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.

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.


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.

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! 

**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?

i am. [a post about heritage]

my first name, elena, means light, or the bright one.
it appears my parents knew from my birth that i was made to shine in the dark places.


born to an italian father and a scottish mother, i was given two middle names, each to mark a distinct piece of my heritage.
teresa, from my father’s side; it means summer harvester.
ann, from my mother’s. ann means full of grace.


i am dark eyes and freckled skin, concoction of hot-blooded passion and stubborn resolve. i am hazy august sunbeams on the shoulder; i am hunched-over in the field, hands digging in dirt, crops between the fingers. i am ruth, gathering scraps of broken barley sheaves, clutching them between knotted fingers. i am full of grace, filled to grace; i am full, and so i pour out. grace in, out. in. out.

when i moved to liberia, they said i was an african woman now.
i spoke their language, ate their food, cradled their children. i was declared “mother” and given more names.

in kpelle, i am leela, translated to mean i am satisifed.
in vai, i am massah, a name with a simple meaning: happy.
my personal favorite comes from the bassa language, in which i am named walawa. when i asked piko what it meant, she giggled and gestured to my hips. “it means you got body,” she said proudly.
i am leela, massah, walawa. i am contented smile, fleshy hips. i am languages and cultures and skintones, all weathered from sun and wind. i am thick accents and heavy bloodlines. i am timezones and tradition, stories passed down from the “old country”, generation upon generation of those who lived in the tension of struggle and made it through to the other side.

when i think about my heritage, i think of these, my names, given to me by mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers who saw something deep within me and called it forth into existence. i think of how each name marks me, in a way, marks where i’ve been and where i came from. i’ve spent many, many years wandering and sometimes, it becomes too easy to forget who you really are and get lost in the place you find yourself.


but in the quiet moments, i remember. i remember i am elena teresa ann; i am leela and massah and walawa. i’m the girl with disheveled hair and eyes that speak of what’s in my soul, the girl in blue jeans and an old woolen sweater, swinging in the sunshine with bright blocks of beads around my neck.

i am.
and that is my heritage.

*this post was partly inspired by “heritage” over at SheLoves magazine. for more great heritage posts, click here.

Heather’s story

today’s blog is a guest post from Heather, who found me online and contacted me to share her story. she is strong and courageous, and her story is an inspirational one. i feel honored to be able to share it with you today. she is a reminder that even in the midst of pain and suffering, there is beauty and light to be found.

Finding The Good In A Cancer Diagnosis
Everyone has a time in their life when their world is split into two. During these times things can change quickly and unexpectedly. This happened to me just after I turned 36. I experienced a wide variety of emotions including joy like I had never felt before and extreme sorrow as well. My little bundle of joy, Lily,was born on August 4, 2005. Both my husband and I could not have expected the amount of happiness that we felt at that time. Unfortunately that happiness was short lived.

Four weeks after I had Lily, I went back to working full time. I felt that something was not right. I was always tired, didn’t have energy and was losing around 5 to 7 pounds each week. Even though some of these symptoms could be blamed on being a new mother, I knew deep down that it was something else.

After having a number of tests done, just 3 ½ months after Lily’s birth, I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. This type of cancer is caused by exposure to asbestos and affects the lining of the lungs. I was exposed to asbestos when I was a child without ever knowing it. The doctor told me that I would have 15 months to live if I chose not to have any treatment.

I was completely devastated after I heard the news. I kept thinking about Lily and what she and my husband would do if I died. So my husband and I both decided that the best decision for me would be to undergo whichever treatment I could in order to eradicate the cancer. Ultimately I chose the treatment that was the most drastic. I made the trip from Minnesota to Boston, where on February 2, 2006, I underwent a surgery called an extrapleural pneumonectomy. I had one of the best doctors available perform the operation. The procedure removed my left lung along with parts of the chest and heart lining as well as half of my diaphragm. I stayed in the hospital for 18 days and after 2 months of recovery, I started chemotherapy and radiation. Even during this difficult time I tried my best to be a good mother to Lily.

Luckily during the time I was in Boston, Lily stayed with my parents in my childhood home in South Dakota . Both my parents and some of their friends helped care for Lily while I was having treatment. I am forever grateful for the care they gave her during this difficult time. My friends and family are a huge reason why I was able to stay so strong and make it through all of this. Unfortunately, I missed many milestones in Lily’s life while I was having treatment, including eating solid foods and rolling over for the first time. Even though it was hard for me to be away, I knew that she was receiving the best care possible.

As horrible as it was to battle cancer, I do have to recognize the fact that it brought about some good things in my life as well. We all have a new appreciation for life and now recognize how quickly it can be altered or taken from us. The best advice that I can give someone dealing with cancer or another difficult situation is to search for the good that can come out of it.

family - Portland

[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.

a visit with truth

*this is a follow-up to last week’s post, a visit with doubt. perhaps you, dear reader, understand the very-real struggle a Christian goes through with doubt. if so, please hear me when i say you are not alone. xo

one of the things i love most about Truth is that he is always, always there. even when i’m selfish and impatient, when i lash out and say things to him that i don’t really mean. when i’m petty and insecure, when i’m wrapped up in all my own problems and don’t even give him the time of day. even when Doubt comes around, Truth stands by and watches as i entertain the guest whom i can’t stand but yet can’t seem to get rid of. Truth is dependable. he is faithful. there have been so many times in which even i would have given up on myself. but still, Truth stays.

the other day, i found myself alone. not just in an empty house, but with a clear mind and steady heart, totally free. i knew Truth had to be close by–but over the years, i’ve found that sometimes he hides himself, which is okay, because he always shows up again at just the right moment.

so i was alone in the quiet, breathing it in, head bowed and eyes closed.
and then i heard him.

