Monday, August 13, 2012

Saying Yes

It’s been quite a summer. A summer in which we finally found our house and got all the paperwork together for NGO status and met a bunch of super cool people and grew as a program. A summer with a lot of hard and a lot of anger and a lot of fear. These last three months have not been an easy road to walk but they were necessary for me to really and truly be able to say yes to this life. To say yes with certainty and with a little less naivety then before.

I’m finally ready to say yes.

I’m saying yes to hard. And maybe I have no idea what I’m getting myself into. I knew I was saying yes to bug bites and the power going off and weird illnesses and babies dying and people in desperate situations. But I didn’t know I was saying yes to people not liking me and drama I thought I left behind in middle school and slander and malice and pride and wondering every day whether I am responding in a godly way or joining the mess. Wondering where the line is between gossip and speaking truth and how I know when I’ve crossed it.

And I’m left terrified because I honestly don’t know if I have it in me. Because the more time I spend here the more I realize how much I don’t know.

I’m saying yes to uncertainty. I’m saying yes to I don’t know. I’m saying yes to saying goodbye to my family and my friends and my comfortable life. I’m saying yes to unplanned futures and service and feeling unqualified every single day. Maybe I’m saying yes to failure…. And hard that is too hard.

But I’m saying yes. To a wild journey with God because I want to see Him work miracles and I want to see families stay with their children.

So here’s to a wild year. A year where I believe we will raise $115,000 and finish school and pack our things and say our goodbyes and move to Uganda.

A crazy filled year.

Bring it on. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


When I first landed in this country I believed in miracles. I had read enough books and blog posts and sat through enough inspirational church services with the missionary from Africa telling their incredible stories. I thought miracles happened every day here.

But the thing with books and blog posts and sermons is that nobody likes to hear about the time the baby actually died or the father who is still an alcoholic or the mother who never got saved. We only share the success stories.

Last fall three children who I had known and worked with died within a six week period. It got to the point where I was afraid to even check facebook each morning because I was terrified another one was gone. I prayed and prayed and still children died.

When Ajuma died I said to someone that I just wanted a miracle… one of the miracles I was always reading about and hearing about. Why was it that when they prayed kids lived? And when I did they all still died.
And they reminded me what exactly a miracle is. It’s uncommon. It doesn’t happen every day. This is Africa. The healthcare is awful, these kids were incredibly sick, all the odds were against them. We always pray for a miracle but if we got one each time then they would cease to be miracles.

If miracles stopped being miracles would God get the same amount of glory? These children were meant to be with Jesus and we can rest in the assurance that it is all within His will and that they are with their savior.

So a few weeks ago I met a baby in the village who was malnourished and sick. I took her and her grandmother back to Jinja with me and had her checked out at the local hospital. They prescribed medications and special high calorie food. I was not confident that her grandmother would be able to keep up with the medication and diet so I tried to get her to stay in Jinja for a week or two. She had another grandbaby at home under her care so she said no and went home with the medications and food.

A month later I went back to visit her with nothing but negative thoughts filling my head. I was more than ready to find a sick malnourished baby and a grandmother looking for an easy fix I couldn’t provide. I was terrified that I was going to have to just let this case go. I was leaving in three weeks and without the grandmother’s willingness to come to Jinja I didn’t know what else to do.

I was prepared for the worst as we walked up to her home but instead I found a miracle. I found a beautiful little girl with meat on her bones and a smile on her face. Her grandmother proudly showed us how she could now stand all by herself and thanked us enthusiastically for our help.

The thing was though that it wasn’t us. This baby girl in front of me was one of those miracles I had been praying and asking for. This was the answer to my plea to God to show me that He was indeed working here and that he did see these children.

“Miracles are retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see”
-          C.S. Lewis

She had God’s fingerprints all over her. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What I've Been up to Lately

So we went to a home visit in the village one day and came home with kittens. We were in love with them for about 10 minutes... and then we hated them. They lasted about two weeks until we found another home for them. Lesson learned... impulse buying should not include animals. 

I turned 21... in a total G- rated fashion... promise...

We've been going rouge lately... actually I don't really know what that word means... but we've been sneaky...or maybe we haven't... can't really tell you, can I?

 We had our first livestock purchasing experience. So much fun! We bought a beautiful cow for one of the moms in our sponsorship program whose husband recently left her with 11 children to support. Talk about super woman!

So one day I was casually waking up in the living room when I was informed that a snake was attempting to enter our home. When my screams for our guard failed to bring someone Kelsey came to our rescue. While I screamed on top of the table Kelsey SAWED the head off of a black mamba. I am surrounded by super women. 

I've been spending LOTS of time in hospitals lately... not really my favorite but one of the many ways God decides to work through my weaknesses. Slowly getting over my deep fear of needles and blood. Slowly.

We went to the most beautiful place on earth. Seriously. Spent a weekend at Sipi Falls lodge where we went on a five hour hike which included views like this. Showered under a waterfall, made our own coffee, soaked it all up. Already want to go back so bad. 

