In January 2015 I left for Uganda. I only planned to be there for four months, but somehow four months turned into six. My heart broke from the immense pain and injustice I witnessed, but those same pieces were mended back together by the love and joy I experienced through the beautiful Ugandan people. When I flew back to Chicago at the end of July, a large piece of my heart remained in that beautiful country with the many people who became family to me.
While living in Uganda, I served with a few organizations doing various types of work. The main organization I served with was Sole Hope, a non-profit that seeks to spread hope to the people of Uganda by offering medical care for both adults and children. I also spent time with an organization called Arise Talents, which provides refuge for orphans and vulnerable children. Arise Talents opens their doors to teach children sustainable skills such as painting, dancing, and singing, in order to better equip them for the future. The third organization I served with was Arise & Shine, a home that cares for infants and young orphans until they can be resettled with their family or adopted.
I learned something beautiful through these three organizations. Whether it was providing shelter, teaching a skill, or offering medical care, each of these organizations breathed the same message into the people they cared for: You are known, you have value, you have a place, you are loved.
Though the organizations primarily served orphans and vulnerable children, they treated these children with dignity and love. The message was clear: the children were more than orphans. They were more than their vulnerable situations. They were more than their circumstances.
As I spent time with these children, the shackles binding the words “orphan” and “vulnerable child” in my mind loosened their grip and fell to the ground. I no longer saw them as defined by the fact that they didn’t have parents. I no longer associated them with a face on an ad—the African child who we can’t help but feel bad for. Poverty was not their identity. Orphan was not their name. Circumstances had woven defeating words deep into the fabric of their lives, but those words didn’t define them. They were so much more. They are so much more.
They have hurts. They have victories. They have fears. They have a name. Each one has a story.
Emma is a little boy I met during my time in Uganda. With a severe medical condition ravaging his body, he had never received the proper care or medical treatment to get him on a path towards healing. But in the midst of his struggle, Emma didn’t need me to feel bad for him. He needed me to be his friend, to love him and to walk alongside him through the pain.
Over time I grew to know Emma and the other children. They became my friends, my family. And over time my heart grew to understand something: they didn’t need me to save them. I wasn’t their hero. I wasn’t better than them because I have parents and they do not, or because I have resources that they do not have access to.
But I do have a responsibility.
I have a responsibility to love. We all do. And for each person love might take on a different action. Love might be flying across the ocean to spend time with and care for the orphan. Love might be using your resources to support an organization that’s on the ground caring for vulnerable children. Love might be bringing a child with no family into your own. Love might be becoming the vessel that carries their voices across the ocean, to tell their stories and to advocate.
I returned to Uganda this past December to care for Emma. I now spend my days advocating for Emma’s medical needs, ensuring that he has the proper care and resources his medical condition requires. The days here are both beautiful and hard. But even on the messiest of days, love is worth it. Emma is worth it.
When you choose to step out in love, you will begin to witness the beautiful way Jesus weaves together stories of hope and healing out of the pain in this world. Your action will be different. But whatever it might be, we are called to love.
For the orphan. For the vulnerable child. For the homeless. For the oppressed. For the lonely.
So go be love.
By Kayla Cervenka