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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I Change My Mind About Facebook

In 1991, when Averie was 6, Caris was 4, and Bryson was 2, Charlie and I started a little learning project with the kids. We had worked through the age-appropriate chore lists, and teachable moments with regard to saving, and now, we felt the time was right to teach them about service. Charlie and I believed in the value of some kind of service outside of our own four walls. Whether it was community service in our town, or ministerial service through our church (at the time). Now, we wanted to impart a sense of knowledge to the kids that there is a big world out there with children who were not as fortunate as they. Of course, Bry was still a little young to understand, and perhaps Caris may have been too. However, Averie had been, as with everything, precociously ready for such broad-spectrum thinking, sometimes I think, from birth.

Together, after much research, we decided to support a program called World Vision, through which we would sponsor a child in an impoverished community. At the time, it cost $21 a month. A pittance, yes, but we really had to work hard to budget that. After all, I was a stay-at-home mom who was also helping to care for my mom who was fighting cancer, and Charlie and I were living, quite literally, hand to mouth. What we thought at the time would be a lesson in service and stewardship for our children, turned out to be a lifetime lesson in the strength of the human spirit that would shake Charlie and I to our very core.

Right away, we received a packet from World Vision that contained a picture and bio of a small boy in Rwanda. He was just a year older than Averie, 7 years of age at the time, but his tiny frame made him seem so much younger. He had a big, big smile. His name was Samuel and we loved him instantly. As much as you could love a child in a picture that you had never met. For us, being the mush-hearted goofs that we are, this was easy. Charlie went and got a globe and an atlas and we began pointing out to the girls the tiny, little country in Africa where their new "brother" lived. They stared in wide-eyed wonder and asked a million questions; "Does Samuel have a Mommy and Daddy?", "Does Samuel have food tonight?", "Does Samuel have a baby brother like us?", "Can we send Samuel some of our toys?", "Can Samuel come and live with us?"

As the months passed, the girls would look forward to the little letters we would get from Samuel. The onion-skin thin stationery would bear his child-like scrawling of a few words in his native language on one side with a crayoned drawing of him playing football (soccer), and on the other side a World Vision worker would translate his letter to English. We would get a "report card" of his progress in school, his family life, and his health, and every couple of months or so, a new picture of this child that we were growing more and more fond of with every passing year. The kids would send him letters and drawings and in return, he would write, always addressing his letters directly to Charlie with the salutation; "My Dearest Father Charles" and closing his letters with; "Your Child, N. Samuel." He would always send his warm regards to each of us by name, but he respectfully addressed the head of household. His letters became a happy routine around our dinner table that would encompass lessons of geography, cultural tradition, schoolwork, stewardship, foreign language, and so much more. This small child, so far away, was an integral part of our world, and his gratitude for the part we played in his life was a lesson in humility not just for the kids, but for Charlie and I as well.

In 1994, along with the rest of the world, we watched the news in complete and utter horror when the nation of Rwanda erupted in civil war. Most Americans had never even heard of this tiny country. For us, I cannot even begin to describe how close this felt to home. The day after we'd heard the first reports, Charlie began one of many calls to the World Vision headquarters. They, of course, had no news for us.

Weeks passed and the television reports grew more and more terrifying. Millions were being murdered. We watched, slack-jawed and teary-eyed. Our hearts were breaking. A new lesson would now be taught. A lesson no parent wants to teach their child. The horror of war. How do you tell a 9 year-old, a 7 year-old, and a 5year-old that the child they have come to know as their Rwandan brother was missing? Perhaps dead? How do you explain to children that people are killing people because of their race and sometimes for no reason at all? How do you explain "ethnic genocide"? You think, living where we live, that they won't have to know of these things too soon. But now, because of our immersion into what we had hoped would be happy life lessons, we must choose our words wisely as we teach them. Some things, you just cannot bring yourself to say and it's not something they will understand at so tender an age. So you don't. Yet you know, on the other side of the world is a child that you have come to love who is now living this very real horror. What do you do?