In other news...

- We are [cross your fingers] signing a contract for our house next week!
- We have been having a rough time with a few hard things on our plate... would love your prayers.
- Countdown begins... I tell myself it's only a month until I see my gorgeous siblings NOT a month until I have to leave :(

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Perfect in Weakness

I used to hold babies all day and stay up with sick children and feel useful and needed. Now I’m filling out paperwork and running errands and sitting in meetings repeating the same thing over and over again. I used to want to live in this country more than anything in the world but now that the big move is a mere 12 months away I’m not sure how I feel.

I kind of love my comfortable life in America. I kind of love the kids I get to babysit. And I love my family with a fierceness I didn’t know until I faced leaving them for good. And I like my jobs. And I like my friends. And I think I could be happy in the United States.

And some days I let myself daydream what my life could be like if I just stayed there. Seeing my siblings grow up- getting to attend soccer games and school graduations and birthday parties. And babysitting awesome kids and working as a teacher in a classroom that I’m comfortable with- free of all the cultural barriers I know I’m going to have to face here. And I could apply to be a temporary foster parent and maybe get my Masters degree. I could do anything I wanted and the future seems endless.

But instead i’m on this path that could most certainly end in massive failure. I have a budget that is screaming for $115,000 to be raised. I’m involved in a program model that has never been attempted before… and before that used to be exciting… and now all I think about is the fact that that means we may be heading straight for disaster.

And maybe I don’t want to be on a path that might be heading for disaster… maybe I don’t want to trust God with just about every aspect of my life… maybe all those Christian things I’ve repeated before in perfect cliché fashion aren’t so easy when you realize you actually have to live them.

I’ve said before that the hard is good… because the hard brings Christ’s beauty and personal growth and closeness to God. But even though God has been faithful time and time again to prove that, the truth is that my humanity still seems to doubt it.

Because I am blessed… or maybe not?... with a life in America that offers comfort and security. And maybe giving that up is not as easy as I thought.

$115,000. I cannot even wrap my head around that kind of money. Cannot even begin to form a plan within the realm of possibility that ends with us having that money by next June. For the first time I have to face the terrifying truth that Abide will only happen if God performs a miracle… and I thought I believed in miracles… but when it holds my future in its hands I realize that I doubt.

The world is filling my head, demanding ownership over ever empty space- you are way too young, you thought enough people would care?, you’re not Ugandan, you don’t know what you’re doing- But when I open myself up to God he pushes all those things aside and I can see a small seed of hope growing in unqualified soil.


My faith might be smaller than a mustard seed… But His grace is made perfect in weakness.

And maybe, just maybe, he will move mountains to prove it. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What I've Been Up To

House hunters Uganda version. We (maybe) found a house for Abide! 

Once upon a time we lived in a dull and tasteless world. Then we discovered Pinterest. Pad thai in our Ugandan kitchen????

Paper work is so much fun (not)! Did our budget yesterday.... yikes! Definitely going to be a real lesson in trusting God for all that money. (you can donate to Abide here)

Home visits to this precious girl are always a joy. Just look at that smile!!!! Someone sure is happy to be HOME!

Love seeing re-settled kids that refuse to let go of their grandpa's legs when we try to greet them!

Meetings. Lots of Meetings. And then some more meetings. Getting to know some awesome people doing incredible work though!

Some light reading for our pool days (that so far has not happened ONCE... Ugandan weather has it in for us)

Missing this baby girl and all the other kiddos back home :( Why does she have to be so cute????

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Easy to Ignore

David Platt wrote “Orphans are easier to ignore before you know their names.  They are easier to ignore before you see their faces.  It is easier to pretend they’re not real before you hold them in your arms.  But once you do, everything changes.

It’s true. Once you know an orphan’s name, see their faces, and hold them in your arms it’s easy to fall in love. To passionately fight for their rights to a family. It becomes even easier because “orphan care” is so in right now. You can buy a trendy t-shirt and donate to someone’s adoption and write a fancy blog decorated with cute baby pictures. You can move to Africa and open an orphanage. Fill your home with cute and cuddly kids and fulfill your dream of being a mother, all while claiming you are simply fulfilling God’s call to care for the orphans.

When we hear about a baby being abandoned in a sugar cane field we grieve.

When we learn about conditions at an orphanage we get angry.

When we hear about an adoption we rejoice.

But what about the families? Where are our tears of grief, our angry rants, and our joy for them?

When we hear about a family putting their child in an orphanage because no one offered them any other option we should grieve.

When we learn about children being taken from parents to be trafficked for international adoption we should get angry.

When we hear about a parent and child being reunited we should rejoice.

But instead people are flocking to this country, stealing children away from families, lying on paperwork, bribing officials, and trafficking kids out of this country. And the sickest part of it all is that they justify it all by saying they are obeying God’s command to care for the orphan.

