The Long Way Through Lilongwe: Part 2
By: Josie Ehlers
At 5:30AM, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was awake. The thought of missing our flight to Malawi for the 2nd time had me nervously aware of the hour until the sounds of the city moved me to the window. Vendors went along the road, laying out their blankets and goods and there was a man trimming the grass outside the hotel in the cool of the morning. He was trimming the grass with a pair of scissors. Fortunately, the rest of our travel time to Lilongwe went smoothly and we were able to arrive as planned that day.
As I mentioned in my last post, Blessings and Joel had rented a bus to enable transportation for ALL 116 children to the airport. It is very important that no one is left behind because they would have been so sad to miss the arrival of Papa John and Jos. Because our flight was interrupted and we had spent the night in Ethiopia, they had to turn the bus around and tell them all they would have to wait until tomorrow. They had been almost all the way there, which is about an hour and a half trip from Salima, where the Orphanage is, to the airport. It wasn’t until I stepped out of customs and into the foyer area of the airport, seeing multitudes of little faces all prepared with smiles, and in their matching traditional outfits that I realized just what a hassle and disappointment it must have been to them.
The emotions that followed are still, six months later, impossible to put into words. There is a section of scripture in Romans that I believe conveys the deep seeded longing that was building in my heart until the moment we were in each other’s company. This is from the beginning of a letter from Paul, a great teacher and preacher in the early Christian Church and it is written to the church in Rome, where Paul was originally from.
Romans 1: 8-13
“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve in my spirit by preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.”
Now, I am not Paul, and I didn’t have any spiritual gifts to impart to the children or caretakers of the El-Shaddaih Orphanage, but it could not be more true, that the act of “remembering” someone in your prayers “constantly” forms a bond, a love between you that doesn’t change with the normal whims of life. The glistening tears that filled my eyes at first embrace in over 2 years with my sister, Blessings, turned quickly to streams as I saw Joel, the man who has brought companionship to my sister, another shoulder to bear up the burden of stress and decision making and someone to be an earthly father to the children. This was my first time meeting him in person. A couple of older boys shuffled our belongings and all the extra suitcases (filled with medicine for the free clinic) off to the side. Before I could even speak comprehensible words, a chitenje (2 x 1 meter piece of colorful cloth that women use for skirts, head wraps, baby wearing and so much more) was wrapped around my waist. I looked up to see Patricia’s face. I recognized someone! This young lady is in medical school, she is studying to become a physiotherapist (or Physical Therapist as known in the United States). I speechlessly stood there tightly surrounded by little people… all eyes on me. I cried and I cried and I cried as she layered on a goat skin skirt, a collar and a crown. Patricia spoke softly to me as I was sobbing at this point, “It’s alright, you’re alright.”
Once we were properly outfitted with the beautiful gifts they had brought for us, the commotion seemed to stop and I saw my father across the room. I felt him watching me, knowing that I was now feeling what he had felt on his first visit to meet the children four years ago. He knew I was overcome. Emotion washed over me in waves, and I say emotion because it was not just one feeling. Thankfulness, gratitude, joy, love, hope. But also concern. I had a deep desire for these kids. Some tiny and some teenagers; to know that they didn’t have to do anything special or put on a show for me. I felt that most of them, not knowing my language, didn’t know what to do or to say to me. They all just looked unsure. But I only wanted them to know that I was here to know them if they wanted to be known.
I stooped down low in front of one little girl who I now know as Favor. Although she didn’t speak at first, she examined my face and smiled at me, completely unaware that she had stolen my heart in a moment. “Hallo” she whispered. All I could do was smile through tears and sweep my fingers over the backs of her little knuckles. As my eyes moved from face to face I saw 116 stories that I wanted to know.
We started rearranging outside the airport and all of a sudden I remembered that January in Malawi is not anything like January in Iowa. Warm. Very warm. When we were all assembled the children held up their printed signs welcoming us and sang a couple songs. Blessings warned me, “This is not your welcome, my sister, this is only the beginning! Tonight, there will be a celebration in the church and the children will sing and dance for you!’’
After a good amount of photos were snapped, one by one the kids loaded the large rental bus, the oldest of them taking charge of the littlest. Blessings informed me that a friend from the airport loaned her a car for our time there that had air conditioning. Dad, Joel, Blessings and I would be riding back separately from the children. Finally, the Lord had allowed “the way to be opened” for us to be together. My mind was attempting to spin all over the place with what to do and talk about first but as we drove, I drank in the sounds of their voices teaching me and sharing with me all that is Malawi and their story. How can we help if we don’t understand the need? So much to learn and so little time, I felt.
One of my favorite passages of scripture about understanding came to mind, as it appeals both to my time learning the culture and experiences of Malawians and also to our current struggle here in the United States.
Proverbs 2: 1-11
My child, listen to what I say, and treasure my commands. Tune your ears to wisdom, and concentrate on understanding. Cry out for insight, and ask for understanding. Search for them as you would for silver; seek them like hidden treasures. Then you will understand what it means to fear the Lord, and you will gain knowledge of God. For the Lord grants wisdom! From his mouth come knowledge and understanding. He grants a treasure of common sense to the honest. He is a shield to those who walk with integrity. He guards the paths of the just and protects those who are faithful to him. Then you will understand what is right, just, and fair, and you will find the right way to go. For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will fill you with joy. Wise choices will watch over you. Understanding will keep you safe.
I feel as if the Father unhurriedly reveals. Unlike me, frantic and grasping at the future and failing to be effectual with the step that I’m on, He opens his wise hand slowly to protect us and to fill us with bravery. He causes us to pause, and to see in real time the life that we are living. Not the life that we are pining for, or the one we think we ought to have or the one that we could gain if we did everything right. The boy David was able to rush into battle with only the armor of God against Goliath, a giant. But, what we sometimes forget is that he had already seen protection from God against the bears and the lions while shepherding his father’s sheep. He was filled with courage at remembering the faithfulness and victory of the Lord.
Be well, my friends.