You are worth loving.

I’ve been trying to put this into words for the last two weeks with much difficulty. The day I left Swaziland was the hardest day of my entire trip by far – harder than leaving my family for nearly a year, and harder than saying goodbye to my friends I’d lived and traveled with when we finally reached the end. And to be honest, I never really let myself revisit it until now. Later that same day we jumped right into ministry in Mozambique and other responsibilities became more pressing. But so many nights since I’ve returned, I have been kept awake for hours replaying my time spent in this beautiful country. Swaziland, more than any other place I visited, holds a special place in my heart. If you’d like to hear more, it would be my joy to share it with you face-to-face. Unfortunately, though, it’s proving especially difficult for me to put into writing.

I woke coated in a fine layer of dust. For the few hours I’d been able to sleep, the torrential rain knocked every bit of dirt from the tin roof onto me in the bunk below, while the furious winds blew even more in through the cracks. As soon as I regained consciousness, the heaviness of what was coming flooded back to me. At the foot of the bed, my pack stood leaning against the wall full of everything I had with me. I began this day the same way I had every day this month: wishing I could have more time there on top of the mountain. But my time had run out.

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Three days prior, sitting on a rock overlooking the entire valley below us, I felt my heart breaking. The thought of leaving El Shaddai, the orphanage we’d lived and worked at for our second month, hung over me like a shadow. The stories of the abuses and atrocities committed against each child before he or she was brought to the orphanage replayed through my mind. For weeks I had entertained the idea of refusing to leave, but I knew God would not let me stay. I never expected to learn a lesson in commitment while spending the entire year being shuffled from one country to another. But continuing on with the World Race at that point took all the self-control I could muster.

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I rushed to get out of bed and up to the gate to see the children one last time before they went to school. I walked the same path I had repeatedly taken that month, and recalled all the times I had suddenly felt a pair of soft brown hands covering my eyes from behind and a voice in my ear, “Guess who I am!” (It was always Nozipho.) As the children trickled out of the dormitories in their navy and red school uniforms, I waited outside for my girls, the ones I’d been loving and had been loved by all month. One by one, they emerged into the sunlight and wrapped their arms around me, sure it would be the last time.

What stung the most about these goodbyes was how unaffected the girls seemed to be. I didn’t need them to miss me in order to feel important, neither did I want them to be heartbroken over the inevitable. But it seemed as though each one of them had steeled her heart for this moment, refusing to show emotion or to let herself admit she’d truly miss me. Not a tear was shed that day by any of them, at least not in my presence. The hugs were genuine but quick, and then they were gone. I again recalled some of their stories, the ways in which those they’d loved had left them before. While it made sense why this farewell wasn’t earth-shattering to them, at the same time it wrecked me to witness the ways these beautiful children had already developed callouses on their hearts in subconscious acts of self-preservation.

Finally, out came my Lindo, notoriously on the late side. That month, we’d each been paired with a child to intentionally spend time with each afternoon, and God told me to partner with her. But all month, she’d been running from me, just to see if I was committed enough to chase her. The first time we sat and talked, she asked, “You’re my buddy? When are you leaving me?” She, more than any child I met that month, assumed that I wouldn’t bother to pursue her. Each afternoon in chapel, she refused to sit with me, despite my invitation. Each evening when I had to go eat dinner, she would lie to me, “I’m leaving this weekend. I’m going back with my family. I will not see you again.” She was already skilled in the art of manipulation, but I soon learned this was just a trick to get more of my time and attention. However, to her surprise, I would not abandon the chase, and each extra hour spent with Lindo was one in which I saw the walls she’d constructed fall down as she realized no act of rebellion or indifference could deter me. She held on a little longer than the others that morning, long enough for me to speak over her, “You are smart. You are beautiful. You are worth loving.”

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After reluctantly packing up our chapas to head down the mountain, we said the rest of our goodbyes and crowded inside. We pulled out of the gate and down the dirt road past the school. As we rounded the corner, all the children in the schoolyard began dancing and waving for us as we departed, lined up along the fence. In the back row of seats, I sat and wept more heavily than I ever had, hoping God would eventually bring me back.

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