Are we as the church partially to blame for this? When we responded to God’s command to care for the orphan did we focus too heavily on the adoption aspect? Has adoption become too cool and driven people to adopt for the wrong reasons? Have we neglected the widows God also commanded us to care for? Have we simply thrown ethics out the window in our attempt to adopt all those poor African babies?

My time in Uganda this summer has made me angry at my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Hearing horrific stories of birth mothers being lied to, children being stolen, and mothers signing their rights over because no one offered them any other options. And then meeting awesome adoptive parents who are adopting children who truly need it and are doing everything ethically and legally. Seeing how their adoptions are taking three times as long because they refuse to bribe and lie and how they are stuck achingly waiting for their children because of all the others who are not following the laws. It makes me so angry.

So tonight I’m going to grieve, and get angry, and rejoice for the orphans AND the families that are in this mess.

I am going to continue speaking out against the people trafficking children and speak up for the families involved. And I’m going to stand in awe of the patient families doing it the legal and ethical way, no matter how difficult that makes their adoptions. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Blog Block

I have blog block. Like writers block but I can write plenty, it’s the blogging that makes it hard. The more I understand this blogging world, this country, and the more I grow and learn the harder it is to sit down and write a blog post.

Because I want to write truth. I want people to enjoy the beauty I see and get mad at the injustice here.

But I don’t want to write stories that are not mine to tell
I don’t want to exploit the pain and suffering here.

I don’t want you to read a story and respond only in pity. I want to write well enough to communicate the beauty and joy hidden in the sorrow.

How do I share these experiences in a way that honors these people? In a way that does not take ownership over children and situations that are not mine?

And then there is the ugly. Children being trafficked for international adoption, “orphanages” collecting children with families to make money off of them, and families being ripped apart in the name of “orphan care”.

How do you speak into these situations in a way that does not offend so much that people refuse to listen?

Be patient with me as I try and find the answer these questions. As I pray and try to find creative ways to share that honors these people and communicated beauty. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In the Middle of His Story

Our Church recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and instead of a sermon my father shared the story of what the church has meant to our family.

In 1994 my parents walked into Christ Our Shepherd Church. My mother was battling cancer, my brother and I were in preschool, and they had just moved to the area to be closer to family and better medical care. They didn’t have time to look around at various churches so they just picked COSC and decided to go with it.

Over the next few years this church walked with my dad as he lost his wife, raised two children on his own, welcomed a new mom to our family, and added three more beautiful kids. My dad went from bookkeeping so he’d be finished in time to get us from the bus to now being the pastor.

It’s been an incredible journey that brought our entire family through dark places to times of rejoicing and I can honestly say none of us would be the people we are today if it were not for the love and support of our church. A church my parents walked into one random Sunday became the backbone that sustained us through the years that were to come.

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in life that we forget who is writing our story.

This story serves as a constant reminder to me that God is writing our story.

I am reminded time and time again when I go on home visits and see kids I thought had little or no future happy and healthy with their families. When I think of the person I was two years ago before landing in this country and the person I am now.

When I lay awake at night worrying about children’s cases that seem hopeless to me I have to remember that God is writing their story too. When Kelsey and I worry about fundraising for Abide and the perfect future we’ve envisioned in our heads coming to a crashing end.

He is writing our stories.

It has becoming the resounding promise playing in my head, offering hope when I step into these dark places.

That woman left with eleven children to care for… He’s writing her story. That child in and out of orphanages… He’s writing his story. That beautiful little girl laughing in her grandma’s arms… He’s writing her story. The child whose future has more questions than answers… He’s writing her story.

And He only writes beautiful stories. Beautiful stories that bring Him glory.

What joy it is to be in the middle of His story.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

If you haven't already you have to check out our brand new website!

And as you're checking it out in all its awesomeness you'll notice we have a blog on the website (cool huh?) so from here on out all blog posts that are specifically ministry focused will be on there. We'll post links to these blog posts on our Abide facebook and twitter page. 

So this blog is back to being my personal blog where i'll post all my ramblings as I process this crazy life I get to live. Kelsey is thinking about getting a personal blog as well and if she does I will definitely link to it.

If you want to get notifications when this blog is updated you can subscribe. If you're not tech savy enough to figure that all out (like me) you can shoot me an email ( and i'll send you a notice in your inbox every time I update the blog. 

T-minus five days until i'm back in Uganda!

Friday, April 20, 2012

An Open Letter to Kony2012 Participants

Dear Invisible Children supporter,

I hope you will hear us out.  I want to start off by saying that we are not blindly criticizing your efforts and we know that you love and care about the Ugandan people just like we do.  The human connection can be a wonderful thing, but only if we are willing to listen- and I mean really listen.  In fact, that’s why we are writing to you, we hope that it is because you care so much, you would be willing to think through some of this and thoughtfully reconsider plastering the face and name of a vicious warlord throughout our city.

