in which my heart knows to make space

i’m usually one who has no problem wearing her heart on her sleeve.

i feel things deeply, always have and probably always will. things of substance and soul tend to captivate me, and if there’s one thing i’ve learned over the years, it’s that these hearts of ours are fickle little creatures, messy and beautiful and glorious and wild.

i can remember a prayer that i prayed once, on a sunny afternoon on my porch in Liberia. i’d just read Isaiah’s words–the second verse of the fifty-fourth chapter, to be exact. enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your curtains wide, do not hold back… i read and i sat with my eyes closed, face turned to the sun, and i made the plea of a prophet into a prayer from the deepest part of me. “stretch my heart wider, God,” i breathed. “stretch me wide.

you see, back then, my days in Liberia were filled with so much need, so many kids, and i didn’t feel big enough to fit it all inside me. the poverty, the death, the injustice, what i saw, what i felt; all of it, it ripped me apart, over and over again. so i prayed a simple prayer, the only thing i knew to do at the time, and after a while, i started to see that prayer answered. it used to feel like my heart was breaking there, but i came to realize it was really just being enlarged, making room for me to love even more. it wasn’t until i wondered how i could fit all those kids inside that i realized this tiny, wild heart of mine had grown and made space–for each of them.

somewhere along the line, though, my heart lost its elasticity. it wasn’t bouncing back the way it was supposed to, the way it used to. each new death, each new loss and case of abuse and question that couldn’t be answered–it just kept ripping me. and then, four years later, i broke. my heart was torn and mangled, and it was bleeding out everywhere.

going home then, i think, became a hospital of sorts. in comfort and the warmth that comes from feeling safe at long last, my heart found the space it so desperately needed to heal. gaping wounds began to close, with time and care, with the prayers of so many who love me so well. and one day, my heartbeat became steady once more. i hadn’t forgotten, but i was also no longer haunted by the memories. it was a good safe easy place to be. and after a long, long period of hard, easy was a welcomed friend.

but as i always say:: if i’m comfortable living an easy story, it makes it impossible for me to live a brave one. so though it took every ounce of faith and guts and grit i had in me, i said yes to a return to Liberia and bought a ticket on a Friday afternoon. i leave in eight weeks. it feels crazy. it feels scary. but it also feels right.



and since then…well, i’ve begun to feel the tearing again, which i can only suppose is my heart’s way of getting itself ready. i look ahead and wonder what it will be like to return. i think about all that i know is waiting for me on the other side of that ocean. and every single day, another piece of this bruised and beating heart of mine comes undone a little bit more at its seams. but this–the tears and the feelings and the words i can’t seem to find, the fear tinged with hope and the butterflies in my stomach and the lump in my throat–this is what preparation looks like. nearly five years later, God continues to answer my prayer. stretch my heart wider, Lord. just when i think i’ve had all that i can take, just when it feels like there’s no more room–suddenly, just like that, there’s space. free, open space.

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Photo by Bren // Creative Commons // Flickr

because in eight shorts weeks, i know:: each of those empty spaces are going to be filled.

because the story’s not yet over

it all began with a puddle of tears soaking into the off-white living room carpet.

it was early spring, six years ago now, when there’s still a chill in the air and everything looks dingy and grey in the weak sunlight. i’d just watched Hotel Rwanda for the first time, i remember, and it’d ripped something open in me, something that cried out for justice and healing and peace, some deep part of my soul that ached for africa, though i hadn’t yet been. i sat sobbing on the floor, rocking and praying (pleading, really) for the wrong things to be made right. “send me, Lord,” i wept. “i’ll go; send me.”

and as soon as i spoke those words, i knew, somehow, inexplicably knew, He would.

and then in November, i traveled to Liberia for the first time; a tiny nation i’d never even heard of but felt drawn to nonetheless. for two weeks, i quieted my soul and followed where i felt His leading. and He led me to the children–hungry children; sick children; hopeless children; scared children. the orphan-spirit in me recognized its kindred in the least of these, and i held them and i rocked them and i cried; oh, how i cried. because i knew that feeling; i had felt that ache, the lack. and when it came time for me to get on the airplane, to leave the poverty and return to privilege (guilty and ashamed as i felt for even having that choice), i knew i would never be the same.

so i went back. time and time again, i went back. i gave those children a permanent place in my arms, in my stretched-wide heart; i became auntie, mama, friend. i gritted my teeth and settled into a life lived in the thin places, in the messy, the uncomfortable. and it was hard; truly, so very hard. poverty took on a face. Michael died, and then Buster did, too. girls were raped, and the kids were beaten, and why in the world was no one talking about it? corruption was everywhere, and always–more death, more bodies, more loss. and then i got malaria, and then my health seemed to just deteriorate from that point on. i wasn’t sleeping well, and my body was sore, my heart tired, and in March of last year, i made the unthinkably difficult choice to walk away.

