This morning in Uganda was mercifully cloudy, the kind that makes the locals don their heavy down jackets and the visitors put sweaters in the cars just in case. I was busy. It was day 5 of a 10 day trip, and only yesterday had my suitcase, full to the brim with letters and gifts (and my clothing), arrived. We had distributed most of the letters the day before. Over 70 children and parents had crowded into one small classroom while myself and three staff members handed out all the postcards, binder-paper letters, and typed novels complete with pictures that sponsors had sent. As Richard read out names, teacher Emily marked a printed spreadsheet, and teacher Mercy handed out the letters. I stood in a corner by the blackboard receiving a steady stream of students for their photo for over 2 hours.
However, there was one student conspicuously absent from the crowd that day. Winnie wasn’t there. I couldn’t decide whether I was relieved or sad. I wanted to see the girl I sponsor, but in such a busy environment I wouldn’t be able to do much more than say hello. My heart longed for a connection with her, and whether from sincere love or from obligation I had yet to discern. “Maybe she will show up tomorrow,” I thought “Yes. That would be best. I have too much to give my attention to today.”
So this morning. I’m standing in the office, tallying the letters that had not yet been distributed. One by one, children and their caretakers start to arrive. I’m taking pictures, handing out letters, and checking the spreadsheet all at once in this tiny office. Then Winnie walks around the corner and through the door. I look up: she’s come with her father. Immediately, I get very self-conscious.
I had last seen her father seven months before, after signing up to sponsor Winnie. Winnie was shy, not the type to run up to you instantly, but I figured she just needed time to get used to me since I’m older and different looking. It was her family I was nervous about. Winnie lives with her dad, an uncommon situation. At least with another woman, perhaps a single mom, I could be on a more equal footing. But with Winnie’s dad, I honestly didn’t know what to say. Here I was, an unmarried young woman, second only to children on the bottom of the social ladder, yet in the position of benefactor to his child. How was he supposed to treat me? How was I supposed to treat him? Seven months ago, through an interpreter, we had talked about what he did for a living (drive someone else’s motorcycle as a taxi), and how he came to care for Winnie (sounded like he had a few past relationships), and how she was liking school (fine). At that time, Winnie didn’t say much. In this culture, adults do the talking and children are supposed to be silent while they do. I had recently been mistaken for a high school student, so I already barely cleared the bar for “adult.” For that hour, I wished I could somehow quietly shrink down into Winnie’s world with her and let the real adults do the talking.
On this cloudy morning when Winnie and her dad walked into the office, despite my self-consciousness, I knelt down to hug her and gave her the letter I had written to her. I lowered myself to Winnie’s level as much as I could in that small space already packed with students. Her eyes were brighter than last time. She was still reserved, but more coy, less shy. Ok, this was good. Then I looked up at her dad. At once I felt out of place. Not fully in Winnie’s world, not fully in his. I greeted him, he greeted me, we exchanged a few words, and then I had to attend to another student who had just walked in. It was only afterward that I realized how much improved his English was.
With the arrival of the new student, it was time to leave the cramped office for a classroom. The pairs of guardians and children found desks, and they began to read the letters from America and write back. Winnie and her father sat in the back. Once everyone was settled, I cautiously wandered over and sat down.
The room was quiet. It was the kind of slow, unhurried, patient quiet that is the loudest in Africa. I heard the soft sounds of parent’s voices and the scratching of pencils. And right there in front of me, with her dad’s help, Winnie started writing a letter back to me. Her dad traced out a horse for her. I commented that he was quite talented at drawing. As Winnie filled in the lines, her father and I talked about what subjects he had studied in school. He hadn’t finished, but his real trade was plumbing. In a society where people live in huts and get their water from streams, there’s not a big market for plumbers, so he struggled to find work. As we talked, his eyes were downcast, and he spoke slowly. This was really meaningful to him. He didn’t want to work driving someone else’s motorcycle for hire– the pay was next to nothing. I thought there was something different about him this time. Last time, he had seemed almost stand-offish, but this time he showed up to school with his daughter, and that was something. Maybe he was changing and growing. Just like Winnie. Just like me.
I had to get up to greet another student who had just arrived, and when I returned, Winnie had progressed to the writing part. I quietly sat down and started looking through the photos on my camera so as not to get in the way. Her father read the letter that I had written to her, and he started asking what she wanted to say back so he could help her write it. I was looking at pictures from the day before when I heard the quietest little voice dictate, “I love you, Elsie.” I stopped.
Had I really just heard that?
Oh, Lord. I do not deserve that. I’m awkward, I’m nervous around grown-ups, and sometimes I forget to write to Winnie. I don’t know how to talk to her dad. I hadn’t come with any gifts because I didn’t have the time. She had said barely a sentence to me before this. And yet those four words rang in my head. “I love you, Elsie.”
I did not deserve it. I still don’t.
I think God’s in the business of giving us things we don’t deserve.
I looked at her and her father, hunched together over a piece of paper, and I started praying. In the moment of realizing how inadequate I was, I needed to talk to the One who is totally sufficient. This family has nothing. Winnie has no mom, her dad has no wife. Winnie has no toys, her father has no work. But somehow, through God’s goodness, He connected Winnie to Solid Rock Christian School, and then to me. Now she’s here, and I’m here, and in a strange and imperfect and awkward way, we love each other. I want to give her everything she wants, and if I feel that way, how much more does her heavenly Father? He’s in the process of doing that, and maybe He’s using me to do so.
I realized too, how much more does God want to give me everything I want? My heart longs for authentic connection and sincere understanding, with both Winnie and her father. Perhaps there was a reason they had shown up on the second day, not the first. Perhaps there was a reason her father’s English had improved. Perhaps there was a reason that I had to come back a second time because patient is the first thing love is, and we can’t expect instant connections with everyone. Perhaps God is so much better than I think.
As they wrapped up writing a letter to the young woman right in front of them, Winnie and her father were the last ones in the room. I asked if we might pray together, and we did. Winnie sat on my lap, and it was one of those beautiful moments when the right words just come without much forethought. We prayed for Solid Rock to remain blessed. We prayed for her father, that he might find work as a plumber, and we prayed for Winnie, that she may thrive and flourish. Then we went out to the courtyard. While Richard and Winnie’s father talked, I gave her a long and entertainingly bumpy piggy-back ride. Where words don’t work, piggy-back rides do. She tried on my sunglasses and we took a photo together, which I printed out for her later. When her dad came up to take her home, I was surprised to find that I didn’t want them to leave. I had been nervous when they had first appeared, but now Winnie’s genuine smile had overcome my nervousness. We said goodbye, and I watched them walk out the gate. I stood there long after they had left.
God is taking care of Winnie. He has used and is using me as a small but significant part. Perhaps I had this image of sponsorship as this instant-best-friend across the world kind of deal. I associated it with the right “feelings.” God’s love was too fierce for Winnie to wait until I felt a certain way. Jesus sure didn’t feel like going to the cross for me, but he did anyway. His love for all these kids is too strong to wait for anyone to feel like a perfectly magnanimous benefactor. He’s not looking for that. If there’s anything that sponsoring Winnie has taught me, it’s that if I wait until I feel like doing something good, I’m never going to do it. Take action. See what happens. He could use you to help these kids thrive.