Unconditional

I’ve had a lot on my mind this week. 297 precious little children to be exact.

With ‘Sponsor-A-Child Program Coordinator’ falling into my job description, I think of them on a regular basis for work purposes. But over time, it has become more than a job description.

Over the last year, I have spent countless hours reading their names and “About Me” sheets, receiving progress reports on their academics, and watching them grow through their updated photos. I listen to them via video sincerely thanking the families in the United States who pay $45/month to sponsor them, providing an opportunity for them to receive an incredible education, uniforms, meals, and a place to be loved.

And all of this is good.

But then I think of the time I have spent with them over the past two summers face-to-face. And I’m reminded that these children are so much more than attendance rates, and national exam scores, and favorite activities. They are individually distinctive personalities, and heart-breaking troubles, and tremendous stories of strength, and joyfully uninhibited laughter, and beautifully unique souls.


  

And when I think about them, it’s impossible for me to think about myself. And let me tell you, I find quite a bit of time to think about myself. But thinking about myself always leads me back to the same place – lost. Alone. Purposeless. Self-sufficiently insufficient. Anxious.

Last summer, I met the children I had been reading about for the first time. Their spirits were sweet, but many of them had only just begun attending our private academy, so their English was weak. We broke down the language barrier through smiles, which grew to hand motions, which grew to hugs, which grew to laughter. Cameras and iPhones served as constant entertainment as the children were endlessly fascinated to see their beautiful faces on little screens. I was reminded that kids are kids – no matter where you are in the world! By the end of my trip, I missed them before I even walked through the school gate and waved goodbye, uncertain of when or if I would ever see them again.

12 months later I was on a plane to see them again, and I just couldn’t wait to get there. But I was nervous, too. After all, what if it wasn’t the same?

As I stepped off the bus onto the school campus, I looked out into the sea of warm faces that I knew so well. Suddenly, I caught the beaming smiles of a group of pre-teen girls walking toward me.

“Alyssa!”

They called out my name and I froze. They remembered.

See, I had spent the year since I met these children working on their sponsorships, reading all about them, seeing their pictures, and matching their names. I remembered them. But they had not seen me, or even talked to me, for an entire year! And they didn’t just recognize my face – they remembered my name.


Have you ever stopped to think about how important your name is to you? How valued you feel when you are called by it?

As I stood there, suddenly overwhelmed by the love from these children and my eyes starting to fill with warm tears, I couldn’t help but think, this is how God loves us. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since we came to Him, it doesn’t matter how long we spent with Him in the past, it doesn’t matter how many other faces He’s seen – He remembers us by name.

Since returning home a few weeks ago, my heart has been especially burdened for one of the girls who called me by name that first day, Rebecca.

Most would consider Rebecca a leader at the school, especially among the girls. She is incredibly sharp and has the kind of personality that others tend to follow. She quickly informed me that she had been practicing her English and intended to spend the next several days asking me questions. I admired her ambition! (I was excited as I began to realize that all of the kids’ English had improved over the last year and the language barrier really only applied to more complex topics and humor!)

Rebecca started with the small stuff – asking simple questions about what I spent my time doing in America. After some time – aka about 20 minutes – we moved to more serious topics such as, “Do you like Justin Bieber and will you sing one of his songs for me?!” Haha!

The next day, her questions became more personal. I started noticing that Rebecca was seeking guidance – not so different from my pre-teen self years ago. She asked if I was married and I told her no. Her eyebrows went up a little. She asked how old I was and I told her 24. Her eyebrows shot up. I smiled (and laughed to myself silently) because I knew that this pretty much meant I was an old maid in her culture (and sometimes it feels that way in American Christian culture, too!).

I continued on to explain to her that I had gone to school because education is important, and was now working, using the skills God gave me to provide for myself and help others because working hard is important, and that I hoped that someday God would bring the right man across my path and we would get married and start a family – but until then I was going to keep doing what I’m doing! She thought about this for a minute, and then without looking up from her lunch said, “I don’t want to get married young, either.”

The words sunk in slowly. I thought about how much time I’ve spent since my junior year of college worrying about why God hadn’t brought me a husband yet. Didn’t I deserve a “ring by spring”?! And even after I was okay with missing that boat, I still wanted Him to hurry up and bring the right guy along. Oh, and I wanted it to happen exactly as I had planned. Because I know best.

How much of that time did spend being thankful that I wasn’t being forced to get married? How much of that time did I spend being thankful that I was getting to receive an incredible education with so many opportunities for a successful future at basically no cost to me? I can tell you how much: Zero. Nada. None.

And here I was, sitting across the table from a little girl half my age sharing rice, avocado, and pineapple slices, who was worried that she wouldn’t get to fulfill her dreams because her “role” in society was worlds apart from mine.

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The next day, Rebecca boldly asked me what I thought about people of a particular, different faith. At first, I was taken aback! I mean, I don’t typically ask people straight up, “Hey, what do you think about {insert faith here}?”

I shared with her that God made each of us in His image (Genesis 1:27) and loves us unconditionally (Romans 5:8) and so we are called to love others unconditionally, too, (1 John 4:7) but that the Bible teaches that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). I told her that as a Christian, it was important to me to share the Hope that I have found in Christ with others because it has changed my life!

She nodded. She said little. And then we played.

The next day, (are you seeing a pattern?) Rebecca told me that she lives in a home where Christianity is not acceptable. According to her father, she is attending a Christian school because it is the best education in the area, but she is strictly forbidden from believing in our God, much less converting.

“Alyssa,” she whispered,  “I think that the God I am learning about here in school is real. I don’t believe in the god that my father tells me we must believe in. But he has told me he will disown me if I believe in your God and I am scared to lose my family.”

As Rebecca told me this under the shade of a lone tree in the recess yard, I didn’t even know what to say. I loved her so much, my heart broke for her as I thought of how little I could relate to the truly life-altering burdens of this pre-teen girl. Never once have I feared for my well-being like she was so clearly worried about now. It all came together as I realized that she had been building up to this question for days – possibly before I even arrived.

Later that day, several of the kids were huddled up around me and we were just playing, soaking up some of our final moments together before I headed back to the States. Rebecca sat by me, always with a hand on some part of me, just like many of the kids did. And I was humbled, understanding for the first time what it really means when we are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus.


  

 

We are called to love. Unconditionally. We are called to serve. Without expectation of return. We are called to care. Genuinely and deeply. And we are called to pray. Without ceasing.

I can’t stop thinking about those 297 sweet, innocent ones. Especially Rebecca. I pray for her daily that God would work a miracle in her life – whether that’s through changing her father’s heart, or protecting her from any backlash for her belief in the Lord, or something else entirely!

I may not be a mother yet, but when I tell my own mom how I can’t describe the love I feel for each of them – a love that hurts because I care so deeply about every single story – she tells me that how it feels to love your child.

It’s unconditional. And it’s how the Lord loves you and me.

Sweetly,

Alyssa Leigh

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