“do you know Me?”

Truth. i’d recognize that voice anywhere. my eyes snapped open, and i glanced around the room, hoping for a glimpse of him.

“do you know Me?” he asked again.

i was silent for a moment, trying to detect what i was hearing in his voice. it was him, i knew that much. but something was different, and i couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
“yes, i know you. i mean, i think i do. we’ve spent a lot of time together, after all. and all those conversations we’ve had over the years? yeah, i know you. …where are you, by the way?”

“if you know Me, then how could you ever doubt me?” Truth asked the question quietly, his voice low, and it was in that moment that i realized what was different. he was crying. i heard the hurt in every syllable his gentle voice spoke.

and suddenly, i was crying, too. hot tears sprang to my eyes, and i sat there, not knowing what to say. Truth had always been so good to me. it was his nature; i’d never seen him be anything but. and he was always watching out for me. he’d rescued me from some pretty tough situations, and i’d joked with him about how he was my superhero, and he smiled and said he’d be there whenever i needed him.

and now, this one who had been always good and always loyal and always loving to me, was crying, and i felt horrible. i had hurt his feelings.
“i’m sorry,” i cried out. “Truth, i am so, so sorry.” i had no idea how to answer his question. how could i doubt him? it made no sense, and i certainly had no reason to.

all of a sudden, Truth walked into the room, and i saw it all, saw everything so clearly. as i looked up at his tear-stained face, i knew my folly.
i had been hypocritical.
i had been impatient.

i had listened to Doubt’s lies.
i had been selfish.
i had acted like i didn’t even need Truth at all, like i could do it all myself.
i called him my closest friend
and yet–i didn’t fully trust him.

he sat down at the table, watching as i came to terms with how i’d been acting lately. i had no excuse, no reason i could give to make it all better. the only thing to do was to apologize and ask his forgiveness.

i opened my mouth to speak the words, when Truth reached for my hand across the table and held it firmly in his own.
suddenly, i heard a knock at the door, loud and impatient. i knew that knock, had heard it a million times before. Doubt was back.

i sat frozen in my chair, hand still holding onto Truth. i didn’t know what to do. Doubt always had a way of showing up at the worst times. he kept pounding at the door, and i knew it was only a matter of time before he turned the door handle and pushed his way in.

i stood up, and Truth rose to his feet with me. i caught his gaze, and he nodded, as if he knew exactly what i was thinking. together, we walked to door, where Doubt was still knocking, louder and more abrasive by the minute.

for a moment, i paused, my free hand hovering over the door handle. i felt Truth gently squeeze my other hand, and everything within me smiled at that moment. i took a deep breath,

and locked the door.

a visit with doubt

recently, my old friend acquaintance Doubt came to visit. he’s an unwelcome visitor, yet somehow i always find myself opening the door and inviting him inside. i think it’s because he always shows up when i’m weak. tired. when i have little strength in me to put up a fight, to say no, to slam the front door in his face.

and the worst thing about Doubt is that he’ll stick around for days. he knows i don’t want him there–but he also knows i won’t kick him out, either. so he stays. he makes it hard for me to sleep. he distracts me throughout the day. he always interrupts when i try to pray. he’s cruel, and he knows it. but he’s also smart enough to hide his ugly streak just below the surface, close enough that i know it’s there yet deep enough that i forget about it over time.

so Doubt’s been hanging around, and to be honest, i’m getting pretty sick of him. i find myself separating from him throughout the day, trying to pretend like he’s not there, and those are the moments in which i can finally breathe again. it’s like everything becomes clear, and the crushing force on my chest is lifted, and all seems right with my soul once more.

the best part about not having him around is that i’m able to hear Truth again.

see, Truth won’t compete with Doubt. Truth knows it’s with him that my heart lies–but Truth also loves me enough to let me make my mistakes and learn from them. Truth takes a backseat when Doubt comes into town. he watches from the distance as i entertain this unwelcome guest of mine, his sorrow and rejection written all over his beautiful face. i hate that i’m constantly trading him in for another. it feels fickle. and foolish. i wonder when i’ll learn.

whenever Doubt’s not there, Truth is. he watches and waits for his opportunity.
when Doubt’s gone, Truth speaks.

this morning, i don’t know where Doubt is hiding. and to be honest, i don’t even care. it feels so good to be rid of him.
this morning, i am going to spend some time with Truth.
this morning, i am going to bind my wandering heart to his

and maybe, just maybe,
i can be free.

*this is part one of a two-part series on doubt versus truth. check back next week for the second part. i’m excited about that post. Truth speaks–and everything changes. i’m looking forward to sharing with you! xo

on being human

hello, my fabulous followers! just wanted to let y’all know that i’ve got a new post up on the So Worth Loving blog about emotions and this beautiful mess called life. hop on over and give it a read, why don’t you?

“Each one of is created to feel and experience and breathe and cry and laugh and ache and question and long and love and live.” get out there and do it. life is waiting for you! xo