How Africa Stole My Heart

I never imagined that Mission for Mawu would still be up and running almost 3 years after starting to use my photography to raise money for my trip to Ghana in June of 2011... but here it is, still going strong!  I love, love, love that I can use my God-given talent to raise money for His Kingdom!  So I thought I'd put my story up, for anyone that was interested in the why behind Mission for Mawu... this is my journal from the trip to Ghana in June of 2011.  Caution: this is real.  Deep.  Vulnerable. It's me.

Africa, Day One
Since I was unable to blog during the trip I wrote down some thoughts and blogs.  I'll post them here chronologically so you can follow me on my journey to Ghana.
June 9, 2010                                Day 1, part 1

Hot.  Humid.  Beautiful.  Dusty.  Green.  Vacant.  Hope.  Happiness.  Music.  Smiles.

My first day in Africa - these are only a few of the words that come to mind.
As we took the 3 hour drive from Accra (pronounced uh-KRAH) to Keta (keh-TAH) I found myself silently taking everything in.  Lots of green, grassy fields and trees.
But when you come to a village/city the landscape turns brown, red and yellow.  Brown from the dirt paths used as road & sidewalk.  Brown hand-made bricks that create homes.  Yellow painted wooden stands and sheds used to sell goods.  Red ones too.  People everywhere walking, riding, sitting, selling.  People looking at us.  A stark but welcomed contrast to their world.
Women walk with large bowls full of things to sell or things already purchased, balanced precariously on their heads.  The same women walk with grace, with confidence, with a baby slung on their backs.
Children run & dart about, quick on their feet.  Quick to stop and look at us, waiting for a friendly smile or wave.
As we turn onto the school/church property that will be our home for the next two weeks, little feet scamper and curious eyes peek around corners, trying not to be caught off task by a teacher.
Everyone here welcomes us - the Banini family and those that just stop by to say hello.  "You are welcome," they say, meaning, "You are welcome here," to which our response is, "Yo, akpe", (okay, thank you).  It's hard to tell who is part of the family and who is not.  Everyone just comes in and out of the house casually - as if it's their own - and they're treated like family.
About the house: The Banini home is situated on the 2nd floor of the Global Evangelical Church that Jeremiah's dad is a pastor at.  The church is located in the middle of the compound where the Keta Elementary school is.  So the buildings surrounding the compound and inside of it are all used for school, minus the sanctuary building you see right above.  Half of the 2nd floor has been renovated into a place for teams like us to stay.  The other half is where the Banini family lives. 
We met Vinnie & Roger today.
 (They are two of four children whom the Banini family supports through feeding them lunch and giving them money for a snack at school each day.  The four children: Roger, Vinnioloa, Agnes and Harrison, live with their mother but she can't afford to support them.)  They are unbelievably sweet kids.  Shy at first, but warming up after they saw themselves on my camera.  As I was flipping through the images for Vinnie to see, she saw one of Oliver & Cricket (our kitties) and smiled real big and said, "cat."  It was very cute, and pretty awesome considering they don't speak much English yet.
Matt just loved watching them open the gifts that Sarah, Andrew and Tammy sent over for them.
As I sit in our common room writing, I hear the church choir practicing downstairs.  Energetic clapping and  a perfect harmony of so many voices.  I can't understand the words but I know they're singing praises to our God.  They sing with such rhythm, grace, energy heart and soul.  I've never heard anything quite like it.  And I absolutely love it.

Africa Day 1, Part 2

We went to The Father's House for the first time today.  We drove on a sand path through a village composed of brick homes, thatched roofs and many smiling children.  This is the Tegbi area and it is one of the poorest areas in our region.
It's the rainy season right now, so many low areas are flooding.  The road leads us over a narrow strip of land that is flanked by two flooded areas.  Coconut trees surround us & we can feel the cool breeze coming off the ocean and swirling around through the open windows of the car. 
As we continue on the bumpy path we hear, "Afo Junior! Yavu, yavu!"  Voices of the children so excited to see Jeremiah and the white people coming to play.
On the horizon a large fishing boat rests in the sand, worn, beaten & sanded down by the salty ocean water. 
As we near The Father's House a string of children has formed at the rear of our car - eager to get on the property and play some football. 
As we walk through the building I can see it transform into an home.  I can see the little children playing, learning & worshiping in a carefree environment.  I can hear giggles & squeals of delight.
As I stand on the 2nd floor, looking at the waves crashing on the beach, I can't help but think of His majesty and greatness.  The ocean breeze swirls & twirls around me, whisking my hair off my face and taking the humidity away.
I think of how God miraculously put this property in our hands.  How He's made way for the building to be built.  How he's placed all the children of this poor village here to be fed by Father's House.  What better a place for a healing home for children than here on this beach.  Where they can gaze upon the vastness of the ocean and remember that God loves them more than that.  Where they can rest in the sand and know that God has everything taken care of.

I am in love with this place.