I’m sorry you’ve had to spend so much time defending criticisms that just aren’t true- We know that you are aware that the conflict moved out of Uganda in 2006 and that Kony has moved into Central Africa.  We know that you understand that this conflict is complex.  We know that you favor a peaceful resolution over the use of military- we know that you see this as an option of last resort.  We know that Invisible Children does work on the ground- we are familiar with the Schools for Schools program, the LRA Crisis Tracker, etc.  So if you’re still with us, that is not what we will be addressing in this letter.

We believe that you mean well, and truly want to see Joseph Kony brought to justice and the LRA disarmed.  We believe that this event is full of young people who desire peace and restoration in a region that has experienced the terror of this rebel group for more than 26 years.  But maybe our place is partnering, not paving the way- If we are going to help, listening is critical, and abandoning our entitlement to solving Africa's problems and telling Africa's story is key.

The central and most important issue with the approach to Kony 2012 and Cover the Night- How the people the film is about feel.  If you think otherwise, you should probably reconsider your advocacy for this issue all together. No seriously.

The reactions to screenings of the film in Northern Uganda were extremely negative for the most part.  Many Ugandans are deeply troubled by the campaign- among many strong emotions and reactions; a common theme seems to be that Ugandans feel exploited by Kony 2012. Exploited?  Man, when we tell someone else’s story, if they feel exploited we should probably reconsider the way we are telling it.

Our stand against Cover the Night, therefore, is not in light of our own personal opinions or qualms with Invisible Children- It is in honor of Ugandan friends, who are more like family.  Because we feel it is most important that their voices are heard.  While we may feel so deeply connected to the pain and suffering so many have experienced as a result of Kony and his rebel army, our entitlement to the commodification of a warlord's name is a result of it becoming "our cause" instead of realizing it is their cause and has been since before we were born. It seems we have decided that we don't really care if this is approach upsets Ugandans; we're getting the job done right- or are we?

I beg you to reconsider.  I beg you to try and realize the insensitivity of plastering the face and name of Kony in public spaces.  His name is one, that for many, is still hard to speak.  It carries with it pain and terrible memories of living in fear.   A survivor of LRA attacks responds to Kony 2012:  "If people in those countries care about us, they will not wear t-shirts with pictures of Joseph Kony for any reason.  That would celebrate our suffering".  So maybe the way we are going about this is not okay.  Maybe there is another, more effective and appropriate way of coming alongside Ugandans, Congolese, Sudanese, and others of this region to show our support in bringing Kony to justice.

With the start of the campaign coming 6 months after U.S. troops had been deployed and literally no concrete evidence that the U.S. troops will be pulled out if you fail to plaster Joseph Kony’s face and name throughout your respective city- One must question the timing and purpose of this event and campaign in general.  The troops were already working with the UPDF and now other military forces in the region.  Hanging up signs, watching a video, and wearing a t-shirt will unfortunately not aid in Kony’s capture- so if some of these actions are viewed as insensitive and exploitative, maybe they should not be a part of our advocacy.

What we suggest instead- Think before you do

Knowledge and critical thinking are wonderful things.  So is acknowledging our ignorance about this conflict- it allows us to place the focus and attention on efforts being made by Africans to bring peace to the region.  To listen and hear how they believe this should be done, and to respond accordingly.  It is very clear that the approach Invisible Children has taken largely fails to do this.  So, we are going to provide a few resources to get you started. 

Both sites have compiled research, writings, videos, etc. on the problems with Kony 2012 and a way forward.  Acknowledging that opening up respectful dialogue between all parties is key in appropriate and effective activism.

This is not to discourage you from being involved, just asking that you reconsider the approach.

Kelsey Nielsen

Monday, April 9, 2012

Let's Talk About STMs

A while back the internet blog world exploded with talk about the effectiveness of short terms mission's trips (STMs). For spring break this year I went on a short term service trip through my university to inner city Philadelphia. I will shamefully admit I mostly did it for the credit and I was nervous about how my new found thoughts on short term trips would play out. As part of our follow up assignment I wrote a fictional letter from a community member to our group that I hope highlights some of my thoughts on short term trips.

