tiny paper hearts

fifteen months ago, i took pieces of construction paper, bright red, soft pink, and scattered them across a dining room table. pencil in hand, i traced little hearts and cut each one out, nearly fifty of them in all. and as i said my goodbyes during that last week in liberia, i’d slip a tiny paper heart into each girl’s hand. she would look at me with tears in her eyes, and i’d pull her close and hold her near as we cried. the hearts were merely a symbol, i explained. though my body was leaving, much of my heart was not. janet, leemue, mercy, jumah–each of them kept a heart. so did rose, princess, janjay, kamah; and gormaloh and hannah and siah and caroline. and on and on it goes…

looking back, i was never much concerned with leaving a legacy. i cared more about those construction paper hearts:: not much to look at on the surface, but rich with meaning, a significance only they and i could understand. and that–well, that was enough for us.


today, one of the girls pulls me aside. “auntie,” she whispers, “look! i still have it!” opening her hand slowly, she shows me a red heart, folded up neatly in her palm. it’s tattered a bit ‘round the edges, and time and dirt have dulled its color. but she kept it nonetheless:: a tiny paper heart, a promise that i wouldn’t forget.

“i knew you’d come back for us,” she smiles, slipping her free hand into mine. we sit like that for a while, not speaking, a red heart clenched tightly in her fist.


the thing is:: this world needs more tiny paper hearts. all of us, we need to be people who love, deeply. we need to be people who give our hearts away. because your heart? it’s beautiful, simply…beautiful. and i know; that’s a word that gets tossed around a lot, and sometimes, it loses its meaning. but i can think of no other word that fits here, dear heart. yours is rich and full, and it’s got something that this world needs.

i’ve given a lot of paper hearts out over the years, and you know what i’ve learned along the way? love; it’s not for the faint of heart. love’s not always the stuff of movies, sweet and easy and wrapped up neat with a bow. love’s a risky business. you’re giving a piece of yourself away, and that can be a scary thing. what if that other person is careless with your heart and doesn’t cherish it the way he should? what if she takes that tiny paper heart of yours and rips it to a million shreds?


Photo by Soumit // Flickr // Creative Commons

though maybe, just maybe:: she’ll keep that heart and treasure it. maybe he’ll fold it up neatly in the palm of his hand and keep you safe there. 

maybe, just maybe (and i think i’m right about this one):: loving other people is worth it all.

when love looks nothing like you thought it did

in the nine months i’ve been out of liberia, i’ve spoken countless times of the deep ache that comes with saying goodbye. there are moments when i miss liberia and her children so strongly it takes my breath away, where the loss and all the emotions that come with it feel as real and true as the hot blood running through my veins.

i miss liberia. a lot. i miss my kids. a lot. my arms feel empty and my soul split in two, missing its other half that lies an ocean away. 

sometimes my ache consumes me, and sometimes, i forget.
my kids are hurting, too. they’re aching, too. they’re crying, too.

i recently got a few letters from some of the girls in liberia, and what they wrote nearly broke me. “i love you so, so much deep in my heart.” “i will never stop loving you until God takes my life from me.” “when i sit by myself i think about you and cry.” “please come back to me.”

i read their words and feel the tears sting my eyes. i long to gather them into my arms and press my lips to their foreheads and let love like a hurricane somehow heal their heart wounds. i long. oh, how i long.

and though they be but little, their love is fierce, and i smile proudly at the thought. because i can remember a time when feeling was a risk, and emotions were held at bay, and now there is freedom in love, through love. because of love.

because this:: this is what love looks like. it’s tender words that cut sharp as a blade. it’s longing and aching and waiting and missing. it’s grit and guts and mess and heart, and it hurts sometimes, but it hurts because it’s real. it’s brave and it’s furious, and it’s glory because it gives us a glimpse into a kingdom coming to earth. love anything deep and true enough, and it will hurt you. 

but it’s never a wound that can’t be repaired. by Love.
though it injures, it also heals us. it wounds, and then it binds us up. it’s full of mystery and a beauty that is sacred, and it reminds me that the ache and hurt are holy, somehow, even if i cannot understand it.

the answer to love is always more love. always, always more love.

