Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Still searching for our FL church home

Moving to another state is hard sometimes. Most days I just go about my business and keep moving forward. But some days it just hits me like a brick wall - so many things we left behind in Tennessee - wonderful, life-giving things. Like all of our amazing friends. Like Mihretu's school. Like our house that we loved so much on the dead end next to the field where we would see deer and coyotes. Miss that place. And our church - Belmont Church on music row - where I found my first ever church home and where I invested 12 years of my life. The same church that I had a fundraiser concert at to bring Mihretu home and sold handmade items and Just Love coffee and paintings at the Christmas marketplace to help bring him home. The same place that welcomed him home with open arms and where he was dedicated and loved on week after week. The place where I grew from someone incredibly lost and broken to a daughter of the most high King. So much healing and growth happened there. Nashville is pretty transient so a lot of friends have come and gone from that church and that city over the years and that was hard - to connect with amazing friends and then watch them move away. But I still had that place to go to every week that was familiar and felt like home. Where there were many, many familiar faces always - people who had been going there or even working there for over 20 years. Long before I came there. That place has part of my heart. And today I saw a post from someone there with exciting news and I was so happy for them but the sadness immediately sunk in cause I'm not there to share in that excitement or all the life happening there. Or to walk into that place this Sunday and hear the most amazing musicians playing the most beautiful worship music in the world, seeing people I know filling the room and praising God with their whole hearts. I miss that place so much.

I fully believe God has a church home for us here and it will be great. We just haven't found it yet. We've been to something like 11 churches since we've moved here. Mihretu has been such a trooper about going into the kids areas at each one all by himself as I head into grown up church all by myself. He's gotten to the point where he comes out afterwards and gives me his version of a critique of how it was:) Every time we try a new one I have this hope that this could be it. And then I walk out feeling blah about it afterwards. I'm trying not to have expectations of what it will be like but I feel like I'll know when I find it. I just hope it's soon.

In the meantime, there's this awesome local ministry called Bridge A Life that does all kinds of great things for adoptive and foster families - parents night out with free childcare, picnics, meals for adoptive and foster families, moms night out and so on. I love this ministry. Anyway, last week I was on a prayer call with a friend and sharing how my biggest prayer is just to get connected to a community. We prayed for a church home and a small group and I had said "I would love it if there was a small group just for adoptive families." And what do you know - 20 minutes after we prayed that, an email went out from Bridge A Life saying a new small group was starting for adoptive families. Praise the Lord - this is awesome. It's at a local church and there's childcare so the kids will get to have fun while the adults have our group time. We went to that church for parents night out last weekend and then also tried it on Sunday and Mihretu loved it. So I am happy to know he will be excited to go there on Wed nights. Not sure if that's our church home but at least we can start connecting to other adoptive families on Wed nights there. And I think these families are coming from all different churches so perhaps we'll even get connected to one through another family. I know God will show us where we are supposed to be. I know we are supposed to be here. Just some days are hard and emotional thinking about the wonderful things we left behind. God is faithful. Can't wait to share with y'all how He provides a church home cause I know He will.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Our story - chapter 1

A Visiting Orphans team member wanted to chat with me this week to hear my adoption story. As I was sharing with her this morning, she asked me if I had this written down and I realized I have it written in segments in many blog posts but not all in one post. So I'm going to put it all together in one story here. God has been so faithful in this journey and I am a big believer that we should share our stories with others to remember what God has done, to encourage them and to be reminded that He is faithful and can be trusted. So I'm going to share our adoption story here, in one blog post. It's just chapter 1 cause our story is still being written. But it's a good first chapter with God's faithfulness weaved all throughout. I can't wait to see what the next chapter holds. 

