At 12:25pm Eastern Time on Friday, June 17 in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, Cindi and I sat together on the bottom stairs of our two-story home, glancing at our pile of luggage in the hallway and looking knowingly at each other as we awaited our 12:30 ride to Standiford Field in Louisville. The time had come.
A few minutes later, our friend Lawrence Smith arrived and we began piling our bags into the trunk of his SUV. As we backed out of the driveway and passed our own property on the left, we glanced back at our home with that long-trip departure feeling: “If we’ve forgotten anything, there’s no use worrying about it now.” We were off.
At the United ticket counter, we laughed a nervous laugh with the ticket agent who was struggling to find the country code for Rwanda. For the next 48 hours Cindi was wondering not if a bag would be lost, but which one. We had lost a key piece of luggage on our first adoption trip to Uganda four years earlier, so expecting the unexpected was expected.
Late Friday afternoon we arrived in D.C. for our 20-hour layover, in return for which we were receiving a free night at the Embassy Suites near Dulles. Though it delayed our arrival in Kigali by a day, we were delighted to have a 20-hour date after the marathon sprint of the last few weeks as we prepared for doubling our family as well as missing three summer weeks of strategic Student Life preparations. When we arrived at Embassy Suites and were informed that our reserved room had a water leak and so we were being moved to a different hotel nearby, we could only respond with an upward look and a knowing laugh: even in the States, the unpredictable journey had begun. Time to lean on the only true Predictor.
After an Indian dinner and an in-room movie, we enjoyed a healthy night’s sleep before waking on Saturday and boarding Ethiopian Airlines to continue our five-city flight pattern: Louisville > Washington D.C. > Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) > Entebbe (Uganda) > Kigali (Rwanda). A beautiful and stout African mother held her painfully precious 15-month daughter across the aisle from me for the 12-hour flight to Addis, spilling layers of picturesque reminders into our weary but expectant hearts. Along the way we talked, slept (but not Cindi), worked, read, and watched.
A half-day later we arrived in Addis Ababa and spent our layover commenting about how tired we were and discussing the young white girls with the short shorts who were becoming the focus of more than a few of the Africans in the gate area (men and women). We decided it wasn’t best for Cindi to help them out by offering a gracious comment about cultural distinctions and fashion choices—they were with a large group whose leaders should’ve prepared them better, and the embarrassment that attends blatant cultural ignorance would be payment enough. At the same time, we talked about the eyes of men and the glances that betray our male thoughts. It is not the most pure lesson about purity, but it is a lesson nonetheless: Women know what you’re looking at. A crude reason to consider where your eyes shift.
On our final flight, now heading back west from Addis to Kigali, we watched the in-flight map as we passed directly over Jinja in Uganda, Judah’s hometown for the first 19 months of his life. We even skipped through Entebbe near Kampala on a brief stop, for which I am grateful. It is an honor and a happy memory anytime I can touch the country of Uganda.
Then, after these last 3½ hours, we finally touched down at Kigali International Airport, the capital city nestled into a few dozen of the thousands of hills that make up the beautiful land of Rwanda. It was Sunday afternoon—Father’s Day.
After deplaning and getting visas, we made our way to the baggage claim where we learned that Cindi’s earlier pessimism had been well-founded: the big blue duffel bag with everything for the children had been misdirected. We filled out the appropriate paperwork and headed outside, minus one bag, to meet our Power of Attorney and our Rwandan driver. Then for the first time, we began to drive the streets of the city that will be forever intertwined with our hearts and our heritage.
We made our way over to Freedom Hotel, a blessed find due to its inexpensive price and its gracious management. They asked me to sign their guestbook, where I learned that we are their first ever customers. Construction was completed only one month prior, and because of our celebratory arrival, we’ve found ourselves being treated not only with traditional African hospitality but with all the gusto that attends inaugural guests.
But we could not stay long. We were ready for the last leg of our journey, as well as the first: the orphanage. The twelve-kilometer drive to Home of Hope was full of anticipation, yet felt almost entirely normal. After multiple trips to Africa, more than 47 months of our lives spent in adoption processing, and the experiential knowledge that even this momentous event was entirely unpredictable with three somewhat older children, we simply wanted to meet and touch and talk and love them. Going from one to four kids has a way of making the summits and the valleys even out, because we know that we must be in this for the happy long haul, not just the mountaintop experience.
This moment would be special, yet it was also just the start. We have learned (and continue to learn) that in planning for much-anticipated moments such as these, it is unwise to feel either affirmed or condemned due to the presence or absence of “expected” feelings. You pray that you might feel what seems best to feel, but you cannot gauge the rightness of the moment on the degree to which your feelings meet your expectations, not to mention how your feelings match up with the well-intentioned assumptions of friends. The pages of our Bible, the realities of our redemption, and the need of the orphan must dictate our choices. Our affections—these are vital. Our feelings, not nearly so much.
Our Power of Attorney held our camera as we got out of the LandCruiser and made our way over to the long steps that run down the wall of the orphanage compound and into the area where the kids live and play. We waited at the top as two white-clad, head-covered nuns began slowly leading our three children up the stairs to their new parents. Like proposing to your wife, you only get one chance to meet your new children, and though there are some things you can plan, there’s no way to rehearse the moment. Like so many other moments in life, it’s best just to live—to walk by the Spirit, to be your best in-Christ self, and then to live.
Our Rwandan-named Noella (4), Nathanael (4), and Sophie (3) arrived at the top of the stairs, with little Sophie being carried by one of the nuns. Crouching down, we greeted them with little hand-shakes and pulled them close for big hugs. They stood, looked at us curiously, and took our hands, seemingly trying to take in the situation with a minimal focus that should be expected from someone who’s only lived 48 months on the planet and is being asked to process the unthinkable. Yet even though their young minds and hearts had no way to instantly produce the reciprocated expressions of affection that we know will come in time, we know by doctrine and by experience that the floodgates of adoption were opened at the top of those stairs, and that on Sunday, June 19, the spirit of sonship and daughterhood began seeping into their hearts. It is already beginning to drip out in “Mama” and “Papa” and held hands and new smiles. Soon enough it will overflow in heart-deep cries of “Daddy” and “Mama,” in a full trust in our care and protection, and in that indescribable bond between parent and child. We believe this and we know this, and so come what may, we are excited to pursue their hearts and to soak up every step of the process.
Yesterday, you could’ve shared their photographs in front of your church and opined about the plight of East Africa’s orphans. Tomorrow, you cannot and you should not. Because they are no longer orphans. They are my children. These three no longer need our missionary compassion, because they have our parental care. But only because all along, from orphan to adopted, the compassion of a heavenly Father has rested upon them with an inescapable gentleness—as it has with us.
The earthshaking distinction between the yesterday of fatherlessness and the tomorrow of sonship, and the beautiful compassion of God which transcends both and oils the hinges between them, are what make this past Sunday so remarkable. Father’s Day 2011 will always be a special day. Our family is now half-Rwandan, for which we rejoice and give glory to God.
In the next day or two, I hope to share more about the actual adoption process throughout our last few days here. They have been full and meaningful. But I cannot help but share the details of our journey in the form of a story, because a story it is, and a story it will always be. A great story, and part of a story that is greater still.