                                                [Photo by Hamed. Al-Raisi, Creative Commons]

someone once said, “find what you love and let it kill you”, and i agree. let it hurt. let it rip that beating heart of yours wide open. let it spill out and spill over and make you get your hands a little dirty.

and then–allow it to heal you the way in which only Love can do.

be love

four and a half years ago, i stepped foot on african soil for the first time. i was overwhelmed and unsure, broken and laid bare in a place that would ultimately change + give me so much more than i could ever leave behind.

liberia was nothing that i could have been prepared for, yet i knew i was following His lead. He had sent me to this tiny nation with the mandate to “be love” to the poor, the orphaned, and the voicelessas i held children in my arms and my lap, as my tears fell silently into their ebony hair and the red dust of the earth, my heart felt so heavy and full i was sure it would beat right out of my chest.

over the years, i wondered, time + time again, if i had made a mistake, if liberia was really the place for me, if the time + energy + tears made any difference at all. and i heard Him, time + time again, always answer with the same two words. “be love.” that’s it. simple, uncomplicated, wholehearted love. that was my mission, is my mission to this day. it’s my purpose, my calling, my ministry, the cry of my heart. “be love.”

be love. to the crippled man sleeping in the garbage pile.
be love. to the thirteen year old girls raped by grown men.
be love. to the hungry boys and girls begging for a dollar, a meal, whatever they can get their hands on.
be love. to the lonely children who cry themselves to sleep at night and wonder if God has forgotten them.
be love. to the neighbors and friends who just can’t seem to catch a break in life.
be love. to the quiet voices that no one listens to, the faces that  fade into the background.
be love. to the women who wish they were better.
be love. to the men who make them feel that way.
be love. to those who know not what they do.

because really, when it all comes down to it, what each of us needs most in this world is loveand love has a face. it has a voice. it’s a bed and clean clothes. it’s justice and standing up for another’s rights. it’s a warm embrace and a kiss on the forehead. it’s giving without expecting anything in return. it’s speaking words of promise and hope over the discouraged and downtrodden. it’s getting your hands dirty and your heart broken. it’s sacrificing that which you barely have. it’s braiding a ten year old girl’s hair and whispering in her ear how beautiful she is. it’s saying, “i will not give up on you even when everyone else does.” it’s teaching an entire generation of forgotten and voiceless children that they matter, that they’re worthy, and that i see them.

though my country of residence has changed, my mission has not. no matter where i find myself in the world, no matter who is set before me, i will choose to be love. truly, there’s nothing that could matter more. join me? get on out there + be love to someone who needs it today.


when the heartache sometimes haunts you

five years ago this october, i went through one of the most heartbreaking, messiest, soul-tearing experiences of my life. after nearly seven years of marriage, i found myself in the aftermath of a divorce, picking up the pieces of broken dreams and shattered expectations. it took me a long, long time to get over him, but the day finally came around when i could think of him without crying + when forgiveness had settled itself down deep in my bones. i remember how freeing it felt to finally be able to take a breath without feeling the crushing force of heartache in my chest. i was wide-eyed and hopeful once again, stronger and wiser than i had been before.

still, it was then that i made a grave mistake, a misinterpretation that would haunt me in the months to come. i drew a correlation between my healing and a lack of pain; i figured now that i was put back together again, i would no longer hurt over what was lost. i was wrong.

the Bible teaches that marriage is not only the union of two in body but also in heart + soul + spirit. divorce is the tearing of that union, the brutal, bloody severing of what had been fused into one. though i was now divorced with my ex no longer in the picture, there were parts of me that still throbbed and ached from being ripped from what i was once fused to.


