It was our last day in Haiti, and a grinning boy on the schoolyard plucked a photograph from his front pocket. He held up the photo of an American girl. And my mama-heart swelled.
The girl in the photo? She’s our oldest daughter, Lydia.
The sweet boy: Romario.
He’s 11 years old, and he lives with his family in one of those temporary blue tent-shelters that Samaritan’s Purse set up after the earthquake in 2010. That was nearly four years ago. The “temporary” tent is still Romario’s home.
But there is hope for Romario. He finds hope inside his mountaintop schoolhouse, where the walls are painted the color of hope: sunny-yellow.
Hope is a sharpened pencil and an arithmetic book and chalkboard at the front of every classroom.
Hope is a classroom full of rambunctious preschoolers praying before lunch.
For Romario, hope is a friend named Lydia.
Hope isn’t a silly notion … it’s an actual place, and I stood right there, staring hope in the face– on the mountaintop where the Haitian flag snaps on the pole, and the school mascot is a sassy goat named Sophia, and a boy carries a photo of an American girl in his pocket.
For Romario and the other 850 children who attend the Touch of Hope school, hope looks like a sponsor – someone who says, “I believe in you.”
Every day, Romario walks two miles to the Touch of Hope school with my daughter’s picture pressed into his pocket, like a treasure. Yes, Lydia is Romario’s friend, and she is also his sponsor.
And Romario? That sweet boy is pressed into the folds of our family’s collective heart. So is his country.
Our family is almost home now – shuffling between airport gates like pack-mules.
Our shoes are still Haiti-dirty. Our hearts have been Haiti-cleaned.
See, that’s the thing about going to Haiti, and that’s why we keep going back. Haiti will break your heart, and remake it all over again. But the part in between the making and the breaking? It hurts. A lot.
Dear God, how do we go back home without the pain of having our hearts broken?
Maybe we don’t.
And maybe that’s the point anyway.
This morning, we awoke to the sound of the rooster outside the orphanage wall for the last time, the sound of the babies crying out “alleluia” from their little cribs. I couldn’t go in the “baby room” to say goodbye. It was just too painful.
I tried to hide my tears behind my obnoxiously large sunglasses, but the orphan boys saw anyway. They whispered to each other: “Mom Jennifer kriye.” Translation: Mom Jennifer is crying.
Yeah. She was. Mom Jennifer was crying for a hundred reasons.
For hard goodbyes. For “melting” houses, and ribcages under threadbare shirts, and persistent alleluias that break through the growl of hunger. For sassy orphans who stole our hearts. For singing “Jesus Loves Me” to calm the naked toddler. And Mom Jennifer cried even more when she saw the tears running down her daughters’ cheeks.
We were all breaking at 6:30 a.m.
Mom Jennifer “kriye” because when she gets home, she’ll be tempted to ask her own daughters if they have any Christmas gift “ideas.” And it makes Mom Jennifer angry, that we have to actually trade “ideas” for gifts in America, because most of us don’t really need anything.
Collectively, we feed a gazillion-dollar industry that creates stuff no one really needs just so we have “ideas” to put on Christmas lists. I knew it for sure on the way home from Haiti, when I flipped through a Sky Mall magazine to find a gadget called a “window-cleaning robot.” And there was a toothbrush that “sings” songs from Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber.
The catalog also offered a “magic showerhead that transforms your regular shower into a fountain of brilliant fun” by illuminating the water with one of seven bright LED colors. I know people who would just go for a little bit of clean water, thank-you-very-much.
I want to be done with “ideas.”
I have another “idea.”
How about we do Christmas differently, North America?
We all want that, don’t we? I have heard you. You want simple. You want manger Christmas, not Big Box Christmas. You don’t want a Christmas with more tinsel, more flashing lights, and more singing toothbrushes.
You want more Jesus.
I do, too.
Dear Lord, hear us now.
I am sitting on an American Airlines jet, flying somewhere over Oklahoma, tapping out these words. I’ve been scouring Scripture all day. I cannot find a single Bible verse to justify a Christmas of window-washing robots and LED-lit shower heads.
Whose birthday is this anyway? And how can I give the birthday boy a real gift?
And since Jesus is not here, in the flesh, how can we make sure that Jesus gets an actual gift from us — a gift He really wants? Behold: Jesus left his own Christmas “gift idea” in Scripture.
I think it’s pretty safe to say this is what Jesus wants:
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’.” Matthew 25:40
When we give Christmas gifts to the least, we give to Jesus.
Tonight, I think of Romario, a boy who carries hope in his pocket and in his heart. Our family visited his blue-tarped house on the day we crossed through villages to visit all of our sponsor children. When we visited Romario, Lydia gathered his family under the roof of his one-room house, and she asked everyone to bow their heads to pray. We held hands in a circle.
Lydia prayed for Romario’s home, and his education, and for him to “grow with God.”
And I’m doing the same right here, “growing with God.” I’ll be honest. Our Chistmas won’t be radical enough. I’ll splurge on something, and I’ll stuff the stockings too full.
But I pledge it right now. I won’t miss the real meaning of Christmas. And I won’t forget why I cried on the orphanage yard, and I won’t forget the Christmas “idea” that Jesus left for us in His Word.
I won’t forget the reason.
Dear God, don’t let your people ever, ever, ever forget the reason.
It really is all because of Jesus. All.
Read more encouragement by Jennifer in The Hard Work of Saying Goodbye
Jennifer Dukes Lee used to cover crime, politics, and natural disasters as an award-winning news journalist in the Midwest. Now, Jennifer uses her reporting skills to chase after the biggest story in history: the redemptive story of Christ. Soon, her words will make their way into her debut nonfiction Christian book, Love Idol: Letting Go of Your Need for Approval – and Seeing Yourself through God’s Eyes.She and her husband live on the Lee family farm in Iowa with their two daughters.
To learn more about the author, please visit Jennifer Dukes Lee