Africa, Day 2

Peace.  Serenity.  Relaxation.  Comfort.
It's only my second day but I feel like I know what life in Ghana is.  The clocks here are merely a suggestion, an estimate of time that passes.  It is impossible to not relax here.  This home is so comforting.  Safe.  Calm.  People come and go as they please.  Relaxing on the couch.  Stretching out on the floor.  I could stand at the window forever.  Feeling the cool breeze come in off the ocean.  Watching the waves spray the boulders that line the beach.  Hearing God's whisper in the pounding of the waves: "Peace.  Rest.  Peace.  Peace."
I am overwhelmed with the peace that fills this place.  My entire body feels relaxed and at ease.  My brain gets a much needed break.  I'm letting God take over  I am in no rush.  I am on no agenda.  I am feeling a little guilty for feeling so relaxed on this mission trip, but even as I wrote that I heard God say, "That's why you're here.  To regain your sense of self.  To slow down & be more sensitive to Me."
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The three of us sat together and prayed and worshiped for a while.  It was so peaceful and I could really feel God's presence washing over us.
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The feeding at The Father's House was today.  Because the Tegbi region is so poor, many children come to receive a hot meal.  They also get taught a Bible lesson each Saturday.
The kids come a few at a time and play soccer or just sit around.
 When the time came to get ready for the teaching a bunch of the boys jump right in and start moving the benches outside.  They know exactly how to arrange them and they all work together to get it set up.
More and more kids start trickling in, and before we know it we are surrounded by a sea of children.
All at once they head toward the benches.  Without being told, they sit quietly and wait for the lesson to start.  We see a little boy with nothing on but underwear, so we pull him aside.  We have brought clothes from home to clothe children we see in need so Jeremiah goes to get some shorts and a shirt.  The joy that fills up the little boy is evident and it warms my heart.
The praise & worship begins and the children are excited and sing and clap along.  It is so beautiful to listen to, even though I don't understand a word they're saying.  It's heartwarming to see the kids worshiping and having fun.  Doche teaches the lesson outside to the children and adults that are mostly there for the feeding, or that are unable to sit still for a more formal lesson.

 Jeremiah takes a group in the building.  This group is eager to learn about the Bible and build on their knowledge of God.
All together, we feed and teach more than 240 children and adults today.  The children were very eager to get their hot meal - boiled beans with palm oil and some ground-up casava root on top.
It broke my heart when I saw many of them scooping most of their portion into small, black and clear plastic bags, looking around nervously to see who was watching them.  This is a special meal, full of flavor and protein that they want to savor.
 When they finish they either take their bowl & spoon to the wash buckets or they washed it themselves before scurrying off to play.  Others wait silently at the kitchen door, seeing if there was enough for them to have more.
Many of the children that come appear to be under 9 years old.  I see maybe 1/2 a dozen of the young girls carrying babies around.  Feeding them.  Caring for them the way a mother would.

 I was surprised, at the end of the feeding, at how little I felt like I did.  I passed out some food, hugged on some of the girls, but other than that we just hung around and played.  I did take a lot of photos.  I feel like God's telling me that is part of my role - to spread the word about these kids with my images.  So much can be done here, it can become overwhelming to think about it all.  But when I see the joy & smile on Doji's face when he plays with Jake , I know we're making an impact.  When the kids light up and giggle when they see themselves on my camera, I know we've brought them joy.
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I love the flow here.  I love the way Jeremiah & Jake can just pick up their guitars & we sing.  I usually.. okay, almost never sing in front of others - at least not loud enough for them to hear me - but it's different here.  There's no pressure to be 'good'.  We're just doing it for fun & to worship God.  Spontaneous worship.  I am absolutely loving it.

Africa, Day 3

Went to church today.  I love listening to the choir and all the hand drums.  Such beautiful worship, even if I only catch the occasional Mawu (God) and don't know the rest of the words.
After church we came upstairs for lunch and hung out with the family.  All of David & Celestines children are here to visit Matt - Clementina, Blessed (& her son Enom) and Princilla & Jeremiah (who live here still).  This was Matt's first time seeing his grandson in person, and it's been a long time since he's seen the other kids, so it was a good time for some reconnecting.
After a while we decided to take a walk to the beach (the one I can see out my bedroom window).  Doche went with us and we relaxed under a grass hut for a little while, enjoying the cool breeze and the presence of God.
As we headed back we saw some fishermen mending their net.  We stop to talk to them and find out how tedious it is to mend the nets.  They go through the fine mesh one section at a time and hand-stitch any patches that need to be fixed.  This takes hours, and it is done before and after going out to fish for hours on end.  This is the type of work that children on Lake Volta are subject to.  Children of only 8 years of age or so.
These are the same types of boats the children on Lake Volta sit on in the wee hours of the morning, bailing water out of to stay afloat.  Jumping overboard to keep the nets from snagging on the jagged tree tops that are filled with crocodiles and eels.
 On the way back to the house we heard a horrible crying coming from up the street and around the corner.  It sounded like a baby or small child was being seriously hurt.  As we came closer we saw a little girl, maybe 3 or 4 years old sitting up against the corner of a wall crying her eyes out hysterically.  No one appeared to be with her, but there were people around.  Doche asked her what was wrong but she was too distraught to answer.  A passerby overheard him and told us that the child's grandmother had to go to a meeting.  The girl had wanted to go, but was unable to so the grandmother left her in the street and drove away in the taxi.  My heart broke for this little girl.  Doche asked around to see if anyone knew the girl or if she had someone to take care of her.  We found out that she had a sister about 75 yards away, around a few corners and down another street.  Matt and Doche grabbed her hands and swung her around as we walked her home, in attempt to cheer her up.  The crying stopped eventually and we returned her to her home, where she could be taken care of.

 This is the stuff we're here to do: be open to God, following HIS path, not our own.  To be sensitive to His Spirit, not to pass by things like this.  It only took a few minutes out of our time, but we chose to answer God.  So many people were sitting around watching the little girl cry her eyes out.
How many times do we just sit and watch, back in the US?  How many times do we just walk past a person in need?

