Our lives have an interesting contrast of sometimes feeling short and insignificant but also being the sole composition of who we are. I’m realizing that what I do with my life needs to hang in the balance of those two ideas. I need to live with an urgency that the potential love and compassion I show, is limited. So my moments, energy and breath need to be spent loving for Jesus. My trip to Kenya this year was filled with glimpses into some amazing lives and stories that left my heart full, still brings a smile to my face and honestly makes me want more out of life. I don’t want my time to be wasted on things that don’t really matter, and I want to share that same hunger with you, so here are some beautiful faces and stories that I hope inspire you as much as they moved me.
First of all, the team that I go to Kenya with is made up of servant hearts who would do anything to be on this trip. I met some of them last year for the first time, but there were more new faces this year as well. It’s crazy to me that the team is made up of people from all over the states that haven’t met and yet we come together so smoothly because of our love for God and these kids. In total this year, they did about 40 surgeries but I can tell you with confidence that these surgeons would make the trip even if there was only one child that needed a lip repair. It may sound crazy, but that’s because it is! They sacrifice so much to go and work all week long in a environment that is different than what they are used to, without tools they have at home, no air conditioning, and this year a monkey even ran through the OR before it found a window to escape! Saying it’s uncomfortable isn’t even touching it, but they choose to be there, doing exactly what they are doing. Not only do I love just watching and praying over them as they do their thing, I also love listening to their stories and hearing how God spurred the kind of love that takes you to Africa to perform surgeries. As unique as their stories are, the love for kids that they haven’t even met yet is what wakes each of them ready to work, jet lag or no. That’s Jesus, and it’s incredible to be able to witness.
One of the team members that I got to meet this year is a father of four that has the kindest disposition. Someone on the team told me that he was born with a cleft lip and pallet as was his son. With his beard and mustache, I probably wouldn’t have found out on my own, but afterward I could see a different spark in his eyes when he comforted the babies after surgery. There was a certain understanding and compassion that some of us don’t fully comprehend. On Thursday, this man spoke for our chapel gathering with the hospital staff. His message was about the balance of seeing and living through difficult circumstances but having faith that God is still good. It’s such a challenging topic, one that has been on my mind this past year through several painful situations, so my attention was caught right away. He shared his struggle through the years of believing that God created him fearfully and wonderfully made yet with a cleft lip. His personal “imperfection” was so visible and something that anyone around him could easily point out. But the truth that he learned was that his biggest imperfection wasn’t the cleft lip but rather his sin, which every person is born with. And the point of living isn’t to identify our imperfections, but to live a life that brings glory to God with what we have and don’t have. As an adult, he is a bigger influence to children born with a cleft than I could ever be, because he understands their hurt, questions and bullying. If he hadn’t been born with that imperfection, his impact wouldn’t be as powerful for them and he might have never ended up in Kenya on this trip! The heart of his teaching is that God’s plan is perfect even though the people in that plan are not. He isn’t expecting us to do everything right, but instead to live for Him with everything we’ve got AND everything we don’t have. In the areas that we aren’t strong, He is. Our fears are chances for Him to show us how powerful He is. Our imperfections will bring about meeting other people with the same imperfections, so we can show them God’s faithfulness.
The biggest expression of faith that I’ve seen on these cleft trips, are the mommas who bring their babies from all over the country for a second chance. It’s hard in American culture to fully grasp the heaviness of this, but in Kenya birth defects (And I saw the same in the deaf community) are often seen as signs of a curse or shame. So when a mother has a baby with a cleft lip, it’s not something they can hide and the people around them impress that the imperfection effects their child’s value. In many cases, it would be easier for the mother to abandon her child rather than take on the social stigma and ridicule. This culture makes it a challenge to fight for their child’s future and shows a tremendous amount of faith when they show up at the hospital, baby in their arms. The very first day I saw all the families crowded in the hospital lobby hoping for surgery for their little ones, I was moved to tears. It shows an incredible amount of love, and on both trips I was shocked by the amount of fathers that hadn’t given up either! Their strength to fight for their families and their child’s future inspires me every time. There's a video below of a mother being reunited with her child after surgery. Watching their joy, relief and hope being restored is heart-wrenching and leaves me speechless. Some may just see it as a lip, but in Kenya it’s the promise of a future not filled with ridicule and belittling for a physical difference.