Dear volunteers,
I can tell you are here because you want to help. I can see that this is not a fun spring break trip for you- no one is forcing you to be here or rewarding you if you do well. I can tell you care. There is something to be said for knowing that people care enough to get on a bus and drive three hours to be with us for a week. It tells us that we are noticed and that our community and all its challenges are not being ignored by the rest of America. But I do have to stop and wonder whether you care about us or whether you care about the idea of us. Did you get on that bus for this week to help poor inner city kids or did you get on that bus to meet new people and learn and grow from them? Are you here for the individual or the collective group? Are you leaving your stereotypes and preconceived notions at the door or hauling them along with you as you serve?
The truth is, while admirable; your work here is not going to change anything. Sometimes we are left wondering whether these trips are about us at all. Are we merely tools in a journey for you to find yourself, earn a credit, and feel good about how you spent your spring break? The kids you tutored you just left behind. The trash you picked up is already back on the streets. The walkway you built could have been done by community members who actually knew what they were doing and needed jobs. I do not mean to sound ungrateful, because we truly did enjoy visiting with you and could tell you genuinely desired to serve us, but I did sense a bit of naïve about the effect of your service. In trips such as these there seems to be a lack of evaluation of the long term effects and sometimes I cannot help wondering whether the money spent to bring you all here could have been put to better use.
I guess I am left with the hope that meeting us and working with and for us did bring about lasting change in you. Perhaps you will tutor children in your own neighborhood now, perhaps your mind was opened and you feel you better understand others in similar circumstances now. Maybe one day you will grow up to do inner-city work full time. As a member of this community, I would be glad to have been a part of helping you grow in these ways. I hope you were able to learn from us and that you let yourself come away from the idea that you were only there to serve and teach us. True learning and community is only built when the serving goes both ways.
That is where the beauty in this arrangement is found. When we are able to put aside the idea that you are rich and I am poor, you are educated and I am not, you are white and I am black, you are suburbian and I am urban. When we take all those differences and still find a safe place to find what we have in common. When both you and I have our eyes opened to the fact that we are really not that different after all. You might learn that I graduated school with straight As and I might learn that you grew up as a minority in your community. With those revelations we accomplish what would never have been accomplished before, we break down stereotypes and preconceived ideas and we form an unlikely, although brief, community. That is the ultimate, and my hope is that is what we can accomplish through these trips and experiences. 
Community Member

Let us know your thoughts! How do we do STMs well? How do we avoid the dreaded "savior mentality"? Have you been on a STM trip? Do you find them beneficial?

Friday, March 23, 2012

We Finally Make a Decision About How We Feel About the Kony2012 Campaign

We think Jason Russell deserves grace and love and prayer. I (Megan) am sorry for how I first reacted to the news, thinking it was a drunken escapade when it turned out to be a psychotic break. The hate directed at him from the online world is sickening.

We think we need to listen to the Ugandan people as we decide how to respond to the Kony2012 campaign. Joseph Kony has affected Sudan, DRC, and CAR, but the Ugandan people have suffered the most and if they believe they are being exploited we need to listen. Please watch this film. It completely changed my (Megan) view on the campaign. I no longer support it at all. And I had to admit Kelsey was right all along J

We believe about 70% of the criticism towards Invisible Children floating around is not justified. But the 30% that is is cause for real concern. Do you research and check your sources.

We believe Joseph Kony needs to be brought to justice and that the killing and kidnapping needs to stop. We don’t believe a t-shirt or a 30 minute video or a bracelet or a poster will accomplish that.

We believe the people at Invisible Children are honest people who believe they are doing good work. When criticizing them we need to be respectful and kind.

We believe a God bigger than ourselves and Joseph Kony holds the world in the palm of His hand. We believe He is a God of justice and we pray for justice for Joseph Kony and healing for all those he has hurt.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

I am one of the fatherless.

Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy dwelling place - Psalm 68:5

We don't usually get personal on this blog, we stick to 'business' I guess you could say. I've been praying about this post the last few days- because Abide is not about Megan or I and our stories. It is about the God we serve and what He is going to do in the lives of families in Uganda. Redemption. Restoration. Beauty from the ashes. That is the God we serve. Humbled by our limitations and thankful we get to see Him show up in big ways for Uganda's poorest and most marginalized. But I feel it important to at least shed some light on why I believe so strongly in Abide and fighting for families to be kept together.

Megan and myself are both 'orphans'. Some of you already know this, some of you may not. We are both half orphans by definition. Megan's Mother died when she was 5 and my Dad died when I was 14. This will be the only time I speak for Megan and myself in this post- Having lost a parent, we understand what that absence feels like. There was and always will be one very important person missing at every significant milestone- College graduation, wedding days, and the birth of grandchildren. We did not however, experience the reality of our family being ripped apart after we were 'orphaned'. Our families stayed together because they were given the chance to. Had we grown up in Uganda, our stories might have looked quite different.

We fight because we believe when God required us to love the orphan and the widow, that He did not mean we should take the orphan away from the widow without first offering to come alongside her so that she might get the chance to keep her child.

When my Dad died people were cooking meals for us non-stop, our house was consistently full of people who loved us in the days and weeks following. Soon enough our house emptied and we were finally left to grieve and try to understand the ugly reality of my Dad's life ending here on earth. Not ugly for him, but pretty stinkin' ugly for us. While money could be no compensation for his passing, we were very blessed to receive life insurance and social security. We also benefited from free school lunches and CHIP/medicaid. As a single Mother with 4 kids, my Mom would have had an extremely difficult time making ends meet without insurance and government assistance.

This month, March 19th to be exact, is the anniversary of my Father's death. He passed away suddenly of a periodic embolism {a blood clot that traveled from his legs to his lungs after having surgery}. As many memories fade, what his life and death taught me have only been strengthened through living and working in Uganda. I believe in a God who has perfect plans. A God who works for the good of those who love Him. And sometimes {okay A LOT of the time} He works really ugly things into really good things. The perfect example of Jesus on the cross. The messy example of me- a sinner, saved by grace.

