What I Don’t Know

His message to me last night was a simple one:

“I wish God had remembered these children at this hour of need, really.”

Our friend in Uganda, the pastor of the orphanage our daughter is from, had messaged me, asking for prayer for the orphans in his care. For several long minutes, I didn’t know what to say.

I finally typed, “He hasn’t forgotten, even though I understand that it seems so.”

But our spotty Internet connection failed before my words could arrive.


I do know that the God who numbers the very hairs on our heads has not forgotten these kids, or that they were supposed to start a new term of school on Monday (and couldn’t). But…it sure looks like it.

It certainly feels like it. I can only imagine how much more acutely they feel it, living it out on the other side of the globe.

Several of the children are teenagers and it hurts them greatly when they have to keep stopping and restarting their education. Food supplies have also been low. They’re hungry.

And the guilt I feel is immense because I haven’t been that great of a friend to them. Not like I promised I would.

Of course, at the time of my promises, I didn’t know the emotional and financial stress that lay ahead for my household. I didn’t know that I’d sometimes find myself too exhausted to keep on top of everything here, much less everything there.

I just didn’t know.

I didn’t know that I could actually be jealous of thriving ministries abroad. That I could feel such a bizarre combination of brilliant awe and piercing rejection when friends raised enough money (in a matter of days!) to build an entire school from the ground up in Ethiopia–while “my kids”, my daughter’s friends, have struggled for three solid years to build one small orphanage to house twenty-plus kids all in one place.

This is a picture of the building two years ago, when we were there (it’s the one to the right):


And over two years later, that little brick building still isn’t livable. My friends Joyce and Butch went to visit in April and saw that the roof had been placed. Here’s a picture of Joyce this year, standing near the same spot the above picture was taken:


But there’s still no plumbing, no working latrine, no electricity. They can’t live there yet. Building it has been a literal labor of laying one brick at a time, of buying and installing one roof panel, one window, one door. With long, inactive months between, when no progress happens because the kids need tuition, they need food, they need medication for the malaria that attacks far too often–and then there’s no money left to keep building.

Our church had helped some, in the past, but other ministries and missions have nudged this project out of the forefront. Still, when our youth group did a fundraiser for World Vision, I didn’t resent it. I mean, I love what World Vision is accomplishing. And Compassion International–you see their widget on my blog. I believe in what these ministries do.

But they’re big, well-known. They have a following. While our kids, well…they have nobody but my family, the Leutharts and a handful of others who have given in the past. None of us are rich by American standards, either. All too often, our tiny pool of donors have to choose between paying our bills or helping Pastor Ronald and the kids.

So I share on Facebook and Twitter, and I ask people to help. But most of the time, the response is crickets chirping.

Why am I even writing this? I guess that’s another thing I don’t know. Maybe because I need to get it off my chest, how this struggle feels. How utterly defeating it feels to have failed over and over again at just trying to help some orphans have the most basic things in life that we all take for granted.

A home, food, an education.


The trouble with trying to help a ministry is that you find yourself judging people automatically sometimes. I try not to, but I do. Can I be real enough to admit that?

Please understand that to some degree, I can’t help myself. Because I’m always doing what my kids and I jokingly call “orphan math”. Here is an example of it.

I sat at a traffic light this morning and counted eight cars pulling into Starbucks. I figured each of them would spend at least $5 on their beverages and snacks–which is pretty conservative for Starbucks. So that’s at least $40 blown in two minutes–at just one restaurant on one long strip of restaurants in one smallish metro-Atlanta city.

In “orphan math”, those eight cups of coffee could buy 80 pounds of maize flour, to turn into the Ugandan mainstay, posho.

Eight measly cups of coffee sure could fill a lot of hungry bellies.

Or, let’s talk protein. It’s summertime. A lot of people are going on vacation, some to the beach or going on cruises. So here’s some orphan math about fish.

According to this chart, whole tilapia is about $5 per kilogram in Uganda. I looked up the cost of a 7-Day Caribbean cruise and it runs about $1,000 per person.

If a person chose to forego that cruise, he or she could buy 200 kg of fresh fish for these kids. That translates into a whopping 440 pounds of much-needed protein, enough for each child in this small orphanage to eat a pound of fish a week for four months. (Did I ever tell you that my daughter binged on chicken, eggs and fish when she first came to America? It was like her little body was trying so hard to recover from so many years of not getting enough protein-rich foods.)

Nobody goes on a cruise alone, so just keep multiplying using that orphan math and and you see why it’s so hard when people tell me, “Gee, I’d love to help but I just can’t afford to.” (Which is usually after their family just got back from vacation.)

I get so weary of the disingenuousness. Just tell me, “I don’t want to help.” Who knows? Maybe the truth would be easier to hear. I try to make myself feel better by telling myself that maybe all of y’all are already giving a huge percentage of your income to charity and I don’t know a thing about it. Or maybe your vacations are financed by rich relatives and you’re all genuinely struggling to make ends meet. I know, I know…at the end of the day, it’s none of my business.

I don’t mind confessing that I have plank eye. Maybe that’s the problem. I think I’m the one judging when actually, people are judging me because I’m asking them to help while I’m not exactly living like John the Baptist.

It would be plenty easy to look at us and think we aren’t giving up enough to have earned the right to say a word about sacrificial giving. We have decent clothes (mostly from Goodwill and eBay), we’re obviously well-fed (via discount grocers and a food co-op), we go to Florida a couple of times a year (to visit my parents, who mostly foot the bill). We have two vehicles–one newish (to save fuel on my husband’s long commute) and the other, a gift that now bears almost 220K miles and a slipping transmission.

We have dogs (free rescues), wireless Internet (needed for our jobs) and cable TV (I admit–that could go). I sometimes blog about Broadway shows, museums and other fun extravagances, but those are nearly always free media events that I’ve been invited to attend and write about.

I really don’t think we live a luxurious life. For heaven’s sake, we live in a c. 1971 brick home with 1,500 square feet of far too many (crumbling) original features. Still, if we’re judging spending, there’s always room to cut back somewhere, or ways to earn more. And I’m thinking like that because of what I don’t know.

I don’t know how to stop caring about these kids in Uganda.

I don’t know how to encourage people to give up a few creature comforts so that a hungry child can eat.

I don’t know how to keep pressing on when people I love don’t want to hear about “our Ugandan kids” or share even a little in the burden of helping them.

And clearly, I don’t know how to fund-raise for orphans, because if I did, that building would’ve been finished a long time ago. And I wouldn’t be sitting up late at night writing about how sad and hopeless I feel sometimes…which is just a fraction of how hopeless and sad those sweet kids feel in Uganda right now.

One thing I do know: it’s easy to donate through the PayPal link Joyce has set up. Click here if you’re so inclined. And if not, know that I love you anyway.

My heavy heart just needed to vent. So thanks for listening and loving me even though I’m that annoying friend who is always asking you to do something.