                                    [Photo from Gabriella Camerotti on Flickr]

it was like experiencing phantom limb pain, where nerves at the point of amputation send pain signals to the brain, making it think the limb is still there. pieces of my heart and soul would start to hurt, seemingly out of nowhere, and i began to understand how every part of me was learning to process the trauma of amputation.

as human beings, our natural inclination when we feel pain or discomfort of any kind is to immediately alleviate it, by any means necessary. take a pill, avoid the pain source, shut down completely if we have to–anything to make the hurting stop. i was no different. i became desperate to find another to cleave to, to make me “whole” once more. i was reckless with my heart and my emotions, believing that it was the price i had to pay in order to fully connect with somebody again. i accepted the lie that i needed somebody else to complete me, that i couldn’t be enough on my own. like i said–anything to make the hurting stop.

the thing is, the old adage that time heals all wounds is actually true. i’ve reached the point where my phantom pain is all but gone. sure, i feel a twinge now and again, but it’s nothing like the dull ache that used to seem a part of my very existence. and i’ve come to realize that i don’t need a man in my life to make me happy. would i like to remarry? of course i would, and i believe that will be my lot in life one day. but that’s not where i am right now, and i have learned to accept that for what it is + even to give thanks for it. in my singleness, i have grown as a person and grown even stronger in my walk with God. i’ve traveled, spending years living overseas. i have had opportunities that simply would not have come my way had i been married. and it would have been foolish of me to throw it away just for the sake of jumping into a relationship as a quick fix for the parts of my heart that were still hurting.

neither my life nor my self is diminished in any way, shape or form, just because i am single. i have great friends, literally all around the world, who love me deeply, and i feel the same for them. i’m smart, compassionate, and probably one of the funniest people i know–and i will wait for the man who sees, understands and appreciates that. i still believe he’ll come around one day, but the difference is now i’ll be okay–more than okay, really–even if he doesn’t.

[celebrate] love

in honor of valentine’s day, i wrote a special piece for So Worth Loving this week, celebrating the miracle of Love! below is an excerpt from my post, which you can read in its entirety here. much love to you guys! xo

What I’ve noticed in my work with these kids is that most of them have very little self-worth. For so long, they’ve been viewed as nothing more than a statistic, just another face in the crowd, an orphan and that’s all. Because of this, they have no understanding of their intrinsic worth and value as a human being. They’ve been rejected and abandoned, discarded and left to fend for themselves. They believe they don’t matter, that they’re not important, that they are unloved.

And this; this breaks my heart.

I look at them and see such beauty, such potential, such worth. I know they have their whole lives ahead of them, that they can break the cycle that they’ve sadly found themselves in, and can make something of themselves. In the years that I’ve known these kids, I’ve come to love them as if they were my very own. I’ve learned their names, their faces, their stories. They are not a nameless, faceless generation; they matter. They mean something. And so I set out on a mission to prove it to them.


i already know what my word for 2013 is going to be:: grace.

beautiful grace. lifesaving and life-changing grace. i don’t think there’s a word so lovely in all of the English language.


here’s the thing, though:: grace is so much more than a word. it’s this powerful, mysterious force that has worked its way into every fiber of my being, affecting the way i think and feel and act and believe and love.

especially how i love.

grace opened my eyes so that i might see how cherished and adored i am by my Jesus. not because of my effort. not because of my accomplishment or striving or anything about me in and of itself. grace has loved me despite me.

and it has asked me to love my brothers, my sisters the same way.

the ones who i don’t think deserve it. the ones who have failed me, hurt me, disappointed me. the ones on the outside, the outskirts, pushed aside and discarded. the ones who no one else will love. the ones who don’t even know how to love back.

i can hear grace calling me:: love them.

the thing about grace is that it’s messy.

it’s hard and uncomfortable. it requires me to get outside of myself, to take risks, to love wildly and with abandon. it’s scary, filled with questions and doubt. people don’t understand it. they think i’m crazy, a radical, irrational. they tell me i think too much with my heart and not enough with my mind.

like i said:: grace is messy.

it’s a beautiful mess though.

because when i get down there in the dirt, in the hard places, in the pain and the areas outside my comfort zone, i find grace is right there with me. softening me. strengthening me. giving me the words to speak and how to say them. stretching this tender, bleeding heart of mine more than i ever thought possible that there may be even more room for love, love, love.

it was in my mess that grace found me. and i was forever changed.
and now, as the saying goes, i’m just one beggar, telling another where to find bread.
i kneel down in the mess, in the mud and point my beggar-friend towards the Source. the Love. the Grace.