I had been praying about adopting for many years but honestly wrestled with the fact that I wasn't yet married. I kept thinking I would just have to wait until I was married and that was the order things should happen. I started working for Visiting Orphans in 2009 just a few weeks shy of turning 35. As I traveled and loved on kids - many of whom were in orphanages - the desire to adopt grew even stronger. In May of 2011, our whole staff traveled to Kentucky to attend the Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit. This was my first time attending this amazing conference and I've been back all but 1 year since. At that conference, one of the speakers gave us an assignment to ask God how He sees us and we were all given a blank piece of paper. I felt like he said "mother" and I just sobbed like a baby when I heard that. Just a few months prior, on Christmas morning of 2010, I woke up to a blanket of snow covering the Nashville ground. I got excited like a kid at the moment I saw it but my excitement quickly turned to sadness because there was no one there to share this excitement. I felt this strange and very strong sense that morning that a little one was missing from my home and my life. That is the first time I'd ever felt that "someone is missing" feeling. I began praying hard about adopting as a single - going back and forth with God asking whether I was getting ahead of His timing if I went for it, and then asking if I was holding too tightly to my own ideas of the order I thought things should happen if I didn't go for it. I always wanted to be mom to a little boy from Ethiopia but as I began researching, the agencies I knew of didn't allow singles to adopt from there. I started to think Ethiopia as a country didn't allow single adoption. I looked into other countries, thought about domestic adoption and just kept praying God would show me. I just never felt sure one way or another and always Ethiopia was in the back of my mind and in my heart. I attended some webinars over the next few months and learned more about country programs for certain agencies and got lots of discouraging comments from agency staff about how "single adoption is not our preference but we do sometimes work with singles". You can read more on that topic over on this blog post I wrote called "What Makes Me Mad". During this time, I also came across another blog that really encouraged me called "Should A Single Woman Adopt"- you can read this amazing blog post here. By the time that CAFO Summit happened, I was wrecked and ready to adopt as a single but still didn't know which agency to use, which country, where exactly to start. I was scheduled to lead a Ghana/Uganda combo trip July 2011 and about a month prior when we were working on flights, I emailed my team of 29 people and told them that even though VO had been to Ghana before, for some reason, nothing was coming together for this trip to happen. Contacts weren't responding, the flights were way higher than expected, it just wasn't feeling right. So I told them we could do Uganda only or we could still do 2 countries and do Ethiopia and Uganda. All 29 people picked Ethiopia and Uganda. I remember saying multiple times on conference calls that God must be going to do something amazing in Ethiopia because it was truly remarkable that 29 people would all agree on a schedule change like that. We visited Uganda first and had an incredible week there. Then we headed to Ethiopia. Several days into the trip, on July 24, 2011 - we were serving at an orphanage and that's when my life changed forever. I walked into a room full of babies and toddlers and my team was already all holding kiddos. I walked around the room and looked at all the photos above the cribs of each child and I saw this little boys picture and the words above his photo said "available". I did a quick scan of the room for him and found him. One of my team members was holding him. He wasn't making a fuss about being held but he wasn't totally comfortable either. He was looking around like "what in the world are all these people doing here?" Patricia who was holding him said "Do you want to hold him?" and I of course said "sure". She handed him to me and his posture completely shifted. He instantly melted into my arms like he was home. And I was in love in that very moment. I had loved on lots of kids but this was different. It was such a sweet moment that I closed my eyes to just take it all in. Not knowing that my team member Ashley was snapping a photo at that very moment from across the room. This photo, this moment. Be still my heart. This is when I became a mother.

I didn't put him down the whole time we were there. He sat on my lap and snuggled up as we listened to stories from an American missionary who had moved there to help these kids. Later, he fell asleep in my arms. I didn't want to put him down. And he didn't want me to either. He got very mad when I did. I thought he was sound asleep and I was doing it so gently that he wouldn't wake up. Nope. He knew. He woke up and he was mad. The nannies told me he was "ornery". I thought to myself "I would be too if I didn't have my own mommy to hold me whenever I wanted". As I was holding him that day, the missionary came up to me and said "he's available". I was surprised. I just thought the photo above his bed hadn't been updated and surely this kiddo had a family in process for him. Nope. He didn't. "But I'm single" was my next response. Her reply was "That doesn't matter. There's a lady upstairs visiting her child that she's adopting and she's single." And I just stood there with my mind racing. Maybe I could really adopt a little boy from Ethiopia... as a single. So I talked to the lady who was there and she told me what agency she was using. I found out several others with kids from there were also using that agency. I took down the name of that agency. I was trying so hard to guard my heart and not get my hopes up because I know that most of the time you cannot adopt children you meet on mission trips and there was no telling what obstacles could come up or what might be going on behind the scenes. Maybe he was being adopted and these girls just didn't know that yet. Maybe they wouldn't allow me to adopt him. Maybe it wouldn't work out at all. But maybe it would. 