Months passed. We would get little updates about the mass exodus out of Rwanda and into the Congo. Refugee camps were being set up but even they were sometimes ambushed. Still, whatever small word we received, they had no report on Samuel or his family. The World Vision school he was attending was hastily disbanded. Some World Vision workers were able to escape, unfortunately, some were not. Stories coming through were so inexplicably horrible that for long periods of time, Charlie and I did not bring up the subject of Samuel with the kids. Averie, tender-hearted Averie would weep at the mention of his name. Charlie and I, in quiet moments when the kids were in bed, would do the only thing we knew how to do at the time other than making phone call after phone call. We would pray. He would tell me again and again that if we had the resources, he would do everything in his power to find that child and whatever was left of his family and bring him back to the U.S.

A year passed. We continued to support the program, our meager funds going toward whatever work was necessary through World Vision. One day, I opened the mailbox to find a letter from the organization. My hands shook. I was afraid. So many reports of so many innocent lives being slaughtered. I didn't want to open it without Charlie. So I waited until he got home. He opened it and read it while the kids and I waited. His eyes filled with tears. Had it not been for the smile, I probably would have fainted right then, thinking the worst.

"He's alive. Samuel is alive!"

We let out an almost harmonic scream, if there is such a thing. We hugged, Charlie picked up the girls, I picked up Bry. We danced around our family room and laughed. It was joyful. Our "son" was alive. But just. After the celebration, Charlie read on. Samuel's brothers and father had been killed, he had only his mother, an older sister, and a younger sister left. His mother was ill. He and his younger sister were being looked after by World Vision workers. There was another paper in this letter. The familiar onion-skin stationery, folded, and with a little note attached saying; "Please know that this has been unedited by World Vision workers. It is exactly as this child has drawn it. Please use discretion. It should not be opened in the presence of children." Charlie unfurled it carefully. As happy as we were to know he was alive, this little "note" broke our hearts. It was a drawing, quite primitive, of what this little boy had seen. War. Death. Stick bodies in blood pools, large machetes. He quickly folded it and told the kids that it was a private note to him from Samuel.

As time went on, we continued to receive letters. You could see the slow process of healing in his writing and drawing. No more "war" pictures came. He returned to writing of his school work and playing football with friends. He kept his news on a surface level. He grew, and years passed. Once he turned 13 and completed his primary studies, his sponsorship through World Vision ended and they asked us if we wanted to sponsor another child through their primary schooling. We wanted to keep in contact with Samuel, but they told us they had lost contact with him. Ultimately, despite our efforts to find him again, we lost contact with him too. That was 1996.

Last Thursday, on Christmas Eve, I heard Caris in the living room; "OH MY GOD! NO WAY!" I went to see what was going on. She was chatting with Averie on Facebook. She turned the screen of her laptop toward me to show me a picture of a young man, but she had her hand over his name so I couldn't see.

"Do you recognize this guy?"

"No. Should I?"

She removed her hand and there, above his picture was the name SAMMY

"WHAT!? Is this for real?"

Caris began to explain to me that Averie had gotten a friend request from a Sammy. There was really no message with the request other than; "Hello, it is I. Samuel." She wrote back asking if it was her "brother" Samuel from Rwanda. He responded that indeed it was and he hoped to be able to write and to contact Mr. Charles. I was stunned. We were all stunned. Caris and I looked at his few pictures. I was looking at a man, but I still saw the little boy from so long ago. When Charlie got home, Caris told him about Samuel. My dear, darling husband wept. He wept. When he was done, he went to his computer and wrote to his long-lost "son".

If for no other reason than this, I change my mind about Facebook. It has immeasureable value because it returned a loved child to our family after a 15 year absence. I'll always be grateful for that.

Postscript: A few days ago, Sammy posted this picture on his Facebook wall. It's the first picture we ever sent him in a letter almost 20 years ago. He still had it after all these years. If this picture could talk, I know it would have so much to say, but what it says to me is, despite all he was going through, that he thought as much about us, as we thought about him. That is very humbling.