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A Child Will Lead Them

It felt as if the walls of the small conference room were closing in on us. I tried to breathe through the panic that was causing my heart to race and the roaring rush of blood that pounded in my ears. His words hung in the air among us, and they felt horrifying.

If you take him out of this country and back to Ethiopia, he will never, ever get another visa to come back here, and he will never become a citizen.

These words were not at all what we expected to hear just two days prior to moving our family from America to Ethiopia. It hadn’t yet even been a month since our oldest son’s adoption was finalized. The miracle of that day was still fresh on all of us, as fresh our three tender tattoos that commemorated the truth that we really were irrevocably family – the very first request our son ever asked of us, and the one he begged us to make come true for years. “I just want a family. I want you to be my family”, he would say over and over again. It seems like such a basic need. It IS such a basic need. And yet it was the most grueling, complicated process to meet that first request, that one basic need. So the weight of what had finally happened was still heavy on us, and we were still in blissful shock. With his adoption came family that he had requested, but not citizenship to America. It was the one thing that still needed to be worked out. We had managed to complicate things even further, by making the life-changing decision to pursue missions in Ethiopia. We would be taking our newly adopted, non-citizen child back to his home country, voiding his current visa, and pursuing American citizenship from across the ocean. The normal procedure would have been for him to stay on his visa in the US and finish out high school, at the private school, then apply for a green card, live on the green card until he reached the time where he could apply for citizenship on his own in adulthood. But the only way to do this was from America, and we knew that was not where we were supposed to be anymore.

We knew this, but we also believed that there had to be another way that would allow us to live in Ethiopia. So I did what I love to do – I researched. I literally devoured legalese and every single immigration law article/document piece of information that I could. I spent hours researching through different ways – only to come up with dead ends and one reason or another that it could not work for Habi’s case. I became fluent in jargon that I had no prior knowledge of, and in the midst of the laborious researching process I finally found one complicated, risky way that could work. I learned everything there was to learn about the process. I knew it could work. I knew it would be risky, but I knew that with the help of our immigration lawyer, that this really could work. My husband spoke with our lawyer on the phone and explained our plans, explained the process, and we were invited to a meeting to set the course in motion, just two days before we moved.

So, there we were in the small conference room. Habi, my husband Jim, and myself, along with our immigration lawyer and three law students who were invited to sit in on the unique case. I was armed with a huge stack of paperwork backing my research, and explaining the process, and I was excited that we had found a way. And then the lawyer dropped the bomb that shattered everything. He had never heard of the process, and despite phone calls to him that my husband had made, had not researched it or had anyone on his team research it. It became clear that he had no intention of researching it. It wasn’t common, he had never done it, and therefore we were made to look like foolish, irresponsible parents for deciding to leave the country. We walked out of that room devastated.

Little was said during the hour plus drive back to where all of our luggage was packed for the move and our three little children waited for us. Scenarios bounced around my head, and my heart beat wildly with fear. Why would God orchestrate this this way? Why after so many hurdles would He give us this child and then not finish giving him the security he needed to know that we would and could always be together as a family? Because essentially that was exactly what citizenship meant – security, permanency.

I was angry and confused. I remember Jim praying with me when we got out of the van, and I was just so angry. We then decided that we had to have a really honest and open conversation with Habi, and lay everything on the table very plainly for him. This meant telling him that if we were to go through with these plans to move to Ethiopia then we would have to fire our lawyer, and he would have to trust me to try to complete citizenship on my own, without the expertise of a lawyer. It also meant that his current visa would be voided, and that we could not make a promise that he would ever return back with us to America – not for a visit and not to live. It was our hardest parenting conversation to date. We told him that if he was too scared to make this move, if it seemed too risky, that we would take some time to pray together about staying in America, because he was and is that important to our family.

It has been said that a child will lead them, and I will never forget what he said, “I trust you. God has asked us to go work with street kids. We cannot ignore that. We need to follow Jesus. I may never come back here, but I trust you and I trust God, and this is what He is asking us to do.If I never come back here, then it is God’s plan, but we have to move.” Up until he said this, I had been thinking that this was my Abraham and Isaac story, and that God was asking me for my son back. It felt like the worst kind of surrender. But after Habi spoke those words, I realized how much MORE of a risk this was for my child, and how much authentic, active faith he had in being able to risk everything for this move. It wasn’t about me at all. This story was about Habi.

