Two words come to mind: answered prayers.
Before I stepped foot in the Dominican Republican for Summer Staff with Mission Emanuel, I began praying for this summer and asking others to pray with me. I put a list of prayer requests on the back of my support letter, and every time I talked to someone about my trip, three main requests swirled around in my brain:
That everything we did was a living representation of Christ and the Gospel; health and safety and physical endurance; and for strong relationships to form within Summer Staff.
If I am completely honest, I would present those requests to people, with full faith God would come through on the first two requests.
I’d seen him move in the DR before, I know he is there at work blessing Mission Emanuel. I’d experienced the way he so obviously carries me when I’m there and miraculously, on every trip before, I was never in the physical pain I expected to be in with my Cerebral Palsy.
Before the trip, the last of those three requests was the one I really wrestled with.
“I don’t know,” I remember telling one of my best friends before I left school, “I’m nervous about that part. It’s just the three of us plus our leader. I kinda know Nicole, but not that well. And I know Sydney and Summer know each other, so I’m just worried it will be hard for me to come in and be friends with them, when all of them have a base of knowing each other. Plus, I never know how people will react to my physical situation, so that always makes me nervous.”
Let me tell you something: one of the best feelings is when God proves you wrong. Looking back on our trip, surrounding that request and even the two I just told you I was confident about, God blew me away with this trip. On all fronts.
In the middle of our time, a man on one of the teams that came down asked me how long we’ve known each other.
“As a group, we’ve only been together a few weeks. They knew each other before, but I really didn’t know any of them before this.”
He looked at me and smiled. “I would’ve just assumed you have all known each other for years. Don’t lose sight of the fact that this is special.”
That wasn’t the last time someone asked us the same question and gave a similar response. We all agreed from the first day that our situation, just four of us on Summer Staff this year, was unique. What I don’t think we could’ve predicted was exactly how our friendships would grow in the matter of just a few weeks.
Without a doubt, from the first day on, these girls showed me more love, acceptance and friendship than I ever thought possible. Without a doubt, I believe God knew better than we did how bad each of us needed these friendships, all for different reasons. Without a doubt, in just a few weeks, these random girls transformed into lifelong friends of mine.
Putting us together on Staff and making us click the way we did is something only our God could do. Even in the smallest ways, I saw how God was and is completely woven in our friendships.
I mentioned before that my physical situation makes me nervous coming into every new friendship. I never know how people will react to the girl on crutches, and one of the biggest things I’ve had to fight in my life is believing I am burden to people or that I slow my friends down.
Nicole, Summer and Sydney showed me from our first day together that they didn’t care that I was disabled. From the way one of them never minded carrying my plate of food and told me to stop apologizing about it, to the way one of them always found my walker when we would arrive at the Mission each day, I truly feel undeserving of the way these three loved me so well.
I haven’t told them this part specifically, but one of the ways that showed me love so well, was completely silent. And as I experienced it one of our last nights, I silently let a tear escape as I felt the magnitude of something, something I don’t think they even realized they did daily.
My entire life, I’ve just wanted to keep up. In a very literal sense, from the time I was in a walker in kindergarten to now, on crutches in college, it’s always hard for me when I’m walking somewhere with a group of people. Most of time, I end up in the back, trailing behind. I know that when this happens with friends, I’m never purposefully left behind. But nonetheless, those moments I find myself trailing behind groups, are always hard. Because I know it’s nothing anyone does on purpose and because of my fear of slowing my friends down, I rarely say anything. I just crutch faster. Before I go further, trust me when I say I’m so aware of how the Lord has blessed me insanely well with friends who accept and love me in college. I am in no way discounting how blessed I’ve been with the people in my life. I am just so thankful for this unique situation of our Staff and the clear picture it painted for me.
As I found myself in this tiny squad of Summer Staff, I never found myself trailing behind or struggling to keep up. As I would hop off the bus, the three of them without fail, would be standing there with my crutches in hand. As I slowly pushed my walker over crazy terrains, they were right by my side, often holding the back so I didn’t lose my footing. As we walked back upstairs every night, they always waited for me to make it up the lobby stairs and never left me behind as we headed to our room. When I fell behind the big groups on the way to dinners, they fell behind too.
By the middle of the first week, I silently noticed how they consciously never left me. I noticed how it was a conscious choice by them, but they definitely didn’t realize how much it meant to me.
I walked into Summer Staff, fully expecting to feel out of place. But I never did.
Asking for help is something I struggle with. Though I still asked them every day at meals and other times, when they told me I didn’t have to ask or apologize, I knew they meant it.
They were there. Everyday. I never really needed to ask.
We partner with Mission Emanuel to join in their mission of loving their neighbor, building community and being the body of Christ.