Africa, Day 4

Today is market day.  The market is across the street from us.  It is pretty big - about the size of a Wal-Mart.  The floor is dirt, sometimes brick pavers.  There are many, many vendors set up under little huts selling their goods - food, cookware, baskets, soaps, everything hand made or grown in their own farm.
 Goats roam freely, as they do everywhere else, unaware of their fate...
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On the way back from the market we stopped by the silver smith.  He was in the middle of working and I was eager to capture the process -we saw it from raw silver to the end - where he will stamp, cut and mold a piece of jewelry out of it!
By the time we were finished at the market and the silver smith, school had let out.  Vinnie was waiting for us at the entrance to the church property.  She was eager to show us how smart she is!
After hanging out with Roger & Vinnie for a little while we head to The Father's House.
We've been talking about being more intentional with our prayer when we go out there and decide to head upstairs to one of the bedrooms to gather as a team and pray.  It was such an amazing time of prayer - we could all really feel the Holy Spirit's presence with us.  I must say, today is the day I feel like we've come together as brothers & sisters.  I feel so incredibly close to Jake, Matt & Jeremiah - like they're my big brothers.  I know they will protect me and keep me safe.  I know they love me and care about me.  I know they will not judge me.  It's amazing the way we've all come together.  There's no other explanation other than God's love.  Only God's love could unite us so closely after only knowing each other for three days!  I feel like we're closer than blood.  I love it!  I'm also feeling truly like I am a part of the Banini family.  I am learning their personalities and their language and getting closer to them.  They've really welcomed us and treat us like we're they're own.
So after our prayer time we head out to the boat to do some worship.  It's nearing dark so many of the kids have gone home for the night, so it's just us out on the boat.  Us and God.  It's incredible.
Jake & I both fell in love with an Ewe(pronounced eh-VAY) song we heard the Banini family singing one night during worship time, so when we heard Jeremiah sing it again with his class at Father's House we asked him to translate it.
After he translated Jake & I decided we wanted to learn it in Ewe so we could sing it.  So last night Jeremiah taught Jake the chords and today we sat on our boat and we all worshiped in Ewe.  It was so beautiful, so amazing, so anointed.  I could feel God smiling down on us in the sunset.

Our Ewe Song
Xeviwo kple Lawo
Wo do Mawu de dzi
Ke nye amegbeto ya aleke mawu
Mado Mawu de dzi
Eye mada akpe ne da
Xeviwo kple Lawo
Wo do Mawu de dzi
Ke nye amegbeto ya aleke mawu
Ewe Song in English
Birds and animals
They lift God on high
What then shall I, a human, do?
I will lift God on high
And I will thank Him forever
Birds and animals
They lift God on high
What then shall I, a human, do?

Africa, Day 5

Romans 5:3-5 (MSG)
"There is more to come.  We continue to shout our praise even when we're hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.  In alert expectancy such as this, we're never left feeling shortchanged.  Quite the contrary- we can't round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit."

As I read this I am reminded of the time a month ago when I read it and the words jumped off the page at me.  "We know how troubles develop passionate patience... keeping us alert for what God will do next...".  I was in school.  I was not content.  I was frustrated.  Ready to be done.  These words helped me get through and I kept praising him through the situation.  Trying to be alert for Him and what He would do next.
Now, here in Ghana, I can see the rest of the verse unfolding before my eyes.  I am overflowing with what God has poured into me.  Just the other night while we were all sitting around and praying for the Holy Spirit to fill us up I had a vision from God - of a water pitcher being poured into us, each individually, and in turn we started overflowing, leaking, onto all the kids and people around us.  I got the word from God that we have to be filled up before we can pour out His love onto others.  How awesome to see an entire passage play out in my life in the span of just a few weeks.  I love this revelation.  I love the feeling of knowing I made it through.  I'm on the other side of it now. 
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We went to Akasi (uh-katch-ee) to go to the market today.  The market in Akasi is about an hour away, but is much, much larger than the one across the street from us.  On the way we stopped at the salt-leeching factory.  It's the rainy season, so they aren't operating right now, but it was neat to walk around and see how they do things through Matt & Jeremiah explaining it.  Okay, I say factory, but it's really a little cement building, maybe 900 sq. feet -maybe - surrounded outside by shallow 'pools' of cement that they fill up with the sea water, let it evaporate and then collect the sea salt.  The ground all around the factory looked like a barren desert, but it was actually incredibly soft.  It almost felt like you were walking on carpet.
I also snapped a quick shot of Jeremiah - always in the driver's seat, happy to tote us along everywhere!
The road to Akasi is bumpy, dirty, bumpy and long, but there is some beautiful scenery to take in along the way.
People travel from all over to go to the Akasi market because it's got pretty much everything you could need...
... including LOADS of atoto!  I think we bought about 5 of them!
After our morning in Akasi we were all pretty tired, so we rested at home for a little while.  I spent some good time in prayer and worship in my bedroom.  I love soaking in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  After the happenings in Akasi today, I feel such a new level of compassion for Jeremiah.  He is only 20 years old, yet he is a 'father' to so many of the children at The Father's House.  He's a brother.  He's a friend.  He's a mentor.  He's a teacher to ALL ages and walks of life.  I cannot begin to tell you all of the things he has been through in the past year alone, let alone the rest of his life.  He's such an amazing man and I love the way he chases after God's heart.  I spent a lot of time weeping and praying for him this afternoon, I wept so long and hard I ended up falling asleep with my mp3 player still going and my journal open next to me.  I woke up feeling cleansed and refreshed by God, it was such a wonderful feeling.
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After things were, ahem, taken care of for dinner that night... we headed out to Father's House again.  We had some great time in prayer and worship and just enjoyed the company of the children and each other.  David got some coconuts down from the tree for us so we enjoyed a refreshing snack before heading out to the boat to do some worship.Today was a good day.  It was a day of enlightenment, renewed and increased compassion, love and admiration.  It was a day of drawing nearer to God, a day of laughter and of tears.
Man, I love these guys!