difficult because even in the hard, there was always beauty:: in Jumah’s fat, sweaty cheeks nestled against my neck. in Mercy’s long fingers that intertwined perfectly with my own. in Leemue’s happy smile and bright eyes, and Beyan’s transformation, and the look on Janet’s face when she told me i was her mother. and in the way these little ones lit up when i called them by name, for they knew–they were no longer overlooked or passed over; i saw them, really saw them, and i wanted to give them back the dignity that had been stolen.

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so in the fall, in the midst of changing seasons and a reminder to give thanks in all things, it should have come as no surprise when He asked me if i’d consider going back. He asked if i’d count the cost and decide if it was worth it. because i’ve tasted, and i’ve seen, friends, and i know the price is high.

but i also know:: this life is not my own. it’s been given to me that i may give it away.
and i know:: it’s when you give of yourself that you truly give.
and i know:: the tender heart of the Father aches for these children, so how cannot mine also?

and i guess that’s what settled it, then, when i decided i’d go. i’m currently making plans for a june-september trip, in which i’ll be reunited with my kids and hug old friends and hand-deliver some love letters and help a community center open its doors to be a beacon of light. i’m heart-thumping-in-my-ears excited and butterflies-in-my-tummy nervous, because i know and i’ve learned:: i cannot do this alone.

for starters, there’s a price tag, an actual monetary amount that i need to raise to buy a plane ticket and take three months off work and pay for accommodations and life in Liberia. $5000. i need to raise $5000…in four months.

and i need people to pray, to start praying now, really, for all the steps of this process. because i know this is going to be hard some days, and i’m going to be tired, and i’ll feel like giving up, and it’s then that i’ll need friends to be my Aaron and my Hur and hold my hands up to the hills where my help comes from.

so. here’s where i swallow my pride and humble my heart and i ask. will you help me? in whatever way God leads you, will you help me?

for if it takes a village to raise a child, i can only imagine it takes many, many more to raise hundreds of them. and there are sons and daughters not of my womb but of my heart who are an ocean away, waiting for Auntie Elena to come back to see them. and my heart-cry for the orphan, for the poor and the oppressed, for the discouraged and down-trodden, for the ones who need Jesus in the most desperate of ways–well, it’s calling me back, too.

i have a dream

if you know me in real life, or have been following this blog for some time now, you’re probably well-aware of one thing: i have a dream.
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it’s a dream of red earth and blue sky, of toothy smiles and weathered hands; a dream of bright sun in my eyes and hair grease on my fingers while i loosen the girls’ plaits; a dream of dust on my lap from where little ones have crawled and settled themselves in.
it’s a dream of love beyond language barriers, acceptance beyond cultural differences, a bond that breaks down walls.
it’s a dream of joy that is wild and a heart that’s stretched wide, of working through the hard places, the grit of a life both unfair and unjust.
it’s a dream of defying the odds and refusing to let statistics have the final say.
it’s a dream of doing my part to build a kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, of a life lived in pursuit of the things of Jesus’ heart, of chasing after the presence of God that is waiting for me an ocean away.
it’s a dream for the children whom i’ve welcomed into my arms and my heart as my own, to see them grow up loved and valued and whole.
it’s a dream to be there through all of it, the triumphs and the failures, the successes and the tears. it’s a dream to laugh and love and pray and teach and see and feel and learn and doubt and live out this messy beautiful faith-walk, however imperfect it may be.

i have a dream.
and i am on my way
. i’m going to a “place with joy, tears, glory, grace and most of all, more of Jesus with every step i take.” (holley gerth)

so this one is for the dreamers, those of us with wide eyes and lofty vision, who are working at making their dreams reality. the road sometimes seems long, the way often narrow, but sure enough, we are on our way. with shaky hands and unsure steps, we keep walking. and people may question, as they often do when they don’t understand, but still we walk ahead.
we dream, and we walk, and we know–one day, we’ll get there. 

the return to liberia: an update

it was a mere two weeks ago that i stood in church, hands shaking in surrender as i realized the magnitude of what i was saying yes to. a return to liberia. a return to the oppressive heat and sleepless nights. to lives lost too soon, to children who nobody mourns once they leave us. to a land that assaults the senses, to the corruption, the poverty, the things i saw and heard that my heart and mind still have no words for.
but also–a return to regrowth. a return to a simple life, lived without excess. to hope and dreams for brighter futures. to community and to my kids, these young ones who have forever stolen my heart and changed the course of my entire life.