Why am I writing this? You can not understand my heart for Abide without also understanding that I, as a half-orphan, was given the chance to stay with my Mom. To be raised in my family. This is something I believe every child and family has the right to. Regardless of where you are born, I believe you deserve the chance to grow up in the family God decided to place you with first. No, I know, this is not always possible. Sometimes parents and extended families want nothing to do with their child. But may we not make the mistake in assuming that because a child is abandoned or placed in an orphanage that it MUST mean they are unloved. That we offer family strengthening as an OPTION before removal. As the church, may we begin loving the orphan so much so, that we work with urgency to help keep them in their families.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Village Model: Can it Replace a Family?

A new model for orphan care that is growing in popularity across the African continent is called the village model. This approach seeks to reduce the negative effects of institutional care by having one consistent caregiver care for 8-12 children of varying ages in a home like environment. Typically a number of huts or small homes are built on a compound with the “mother” and the children each having their own. The school, clinic, and main offices are nearby so a stronger community feel is produced within the context of these smaller homes.

The model is a good one and one we believe certainly reduces some of the negative effects of the traditional institutional care. However we believe it is detrimental to believe this model is good enough to provide for children as a long term solution. We do not believe the “family” created is able to give the children all that a real family could. Here are some issues we have with the Village Model.

1. The women who are hired to be the mother’s in the home have a conflict between caring for their own children and the children they have been hired to care for. Some models force the women to leave their biological children behind with family members. We believe it is hypocritical to break apart a family in order to try and create a new one. Other models allow the women to take their biological children into the home with them. With this you can have a real issue with the mother favoring her biological children. She has not made a sacrificial decision to care for these orphans; she is being hired to do it. While I would imagine many of these mothers love these children I do not believe doing a job is going to produce the same kind of nurture that caring for one’s child would.

2. The ratio of caregiver to children is not what it would typically be in a home. The best of these models has a ratio of 1:8 and the worst 1:12. It is very difficult to give that many children the love and attention they deserve or that they would receive in a traditional family.

3. There is very little male influence. Nearly always a widow is hired to lead the home so the children are not given a father figure. The importance of a father figure is a whole other topic for another day but we believe that fathers are important and that, when possible, children should have the chance to have them. Unlike a single mother household these children rarely leave the compound so they are not given the opportunity to even form relationships with uncles, grandfathers, or male family friends.

4. The children are not exposed to the world. Usually the clinic and school are on the same compound so children can go their entire lives without leaving that environment. In a typical family a child has gone to market with their mother, ridden the bus with their father, and bargained for household supplies with an older brother. Children in this environment are never given the opportunity to learn these life skills that they will need to lead healthy and productive lives.

5. It is hard to oversee the women in the homes. In a traditional orphanage the children and workers are grouped together in the same living environment so an abusive or neglectful worker will be easier to identify and deal with. In the village model the only people there to witness abuse are the children themselves and they are much less likely to speak out.

6. Infants are often not included in this model. Typically infants are given the more traditional orphanage care and then placed in the village model when they are around two years of age. Please see this post where we discuss the dangers of institutional care. In their early years the infants are not given a consistent care giver to attach to or given as stimulating an environment as a family could. Developmental psychologists agree that the first two years of life are crucial for our development as healthy human beings. Instead these models provide the children less consistent care when they are infants, setting them up for possible future mental health issues.

7. When they age out they have no family to return to. The best of these models pay for university and help place the children in a job but where do these children go for Christmas dinner? In traditional African society family ties are everything- they are how you get jobs and promotions and who you rely on when you hit a rough patch. Without this, these children are already at a real disadvantage before they even set out in life.

So while we think this model is better than traditional orphanage care we do not believe it should ever replace a family. If a child has the opportunity to be re-unified with biological family members or adopted into a new family they absolutely should. No matter how great the village model is a real family will always be able to provide better for a child. Village models that prevent children from being adopted because they believe they can provide as good or better care than a family are greatly mistaken. We believe this is a dangerous way to approach orphan care and is doing great harm to children. Children belong in families!

This is not meant to be critical, but we truly believe that as Christians caring for orphans and widows, we should do so to the best of our ability. That yes, there are millions of orphans and other vulnerable children that we are called to serve. However, we must examine where funds are to be directed and how to best serve these children and families with relevant and culturally appropriate models.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Ethical Adoption: Questions to Ask

We've had a few potential adoptive parents ask us for advice on ensuring there adoption is ethical. Obviously there is not one cookie cutter response- every adoption, child, and situation is unique.

But if you are looking for a great resource of questions to ask your agency/orphanage to investigate the ethics of your adoption please visit this blog. It was written for DRC but a lot of it also applies to Uganda or really any international adoption as well.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A well-meaning but harmful approach to OVC care in Africa

Dan was placed with Julie through a domestic adoption in Uganda. Dan was 4 1/2 when Julie became his Mom.