Africa Day 6

This morning we headed out to the Father's House with David to go swimming.  It's high tide in the evening, so morning is the best time to go swimming, plus all the kids are in school so it's safer that way too.  Though Jeremiah says the kids are usually the ones watching after him because they're such good swimmers!  I guess that's what happens when you grow up on the ocean.
It was a fun and refreshing swim, but man was it a workout!  We swam out to a sandbar that was maybe 50 yards off the beach, and once we got there we were about hip-deep in water, but the undercurrent was so strong we could hardly stand up!  It was crazy, we only lasted out there for a little while before giving up and swimming back in.  I spent some time just sitting on the beach taking in the scenery - the waves, the sand, the blue sky.  It was some high quality God time.
The boys were down playing in the surf and looking for rocks & shells, so I joined them in their hunt for the perfect shell and rock to take back home.  Then we headed back up to FH for a quick shower before heading home for lunch.
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After lunch we headed back toward Tegbi and went to check out a church that David has a possibility of moving to.  It was a beautiful church and I fell in love as soon as I rounded the corner and saw it.  It's surrounded by trees and a palm-frond fence and it's far enough off the road that it avoids the noise of traffic.  It's so serene and beautiful!
After entertaining myself by watching Jake & Jeremiah attempt to catch a lizard, I snapped a photo of the church.
After checking out the church property we headed to a piece of land that David owns nearby, then to a hotel that we passed on the way in.  We just wanted to check out the property because we hadn't seen it before.  The hotel was beautiful and situated right on the beach, maybe 3-4 miles from the Father's House if you walked on the beach to get there.  The hotel had some great landscaping and awesome flowers!
On the way out of the hotel we walked up to the beach to see if we could spot the Father's House from where we were... we didn't end up being able to see TFH, but we did see a bunch of yavu's on the beach!  We wandered over to them to say hi and see what they were up to here in Africa.  Turns out the group of girls were here also working with children and chasing after God's heart.  It was great to meet a bunch of like-minded yavus!  We all prayed together before going our separate ways and it was neat getting to meet them.
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By now it was nearing 2:00 and the kids were getting out of school, so we headed back to The Father's House to play and have more fun out there.  I'm not sure how it happened but I ended up getting a soccer ball tossed at me, so I caught it and started tossing it back and fourth with a couple of the little girls around me, before I knew it there were six or seven children standing in a semi-circle around me and we were just tossing the ball back and forth.  Then one of the older boys 'set' the ball to me, like in volleyball.  So we started passing and setting the ball to each other.  I could tell the littler ones didn't know what was going on so I stopped to show them how to pass the ball, they got a kick out of it.
They were laughing and giggling so hard, especially if the ball went way up over their heads, or if it fell through the gap in their arms.  They had so much fun with it.  I don't even know how long we stood there and played but it was for a long time.  I couldn't believe that two of the girls that were playing were doing it with babies slung on their backs, and one of the babies was sleeping!  It was a lot of fun, but it sure did wear me out, probably because I was already tired from battling the ocean earlier in the morning.
After a little while we headed out to our boat for some worship, one or two of the kids I was playing 'volleyball' with tagged along and we just sat on the boat and did our thing.

 It was absolutely beautiful.
 A few more kids came over and a handful of them actually sang with us when we sang our Ewe song, and a couple of them kept trying when we switched over to English songs.  It was so sweet to see them so eager to sing worship with us, even when it was in English and they weren't familiar with it.  One of the songs they caught onto real quick was "I am Free."  It was all I could do to not loose it when I heard them singing the songs with their African accent.  "I am free to dance, I am free to sing, I am free to live for YOU." What an appropriate song for the setting - right on the property of The Father's House, where they truly are FREE!
None of us wanted to leave that night.  It may have been that we didn't want to succumb to the fact that tomorrow would be our last day at The Father's House.  It may have been that we didn't want to leave the children who were so eagerly trying to sing with us.  But it was probably because we didn't want to stop ushering in the presence of God.  So we didn't leave.  We stayed.  We followed the prompting of the Holy Spirit and we stayed.  We don't like driving home in the dark, because it's very stressfull and hard to see, but we all just knew that it would be okay.  So we stayed a little bit into the night and enjoyed the pounding waves, beautiful sunset, the harmony of the chords and our voices and the presence of the Creator.  And it. Was. Beautiful.

Africa, Day 7, Part 1 7-15-10

Our last full day in Keta.  I didn't want to face it at first, but figured I may as well get what I can out of it.
The day started with a walk down to the slave fort with Jake & Jeremiah.  Of the 48 slave forts in Africa, 44 of them are in Ghana.  This one was about a 'block' away from where we were staying, right on the water.  It actually used to be much larger, but when the ocean came up it took a lot of it away.
The door to enter the slave fort showed so clearly the years of wear and paint it had endured.  The walls were fortified with oyster shells for strength.  When they built the fort they knew what they were doing and used their resources wisely.
There was a 'ditch' that ran through the entire fort.  It is about 2 inches deep, 4 inches wide and it was the slaves' drinking water.  Water (among other things) flowed through that ditch and they had to bend over to get a drink.
A few years ago the carcass of a blue whale washed ashore on the property of the slave fort.  The remains of the spine are still there today, some of the cartilage can still be seen between some of the bones.
Putting broken pieces of glass cast into the concrete is common practice in Ghana for keeping people in (or out of) property.
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After touring the slave fort we went back home and hung out on the top of the stairs for a little while.  The power was out in the house (and had been since breakfast) and there was a nice breeze outside so we just chatted while we waited for Matt, Sabi & Eli to return from the market.  Once they got back Sabi & the girls got started on lunch - we'll call them "Virgil Kabobs".   They were very good.
With our bellies full of Virgil, green peppers and of course atoto, we headed out to the mayor's property to see about getting some mango trees to plant on the Father's House property.
When we got there, Jake, Jeremiah & I went out to the beach and stood staring at the 6 foot waves crashing onto the sand.  We were all speechless, just standing there next to each other staring at the power of the waves breaking.
After a minute or two Jake went back to looking for shells.  But Jeremiah & I couldn't help but be transfixed on the waves.  We talked about how amazing and powerful they are and how it represents God's amazing power and majesty.  Eventually Jeremiah & I went to help Jake look for shells until Matt & David called us back to enjoy some coconut.
  After we were done at the mayor's we went to The Father's House... for the last time.  We prayed upstairs when we got there, and I about fell apart thinking about it being our last time there.  It was all I could do to not let the tears come.  We walked downstairs and I put my camera in the car then we sat on some benches to worship with the kids that were around.  We played our Ewe song first.  Almost all the kids joined in on it and it was very cute to hear them singing it.  Christian, Mary, Julie, Precious and a couple others were there singing right along.  That's when this little girl walked over and joined us on the bench.
  She walked up to us with a devastated look on her face, and sat next to Matt on the bench.  Matt & I looked at each other quizzically, as if asking each other, "What's wrong with her?" because she looked so, so sad.  Matt put his arm around her and gave her a hug and told her Jesus loved her and that she was beautiful, but we're not sure how much she understood.  Then she just looked back at me with that pitifully sad face again.  I got an idea (from God, I'm sure) to go get my camera out of the car.  You see, I always had my camera on me, every day.  But since today was the last day, I deliberately left it in the car so I could soak in every last moment we had at TFH.  But I really felt prompted to get it out of the car, so I got it, sat back down and the girl looked at me, just like she had before, with that sad look.  So I snapped her picture, then turned my camera around to show her the image on the LCD screen.
 She shied away at first, but when I said, "Look, it's you," she turned back around and looked.  And her face lit up with a beautiful smile.