it’s messy–but so, so beautiful.
for when you embrace the mess, you find the beauty. when you accept the brokenness, you find restoration. when you allow the pain, you are shown healing:: always.

may the messy-beautiful grace be with you and in you and through you.

saying goodbye to Lamie

today, i write to honor the life of a friend. i met Lamie around Easter of
this year, while i was still in Liberia. he was sick and listless, unable to move (presumably because  of a stroke he had suffered.) he was sleeping on the ground, in a pile of garbage, directly across from a dumpster. during the day, he was there, baking in the hot sun. at night, he was there, exposed to the elements. he was starving; he was thirsty; he was homeless. he had been abandoned and left to die. upon investigating, some friends and i were able to find out more of his story, and our hearts were broken for this man who had suffered so greatly. we knew we had to help. nobody deserved to have to live as he did.

fast forward a few months. Lamie was off the streets, had a roof over his head, and seemed to be improving. it had been a rough go, both for he and those of us involved in helping him. he’d gone from sleeping in the garbage heap to sleeping in his own room to sleeping on my front porch to sleeping in a Liberian-run facility for the elderly. poor Lamie had been tossed around from place to place, and my heart broke as i imagined how badly he ached for home.

then, it was all of sudden august. it was nearing the end of my stay in Liberia, and i knew that i had to walk away from Lamie. i knew i had to entrust him to the care (and i use that term loosely, unfortunately) of the people running the home he was staying in. more importantly, i knew i had to entrust him to God. i had to be okay with walking away, not knowing what would happen, but knowing i had done all i could to love Lamie and care for him as Jesus would have.

this is the last photo i have of Lamie, taken only a week or so before i left Liberia. this is how i always want to remember him:: fat cheeks, bright eyes, and a tender spirit. he never once complained about his situation or all that he had gone through. he would smile wistfully as he remembered his younger years, when he had been a tailor and had a family. he’d get this dreamy look on his face, and i knew he was longing to go back to that time. yet he also accepted the cards life had dealt him, and i believe he really did try to make the best of them.

unfortunately, Lamie died last month (and i just found out about it today.) i have no idea what happened, other than he had been sick. i don’t know what he was feeling when he passed away, if he was lonely, if there was anyone at all by his side. and if i let it, the not-knowing will shatter my heart and crush my spirit.

so instead, i choose to join my friend Ashley in seeking the joy in an otherwise terribly sad situation. she says it best in her tribute to our dear friend::
Lamie’s body is whole again. Lamie died knowing that those crazy white people loved him. We fed, clothed and gave cold water. We fought for truth, justice and for what was right. It didn’t matter that we were different or that he was from a certain tribe or that he was a stranger. It didn’t matter that he was physically disabled–his heart was gold! He brought laughter and unity and compassion. He was an example, and a reminder. There is no happily-ever-after for this story and this morning, Lamie’s story came to a close. But, I know that his story and his life weren’t told and lived to be forgotten. He lived his story so that he could be remembered. He faced insurmountable obstacles, but he kept that spark in his eye. [He had] joy in his smile, despite his circumstances. [He was a] literal example for us to be the Good Samaritan. Lamie was my friend–my beautiful, laughter-filled, sweet-spirited (unless he wanted a haircut from Momo) friend. At one point, Lamie had taken everything out of me, but I pressed on because Jesus filled me and equipped me to keep going. Lamie was and is a part of my story…and a reason why I just can’t walk away from Liberia.

Lamie was–and is–a lesson to me to love others. to love freely, wildly, without holding back. to love with my whole heart. even when it hurts. even when i think i have nothing left to give. he taught me to love others because sometimes, my love is the only Jesus they will ever know.

a love letter to my body

[i’m a little late at jumping on the “love letter to my body” train that’s been taking the internet by storm lately. but better late than never, right? so here it is. and ps: more info about this project can be found on SheLoves magazine’s syncroblog.]

to the body that belongs to elena teresa ann:: this is my love letter. for you. {yes, you.}

i know, i know. why the sudden kindness?, you ask. you’re certainly not used to it. we’ve spent many, many years together, and i’ve hidden you away for most of them. i’ve covered you up–because i was ashamed. i’ve compared you to every other woman i have met–and despised you because you didn’t measure up. i’ve whispered ugly, hateful things about you–sometimes even to you.

