I am missing a certain little boy today. His name is Joel (pronounced Joelle), and he has invaded my heart.
I first met Joel while worshiping in a sweltering tent church in Namasujju. We had arrived in Uganda only the previous day, and were attending the new church’s third Sunday service ever held. As was the custom everywhere we went in Uganda, we were cared for far better than we ever deserved. We were led to the front of the tent where there were large, cozy couches waiting for us. Much to our dismay, everyone else sat on hard, plastic chairs. However, the children quickly learned of our undue luxury and those less shy began to join us on the couches. In the heat of that day, underneath an orange, plastic tent, I experienced the presence of God in Africa. We worshiped for hours, with song and dance, a children’s choir performance, prayer, preaching, and testimonies. I was enthralled by the villagers’ love for our Lord. They were on their faces before Him, crying out to Him in praise. When was the last time I had done that?
As Pastor Timothy stood to preach on Exodus’ message of always moving forward in life and taking one step at a time, the cutest little boy in the tent timidly walked over to me with his hand in his mouth and looked up at me. Those big, beautiful brown eyes had a sense of longing. I picked him up, placed him in my lap and handed him a lollipop, thinking he needed to be entertained during the sermon. I quickly learned that he isn’t like most children I know. None of the African children were. They did not need entertainment, but were always content. Joel sat in my lap for the rest of the service. When it was time to leave, I carried him out of the tent with me. I did not want to let him go, and he did not want to be let go.
Joel lives in the village of Namasujju with his 5-year-old cousin and his jaja (grandmother). Neither he nor his jaja speak English, so in order to find out Joel’s story, I called my friend and translator Mary over.
His parents were not married when he was conceived and his father abandoned his mother before he was ever born. After months of struggling as a single parent, his mother gave up and left him in the care of his fragile jaja. He was abandoned. He is now two years old and obviously malnourished.
I spent the next four days with Joel. Every free moment that I had in Namasujju, I was either chasing him around the village, playing peek-a-boo with him, bathing him, or just sitting on the grass with him. We became fast friends, and my heart grew to love him more than I ever thought I could.
At some point in my broken conversations with his jaja, she asked me to take him back to the States with me. She could obviously see the love that I had for her grandson, and she hoped for a better future for him. After all, once his jaja passes, he will have no one to care for him. I told her that I would love to, but that I was unsure of how to go about it. A fellow team member, Bradley, and I discussed it with Pastor Timothy often. He begged and pleaded for us to take him. One afternoon as Joel and I and a few other girls from my trip were drinking from the village’s new water well (also called a bora hole), his jaja came over with Pastor Timothy to translate what I was saying. She thought that I was discussing taking Joel home with me. The look on her face will forever be burned in my mind. She was so hopeful. When my answer was translated that I did not know yet what the Lord would have me do, her face fell and she walked away, leaving me there alone with Joel. All I could do was squeeze him, as I prayed over him and his jaja.
The day came when I knew I would not be back in Namasujju anytime soon. We had finished clearing the land to build the new church on, had washed up at the bora hole, and everyone was boarding the bus. As every other day, when I wasn’t working, I had had Joel in my arms. I carried him over to the bus and gave him a squeeze, said goodbye, and put him down. His jaja was sitting nearby so I tried to send him to her. It was as if he knew I was going for good. He burst into tears and buried his face in my legs. I picked him up one last time, told him I loved him, said I would see him later, stood him up again, and reluctantly turned towards the bus. Everyone was on the bus waiting for me. I knew we had to leave. As I climbed into the bus, I could barely hear over the sound of Joel’s screaming tears, and I could barely see through mine. Letting go of that boy was the hardest thing I have ever done.
I still do not know what the Lord has in store for me and Joel. That little boy on the other side of the world has a piece of my heart that can never be taken away. When his jaja asked me to take him, I knew that I needed to step away from the emotions of the situation to hear His voice. If God wants me to adopt Joel, I would leave today to go get him. If He has another plan for his life, I believe that He will give me a peace that passes all understanding. In the meantime, I know that the God who loves me unconditionally, loves Joel more than I ever could. The same arms that hold me on days like today when all I can think about is the possibility of living life as Joel’s mother, are holding him. That is the hope that I cling to. And that is the only hope that I need.