And this is how she looked the rest of the night.  My heart sank to the bottom of my chest. It was our last night at The Father's House and I had deliberately left my camera in the car so I could be 'in the moment' as much as possible, but what God wanted (I believe) was to show me the impact I had on these kids.  All week I had been questioning how much I had 'done' for these children because I spent so much of my time taking photos.  But through this God showed me, loud and clear, what I had done, and I will never, ever forget this moment.  This is Julie, and God used her to speak to me tonight.
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I put my camera back in the car and came back to the benches with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes.  We sang another Ewe song before taking a break to attempt pumping up a soccer ball for the older kids that were there.  When that failed (because the needle broke on the pump) Jake & I decided to hand out some of our silly bands to the smaller kids.  We'd been wearing them ourselves on & off throughout the week to hand out to kids when we saw the opportunity and this was a great time for it.  The kids absolutely loved it!  They started playing a 'game' with Jeremiah - he'd ball them all up and twist them around and the kids would race each other to see who could 'untangle' it first to see what the shape was.  They had a lot of fun with it.

We transitioned into "How He Loves" and we all knew it would be our last song.  It had only been a few minutes (or so it seemed) since we arrived on the property, but now it was time to say our final good-byes.  After the first verse I was just about to start crying, but I held it in through the repeat of the first verse.

He is jealous for me
Loves like a hurricane
I am a tree
Bending beneath
The weight of His wind and mercy
Then all of a sudden
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory
And I realize just how beautiful You are and
How great Your affections are for me

Then the chorus came and so did my emotions... and so did the voice of little Christian.  The boy Jeremiah & Levi rescued weeks ago from working on Lake Volta (you can read his story here).  The boy who said: "God told me someone would come."  This boy was now ripping down any walls I had up and the tears came flowing as he sang:

He loves us
Oh how He loves us
Oh how He loves us
Oh how He loves

We finished out the song and I don't think there was a dry eye in the group.

We are His portion and He is our prize
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes
If grace is an ocean we're all sinking

Then Heaven meets Earth like a sloppy wet kiss
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest
I don't have time to maintain these regrets when I think about
The way...

That He loves us
Oh how He loves us
Oh how He loves us
Oh how He loves

Our time at the Father's House was plentiful, but it seemed so short.  I have etched in my mind forever some of the beautiful faces of those kids.  I will never forget when the four of us prayed and came together as family for the first time in that upstairs bedroom, with a gecko watching us from the wall.  I will always remember our times of worship on the boat.  Sometimes just us, and sometimes with the kids joining in, but always with the presence of God overwhelming us.
Upon returning home from an emotional last night at The Father's House we washed up and were ready to share in a feast with the entire family.  Normally at meal times the four of us (Jake, Jeremiah, Matt & I) would sit around the dining room table with David, or maybe Ellie and eat, while the women were in the kitchen cooking and cleaning up and the boys fend for themselves.  This is their normal, it's what they do.  But since it was our last night we had an all out celebration.  We all filled our plates with fried chicken, goat kabobs, fish and rice jaloff and grabbed a soda and had a picnic on the living room floor - the whole family.  Celestine even busted out a bottle of sparking grape juice to pass around and toast with.

 It was a good time of eating, talking, laughing and just being together.  Some minor horse-play ensued...
And some time was spent making sure everything was in order for Jeremiah's visa application...
but by the end of the night we turned to worship and prayer with the family, as had become routine.  There was music and prayer, and coming together as one big family and it was so heart warming.
The four of us said our good-nights and headed back to our area of the house for our nightly debriefing and prayer.  I was not feeling well at all by this point, I have no idea why, but I felt very feverish and kept getting chills - which says a lot because it was a bajillion degrees in the house.  So I decided to tell the guys about it and they all laid hands on me and prayed.  I could physically feel the fever leaving my body, starting with my legs and then moving to my arms, but I couldn't feel it leave my neck/head area.  After they were done I did feel a lot better, so we went on with our debriefing, talking about our thoughts on the day we had and on the day ahead.  In the meantime my fever came back with a vengence.  I felt even worse that I had before and it all just hit me at once.  The boys prayed over me again and this time I felt it ALL leave, when they were done praying I felt 100% better!  The fever and aches never came back either!  It was so amazing to feel God's power flowing through them and into me to heal me - without any medicine of any sort!
We ended up staying up pretty late... until around 12 or so because we all knew it was the last night of us being together in this place. 
This place that we'd grown so comfortable in.  Talking, sharing what was really on our hearts and minds.  Being open to each other.  Being vulnerable with each other.  Praying together.  Singing together.  Laughing until we cried with each other. 
We knew we'd all have an early morning, since we were getting up to see the boys off to school and say our goodbyes to them around 6:00am, so we finally parted our ways and went into our rooms.  I called Bill, as was practice each night before bed, and was greeted with a "What are you doing up so late!?"  It was 12:30 our time so I guess I can understand his greeting :)  We talked for a few minutes then I handed the phone off to Jake so he could call Chanda and I got to writing.  I wrote in my journal, I wrote a letter to Jeremiah encouraging him to keep on fighting for his visa. I listened to my mp3 player and worshiped and thanked my amazing Father for the opportunities He gave me on this trip.  Around 2:00am I finally fell asleep to the sound of some classical praise on my headphones and the feeling of peace in my heart.
Africa Day 8