i am sorry. it’s taken me nearly twenty-nine years to get it, but now that i do, i am so, so sorry.

i’m sorry i treated you like a curse instead of a blessing.
i’m sorry that i’ve only seen your faults and never once praised you for your beauty.
i’m sorry for feeling like you’ve let me down.
i’m sorry for wishing i could trade you in.
i’m sorry that i have never been thankful for the miracle that you are.

really. you’re extraordinary, and i love you.

i used to be disappointed by you because you’re weak. but you are not defined by your weakness. you are so much more; you have seen so much more. you have grown wide in amazement at the sight of indescribable beauty. and you’ve wept countless tears that have healed the soul from the inside out.
eyes, you are beautiful.

i used to be angry with you because you’re big. i see now it’s because i was listening to a society that tells me something is beautiful only if it doesn’t take up much space. that is not true. yes, you’re big–but you’re also pretty cute. and i like your freckles, by the way.
nose, you are beautiful.

i used to stare at you in the mirror and wish you were different. more…plain. easy. not the unruly mane of wild curls that you are. i’ll be honest:: i still wish that most days. but i am learning to appreciate you for the fierce beauty that you possess.
hair, you are beautiful.

i used to pinch you in all the places that seemed just. too. much. i treated you as the enemy instead of being thankful for all the ways you have been my friend. you have held children:: sick children. crying children. hungry children. you have rocked them and loved them and comforted them. you have done beautiful things, arms.
you are beautiful.

i used to loathe you because you’re wide. i hated you because you never let me fit into those skinny jeans, no matter how much weight i lost. but now i see that your curves are one of the most beautiful things about me. i know that you will help me give birth to my babies one day, and i will be grateful for your width.
hips, you are beautiful.

i used to cry over you because you would never become what i wanted you to be, instead of accepting you for who you are. you give the world’s best belly laughs, and you know how to appreciate a good meal shared with good friends. i love that about you. and one day, there will be a child growing inside you. and you will love him and nourish him and help him grow. thank you.
tummy, you are beautiful.

i used to hide you because i didn’t like the way you dimpled in certain places, and i was embarrassed of how you looked in certain outfits. that was unkind of me, and i am sorry. you are so important to me, legs. you have enabled me to walk down roads that many others have not, and to do it with strength and grace.
legs, you are beautiful.

all of you, every single piece of you, is beautiful.
because you were knit together by a wonderful Creator who doesn’t make mistakes.
and yes, you will grow old and one day return to the dust.

but i am determined that, when you do, it will have been after a life of living in peace with the soul that inhabited you.

everyone is dying for love to remain

Every time you bless another your bless yourself. Every time you blame another you lose your power. Every time you think you can, you can. Every time you fall you must get up and try again. Every time you cry you’re one tear closer to joy. Every time you ask for forgiveness, all you have to do is forgive yourself.

Everyone you see is your reflection. Everyone you know mirrors you. Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants to live in joy. Everyone seeks a higher purpose. Everyone breathes the same breath. Everyone needs love to survive. Everyone has a purpose to fulfill.

Everyone’s the same as everyone else. We just get caught up in labels, names, skin color and religion. Everyone’s the same as everyone else. No one wants to feel the pain. Everyone’s the same as everyone else. Everyone is dying for love to remain.

{jackson kiddard//originally posted on Roots of She}

[love] mercy

this is mercy, a beautiful, feisty yet kindhearted girl who stole my heart the moment i met her. she recently turned 13, so i made her a card and gave her a pair of earrings.

today, she handed me this letter that she had written: “dear auntie elena, thank you for my birthday. my reason for me writing you this letter is to tell you that i love you from my heart and i want to say thanks for your love that you have been showing me. and i want to tell God thank you for you being: my study class teacher, my best friend, my auntie, and my mother. may this letter be a joy into your life, and may our friendship be forever. that is my prayer. i love you very much!”

oh, my heart. i’m bawling even as i type this. NO WORDS.

i can’t even describe how much i love this girl… ♥