When I was in my twenties, God took my calling to global ministry and narrowed it significantly to orphan ministry, and eventually orphan prevention. The most ironic thing of all this is that I was not a ‘kid’ person, and for sure not a ‘baby’ person. I worked with teenagers, and told people 5th and 6th graders were as young as I’d ever go.
Never say never.
2020 was the first year since 2003 I did not visit my young friends in Russia. At that point it had been 21 times I had traveled to visit in Russia over 16 years. No one does that without some serious elements of calling and plenty of Holy Spirit.
Alyosha was the first child I felt connected to and it was a very unfamiliar feeling for me. I shared a lot of our story in a blog post called ‘reminiscing’ on October 16, 2011. I still cannot help but smile to myself when I think about Alyosha and all the adventures we shared together. This is one of the many reasons he is the photo on my blog banner.
The thing about living your life in the orphan window of this world is that you start gathering friends all over the world. And when a child has a name, face, personality, story and future…you find that you will do just about anything to champion them well and in the midst of that they are no longer just a child, but a friend.
Stas is another one of my Russian friends. I met him when he was about 5 years old. He was 2 years younger than what the Russian government said was allowed in that orphanage, but had a older sister who would not have been okay with being separated from her little brother. When he was 5, he stood in front of me reciting Pushkin poems. I will always love Russian traditions of reciting poetry. As I’ve watched him grow up over the years, I’ve seen him at his best and his worst…because…pre-teen years. He is incredibly smart, and I’ve spent time every year practicing photography with him. How to frame out a photo before you click the shutter and when you click the shutter. Deciding what story to tell when you take a photo has been the subject of many conversations. When we first started, the camera was so heavy, I had to help him hold it. Now he slings it around his neck and is off taking some of the most treasured photos.
I will never forget the year Sonya came into the orphanage in Russia. For whatever reason, we connected immediately, but Stas was like, ‘No new-girl, Stephanie is MY friend.’ Thankfully, that passed, and we are all friends now. Sonya has been enamored with my nephew the last couple of years, and it has been so cute to watch her try to build a relationship with him even when he was too young to realize it. One year, she sent a tiny turtle stuffed animal back to him. Another year, she read a children’s book in Russian to him that I video taped on my phone and played it for my nephew when I was back in the States.
It is strange to me how a particular child can be a like a magnet to someone. What do they sense and feel that makes they crave time with that person?
When I first moved to Haiti, I had a four-year-old posse at one of the villages we visited almost weekly. They were hilarious and kept me laughing for hours on end. But there were also poignant moments after trust had been build, and my Kreyol skills had amped up, that we were able to talk more seriously. I heard stories of missing their parents, missing their friends who used to be at the village and a decent amount of tattle-telling on each other. There were also moments of temper tantrums that pushed people away, when I would step in that with them.
I also wrote in 2012 about one of my friends named Tacira. If you want a glimpse into real life orphan ministry, a particular experience with Tacira made me pretty angsty and I had to let it out. It is called ‘tears.’
Nene is a child that will always have a piece in my heart and it started completely accidentally, because trust me, I did not go looking to be a friend of a toddler who was not potty trained yet. He lived next door to me in Haiti at the children’s home across the wall. There is actually a photo of me with him asleep in my arms a few days before I was leaving Haiti to go to Russia on vacation. The look on my face is priceless. What began that year was a deep friendship and a lot of jokes about how often Nene would fall asleep on my shoulder, but what most don’t know is that Nene found a safe, peaceful and loving friendship he could count on in a world that was chaotic and confusing to him. I remember when I saw Nene’s mom for the first time. I was delighted to meet her, and it helped me champion her to her children. But Haiti realities are tough, and a couple of years ago she left to find work in Chile and has not been heard of since.
There is a reason that Jesus used the example of children to explain the Kingdom of Heaven to his disciples trying to be competitive. Innocence, curiosity, humility, faith, and I think a fair amount of that natural ability children have to know who they can trust. The natural ability to be drawn like a magnet to someone.
“About that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?’ Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.’” [Matthew 18:1-6 NLT]
May a child be not just a name and face, but a personality, story and future for you. And may we all hold our friendships with a child in space that is sacred and full of the Holy Spirit, so that we are simultaneously enthralled by the Kingdom of Heaven and unquestioning of the love and grace Jesus pours over us.