Most people probably do not know the strength, courage and faith that it took for a fourteen year old boy to board a plane back to his home country. They may not have realized the risk he was taking to follow Jesus. When he hugged and kissed relatives in America ‘goodbye’ the possibility of that being his last time with them on American soil was all too real, and he knew that. And yet he braved it all, and in the process taught me so much about what faith really looks like. We landed in Ethiopia, and nothing was easy for him. Right away people questioned the legitimacy of him in our family. I don’t know if it was because he did not have American citizenship or because his adoption process was abnormal, or simply because satan is good at this kind of thing. Maybe all of the above. The one thing he had asked us for was constantly being picked at from so many angles – family. But he persevered and he continued to live bravely, and in the process the researching continued, paperwork was filled out, prayers were said, and the story finally culminated with his citizenship to the United States of America, nineteen months after that fateful meeting in the small conference room. None of it came easy. His lawyer was right, and Habi was dangerously close to being denied a visa. He should have been denied, but God placed a very special man in the embassy that day. The only man in the entire building that understood the process we were using for his citizenship. It took a legitimate miracle that day, and is a story all its own, as is the story of his actual oath day to become a citizen. Satan was hot on our heels every step of the way. But he didn’t and couldn’t win, because when God is for you, really, really, who can be against you?

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I have hesitated to share more of this story because it’s not really mine, but Habi told me to share, and he has shared himself a few times while public speaking recently. So, this is my take on his story, please understand that. It is shared tenderly with permission. This is the story of how a child led our family.

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Finding Home

It still fit. Well, kind of fit. The fit was like an old sock, that was familiar and worn, but stretched out and frayed thin in weird places. Or maybe like an old pair of jeans that did not quite slide up over the hips and button at the waist the easy way that they used to. That is a little how America felt on our latest trip. It was our first time back as a family since moving overseas to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2014. And it was all so familiar, but the fit, while still workable, was not quite the same. For months we had dreamed together of what it would be like to re-enter our passport country, so much nostalgia and memories – what we would do, who we would see, what we would eat, how much easier things would be. And it was what we had imagined. And it wasn’t. Something was missing. It didn’t quite feel like home, and I didn’t quite belong. I was out-of-step, and couldn’t quite figure out how to get the steps right again.

It’s a strange feeling to no longer belong to a place you have belonged to for the majority of your memories. I think it took this trip to realize that we really do have a new home. I think for a very long time we have been wandering and searching and waiting to find this very place. I enjoyed our time in the states and seeing loved ones was exactly what our souls needed, and I am thankful for the break from daily life in Ethiopia, but the truth is that my heart wasn’t at peace until we walked back into our house, and I knew that I had finally come HOME. Jim and I both remarked at how much this place felt just like that – home, and I think we breathed a collective sigh of peace and relief to be back in a place that fits us and this moment in our lives. Driving from the airport we were bombarded with the typical erratic vehicles mingled with cattle, colliding with people, and chaos – a chaos that somehow oddly made sense and overwhelmed me with a sense of belonging. This is home I realized, as our van was jostled over the pot-hole ridden roads and my eyes were heavy with sleepless travel.

When our van parked in front of our gate we were greeted with squeals of excitement and hugs and kisses. Walking through our iron gate, into our little compound, up our marble stairs and over the threshold of our home made me realize how right it is that I am exactly where I am right now. It fit. I belonged. It is where we are supposed to be. I walked from room to room, touching our beds, looking out our windows at the breathtaking view of the mountains, breathing in the scent of home, and thankful to be back.