I tried to play it cool but my team was asking me questions that night at the guest house and encouraging me to pursue this. They could all see that we had a connection and I told them I had already been praying about adopting. I was still just feeling bad about not having a two parent family to offer this child. One of my team members said to me "Why don't you just move forward and ask God to either open or close doors?" And that's what I did. We went back the next day to visit again and I took a zillion pictures and videos, thinking to myself "if this does work out - I'm going to want this day documented". So glad I did! 

As soon as we landed in DC, there was a sense of urgency to pursue this. I started looking for agency contact info from the airport before my next flight. The next day, I contacted that agency. They were pretty discouraging about the possibility of me getting to adopt him and the whole trying to do a pre-identified adoption thing but there was a tiny bit of a maybe so I created this blog and wrote my very first blog post. 2 days later, I had already started fundraising and had talked to a home study agency to get started. I didn't know if I could really adopt him but I knew I had to try and ultimately trust God with the outcome. On August 2nd I found out that the original agency would not work with me at all - they didn't even plan to work with that orphanage anymore. I was discouraged big time. I had found this out during the work day and a co-worker told me about a different past team member of hers that was adopting an older boy from the same orphanage and gave me her contact info to find out who she used. I emailed them immediately and within 30 minutes they called me. The conversation went something like this:
Agency guy: We got your email and would love to help you.
Me: But I'm single.
Agency guy: That's ok. We work with singles all the time. If the director will work with us and if this child is truly available and not already in process, we would be happy to help you adopt him.
Me: Wow, really?
Agency guy: Yes. We will send our guy over tomorrow to talk to the director and find out. If she agrees and we proceed, are you able to pay the initial agency fee of $5500? 
Me: Um, yes, I will start fundraising today. 

The next day, I got an email with photos of Mihretu and a message that asked me if this was indeed the right child and if so, letting me know that he was available to be adopted and the director would work with us. Did I want to proceed? Holy cow - YES!!! This is happening. Talk about open doors and fast ones at that. 

By August 4th, I had already raised $900 which covered half of my home study! I turned into a fundraising machine. I did an ipad giveaway and raised $10,000 in less than a month. I did a garage sale, a reunion concert with my old band, sold items I bought overseas, sold t-shirts, sold necklace designs that I created and my coworker put together, did a drawing for a painting and so on. Like I said, fundraising machine. As each payment was due for the home study, fingerprinting, agency fee, dossier, country fee, etc - the funds were already there to cover it. God blessed my socks off through so many people who came alongside me and donated and prayed and helped bring my little guy home.

On August 6, 2011 - less than 2 weeks from the day we first met - a contract was signed on my behalf between my agency and the orphanage for me to adopt him. Talk about amazing! 

So the beginning of the process moved crazy fast, and then the movement stopped... for quite awhile. I think for almost 9 months there was no update other than "his paperwork still isn't done". The director at that orphanage was not in any hurry to finish his paperwork and I began hearing stories of lots of adoptions held up by this same person. Not good. To know a child could have a family and begin life with that family and yet to keep them in an orphanage for even a moment longer than they needed to be - horrible, unthinkable. So hard to wait and have no control over. All I could do was pray. And I did lots of that. My coworkers prayed with me. So many friends around the world prayed. And one team in May of 2012 broke something in the spiritual realm when they went to war on behalf of those kids, praying over every child and caregiver. I seriously am forever grateful to that team that my coworker Merrill led that May. I feel like they prayed my boy home. 

