Baby Jesus and the Babies at Project Canaan By: Kirsten Ortiz

We are days away from Christmas, our Savior’s birthday. What a blessing babies are! And, baby Jesus was the greatest blessing of all time! As we get ready to celebrate this special day, I am humbled by my almost seven-year-old daughter and her heart for the Lord.

Last year I went to Swaziland and had a life changing experience. I stood in the El Roi Baby Home that was in the final stages of construction at the time and felt my heart breaking for the many children in this country who were being discarded. When I came home, I shared my experiences with the children of Swaziland with my two children. Alita, my then five and a half year old took a special interest in those stories. She’s always been a little mama, and is only becoming more so as she grows up.

Here we are a year later and ever since the El Roi Baby Home opened in March, Alita has loved it passionately. I read Janine’s weekly blogs and keep up with Heart for Africa on Facebook. Each time a baby is brought into the home, we add their name to the list on Alita’s bedroom door. Alita loves seeing pictures of the babies and can’t get enough of the most recent video of Emmanuel laughing. This sweet girl prays every day for the babies, by name.

But, my little girl has gone a step farther. Her heart is so focused on those babies that she decided this year instead of getting presents for Christmas; she wanted to have people donate to the El Roi Baby Home. She brought it up to me months ago and I felt sure she’d change her mind…she’s only six, right?! And yet, with less than a week to go before Christmas, she was just telling her little brother today that she isn’t getting presents for Christmas, but instead getting money for the babies. I understand that children don’t need Christmas presents, but let’s face it…we live in the United States where most children will get many presents on Christmas day. I am humbled by her selflessness.

Included with the Christmas cards we sent to our family and friends was a note from Alita. Here is what she wrote:

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Christmas is when we celebrate Jesus’s birthday. I want to tell you about some other babies. I don’t want any presents for Christmas this year. But, I want to ask for money for the El Roi Baby Home. This is the baby home in Swaziland that Mama went to last year. They opened March 1st and already have 22 babies that were abandoned or orphaned: Joshua, Esther, Caleb, Levi, Anna, Jeremiah, Emmanuel, David, Miriam, Paul, Ishmael, Joy, Rose, Gabriel, Hope, John, Joseph, Hannah, Samuel, Sarah, Leah and Rachel. They won’t be able to take in any more babies until people start giving more money to help the babies that are abandoned or orphaned from their mommies and daddies. I pray for these babies and I would like us to start helping them. On Christmas Day I won’t have any presents to open, but I will be full of joy if I know the babies are getting the help they need.

Love, Alita

I am looking forward to Christmas this year and can’t wait to see my sweet daughter’s face when she opens gifts of donations for the El Roi Baby Home. I look forward to celebrating the arrival of Baby Jesus, while celebrating the lives of babies who have been saved by the God who sees them.

Merry Christmas,

Kirsten Ortiz

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Bringing Out the Good China By: Amy Bond

The past few days have been difficult.

I am home and in one piece but I do not know quite how to process things now that I am home.  It feels great to be home – I was so happy to see the kids and they were very happy to have me home.

Home is the same, kids are the same, life is the same.  This is good.  This is comforting.  I have a new appreciation for the things I have and the people I love.  But I am also left feeling stuck because I am not the same.  I am, but I am not.  Before we left Africa, the leaders of the trip said this might happen.  They said that you might have a difficult time dealing with what you have seen and how you view things when you get home.

So now I’m here and I need to jump back into my life.  Go back to work, take kids to appointments, make dinners, do some Christmas shopping and go to volleyball games.  Jump back into the rat race, the daily grind and the life I’ve always known.  I know its only been a few days – I am still jet lagged – but I cannot seem to get my head out of Africa and back to Spokane.

Last night I was thinking about a place we visited in Swaziland.  I was looking around at all of the wonderful things I have in my home.  I was thinking about all of my possessions and how many I could really live without.  Things that bring me comfort and joy – but truth be told, all that really matters to me is relationships – not stuff.  I was thinking about the “the good China” and how I am just as content to eat off a paper plate, if in the right company.  There were two particular places in Swaziland where I actually thought about the concept of “the good China” in terms of possessions – places where two Swazi households pulled out the best of their best and offered what they had to a group of complete strangers if only because they were happy to have company and were glad that we came.

The first one was an elderly woman who may have been more than a hundred years old.  She told us through her translator that she knew the father of the current King of Swaziland when he was just a boy.  Our Swazi friends did some quick calculations and came to the conclusion that she was likely at least one hundred….maybe older.  Our van could not get down the dirt and rough roads, so led by the pastor of the nearby church, we set out on foot and walked for a good long while, carrying a bag of fresh oranges and thoughts of the community of children we had just spent the day with.  As we walked, we passed several homesteads, all in various states of disarray and extreme poverty.  No electricity, no clean water, mangy dogs with their rib cages showing who eyed us suspiciously.  Chickens pecking about, crumbling buildings, giant holes in the grass tops of beehive huts and a few people looking up in surprise to see a group of white people walking down their path – a path where very few, if any, white people have walked before.  When we finally arrived, we were overlooking the most beautiful valley I have ever seen.  Lush green mango trees dotted the hillside, a few sporadic clouds hung in the bright blue sky and alternating strips of brown and green crops were in the distance.  When we arrived, I could see a very old woman sitting on a grass mat with a pillow under a tree looking out into the distance.