Woke up early today.  6:00am.  Our last day in Keta.
We saw Doche, Divine, Prince & Noel off to school this morning and said our final goodbyes.  Those boys are so incredible.
I grabbed a quick shower and by the time I'd returned Roger & Vinnie were hanging out in the living room.  Those kids are so sweet - it's almost unbearable!
We saw them off to school with the promise of us coming to get them out of class to say goodbye before we left.  We had a light breakfast, a couple pieces of homemade bread, before going back to our area of the house to clean up and pack up.  We spent some time with Jeremiah & Ellie, just chatting and hanging out and before we realized it, 11:30 came around and it was time to start loading up the car.  It was hard all morning holding back the tears, but I just couldn't hold back anymore when I watched Matt say goodbye to Roger & Vinnie, and then Ellie.
 The car ride started out rough.  It was all I could do to stop myself from breaking down completely in tears.  Tears because I've fallen in love with the peace I found in Keta.  Tears thankful for all God has done the past week.  Tears for the way God's love bound us together so closely.  The love I have for Matt, Jake & Jeremiah is indescribable -- the only explanation is God and I absolutely love that.  Tears because I'm in love with the way we relied on prayer & God's voice to lead us the whole way and I'm fearful that will fade away when I get home.  Tears because I'm fearful of how to explain all this to my husband - how will he react?  Will he get it?  Then what?  Tears because I so longed for Jeremiah to be on this plane with us.  Tears because I will miss Jake - even if we're only an hour or two apart, life always manages to get in the way.
So I kept watching the minutes on the clock and telling myself, "It's okay, we still have ___ hours to be with Jeremiah."
He was so quiet on the drive to Accra it killed me.  I wish we could have talked more, connect in some way.  Instead, most of the three hour drive was spent in silence, a depressing we-know-what's-coming kind of silence.
*                            *                         *
When we reached Accra our first stop was going to be the US Embassy.  Matt was going to go in and see if he could talk to someone about Jeremiah's student visa.  While we were turning around in grid-lock traffic to get to the right street, we got an e-mail from Tammy saying the Embassy was closed at noon on Fridays.  It was 3:45.  My heart fell.  This was one thing I was looking forward to! I was excited for Jeremiah, and I was feeling good about God's favor being all over us.  And now the Embassy was closed.  When Matt broke the news to Jeremiah and asked him what he thought, his reply was, "He makes all things work together for my good."  Reason #34,234,728,374,027 why I love that boy!  In the face of disappointment he remains positive.  I certainly can not say that I was that way at age 20!
So the next stop was Yireh's office.  Clementina had shipped some gifts for us to her and we were going to meet up to say good bye too. (Yireh & Clementina are Jeremiah's other two sisters)  So we saw her for a little bit and then prayed for some high-up government attorney before setting off for the cultural market.  This market is the 'tourist' market.  No food is sold here, just goodies for all the tourists.  When we parked, men started coming at us right away and getting in our faces trying to get us to buy their stuff.  I grabbed on to Jeremiah and Matt came over to grab my other hand while Jake walked behind me and David in front of us.  I love those boys, so protective of me. :)  The time at the market was pretty much a blur.  I mostly remember just holding on to someone's hand and walking through fast enough that people wouldn't stop us to get in our faces about buying their stuff.
After we were back in the car Matt asked David where we were headed next.  I heard the word I knew was coming, but dreaded all the same, "the airport."  Slowly the tears began to fall, but I held back as best I good.  I couldn't loose it yet.  Two or three hours later, after getting through a ridiculous amount of traffic (the airport was only about 20 minutes away!)and driving over a triple-decker bridge, we were in the parking lot of the airport.  Looking back on it I am so thankful for that traffic - because it really extended our time together.
In the parking lot, we unloaded our stuff and did a little rearranging with things we had purchased at the market and the gifts we'd gotten from Clementina, then we packed the car back up and got out the cooler and some snacks.  We had a little while until we had to be in the airport and since Jeremiah and David couldn't come in, we hung out in the parking lot.
Eventually Jeremiah got the guitar out and started playing a little bit.  We were sitting on the back bumper of the SUV.  I asked Jeremiah a question ( I don't even remember what now) but he didn't respond.  So I looked over at him and saw his eyes closed and his head down while he was playing.  And then I was crying.  Trying so hard not to but I couldn't help the few that were falling.  I lost it completely when Jake took over the guitar and starting playing and singing "How He Loves."  I had to get up and walk to the side of the car and just let the tears come.  I had held it in so long and my stomach was tied up in knots and I just couldn't hold back anymore.  I was crying my eyes out.  I wasn't sobbing hysterically or anything, the tears were just raining down my face in droves, endless and so full of emotion.
After being consoled by Matt and taking a few deep breaths I pulled myself together enough to walk back around the car and sit back down while Jake played some more on the guitar.  Jeremiah gave me a squeeze and I lost it all over again.  Matt kept looking at his watch and the thing I'd come to fear was going to happen soon - we were going to have to go into that airport and leave Jeremiah and David behind.  I didn't want to let go yet.  I wasn't ready.
I watched Jeremiah walk across the parking lot to go pay the fee.  I don't remember a time I've had such strong emotions like this.  We pulled up to the gate & Jeremiah got back in the front seat.  I put my hand on his shoulder because I could see on his face how upset he was to not be coming with us.  He grabbed my hand and held on tight until we got to the unloading zone.  We got ourselves and our luggage out of the car and gave our final hugs.  I didn't want to let go!  I wanted to grab his hand and take him with us.  I was crying again but I could tell he was trying to be strong.  I cried all the way into the airport until I had to pull it together when we got to customs and had to answer questions. 
*                            *                             *
7-16-10  In the airport