Home, where the sun sets and rises at the exact same time everyday, Home, where going to the grocery store is a wild adventure. Where water is never guaranteed, and power is out as much as it is on. Home, where the language dances over me in that familiar unfamiliar way. Where the aroma of roasting coffee beans mingles with frankincense and spicy berbere. Where the music is loud and beaty, and the laughter is louder. Where we cannot brush our teeth with tap water. Where my cheeks are kissed, and touch is a language all its own. Where my house is wild and loud and filled with life – it is perfectly us. Home, where a soccer ball is dribbled inside on rainy days, and a bicycle speeds in and out of rooms, and both are so okay. Home is where memories and people matter more than the things I have accumulated. Where people are free to be who they are and to disagree and to argue and cry, and to forgive and wrap arms around each other. Home is where bread bakes, and coffee brews, and the fridge is small, and laundry takes an entire day to finish. Home, where intentionality is found in every little thing, because without it, one cannot carve out a life here. Where relationships matter more than any other place I have ever visited, and where there is always, always time for them to blossom. Where produce is soaked in bleach. Where every meal is made from scratch and takes effort and creativity. Where clothes hang all around our house to dry. Where afternoon rest and tea and conversation is expected, and meals are a real thing at the table three times every single day. Home is where family time is enormous, and we have truly learned to know each other. Home is where there are no short-cuts or easy way outs. Where life is slower and more basic and where life is also chaotic and always an adventure. Where no two days are exactly the same. Home is where I fall into bed every night knowing that this life I was given matters, and I have so much purpose here.

If home is where the heart is, than my heart is completely present right here. Maybe this is true for the first time ever. I have always wrestled with ‘living in the moment’, and not being present in the here and now. Or maybe this is what I have been waiting for for my whole life, and I am just finding home, in the most unexpected place, for the first time. Some say Africa is the cradle of humanity – where we all belong. Maybe that is it. Maybe not. But this continent, this country in this continent has given me a haven – a place where I really belong. This fits. This is home. And there’s really, truly, no place like home.

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Living my ‘best is yet to be’ while they wait for theirs

I am one of those super sentimental nostalgic moms. I tear up when I am separated from my children for an overnight. True story. My throat thickens with a lump when I watch them do something that I know they were born to do. When talk of college or one day moving out occurs among our kids, I immediately start ugly crying, just ask them as now it has become a running family joke, and they giggle about it. The truth is that I love, love, love this phase of life, and I want it to last a bit longer. I love motherhood. I love watching Jim being a dad. I love family life. I love us being all together as our little family of six. I do anything that I can to foster a lot of together-ness, and actually living in Ethiopia makes this a bit easier. Our family is not pulled in quite so many directions as we were when we lived in the states. The other day while reflecting on all of this, I realized that the best is yet to be phrase that we always talk about is actually what I am right now living. These family years, these have been what I have been waiting for, these are my very best. I am living smack-dab in the middle of the best, and I don’t want to miss a thing. I don’t want to be too busy or too tired or too stretched to miss a moment of this best.

But in the same thought, I was sucker-punched with the fact, that while we are carving out lifetimes memories and traditions, and are shaping the futures of these kids, this is most likely not their best, and that their ‘best is yet to be’ is still coming for them. In understanding that I also have to acknowledge the reality that I will not be in the daily part of their best, and that is really, really hard for me. These are my babies. This is all going so fast, and I love my four kids so stinkin’ much, and they are one day soon going to have their best days outside the walls of our family home. How do we only have three more years of our family of six being in tact before our oldest graduates high school and our family dynamic wildly shifts from the us that we have come to love? How is that even in sight already? It just hit me out of nowhere, and I was not prepared for the burning stab of truth. How did we get here? As these unsolicited thoughts spilled out of me, so did the tears. I am a deep feeler. So thoughts like this can be spiral me down into such deep sadness, which I am sure is foreign to some people, but it is my reality. This is not healthy and can be emotionally dangerous for me and put unfair expectations on my kids. Being under the same roof as my babies is a once-in-a-lifetime privilege, one that I want to steward well, and let go of well when it is time.

The truth is these days are numbered, and my children are all growing up, and that is a gift that some parents only wish could be their reality. Growing up and shedding childhood is a privilege that is not afforded to all. I need to understand this, even on the days when I feel like my best years are flying by and every day I am living something precious that I can never again get back.

When we bring children into our lives, I guess the truth is that we will encounter the greatest joy imaginable and tangled with it, the greatest heartache. It is life, in order to truly experience joy, we have to experience the flip-side of the coin. I am one of those moms who still picks up my almost eight year old boy every morning to give him his hug and worry will this be the last day that I am able to pick him up? I am conscious of moments. Maybe without the ticking of the clock, the passing of days, these moments would not be so precious. Maybe that is the juxtaposition of family life – of my best is yet to be, in the holding on, in the living of these family moments, is learning how to really be ready to let them go and live their own best is yet to be.

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