Naomi’s Village: Finding Lasting Joy in a Brown Paper Bag
This has been a stretch for our ministry, one we will not quickly forget, on either side of the ocean. Naomi’s Village has been passing through a period of upheaval and searching, alleviated at times by sustaining moments of delight, of childlike celebration, and peaks too high to linger in despair for long. Considering our ministry’s history, we should no longer be surprised when trials and happy moments go hand in hand. As the writer Donald Miller once succinctly put it, “Joy costs pain.” We’ve seen these two inseparable bedfellows vividly linked in Bible stories, theology, history, and our own experiences. Yet despite all of this, we still hope that God will prevent one of these two for our sake, perhaps especially because we have been answering His call on our lives, and so we keep making plans expecting not to suffer.
But God is unchanging and will not bend His immutable will to work from another script. He remains true to His nature as the God of Redemption, and not the God of Prevention. In fact, His very image is perfectly reflected in Jesus Christ, the one Redeemer of man. Our collective human sin wreaks havoc everywhere, in everything, and in terrible measure. Cracks even appear where we’d rather not face them- right in front of us and on the best of days. Simply put, we are the source of our own suffering, as a human race that separated itself from God through Adam, and now as individuals that daily shake our group-sized fist at Him and His original intent for the world He created.
God could have left us that way, hopeless and adrift, unable to reattach to His pure and holy love, to understand His comfort in the midst of a painfully uncertain world, and to know what it is to be clean again. But He did not. He gave His only son as a ransom for us, to die on the cross for our sins. A close study of the whole of the Scriptures, Genesis to Revelation, convinces us that He intended to redeem mankind through the death and resurrection of Jesus from the beginning. Jesus was never God’s plan B. An early prophetic reference to Christ, including a succinct summary of His redemptive purpose, can be found in the opening pages of the Bible (Gen 3:15).
Simply put, we live in a fallen world, victims of our own pervasive sin. Jesus came to redeem us, to restore us to the Father, and to show us how to truly live, as ambassadors in the midst of brokenness.
This takes me back to where I started, to the beginning of this story. NV has recently gone through a rough patch of conflicts on both sides of the ocean. A few friends have moved on, leaving us searching for answers about ourselves and about God’s will. Some of our plans have not turned out the way our team had hoped they would. The greed of unscrupulous men in Kenya has cost us additional money and time in constructing our rural school for needy children. Yet none of these momentary trials have thwarted the plans of God, nor the resolve of our team to carry out the vision that He has given us to empower needy children to grow up to influence Kenya one day. Sure, we stagger at times, and some on our team may falter along the way, but we push forward in our calling. We do this not because of duty, but joyfully, as the outward expression of our inward conversion, one that supplies perseverance in suffering as one proof of His Spirit at work in us.
Just a few months ago, Evalyne, our oldest NV female student, got accepted into prestigious Riara Springs Girls Academy in Nairobi, 5 years after coming to NV as a child with little hope of succeeding in life. This week, our 30,000 sq. ft. school for K-8 children will be completed after 14 months of labor. Cornerstone Preparatory Academy now stands firmly anchored into what was once barren ground, a beautiful affront to hopelessness in a sea of generational poverty. Things will be different over the coming decades. We know it, our teachers and staff know it, and the community and students are just starting to believe it is possible to hope for better. These are only a few of the recent victories we have celebrated. But one event in particular captured perfectly the tension between beauty and suffering, that bittersweet mix of joy and pain that is life itself.
Four weeks ago, an elderly Kenyan man heard the weak cries of a baby as he walked by a trash site near Oserian Flower Farms, a large commercial flower grower and exporter in the South Lake region of Naivasha, Kenya. On further investigation, he discovered a baby girl in a brown paper bag, lying in the middle of all the unwanted garbage. Her umbilical cord remnant dated her at just one week old, and she was struggling to breathe, having contracted pneumonia.
We never met this aging Good Samaritan, who took the infant to a children’s officer right away. His prompt assistance helped to get her hospitalized and saved her life. She landed in the neonatal ward at Naivasha General Hospital for treatment, where her medical chart and wristband simply listed her as Baby Unnamed. Ten days passed while she received IV antibiotics. Her lungs cleared, yet no one came to claim her, to give her a name, or to assign any worth to her life.