This should really be split into 3 separate posts but I am just going to divide it into three sections instead. I really appreciate and value all feedback and criticism. Please feel free to comment or email me at:

Why numbers can send the wrong message

In reference to the number of orphans globally, the estimate usually falls into the 132-210 million range. While these numbers are shocking and can be helpful in raising awareness about the HUGE need for the church and international community to respond to the orphan crisis or as I would like to call the OVC crisis (Orphans and Other Vulnerable Children), these large statistics seem to, more often than not, misinform the audience they are intended for. It is my perception that when people hear these big numbers, they think that there are literally 100's of millions of children across the world ready and waiting to be adopted.

Now I am going to throw out a few other numbers (I know I know, everyone just loves numbers...I promise this will be the last time I throw statistics at you in this post)- While calculating an exact number is tricky, a recent estimate is that there are approximately 16 million children worldwide who have lost both parents. 8 million children are estimated to be living in institutional care internationally. So where do we get these big estimates reaching as high as 210 million orphans? They aren't necessarily wrong, however I fear they can be very misleading to the individual not willing to take the time to breakdown and understand what they are really saying.

What the numbers are saying- there ARE anywhere from 132-210 million children globally who have lost one or both parents. What the numbers are not saying- there are NOT 132-210 million children who are totally abandoned, unloved, and in need of our rescuing by way of institutionalization or adoption.

Yes, SOME of the children who fall under these large statistics have been abandoned or totally orphaned. Some children can not be kept in their natural families or country of origin because of stigmas, cultural barriers or extenuating circumstances that limit or prevent in-country placement. And it is critical for us to answer THAT call. To adopt the children where international adoption is truly their best and only option at having a family, and to promote in-country options for the larger majority of OVC. To love these kids so much so that we put their rights ahead of our values and concepts of what constitutes a 'good life'.

The Hague Convention and the U.N.'s Convention on the Rights of the Child have stressed the importance of striving for family preservation and when that is not possible, in-country options through kinship care or domestic adoption outside the extended family should be given priority over international adoption. As always I feel the need to say this: I am all for international adoption when it is in the best interest of the child, but what has become destructive is international adoption as a first priority. And that, that breaks my heart.


The "America as superior" attitude

It breaks my heart what we are saying to families when instead of working to help them keep their children, we take their children away in the form of well meaning institutions. It breaks my heart to think about what we are saying to Ugandan families when we don't first ask if they would like to adopt their children. Are we asserting that this isn't even worth exploring? That Ugandan families won't be able to provide the ideal 'better life' we have in mind for their orphans, so we must bring them to America? The colonial era in Africa has ended, but have we really progressed toward viewing the African people as equal? Or does our privilege and power as members of Western society come in handy in making decisions for other nation's children? It seems as though we still convey very imperialistic attitudes, and they are even well-meaning! The terms we all use, "developing", "third world", "less-developed"- they are more weighted than I think we realize. And when I see we, I truly mean we- myself included.

Those words carry with them a "less-than" connotation, whether we intend it to or not. That in countries like Uganda, they are "less-developed" than us, therefore awarding us a sense of superiority. "less-than" does assert we are "more-than", does it not? Before you get angry and think I feel I have some authority to preach on this, please know I am writing this to myself just as much as anyone else. I have the "I'm American, so I know best" mentality just as much as the next gal or guy. To make a long story short, I think that there is MUCH need for exploration into this arena. Please do not take this as an attack on the call to adopt or orphan advocacy. It's not. This is a plea with myself and with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to wrestle with our actions and decisions when we step out into the mission field. May we explore the possibility that wrapped up in our charity there can be very oppressive ideologies that inhibit true social justice for marginalized populations in the same countries we claim to love. Might these realizations convict us and help us move beyond charity and toward justice for the poor. This is after all what God has required of us. Jeremiah 22:3. Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. May we not be the oppressor of the poor but the lovers who fight alongside them.

Are you turned off by this post all together? Don't give up yet! I am going to try and present this a bit differently and hope that maybe it offends you less and rather just gets you to start thinking about what it is I am really trying to communicate here.

There are many couples in the U.S. that can not have children. Some can have children and are just interested in expanding their family through adoption. There are babies born to women who can not or do not wish to care for them. Most of these birth moms will meet with a social worker and adoption counselor to make sure that they know and understand what signing over the rights to their child means- legally and emotionally. These professionals will make sure that the mom is aware of her options. That if she wished to keep the baby, there are safety-nets in place that would help alleviate some of the economic strain this baby would have for her. Even still, many mothers make the difficult decision to place their child with an adoptive family who will love and provide for the child in ways she doesn't desire to or feel she is fit to. We respect this decision, and while we mourn the loss of a child growing up with their birth mother, we celebrate the beauty God can bring through that brokenness- adoption.