Kenyans hold a special place in my heart, from airport security to the hospital staff to safari guides, their smiles and joyful lifestyle have brightened my life. They remind me that life’s little worries like being on time and stressing about meaningless details will steal my joy if I don’t guard it. They endlessly joke, and laugh, and have such good sarcastic senses of humor! Our guide this year at Safari, Anthony, shared endless information about the savannah wildlife but had us laughing the whole time! One morning I tried to make a joke but I was too tired and Anthony filled in for me and laughed at it anyway! We were visiting the Rhinos in their sanctuary and I walked back to the jeep and he asked what I had seen. I paused because I as trying to think of a sarcastic response like, “a kangaroo” but I couldn’t think of a single animal that didn’t live in Africa! Sleep deprived! So I just stood there, looking like an idiot because I couldn’t make a joke or just answer his question and say, “We saw a rhino.” So, I felt the need to explain myself, and when I got done he laughed and then said, "like a bear! That would have been funny!" Bless him. Another morning, we got out of the jeep and were walking around in a ridiculous amount of mud. I was the first back on the jeep and despite trying to be careful, I got muddy footprints all through the safari jeep. Anthony walked up and I said,
“Anthony, I’m so sorry! I got mud all through the jeep and I was trying to be so careful!”
He just looked at me with a sweet expression and said, “Allison, it’s okay. Did you see all the mud I got on the outside of the jeep, today? It will have to be cleaned anyway.” And then laughed, because thats what Kenyans do. A few minutes later one of the surgeons' daughters got on the jeep and said, “Anthony I’m trying to step on Allison’s footprints so I don’t get more mud in your jeep.” He just rolled his eyes and laughed. Kenyans, ever laughing, smiling and dancing their way through life. If they can’t bring a smile to your face, I don’t think anyone can!
Speaking of dancing, I met a kid with some sick dance moves that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. He came into our clinic, but because he didn’t have a cleft lip our team wasn’t about to do anything for him. Fortunately, the hospital nearby was able to help him out so his story is still one of hope! The first few days of our trip his family stayed at the hospital with the cleft families until he could be admitted, so the non-medicals got to spend some time with him and his mom. His name is Paul and he made a point to tell me and another of my team members good morning and asked how we were every day. He played outside our workroom with the younger toddlers and other children. At around 9 years old, he was the biggest kid and took his responsibility very seriously. Sure, he would break dance while watching the toddlers, but he made sure they didn’t put things in their mouths and took them to their mothers if they started crying. He spoke politely to everyone who walked by him and I don’t think he stopped smiling the three days he was there. So, in case you hadn’t picked up on it, Paul stole my heart. I don’t think I’ve encountered a kid with as much confidence and kindness in my life. With that being said, Paul has Treacher Collins Syndrome, which is a genetic disorder that affects the development of bones and tissues in the face. So, his “imperfections” are very noticeable and in his culture its a miracle that he is smiling at all, let alone spilling joy everywhere he goes. He is like a walking miracle, and I hate that I didn’t get to talk to his mother and hear his whole story. The only thing I can imagine is that his mother has worked hard to build up his heart in a harsh world that would tear him down. What really blew my mind is the way he affected another little boy.
On our second day we had a late addition come into the clinic for surgery. It was a mother and her 5 year old son, Job, who had a lip and pallet surgery done when he was younger. They were coming back to get some work done on his nose to make it look a little less flat from pervious surgeries. Job was an angry looking boy and he tried to fight off our team members and looked like he wanted to hit me too when I took his “before” picture. However, one day I was working in our room when I heard Paul talking to another kid. Usually he was playing with toddlers, so, intrigued I got up to look out the window. Sure enough, Paul was talking to Job who had the biggest smile one his face! I watched in shock as they danced and laughed and later Job even spoke, which he refused to do for our doctors the day before. Up until Job’s procedure, I could almost always find him playing outside with Paul. I don’t know his full story, I don’t know if he’s been bullied and it thats the source of his anger. What I can tell you is that being around Paul was infectious and I want a life that. Even in the midst of trials, I want a joy that is contagious to even the most grumpy Jobs around me. I want to smile like Paul.
I loved watching Paul play with other kids, amazed at how his character was shaping in such a harsh environment for him to grow up. At 9 years old, I’m sure he’s been bullied, but the reality in me knows that it won’t get any better when he gets older. I just kept coming back to a book called You Are Specialby Max Lucado about these stickers the characters put on each other. They put a star on a person for beauty, good behavior, success, but a black circle for a flaw, failure or an imperfection. But one girl doesn’t mind what anyone thinks of her and the stickers just don’t stick. I pray that over Paul, I want the comments of people that don’t understand to simply not stick. That he would grow older and continue playing with younger kids, smile and saying hello to the people he encounters with boldness and that he never stops dancing. Tears are coming to my eyes and I knew this kid for four days! That’s it and he impressed that much on my heart!
Our lives are more powerful than we can ever imagine, and I pray the same impact over my life and over yours. I hope the words of others aren’t where you find your purpose. I hope you learn to dance in the sun and in the rain. I hope hateful strikes at you simply don’t stick. I hope you learn to laugh first, and worry… never. I hope you learn to love like Paul, serve like this medical staff, love and fight like these moms and dads. And I hope you use your moments to love and live for what is most important especially when is its difficult. We aren’t here to live easy lives, but to love with what we have and what we don’t have.
Keep fighting, keep loving,