From the first customs check we went to the ticket line, which was quite long for us being there 4 hours before the flight left, and it was moving quite slowly.  We finally made it through the 2nd customs checkpoint and to the front of the line.. about 45 minutes later.
Then we were told the computer system for all of Delta (worldwide) was down and it would be 'a while.'  A while ended up being hours.  Some of the hardest hours I've ever sat through.  In the midst of the waiting Jake pulled out the guitar and we sat on our luggage on played and sang (what seemed to be) our 'theme' songs for the trip - the Ewe song we learned and How He Loves.  That Ewe Song makes me feel closer to the culture and I absolutely love it... even though there were tears filling my eyes it was a comforting song to sing in the midst of the chaos of being stuck in the Accra airport for an indefinite amount of time.  After two hours the Delta people decided to start checking everyone in the old fashioned way - writing tickets out by hand.  So after we got through that fun we headed upstairs and through the other three security checkpoints.  After the last one Jake & I were told we couldn't board yet because our passes were manually written out.  So we sat and waited while Matt boarded the plane.  About 45 minutes later a man came and took our manual boarding passes and walked away, presumably heading downstairs.  Another 30 minutes later I had to ask Jake to just pray.  I was tired.  Emotionally spent and hanging by a thread.  It was thirty minutes past our 1:00am boarding time, our passes had been taken away and we were still not being allowed on the plane.  So Jake stepped into the amazing authority that he has and right in the middle of the chaotic waiting area, he prayed.  We closed our eyes and went to a place where all we could hear and pay attention to was the presence of God and he prayed.  It was such a comforting place and I truly felt the peace of God overwhelm me.
Shortly after Jake prayed we were able to board the plane!  When we got on the plane, the look on Matt's face was filled with joy, and as soon as I sat down in my seat I lost it.  It was the first time the three of us had been away from each other the whole trip and it wasn't easy.  It was almost two in the morning.  I had been running on four hours of sleep and had been feeling emotions stronger than any I have ever felt before and I just reached my breaking point.  I was so happy to be on that plane, I didn't care if we weren't even moving yet, just being on the plane made things feel better.  But it also made things worse.  It meant we were actually leaving.  The tears just kept coming and it felt good to let it out.  I cried until I couldn't cry any more and the boys were there with me through it all, praying for me and reassuring me.
I ended up sleeping for about 3 hours of the 10 hour flight.  The tears came back now and then, whenever I would think about Jeremiah, Jake and Matt.  I would think about how thankful I am for our amazing relationships.  I would think about how thankful I am for the peace that God gave me on this trip.
Africa, Day 9
We landed safely in Atlanta about 30 hours after starting our trek from David & Celestine's home in Keta, Ghana.  Ahhh, to be on American soil.  I wasn't exactly ecstatic, but it was nice to smell the fresh clean air again.  We changed clothes and freshened up a bit before arriving at our gate just in time for boarding to begin.  Jake & I were separated from Matt on this flight, but it was a God thing (of course).  Jake & I had a chance to talk about the trip now that we were both more awake and alert.  We talked about some fun times and what we got out of the trip before we both fell asleep for what must have been only ten or fifteen minutes.  After the pilot came on and told us we were descending, Jake & I prayed together and got ready to get off the plane in Charlotte. 
Once we were all of the plane the three of us huddled up at an empty gate to pray, then we headed downstairs to our families.  It was great to see them, but bittersweet, knowing our journey together was all the way over.  We grabbed our bags and then everyone got together in a circle to pray before saying our good-byes and going our separate ways.

