Tired walkers, street vendors, goats, and uneven concrete flashed outside the windows of our taxi as it darted and bounced through the streets of Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. As the driver slowed to find the exact address of the orphanage, I wondered what to expect.
What would children, robbed by AIDS of their parents, think of seven awkward, white-skinned strangers visiting their home-in-lieu-of-their-home? And, well, just how awkward would we be? What would we do? What would they do?
Prompted by the security guard, our driver nosed the van through the compound walls up a small incline into a more level parking area. The metal gates were pulled shut behind us, hemming in the small outdoor courtyard. Piling out of the van, we carted a load of medical supplies we had transported across the Atlantic in suitcases. We dumped our treasure in a small building next to the van.
Then we were directed to a second, larger building where the children were taking their afternoon nap. Stepping from outside into the sun-starved entry room, we gradually made out the dimensions of a large “living” room. Tiptoeing in a single file chain, we followed a nurse from one room to another where children slept soundly in beds and cribs.
And then…one set of eyes blinked open. A nearby child stretched and yawned, while another child slowly sat up, quizzically studying our faces. And then there was a smile and then another. Finally, one child reached out to one of the guys in our group, signaling to be held. The children came to life like a late morning garden.
Excitedly, the children led the way back to the living room, where we found places to sit and the children huddled as close to us as they possibly could. For the next twenty minutes, they would attempt to teach us songs, giggling at our unintended assault on the Ethiopian language. We soon discovered that they knew some songs in English, where we fared a bit better.
A nurse announced that it was time for outdoor play, at which time the children fumbled for our hands to drag us into the sunny courtyard. Some children went immediately for the soccer ball where we passed the ball from one foot to another, occasionally shooting at a tiny makeshift goal.
Some of the girls introduced us to games where you would mirror the actions of your partner as she faced you, singing a song. New to the games, I was an epic fail, each mistake endearing me more to the laughing children.
The girls insisted that we must dance; following their directions, we clasped hands in a circle and, moving like a merry-go-round, we sang whatever songs surfaced from their dancing hearts. My musical repertoire grew. And then there was a tune I recognized, with words I knew. I began singing along…until the words got choked up in my throat:
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray. You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
It was just a moment later when the group leader announced that it was time for us to leave, “please don’t take my sunshine away” still echoing off the courtyard walls.
It was as if I was in a cheesy movie with a contrived tear-jerking finish. Only it wasn’t a movie. It was a living story with fumbling adults and dancing children whose words were unrehearsed, whose songs were spontaneous and free. But the story…wasn’t finished.
As I turned to walk to our vehicle, now parked just outside the courtyard gate, a boy grabbed my hand, looked up at me, and fumbled out a pleading question: “tomorrow come?”
I have no idea what I said, or what I attempted to say, or if I even tried at all. The story was too much. The glory was too much. What could I say? How could my heart take in the weight and wonder of the last hour, the last dance, the last song, the last plea? The wonder of the story overwhelmed me, a gift from the Author.
Every now and then I have a moment like this that reminds me that I’m in a beautiful, tragic, glorious, heart-wrenching, important story. It makes it impossible for me to see the universe as simply a mechanistic, random, reaction-bound string of falling dominoes.
Oh, I still have plenty of questions—probably more than you have. But I can’t escape the reality that I am part of a story whose Author graces me with moments of glory that are impossible to fully convey with words. But still I try.