And through these friendships that I now forever cherish, I personally experienced exactly what we try to do for the people of the DR.
My Summer Staff pals loved me well and carried me, without making me feel like an outsider.
Friends, that is the body of Christ. That is the family we are called to be a part of.
Nicole, Syd and Summer: I love y’all so much. Thank you for the laughs that filled our room nightly, the honest words that we shared and for how true your friendship is.
Here’s to one of the best summers I’ve had, with some of the best people I know.
To a God who cares and knows what he’s doing.
And to a God who constantly proves me wrong, in the very best way.
I didn’t know Alexander. But now, I’ll never forget him.
What blows me away constantly about God, is his ability to place people in each other’s paths, for the perfect reason, at the perfect time.
What blows me away constantly about God, is how his plan is worked out so far in advanced and is constantly moving.
The Dominican Republic has had part of my heart since I first came here in 2012. The ways Mission Emanuel (ME) builds meaningful, lasting relationships and loves so deeply, is such a clear depiction of the Gospel to me. And from that first trip, I knew this place, these people and this mission were forever going to be a part of my life.
When I decided I wanted to go on Summer Staff this summer with ME, it all started happening so fast. I filled out my application and found out a few weeks later that I was accepted. And as I started the fundraising process, I was completely shocked and humbled by how fast I not only reached, but surpassed the fully funded mark.
With the way it was all so quickly falling into place, I couldn’t help but think that God might have something super special planned for my summer in the DR.
Now after the first week, I can tell you that that is so true.
I didn’t know Alexander. But now, I’ll never forget him.
It really all started back in January when my dad went on a trip. He called me and told me that they were working on a house for a lady named Mari, who had a son with Cerebral Palsy (CP). He said that her son had passed away, but this house was such a picture of promises being fulfilled. He said he told her about me, and he thought it was so special that he was there to work on the house.
Last week, months after Dad’s trip, I passed buckets full of concrete and painted walls on that same house.
And at the end of the week, I met Mari. I met her as I handed her the keys to her new house. She held me as tight as she could, and we both wept.
Mari looked at me and the people around us, and thanked us over and over.
She called me family and told me that when she saw me, she looked at my legs, and her heart leapt. Because of her son, Alexander, who God made like me, we were connected.
Though I didn’t understand her Spanish, others translated for me. As she held my face, she told me: “God makes people like you and my son. You are a child of God, and you are beautiful.”
Words didn’t come. I just nodded and smiled and hugged her, as more tears streamed down my face.
Questions are something I believe none of us can avoid, because we are human. And we don’t know that plan that God has in advanced and always moving.
My entire life, I’ve fought questions. I wonder why a lot. Why I have to live in pain, why I can’t walk. Why I know hospitals better than the average kid. Why as a kid, I went to more PT sessions than play dates.
I know God made me this way. But when I think about it, it’s easy to see that in a negative light. It’s easy to see the way I am as a bad thing. It’s easy to let pain and negativity overflow and fail to seen any purpose in it.
I sometimes also struggle on the opposite side of the spectrum. Because I realize how the Lord has immensely blessed me with resources, I wonder why I’ve had the chance to constantly improve my situation, and some others don’t have that chance.
Simply put, my medical challenges can make it really easy for me to be mad and confused for a lot of reasons.
As I stood in the middle of this house and held a weeping mother in my arms, I cannot explain to you fully the feeling I had. But in that moment, I saw a small piece of God’s plan coming to fruition.
Our lives are forever woven together. And it’s because of years of planning on our God’s part.
From the doctors who walked alongside me to get me to a place where I can physically be able to be in the DR, to Mission Emanuel being there to stand by and carry Mari through the darkest times, to my dad being in that first group to work on her house, God was in every second leading up to our emotional hug.
I’m not claiming to now magically and fully understand God’s plan. But I fully believe our God is an intentional God. And this moment painted a picture of that part of his character.
I fully believe that God constantly gives us glimpses of his perfect plan and that those are some of the most beautiful moments.
I will never forget Mari’s words to me. As she wiped my tears, and I heard her call me a child of God and beautiful, I can genuinely say I’ve never believed those words more fully than when she told me those things.
In that moment, I felt like Heaven was meeting Earth. People from Illinois to Florida to the Dominican, stood together in support of one family. Who is all their own family.
Like it says in Nehemiah, the joy of the Lord is Mari’s strength. It’s my strength. And it’s the strength of every hand that has worked with Mission Emanuel.
Today, I am thankful for an intentional God. I’m thankful that family means more than just blood. I’m thankful for a God who loves, cares and plans. And I’m thankful that joy found in him isn’t dependent on circumstances, but everlasting.
I didn’t know Mari’s son, Alexander. But now, I’ll never forget him.