I think it was May or June, we had a team leader back out from leading a Uganda trip and I didn't want to send the co-leader on her own when she hadn't led before. And it was a big team of 24 so I said I'd lead with her since no movement was happening for quite some time in the adoption and the trip was coming up quickly (July). My coworker Alicia reminded me that our flights to Uganda stop in Ethiopia and so of course I needed to stay after the team left and visit my little guy. I began praying specifically that he would be moved out of that orphanage and into my agencies care center by the time I went because this would mean his paperwork was finally done and we were actually moving forward. Part of me still wondered if it would ever happen and if I truly would be able to bring this little boy home at all. I kept praying. Right after Merrill's team was there in May, we found out the director fled the country and that was truly a Godsend. A board member came in, took over and said they would finish Mihretu's and several other kids paperwork. Literally the day I left for the airport to lead the Uganda team, I got the phone call. Mihretu's paperwork was done and he had just been moved to my agencies care center the night before. I could not believe the timing. Holy cow - I was going to be there in less than 2 weeks and was heading to Uganda and there was finally movement! Praise the Lord!!! I was beyond overjoyed. I think I was almost in shock at the craziness and awesomeness of God's timing. So I got on that plane and I did the best I could to lead that Uganda team well even though the whole time I just could not stop thinking about getting to Ethiopia to be with my boy. As I was in Uganda, I started hearing talk about court dates and emailed my agency to see if I could even possibly get assigned a date within a week or two. They said it was possible. What the what? I could maybe have court while I was there - and I wouldn't even have to make a whole separate trip? I started praying. 

I was reunited with Mihretu on August 1, 2012 - just a little bit over 1 year since we first met. Photographer and friend Wynne Elder came along and took these precious photos of our reunion. Elisa Hyman (my Uganda co-leader who is now one of my closest friends) took video which I have yet to figure out how to get onto my computer. I was so nervous that morning. Would he want anything to do with me? I knew he wouldn't remember me but would he like me this time? So nervous. I remember feeling like I was in a dream. A surreal dream. 

The nannies told him "your mommy is here" and he walked over to me and let me pick him up. He didn't seem scared but he clearly was confused about what was going on. He just stared at me a lot. He discovered my necklace with his picture on it and thought that was pretty fascinating. And then he snuggled up. And as active as I was soon to find out he was, that day he was just a little snuggle bug. He literally snuggled with me all day long. He fell asleep in my arms and I just held him for hours. It was amazing. Everything I had hoped and dreamed and more. After a year of waiting and almost 9 months of no movement at all - I was here with my boy and he was really in my arms. Thank you Jesus. 

I was only going to stay for a few days but when I found out court was even a remote possibility, I changed my flight home and delayed my return a bit longer. I didn't end up getting an official court date but I called my agency guy in country and asked if I could go to court and ask the judge if she would see me since I was there. He said sure and clearly hadn't even thought of that idea till I brought it up. On Monday, August 6th - we went to the court and waited for all the families with appointments to finish and then my agency guy went in and asked the judge if she would do my parental interview since I was in country. She agreed. Praise the Lord!!!! I did my interview and my part of court was done. There was one more document she needed before I could officially pass court and she gave my agency till Friday to get it. I flew home the next day and on Friday, August 10th, I got the email - I passed court!!! The agency director told me he had never seen the whole "parental interview ahead of time thing" ever happen. It was a first but certainly a wonderful first. Yes indeed. It was prayers answered. 

Now that I had passed court, some big funds were due for the country fee and my return trip to go get my son once I got Embassy clearance. I must add here that leaving after court was ridiculously hard and the process of two trips and getting a week with your child and then having to leave the country without them is incredibly difficult. Nothing about it feels right. It's an awful feeling to have to leave your child behind and go home without them. But I knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel. 

On August 25th, I got a letter from Show Hope telling me I would receive a really significant adoption grant. Between that grant and the fundraising that had already happened since returning home, I was pretty much fully funded. Money would not keep me from being able to go get my boy the moment they told me I could come. My friends threw me an amazing baby shower, as did the VO staff. This was happening! Here's an overview of the fast moving timeline and financial due dates. God provided miraculously through so many amazing people!

8/31/12 Mihretu's passport is here! 1 more step before Embassy - his medical exam next week!
8/28/12 MOWA approval letter received - 1 step closer!
8/25/12 Got a letter in the mail from Show Hope. I am receiving a grant which means I'm pretty much fully funded!!!
8/23/12 Got Mihretu's birth certificate!!! (mailed a check to my agency for $10,000 for the Ethiopia country fee)
8/13/12 The court decree arrives in record time!
8/10/12 After being back in the states since Wed, I get the word that I have officially passed court and I'm legally Mihretu's momma!
8/6/12 The judge agrees and does my parental interview for court while I'm in Ethiopia! (paid $230 for Mihretu's visa while I was there)
8/1/12 See my boy for the first time in a year!!!

