** I recently came across this post that I had written for someone else's blog quite some time ago. I thought I would share it now. Enjoy!**
In June 2011, my family moved from West Michigan to South Africa. Our children both had birthdays the week we arrived, our son turning 7 and our daughter 5. We moved overseas with 7 black Rubbermaid containers, 7 suitcases and several pieces of hand luggage, after months of weeding out the must haves from the must leave behinds.
One item that made its way to South Africa was a small bag, shaped like an owl that some friends had lovingly snuck into our luggage with the help of my husband. When I was unpacking, I came across this bag, read the note sticking out of the front pocket, and wept. My beloved Bible study group had collected letters, encouraging notes, Bible verses and more from friends and family and had packed the bag full to bursting with words of love that would carry me through what would be a very difficult transition period.
The people represented by the letters in this bag had been my community for over 5 years; some had been part of my life for much longer. They were friends from church, college roommates, friends who were like family and family who were also my friends. I savored these notes and tried to limit myself to opening one envelope in the morning and one at night those first few months, but there were days were I would tear open letter after letter, craving a connection as I struggled with depression, loneliness and despair as we watched our initial plans for our new life in South Africa crumble and as I watched my husband drive out the gate every day to try and pick up the pieces, while the kids were left home with me, a mother who was hardly functioning most days.
After 18 months of living on our own, our life took a drastic change when we joined a children’s home as house parents. The demands of 9 children ages 0-3 plus our school-aged two turned me from hardly functioning into a mothering machine. As my daily life transformed, I began opening up to acquaintances from our new church in SA and two of these women in particular became my confidantes and cheerleaders. More than that, they became my friends.
Athena and Debbie would drive an hour north to bring us cookies, dinner for our family and the children in our care and the volunteers we worked with, they gave of themselves in so many ways and often I had nothing to give in return. They would let me talk about impetigo outbreaks, tummy bugs, the sleepless nights and the stressful days. They listened and loved and let me go on and on and on. Athena and Debbie built me up, held me up and reminded me to look up. They not only loved me, but they loved my family. They bought my children Christmas gifts and Birthday presents, asked them about their school days, and sought them out at church to give a hug and a word of encouragement. As couples, we went on date nights and they made sure that the night was filled with laughter and adult conversation. They gave me back something I had been missing for so long; community.
I recently came across the owl shaped backpack that made its way to South Africa with us so long ago. When I opened up the drawstring, I was surprised at how many envelopes were still sealed. I remembered the times when this bag was a lifeline for me and I will always be grateful for the community back in the states who supported our move to South Africa and continues to support our work with Take Action Ministry today. I am so blessed to be part of a large, thriving community here in South Africa, made up of women who have different cultures, speak different languages and live different lifestyles from my own.
Debbie and Athena have also remained a part of my community, although Athena has now left South Africa and moved back to the states. They both entered in when I had nothing to give. They pursued relationship with me at a time when I was not always able to reciprocate. It had been so long since I had “made friends” and I really wasn’t that great at it, but they didn’t let that stop them from reaching out and entering in. I am thankful for their example to me and forever grateful for their gift of community.
Question: Have you ever been invited into community by the persistent love of a caring individual? Have you ever thanked that person for their impact on your life?
Challenge: When I was feeling the most alone, I started volunteering at the children’s home where we would later become house parents. These moments of reaching out are what reopened my heart to letting other people in, which needed to happen for community building to begin. If you struggle with depression and loneliness, try doing something small for someone else. Drop a note of encouragement to a fellow mom, even one who seems to have it all together; make up a few extra plates of holiday goodies and bring your children to a nursing home to distribute them (the goodies, not your children); look for another mom who might be in a situation similar to yours and invite her to meet up with you and your kids at a local park or play area. Start small, but start somewhere!