The grandmother is called a Go-Go in Swaziland.  A great grandmother is a “Ko-Ko”. We learned she had many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, a good number of them have died.  She had with her a caretaker who gave us the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.  She sat next to a cane and she looked very peaceful and wise.  As we approached her, it felt awkward to me – eight or ten of us converging on her home.  There were ants everywhere and some creepy large winged insects of bright blue and orange.  At the prompting of the old woman, the caretaker rushed inside and grabbed two reed mats, rolled them out and motioned for us to sit.  She then went inside again and again and brought out several broken and falling apart chairs for us to sit on.
It occurred to me at that very moment that she was ‘bringing out the good China’. She did not want us to sit on the ground or have to stand, so she had her caretaker bring out the best she had to offer, the ‘good’ China, so to speak.  We were there to give her the oranges, to pray for her and to let her know we cared about her.  I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, I mean honestly, a bag of oranges and a prayer?  Surely we could do better than that….?!  Couldn’t we?  So everyone settled in on the mats and on the chairs, and smiled politely.  Now ‘Pastor Mike’ is a Swazi.  He is one of the kindest, gentlest and happy men I have ever met.  He is constantly smiling and sees the best in everyone.  Pastor Mike has not always been a pastor.  I do not know a lot about his past, except what he has shared in his sermons.  I admire his faith in humanity and I especially admire his faith in God.  When Pastor Mike prays and speaks of the bible, it is nothing short of amazing.  Fascinating. Incredible.  He speaks with a loud voice, full of conviction, true faith and words exactly appropriate to the situation at hand.  He spoke of end of life – the journey after life – and of the wisdom of age. At first, I was a little taken back – finding rather inappropriate speaking of end of life before this woman was dead yet.  But I realized, as he prayed in sSwati and then English, that this may have been quite comforting to her.  She was extremely happy we had come to visit her and felt very blessed to have complete strangers coming to pray for her.
I am not – and never have been – easily accepting of religion.  I view the world with more of a scientific perspective.  I admire those with true conviction and the comfort and hope that it brings.  There are many people in my life that seem to be genuinely concerned about my lack of faith in God.  This includes several of my extended family members and close friends and neighbors.  They have asked me to church, which I have declined.  They pray for me daily, which I appreciate.  One even gave me a beautiful Rosary to keep in my pocket while in Africa to keep me safe.  For the record, I did keep it in my pocket the entire time I was in Africa.  Regardless, I struggle with the concept, I struggle with a God that would allow babies to die long before their parents – taking from personal experience…and a whole long list of other worse things like starvation, disease, war, death, destruction, rape, murder, etc. etc. etc.  Now I know that true believers have reasons to justify all of these things – and from a religious perspective it makes sense and the comfort in understanding that there is a reason for the bad things and evil that may be.  I may be opening Pandora’s box here – but I’ve never really bought into any of that.  I tend to feel more confident in scientific explanations and evolution, than in God.
But that’s not very comforting or hopeful, now is it?
So listening to Mike pray with such force and conviction to this complete stranger – it was like hearing God speak through him.  It was incredibly interesting to watch and hear, as I sat in awe of Mike and the things he was saying – almost singing – to her.

Heart for Africa is non-denominational.  They do not have a religious requirement to go on one of their trips.  But everyone in my group was there not only to help but held very strong beliefs in Jesus and in God.  I did not pretend to feel the same, in fact just the opposite, I was very honest about my relationship, or lack thereof, with God.  Throughout the week we all shared some very personal things about ourselves, our lives and our beliefs.  I felt a little like an outsider – like at any minute I might burst into flames – having been in the company of such true believers – no matter the exact religions.  None of them were judgemental about it, any more than I was judgemental about their beliefs.  They were more interested in helping me to understand it, and in the end, how my trip to Africa may have changed my views.
So anyway, Mike finished the sermon with great fanfare.  We presented our oranges, gave her each a Swazi handshake, and some words like “God bless you…” and “Peace be with you….”  I was surprised to find myself genuinely moved and inspired by the whole experience.  The old woman looked into my eyes and smiled when I asked if it would be okay to take her picture.  I never felt more genuinely welcome – anywhere.  She then had her caretaker get us some mangoes and a giant bunch of plantains to thank us – which turned out to be one of the best tasting things I have ever eaten.
So what do I take from this experience?  What exactly can I learn from the wise old woman sitting for decades under her favorite tree, nearby rocks worn with age and a hundred thousand footsteps where she has walked year after year after year…?
Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to re-visit the topic of faith and religion in my own life.  Maybe I can learn a thing or two from these wonderful people whom I had the pleasure of spending 10 days with in Africa. What else can I take from this – other than the power of faith and unshakable conviction?
Maybe I can learn something about the quality of relationships from this Ko-Ko in Swaziland.  Maybe I will slow down and take notice of those people right here in Spokane who are less fortunate than me.  Maybe I can remember to slow down, not to be in such a hurry and to delay gratification.  Maybe I can learn to stop and smell the roses – or the mangoes or the bananas.
I wish I had a glimpse of the love, joy, loss and pain inside this woman’s head and heart.  I wish I had a tenth of the wisdom and insight she has to situations that are out of her control.  Maybe I can take away from this that on a daily basis I should bring out the ‘good China’ for friends, family as well as complete and utter strangers.

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