two weeks ago, i said yes. and i started to prepare. i filled out my citizenship application and put out a plea for the funds needed to file it. two weeks later, i’m over 60% funded, with a little over a week to go until my deadline**, and i’m already looking ahead to the next phase of this process.

two weeks ago, i told God, “yes…but it’d sure be great if you could let me know i’m making the right choice here.” and He did. in the scriptures that urge me to spend myself on behalf of the needy. in old journal entries that reconfirmed His call on my life to  “be love.” in the support and encouragement of friends and family who agreed to give, knowing that this, all of this–whatever God is up to–is a worthy cause. “it’s no surprise,” they said. “we all knew you’d be back there one day eventually.” and when i told my good friend Momo that i was coming back to Liberia, he laughed delightedly and told me, “God will provide. you need to be here.”

and i do–need to be there, that is. i need to be reunited with the pieces of my heart waiting for me there. i need to be living out my days doing what i was made to do.

and so i take another step, a little shaky but with all the faith i can muster. and when i falter, and this all seems crazy and impossible and a little of both, i lift my vision higher.

i walk, slow but sure, and every day, i cry a little with gratitude for this crazy, beautiful, messy adventure He has put me on.
wait with me, my sweet Liberia. i’m coming-o! 

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**the first step in getting ready for a return to Liberia is filing my citizenship application, so i can travel freely between countries. the cost is $680, and i hope to file by November 1st. if you feel led to give towards this, please send me a message so i can give you donation info. no amount is too big or small–every little bit helps!

when i want to live a life that says “yes”

nearly seven months ago, i left Liberia. after an especially grueling season, i made the hard decision to fight for my emotional, mental and spiritual well-being and step off the mission field.

i dreamed of returning home to the States and resuming normalcy once more; i wanted to fall into a life of comfort and ease and forget all about the exhaustion of the past four years.

when i got home, i struggled a bit, as most missionaries do when it comes to reentry. the mass consumerism and excessive consumption of the Western world overwhelmed me. i felt guilty after lunch with friends, and i wondered if my kids in Liberia were hungry, if they’d had their fill.

mainly, though, i simply ached to be with them. these kids–they’d become my life. i’d welcomed them into my arms and my heart as if they were my own, and then i walked away from them. but the thing is: i had left pieces of my self, my very soul, behind with them.

and as more time passed, i started to wonder: how can i really live when i’m not whole, when massive portions of my heart lie an ocean away? and it was then that something deep inside me started to whisper, “the story is not over.”

i confess i dismissed it at first. a return to Liberia would be emotional suicide. i’m not ready. what if i can’t handle it again? what if this is just me, not being able to let go?

so i prayed, and i opened up the scriptures and sought out Truth. and i saw, woven throughout all its pages, i saw–the bleeding, tender heart of the Father for the fatherless.

i saw–that it’s when you give of yourself that you truly give.
i saw–that this life is not my own, and i don’t want to fill it with things that will only pass away.

i realized i wanted to live a life spent chasing after God and the things of His heart.
and you know what? for me, that’s found in Liberia.

because it’s one thing to serve the poor and the orphan, but it’s a whole other ballgame to identify with them and live among them, to enter into the hard places and hold their faces in my hands and tell them, “i’m here to stay.”
and i want to stay. i want to spend my days living out the scriptures, defending the cause of the weak and the fatherless, maintaining the rights of the poor and oppressed, rescuing the weak and needy (see psalm 82).
you see, i want my life to count for something, for my kids, who deserve someone to settle in for the long haul, someone to say, “i’m not going anywhere.”

and to do that i need to get my hands dirty. i need to step outside my comfort zone and give up the things that were never mine to begin with.

so i said yes. i stood in my church last sunday and raised my face high and told Jesus yes. even though my hands were shaking. even though the tears were falling. even when i counted the cost. i said yes–because he’s worth it.

and i’m looking for people who will say yes with me, who believe in me and the God that i serve and the work he has put in my heart to do. the timing is still off; there is still healing and some recovery i must go through before i can return to Liberia. and there are some very real, tangible needs that i cannot meet for myself that i need help with.

so please–send me a message, ask the questions, find out how you can get involved. i want you on this journey with me, friends.
say yes?

love will bring them back to life {an exciting new project}

has anyone ever given you a love letter? how did reading someone else’s feelings for you scrawled out in ink make you feel?
probably…loved. accepted. special. happy.