And then there was that "wait there's more" moment when some friends who still remain anonymous donated money toward me getting a minivan. You can read more about that here but let's just say I was blown away. Almost $30,000 raised to bring my son home and friends are giving even more to bless me with a minivan. I was and still am, completely blown away. 

And then the long awaited most glorious wonderful email of all arrived at 2:23 am on Tuesday, October 22, 2012. Subject line said: Case is cleared; request for visa interview. I hit reply to request my first 3 choices of appointment. By the time I woke up at 7:20 am - I had word that I got my first choice. My visa appointment was scheduled for the next Monday, Oct 29th at 9am in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The amazing travel agent we use for VO got to work on booking my flights and my amazing friend (and co-worker at the time) Merrill came with me and we got on a plane only 3 days later to go get that boy!!! We arrived in Ethiopia Saturday evening. We went first thing Sunday morning to visit Mihretu's sweet grandma about an hour outside of Addis and that was a treasured meeting. Got some cherished photos that are now part of Mihretu's "Story of Me" book I made him. That afternoon, we headed to the care center and I picked up my boy knowing I would never have to leave there without him again. Our family day was Sunday, October 28, 2012. Merrill took these photos of the moment I saw him again after 3 months.

We stayed at the care center for a few hours so he would have time to get comfortable with me before we left there with him. And then we left and rode in a car with no car seat - it's Ethiopia y'all! And we started our journey together as a family and had all kinds of firsts those first few days. First time rocking him to sleep, first night sleeping next to each other, first morning together, first dinner, lunch, breakfast together, first bath and so on. 

Looking back now, it almost feels like a dream. It was all so unfamiliar for both of us. We jumped into this new journey together and many days that first year were hard and rocky and filled with just simply learning each other. I didn't do nearly as well as a mommy as I hoped I would right out of the gate. His trauma stirred up my past trauma and sometimes we were just getting through the day. But other times, many other times, we were being silly and laughing and having adventures together. That first year seems like a blur now almost. I'm so glad I blogged so much so I can look back and see God's faithfulness and how He pulled us through. And oh how much healing He has brought in both of our lives. Mine in areas I didn't even know I still needed healing. Mihretu is the most amazing kid ever. He's smart and completely hilarious. He has perfect comedic timing and he's pretty strong willed too. I remind myself in those strong willed frustrating moments that he's a future leader and that's a good thing. He really is a future leader. He's going to do amazing things. I am pretty sure he's going to be a world changer. I love watching him grow and learn and thrive. He's creative and outspoken and loves to make people laugh. He's social and friendly and always up for a new adventure. Moving to Florida a few months ago was a big change for both of us and sometimes we miss Nashville, our church, our friends and his school there. But every day we are settling in to life here more and more, making new friends and having new adventures. We swim in our pool almost every single day. We got to the beach most weekends. We get to have get togethers with my best friend who now lives in Tampa - we've been friends over 20 years and they just moved to FL the same time we did. How cool is that? We start a small group next week for adoptive families and that is an answer to prayer. I am super excited about that. We still haven't settled on a church home yet although we've tried quite a few and have gone to some several times thinking that might be it. I think we'll know when we find the right one. Super thankful we can go ahead and start in a small group though while we search. We celebrate 3 years as a family next month. In some ways, time has flown by - in other ways, it seems like we've always been together. I can't imagine life without this little guy. I am truly a blessed momma. I am thankful for God's faithful and all the amazingness of our journey. It's just the first chapter of our story. And I love this story. Mihretu is praying for a brother, a sister and a baby so pray for me cause the prayers of a child are powerful and I don't know that I'm ready for all that... yet. ha ha 

LOVE our Ethiopian family

We just returned from Ethiopia and oh boy - my heart is completely wrecked. Mihretu and I traveled on our own last March (2018) over his ...