America Day 1
First morning in America.  It took some conscious effort to realize where I was and remember there was someone in the bed with me.  I really had to think about what it took to get in the shower.  I had grown so used to the routine I had in Keta - grab shampoo, body wash, and clothes, head to shower room, grab towel, etc.  I just stood in my bathroom this morning going through that list in my head, reminding myself that everything I needed was already in the shower and that my entire closet was filled with clothes to choose from just three feet from the shower.
While I was in there it occurred to me that I wasn't going to walk out and see Jeremiah, Ellie, Celestine and David, not to mention the rest of the kids.  When I came downstairs I looked out the back window at our plastic chairs and just lost it.  I was two-thirds crying, but one-third laughing!
*                          *                          *
We went to the 8:30 service today, for a couple reasons - to see Matt & Tammy and pray over Matt and also because there was no way I was emotionally ready to be around as many people as there are in the 10:30 and 11:00 services.  It felt great to be back at FHC again.  We sang "Liftin' Our Hands Up in the House of God," and I lost it again.  I felt like I was being pulled in two different directions.  The lyrics said, "Doesn't make a difference where I am, as long as I'm with You."  My brain was telling me yes it does make a difference, because I SO longed to be back in Africa, but I also loved being back at FHC, and my heart knew that lyric was true.  I've never felt so torn, but at the same time I felt the Holy Spirit just wrap me in his arms and tell me it was okay.  The rest of the day was a bit of a blur.  I had no desire to go grocery shopping, or balance the checkbook, or even to eat.  I'm very emotional still and physically tired as well.  Just thinking about the trip or about Jeremiah or all the kids at the site makes me want to cry.
*                  *                  *
I've been thinking a lot about what God taught me through this journey, and here's what I've come up with so far:
1 - Slow down!  Being on 'Ghana time', as we refer to it, was so relaxing.  There was no rush to get anything done, there was no need to fill every second of every day, there was no agenda.  And. It. Is. Amazing.  Refreshing.  Peacefull.  Relaxing.
2 - Seek God & Follow HIS direction - every day we spend a lot of time in prayer asking God to make our paths clear.  We didn't ever have a set agenda of what we were going to do and He always revealed to us what we should do that day.  Not one minute of our time was wasted - even though (I think because) WE didn't plan it out.
3 - PRAY unceasingly!  My prayer life before this trip was mediocre at best.  Not anymore.  I am in love with the amount of time we spent in prayer.  We were always praying with each other or for each other and the way that it brought the Holy Spirit upon us was felt physically.  God's presence was always on us.  We prayed for healing a lot too and man, how powerful that is!  My faith level jumped quite a bit with all the healing that was going on through prayer!  The boys even prayed away my fever, upset stomach and headache!  It was incredible, indescribable and so amazing to feel the power of God flowing through Jake, Jeremiah and Matt.
4 - Step out!  I learned a few days into the trip why it wasn't in God's plan for Bill to come on this trip... there is no way I would have stepped out the way I did to form relationships if he would have been there.  There were so many times I stepped out of my comfort zone and the rewards always far outweighed any fears I had of stepping out.
*                    *                      *
Today has been tougher than I thought.  I just feel like I'm not quite ready to jump in yet.  I miss our mission life.  I miss Matt, Jake, Jeremiah and the bond we have.

America, Day 2
This morning has been easier than yesterday.  No tears yet, but a big part of me still feels numb.  I sing the Ewe songs in my head over and over again.  I'm always conscious of what time it it in Ghana and what the family might be doing.  I look forward to editing my photos because it takes me back there.

After the Trip - FAQ 
Are you back to 'normal' yet?
This is a hard one to answer.  In short: no.  But that's okay.  I won't ever be 'normal' again.  My journey to Africa has changed my life.  Yea, a LOT of people say that after a mission trip.  But seriously.  It has for me.  Maybe this will help-
My life in summary before:  I had every day planned for at least a month in advance, if not more.  I went shopping about once a week, maybe twice, but would always wander over to the non-food section to browse the clothes or shoes, or housewares.  I was a sale hunter, if there was a huge sale I would be there.  I was a liar.  GASP!  I know.  I would tell people I would pray for them, but would usually forget.  I wasn't intentionally lying, just to be clear.  I was just so planned out and organized that I would forget if I didn't write it down.   I was a neat freak - my house was almost always spic-n-span, picked up, not cluttered.  My yard was always mowed, bushes always trimmed, flowerbeds always weeded.
I live life a day at a time.  In the next month, I only have 4 things on my calendar.  I'm not a hippie or anything, some things kind of have to be planned. :)  Every morning I wake up and pray for what God would have me to do that day.  When we go shopping - which is once a week at the most, usually once every ten days or two weeks - I have no desire to browse the non-food stuff.  I get in, get what we need and get out.  I just don't have the desire to 'shop'.  Even if there's a big sale.  I don't need more stuff.  I've got more than enough.  I pray unceasingly, expectantly and boldly!  If someone asks me to pray for them, I do it right then and there.  I am always in prayer - it's like a conversation I have with my Father all throughout the day.  I also pray with my husband now.  Every. Single. Night. We pray together and I love it.  It's brought us so much closer together, not only with each other, but with God too.  I am still a neat freak, I like things to be neat and orderly.  But I am not OCD about it anymore.  Case and point: my backyard with three weeks without being mowed.  We had weeds back there almost as tall as me.  Seriously.  It was bad.  We just had better things to do - hang out with friends, grow our own relationship, and plus it had been rainy and we all know you can't mow the grass in the rain.  :)  If you just drop by my house, it will mostly be in order and clean, but chances are there will be a stack of mail on the table that needs going through, there may be some throw pillows on the floor instead of neatly placed on the couch.  There will probably be a few dirty dishes in the sink.  You might even see a small layer of dust on our shelves.  I'm okay with that.  Because it's life.  We all get dusty houses, we all get junk mail mixed in with real mail that needs to be sorted - why put up a front like I've got it all together?  It's just not worth it to me anymore.  I'd rather be real. 

When are you going back?
We, or I, or Bill, will go back whenever we feel the Spirit lead us to.  If it was up to me I'd go back tomorrow.  But that's not God's plan, and I'm all about following Him these days, so until He gives me (or Bill) the go-ahead, we'll hang here in the States.  We might all go next time, it might be just me again, or it might be just Bill.  Again, whatever the Spirit prompts us to do, we'll follow His lead.

What are you doing to save/raise money for next time?
We've set up a savings plan and are putting aside a percentage of our income to go strictly toward our Missions Fund.
I'm also still doing portrait sessions to raise money.  70% of all money that I get from these sessions goes straight into the missions fund, the other 25% gets donated to The Father's House. (where 8 blessed boys are now living - freed from a life of slavery on Lake Volta as of January 2011!!!)  I will continue to sell prints as well.  All money from those sales will also go directly to the missions fund.  When we get the prompting from God that we should head over to Africa, I may seek more support, but again (you will notice a theme) we'll follow His lead on that. :)

So there ya have it, those are a lot of the questions I've been getting from people lately.  Do you have a question I didn't answer?  Feel free to leave it in the comment section and I'll get back to you, or publish it on the blog as soon as I get it.
Thanks for reading and joining me on this journey friends, it's been good!