me when there seemed to be no way–something I have seen Him do in my life multiple times.  And I was trusting Him to do it again.  Going to Africa meant International airfare, lodging, a visa, and vaccines–it certainly wouldn’t be cheap.  I determined that instead of fundraising and asking other people for their money, I would begin making sacrifices in my own spending habits, sell a few paintings, and trust God to provide every dollar.  I began to pray specifically about how much I would need.  And then something truly amazing happened: God totally exceeded my expectations with His provision for my needs.  I never solicited a single dime from anyone, yet people would say things like, “God told me I was supposed to give you this,” and then they would hand me a check for a substantial amount of money.

His provision for me was not just financial.  I cannot begin to recount the number of people who committed to covering me in prayer.  Dozens of people wrote letters of encouragement for me to open while I was in Kenya.  In His typical fashion, God went beyond my wildest dreams to provide me with more than I could ask or imagine.  During my time in Kenya, He opened wide His storehouse of blessing and poured out on me some of the sweetest and most heart-wrenching moments I have ever experienced.  The posts that follow are a small glimpse into the work He has done in my heart through this series of life-changing adventures.  What follows is by no means a comprehensive recollection of experiences–even a words girl like me falls short when trying to express what has transpired deep within my spirit as a result of these moments.  I pray that as you read these posts, you will laugh with me, cry with me, rejoice with me, and be challenged to fall deeper in love with our Savior.