3002967227_aec483d6b7_zPhoto by Peter Hellberg on Flickr

now imagine yourself as an orphan in Liberia, West Africa. most of the time, people treat you like a statistic, just another face in the crowd. you’re a number, not a name. not a person who a mind + soul, with a heart that cries out because it’s hungry + thirsty for love to fill it.

the heartbreaking reality is that i happen to know orphans in Liberia, West Africa, who feel this exact same way. dozens of orphans, actually. nearly 150 to be exact.
and when i first met them, i saw their neediness, their ache for affection and care. for a hug. for love.

i saw it in their big eyes, seemingly shy to meet my own. in the embraces that lingered longer than necessary. in little hands that clawed at my legs, tiny fingers finding a way to intertwine with my own.

every child deserves to be loved. every child deserves to know she is loved.
but these kids in Liberia? so many of them have no idea…

when i lived there, it was my mission to love those kids back to life. and when it came time for me to leave, my heart tore in two. because who was going to say “i love you” in my absence? who was going to hug and hold, to tell the girls they’re beautiful, to encourage, to affirm?

when i came home, i spent hours upon hours pouring out my heart + soul for these kids. i wrote them personalized letters + individual greeting cards, all to simply remind these children that they are loved more than they could ever know.

and now i’m inviting you to join me.

i am humbled/proud/excited to introduce the love letters for liberia project, a way for people literally from all around the world to send some love to the kids in liberia through letters, cards + care-packages.
the concept is simple: every quarter, people can sign up to be a letter-writer. whether you’re local + can attend our letter-writing parties, or whether you live further away + want to send it through the mail. i will give you the name(s) + age(s) of a child in need of some letter-lovin’. then, i’ll gather them all up, ship them off to a courier (there is no reliable mail service to/from liberia), and they’ll be hand-delivered not long after!

i’ve seen first-hand what an impact love has on these kids’ lives + i am so excited to watch that grow in them, as they learn to see themselves as the beloved.

and you–you get to play a part in this.

so spread the word, like us on facebook,  mark your calendars (september 14 is the letter-writing launch), and drop me a line at elena[dot]pellizzaris at gmail if you want to be involved.
together we can bring love to liberia, one letter at a time.

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.

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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.

xo,
ep

four years in

November 20th is a big day for me. it was on this day, four years ago, that i was on a plane, headed to Liberia for the very first time. it is a day that symbolizes new, change, growth. it is a day for me to give thanks:: for this crazy and beautiful adventure i am on, for this life that i get to live, and for every friend, loved one, and supporter who has joined me on this journey.

i can’t even begin to imagine what this upcoming year holds for me, and i’m learning to be okay with the not knowing. i want to let God surprise me. so today, i will look back. i will remember, and i will give thanks for these four incredible years. they’ve been an honor, a privilege, a gift, a catalyst. they’ve been filled with breathtaking highs and the pit of all lows.

still, as we approach this season of gratitude, i will count it all joy,

and i will still give thanks.

[rest]

today was supposed to be iFast day. today i was supposed to go to the gym and do a couple errands and pack for my trip on Thursday andandand…

you see, there will always be a lot of “supposed to”s. but this day is different.
because if i still myself long enough, i can hear the quiet whisper that is telling me to simply rest.
don’t strive; don’t do. just rest.
if that means eating some comfort food or  leaving a suitcase unpacked, then that’s what it takes. if it means still being in my pajamas at 2 pm or a full basket of dirty laundry, then so be it.

because i know that voice is His, and His rest is my mandate.

“are you tired? worn out? burned out on religion? come to me. get away with me and you’ll recover your life. i’ll show you to take a real rest. walk with me and work with me–watch how i do it. learn the unforced rhythms of grace. i won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (matthew 11:28-30, the message)

so today, this week, seemingly all the time lately, when i feel empty and depleted, i need to learn how to stop for a little while and just rest.
and you know what? it’s hard.
i can feel parts of myself fighting against it. i can hear the voices calling me lazy and selfish, berating me for taking any time for myself.
and yet…i can also feel myself surrendering in the struggle. i submit every weary and resistant part of me to the One who promises to lead me beside still waters and restore my soul.

today, and every day, may we find deep and true rest in Him who satisfies. as we pour ourselves out on behalf of a world that needs a touch from divine Love, may we return our empty hands to He who refills.

amen.

“how do you do this?!”

i have a friend who is currently on a church missions trip in Ecuador. this morning, i got a facebook message from her that read:

how do you do this?! i would not make it more than a week. i have a much deeper appreciation for your sacrifices.

the thing is:: i don’t do this. He does.
the only thing that keeps me going day-to-day is His strength. His endurance. His wisdom. His grace.

it is truly more than sufficient for me.