Now imagine this: adoption agencies in the U.S. begin contacting European countries to ask them if they would be interested in adopting the available children in our country. Bypassing all the potential adoptive families in the U.S. for families in countries that are seen by the agencies as "more developed". They've heard people in Europe are quite happy with their national healthcare and extensive social welfare services, so the agencies figured they'd do better by placing these children in European countries instead. Would we sit idly by and watch this happen? No way. We would be holding onto those kids kicking and screaming. Questioning the agencies for their ignorance in assuming we wouldn't take the kids when, had we been asked we most certainly would. Had we been asked and then turned down the chance to care for those kids, maybe then you could place them in other countries. But you better ask us first. We are Americans and those are American children.

This same entitlement we would have to our own children, we have to Africa's children. I am really still in the processes of grappling with why exactly that is. Why when a brand new baby is orphaned in Uganda do we dream of the beauty God will bring through an international adoption to America instead of a domestic adoption into a lovely Ugandan family? And if you are convinced adoption outside the extended family just isn't something Ugandans do you can read all about some wonderful examples here: Child's i Foundation

Why Ugandan children are in institutional care and why it doesn't mean Ugandans don't love their kids

Something Megan pointed out that I was neglecting to address originally in this dialogue: If Ugandans are willing to adopt and care for OVC in their country through resettlement, kinship care, or adoption why is it estimated that nearly 40,000 children are living in institutional care in Uganda? In 2009, preparing to leave for my first trip to Uganda, I originally thought a child in an orphanage was just what I expected them to be, an orphan. I thought they were all children who had either lost both parents or had been abandoned and therefore had no one to love them. Boy was I wrong, but what else was I supposed to think? Surely a child would not be living in institutional care instead of their family if they had someone out there who loved them.

Adoption through kinship care has been and is still the most common practice for 'orphan care' in Africa- And many even consider it the best option for these children if proper supports are in place. Why then are so many children being pushed out of their homes and into orphanages? Yes, some caregivers on extended families truly do not want their child. I am however speaking to the majority where inadequate safety-nets and the economic strains of an additional child are the primary reasons for child abandonment or institutionalization. So the first challenge I have in this is that we start questioning the root causes of each child's case. That instead of assuming
that because a caregiver or family was unable to provide for them, it must mean they don't really love them- that we would make sure no mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandmother or grandfather is signing the rights away to their child because of money. And that we are providing a true alternative. That instead of simply providing the option of institutionalization or adoption, we say "If you were to keep the child, I would come alongside you and your family and help you". We wouldn't think it appropriate to remove a child in America from a family that loved them but was just too poor. We'd make sure they knew about the various government programs available to help alleviate the financial stress of caregiving. Family preservation efforts should be given just as high a priority in Uganda.

I want to point you to this quote for a quote from a Zambian pastor after a visit to America:International Adoption and the Western Mindset, " What I found rather surprising, however, was the lack of knowledge and appreciation of the African extended family system. So, although I initially set up this blog in order to give my church a peep into the outside world, I thought of writing a blog to inform the West about what is common knowledge back home. Whereas to the Western mind, an orphan, having lost both father and mother, is destined to either be adopted or spend the rest of his or her childhood days in an orphanage, to an African mind, the child still has many fathers and mothers, and consequently many homes to live in"

Now, for the children who can not be kept in their immediate or extended families through offering community and family based support. This is the grey area for many, and I don't think it's completely black and white for me either. That's why I feel it necessary that each child's case truly be assessed on an individual basis. Some children will be easy to place in a Ugandan family. Many Ugandans have and continue to adopt children outside of their family. It is possible. It is happening. If a child is difficult to place in a Ugandan family or you just can't find a family, I truly believe it is in the child's best interest to be placed internationally- and those international adoptions ARE beautiful. These are the ethical standards of the United Nations that I haven't been able to argue against yet. I am not going to do the usual listing of specific demographics of children that I think make for ethical international adoptions, because I think we can get too stuck on those categories dictating whether an adoption is ethical or not. Megan wrote a good post on that here: Total Orphan, I'm Sorry it's Not That Simple

What needs to happen, as I said before, is the assessment and adequate time given to each child's case. That a child is not removed from their family or country of origin unnecessarily because we make passionate and well-meaning decisions without giving proper attention to the alternatives and the possibility that we in fact, may not be the best option for that child. This was something I learned through Dan's story (pictures above). This is a journey I've been on and am continuing to process, and I would be happy to tell you more about Dan and his adoption if you'd like to hear about it!

In sum: This post is a reminder to myself, just as much as anyone who reads it. That my well-meaning actions and decisions can often be extremely detrimental to the culture and people I am working with. That I, as an American social worker, will always be at a disadvantage in adequately assessing the needs of children and families in Uganda. To be aware of how limited my knowledge is of the family dynamics and other cultural norms. To accept that there are just some decisions that are not mine to make. To ask questions and remain teachable. And to listen, and I mean really listen to the voices of the people I am serving. I think then and only then will we start to see a shift from our perceived needs of the Ugandan people toward addressing the deeply rooted structures and ideologies that have created or perpetuated these needs.