Meanwhile, Julie’s morale had reached a critical low point because of the hardships mentioned above, and she had been asking God for a boost, some small encouragement to show He was with her. On a Monday afternoon in early March, Flo burst into our office and told Julie and me that she had gotten a call about an abandoned baby girl. Along with our nurse Anne, administrator Oscar, and American interns Hannah and Allison, we jumped into our vehicle and headed to Naivasha. In the few minutes of preparation, we decided to christen the baby after both Anne and school principal Mary, which led to the combination Annemarie, a name the whole group loved. Flo hastily grabbed some baby clothes from the storeroom and put them in a plastic bag to carry along.
We arrived at Naivasha General Hospital to find a beautiful baby girl, healthy and of good birth weight, one of 48 others in the nursery. She lay in a small bassinet, the one marked Unnamed. Into the bag Flo’s hand went, eager to dress her in new clothes, to show her some kind of love, to adorn her. Out came a pink outfit with hearts on it, the very one that intern Hannah had brought in her suitcase to Kenya 9 weeks before, hoping to see a new baby girl wear it. Hannah was scheduled to fly out that very evening from Kenya, back to her family in Arkansas. The next item out of the bag was a gently used onesie monogrammed with the name of another baby that once graced the NV baby room, Hannah. God had begun to speak to us in a personal way, confirming His part in this divine encounter. Before leaving that baby room, Annemarie was given her middle name by Flo, who suggested Neema (pronounced Name-uh), which means “grace” in Swahili.
The ladies scooped Annemarie up, took turns kissing her and mothering her, then getting photos with her as if she were their firstborn. Next were the men, who forgot to be manly for a moment or two, spoke in high-pitched voices, and tried to imagine who could consign such a princess like this to a trash heap. We left and went to a store for diapers and other baby supplies, ate ice cream, and laughed like kids at the fun we were having living such a life.
Then driving home, we were passing Cornerstone’s gorgeous stone edifice near Mt. Longonot when Allison finally spoke up, telling the group that her middle name was Marie! Next Hannah chimed in, revealing that her middle name was Grace. Bolstered by these further confirmations, and unable to trick Bonface by phone into believing we had stopped for pizza before bringing our new baby to NV, we now made a final dash to get the tiny princess home.
Our Land Cruiser barely made it in the gate before being mobbed by joyful competitors, a heartfelt bunch bent on being first to hold her aloft, to sing and dance with her, to say welcome home for good. It took a long while for her to cross the short 75 meters of grass between that driveway and our dining hall, but it was a passage to remember. I would describe it as much like being honored with a jubilant wedding procession mixed with taking a bath in pure love for Annemarie. No trash bag will ever hold her body again, and I expect she received that message loud and clear in her baby heart language.
As the din subsided and the cake was waiting to be cut, we told her story, in light of that same gospel, to all 65 nodding kids, who really get it now. And then God gave us one final word of confirmation, as Dale Meyer asked to share with the crowd. Dale, his wife Rachel, and 4 children had arrived in Kenya right about the time this baby had been born, praying that God would confirm their calling to come. And now He had, with unmistakable clarity. One of their daughters, who we had come to know as simply Annie, had been given the name Anne Marie Meyer at birth years before. Adults in the room were a mix of puzzled smiles and tears, hearing this series of incredible name stories until that point. But I think most of us needed to hear Dale’s story a second time to really believe that it was true, to relish it one more time before the moment passed.
So the next time you are tempted to despair during a period when your hope is almost all gone, remember that God loves to comfort us in mysterious ways. His tendency is to surprise us just when we need it most, to remind us that He is near, wanting to lead us through. Although he has not promised to prevent our storms, He can surely strengthen us to forge ahead in any tempest, and will see us to that safest of harbors in the end.
I’ll leave you with the meaning of Annemarie. It means “bitter grace”. If that is not a perfect ending to this story, then I don’t have a better one. Stop and reflect on that yourself, in light of all that I’ve said. For Annemarie to end up in baby heaven at NV, and in a place where all of her needs will be met, she had to be abandoned. That joy she will experience cost her some pain – the absence of her birth mother. This tension must be taken at face value, in her life and our own. So try to accept the bitter taste when it comes, and enjoy all of the grace God gives you. It won’t always be easy to do both, but with our eyes on the Redeemer, we can learn to live life with our hearts wide open. And perhaps we will also be less afraid to face the hard days that await us, and more certain that He will not leave us in the middle of it all.
By Bob Mendonsa