Mother, sponsor, and author Micha Boyett writes today about her first book – Found: A Story of Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer – released last month, along with the joys and challenges of both motherhood and sponsorship, and the role that grace has played in both.
Sixteen years ago, I began sending letters and stickers to a little girl named Zawadi who lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country ravaged then (in 1998) — and still ravaged now — by devastating violence.
I found Zawadi’s sweet face in a stack of photos one Thursday night after a spokesperson from another sponsorship organization shared about the needs of children in the most desperate places of the world. I was a sophomore in college, with a limited amount of spending money and a love for Africa.
I chose Zawadi in that stack of pictures because she looked like the children I imagined I’d hold and rock one day. I pictured myself making a home in Central or East Africa and working with orphaned babies. My plan was to graduate college and then finally do something “important” with my life. I was earnest and romantic and I longed to be the one who sang the tenderest souls to sleep each night. What did I know of being a mother?
I loved Zawadi. For four years we sent each other letters. I prayed for her and asked her questions. Time passed much more slowly then. I graduated and didn’t move to Africa. And Zawadi’s home in the Democratic Republic of Congo erupted into even more desperate violence.
I remember where I stood in my one-bedroom apartment in 2002, during my first year of graduate school, when I got the letter from the sponsorship organization. Her program was forced to close. Her town was too dangerous, the children’s lives at risk. By then she was a young woman, probably twelve or thirteen.
Pray for her, they said in the letter. That’s all. That’s all I know of Zawadi’s life. All those letters she and I wrote and I don’t know if she lived. I pray for her sometimes when her face comes to mind. I pray for her, knowing the stories of so many women in the Congo. Was she hurt or kidnapped? Does she have children? Does she have dinner tonight? Does she live?
The day I learned of her home’s chaos, I was 23 years old and overwhelmed by guilt. I had planned to sacrifice my easy American life. I had planned to bravely rescue the crushed children of this world. Instead, I’d gone to graduate school to study poetry. I had failed Zawadi. I sank against the wall in my tiny apartment. I held the letter and cried. Why should I live and write poetry while Zawadi runs for her life?
This year I turn 35. That letter 12 years ago is a distant story, and still a thread woven through my present life. I never went across the world to run an orphanage. Instead I married a good, kind man and became a mother.
My sons love books and soccer. They love sharks and cheetahs. Their chores are nothing like the chores Zawadi wrote to me about in her letters. She kept the dirt floor swept for her mother. She carried the water home for her family. My boys help set the table and put their toys away. Zawadi walked to her one-room school. We climb into the car and drive through the school drop-off lane.
And still, I am a mother. I say the words to my boys that I wrote to Zawadi all those years ago when I didn’t yet know motherhood as I know it now:
Learning to read is important. I hope you will love stories.
I’m so happy you like to do your chores. I am proud of you.
Sometimes it’s hard to learn something new but you work to learn it anyway. That makes you strong and brave!
I pray you’ll believe that God’s love for you is bigger than all the love in the whole world.
What does it mean to be a mother? This past year I wrote a book about the spiritual failure and eventual transformation that motherhood wrought in my life. And in the process of writing it, I was forced to come to terms with the ugly guilt of my life choices: the children I didn’t rock in the orphanages, the Zawadis I didn’t rescue.
In the process, I learned to believe that God’s love was as big as I promised Zawadi it was, wider and deeper than any of our brave deeds, than our bold sacrifices.
And in the slow process of believing the reality of God’s love for me, I learned to cling to grace. I learned to believe that the God who holds me and my family is also the God who holds Zawadi, wherever she is, on this earth or in the deep places of eternity.
We sponsor the same way we mother: imperfectly. With learned love. Now, through World Vision, I sponsor Heydi, a shy 6-year-old in Guatemala, who (as I learned when I met her last fall) would rather color alone than bust the piñata at a party. Heydi sat in my lap. I hugged Heydi’s mother and looked in her eyes, promising prayers. And still I fail to pray for them like I want to. Still I fail to get the letters in the mail on time. I sponsor imperfectly; I mother imperfectly.
But sometimes, in moments of grace, I sit in front of the blank sheet of paper and ask myself: What do I wish I had said to Zawadi? How am I invited to mother well, in this moment, in this small, faithful way? I write: God’s love for you is bigger than all the love in the whole world, Heydi.
I write those words to Heydi, but also Zawadi. And to my boys. And, somewhere in the process, God writes the words to me. All of us, our imperfect lives, held by a loving Creator. Our small stories woven together into one Great Love Story.
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Micha (pronounced "MY-cah") Boyett is a writer, blogger, and sometimes poet. A former youth minister, she's passionate about monasticism and ancient Christian spiritual practices and how they inform the contemporary life of faith. She recently released her first book Found: A Story of Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer.
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