Palmer’s Dream

I knew that it would take Palmer a long time to process what it means to move back to Africa, but I also knew that it was on his mind often, because every few days he would ask questions like, “Can I have a bicycle in Africa?” or “Can Grandma and Grandpa come and visit us in Africa?” and “Can Buddy and Holly come?”

Palmer has had a lot to process internally regarding Africa. Being the older of the two siblings, he has more memories, more sense of responsibility, more regret about all that happened. He remembers losing family members. He remembers struggling for survival himself. He remembers being displaced in the orphanage. He remembers saying good-bye. Palmer has a nearly photographic memory for many things. It serves as both a blessing and a curse.

For Palmer, it’s almost like these hardships have made him work all the harder now to appreciate the opportunities that he has. He works hard in school, at soccer, at chores. He appreciates what he has, and takes good care of everything he owns. He is rarely disobedient.

He is our responsible child.

I knew that this sense of responsibility has weighed heavily on his heart, when he asks how his family is in Africa. Is the orphanage still there? Are any of his friends still there? There is a tender balance in his heart of living life to its fullest in America, but remembering those who were left behind.

Palmer hides these things in his heart well. Most of the time, he is an incredibly goofy happy kid who loves to laugh. But if you look in his eyes at a serious moment, you can catch a glimpse of the years of experience he is too young to have. At times, he seems like an old man in a boy’s body.

I take what Palmer thinks and feels very seriously. He is still a child, but he has considerable survival skills and analytical skills. He is very wise for a not-quite-10ish year old. He challenges me to think about life differently as our cultures collide and mingle under one roof.

We patiently waited for weeks for Palmer to give us his answer about moving to Africa. His reaction had been fairly silent at first, but I knew that the Holy Spirit would speak to Palmer in His own way, in His own time if this was indeed what God had for our family.

Several weeks ago, we were having Sunday lunch from our favorite Chinese takeout buffet. We were taking turns reading fortune cookies. When Palmer opened his, it read, “Your dreams will come true when you least expect it.”

Jewett (13)“Palmer, what’s your dream?” Ken asked.

“I don’t have a dream,” Palmer replied.

“Martin Luther King Jr. would be so disappointed.” I replied with a wink.

“Not a dream at night, Palmer, a dream can also be a big wish.”

I added, “So would you like to go to Disney World like your friends? Or go to the beach like we do at Christmas? Or a new video game system? What’s your dream?”

Palmer thought for a few moments and then replied, “My dream is that there would be enough doctors to take care of all the sick people in Africa.”

We had his answer. An unselfish boy realized that giving up what he has in the United States is worth it to move where healthcare is needed most. I do not take lightly the choice that he has made.

The Holy Spirit, in His own way has spoken to each of our hearts separately, and together. None of us decided on our own that moving to Africa was the right thing to do, but by prayer and consideration, God has made it clear that He is leading us back to the continent from which our children came. God does not have a calling that is separate for Ken and I than from our children. They are called by God too, and I am convinced that God will use them as much, if not more, than Ken and I while we are in Africa.

And the same God who called us as individuals and as a family has a plan for each of us, and all of us, in Africa.

Now to start the process of getting there . . .


And A Child Will Lead Us

Ken and I have been very cautious about talking to our kids about going back to Africa. It’s not a far off strange place to them. Africa is a place where our kids most closely identify with and remember vividly, and those memories are not all positive ones. Actually, most of them are not.

We also wanted to account for the different personalities of our kids. Addie is emotional and spontaneous. She loves easily, laughs easily, and forgives easily. She also has the gift of intercession. While she may struggle with communicating complex thoughts otherwise, she does not when she prays. Addie is a mighty prayer warrior wrapped up in 80 pounds of chocolate brown skin.

Palmer is our logical child. He analyzes, reasons, and thinks through things. He asks tough questions and doesn’t settle for easy answers or half-truths. He wants the whole story, he wants to follow the rules, and has a heart for what is fair. His question to me, “Mommy, why are there so many doctors in America and not in Africa?” shows his level of a sense of justice in the world — and not for himself, but for others.

It was at an evening dinner in August when we finally broached the subject. I began, “Daddy and I have listened to your stories about Africa, and they are very important to us. We know that had there been a doctor there, or someone to tell you about Jesus, your lives might have been very different. We are thinking about moving to Africa to help people there when they are sick or need Jesus. What do you think?”

Both kids faces fell in disappointment. The pain of their memories was written in furrowed brows and downcast glances.

Ken continued, “But we are not going to go there unless we go there as a family. We will not make you go. We all have to decide this is right for us. And we promise that while you are there, you will never go hungry. You will always have a home to live in. You will have toys, and books, and even video games. This is not the Africa you remember. This is Africa with our family.”

“I’d like for the two of you to think about it and pray about it. God speaks to you, just like He speaks to Daddy and I, and we want to know what He is telling you. That will help us know if we should go or not.”

“Should I pray right now?” Addie asked enthusiastically.

“You can pray anytime,” I giggled in return, “but I would like you to spend some time in your room after supper praying and asking God if moving to Africa is what we should do.”

To be honest, I was a little surprised by the kids’ reactions. I was expecting that they would be excited to go back to their homeland. But their faces said otherwise. Dinner ended much more quietly than it had begun.

A few hours later, I was working on a lecture in the living room when Addie came skipping by. “He said ‘yes’” she verbally tossed my way.

“Daddy said yes about what?” I inquired, not being clued in to the real subject at hand.

“I just got done praying in my room, and God said He wants us to move to Africa. And He wanted me to tell you.”

What Ken and I had wrestled with for months was settled in the mind of our 8 year old daughter in a matter of hours. What we had made complicated, Addie had made simple.

Luke 18: 16-17, NLT

“Then Jesus called for the children and said to the disciples, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.’”

We had Addie’s answer. We would have to wait much longer for Palmer.

Jewett (37)

Permission to Go or to Stay?

Our minds weren’t set, but they were open. In many different areas of our lives, we felt an increasing tug of our hearts toward Africa.

Henry Blackaby wrote in Experiencing God Day-By-Day, “Our Master commands us to ‘go.’ We need permission to stay!” Was God asking us to go long-term? Short-term? We needed help answering that question.

Ken and I both wanted to explore opportunities to serve The Wesleyan Church in Africa through their international ministry, Global Partners.

Early on August 6th, two months after our original conversation,  we participated in a Skype call with Bob Bagley, the Global Partners Area Director for Africa, to learn more about the areas of need in Africa, and how we might be able to fill those needs.

Immediately, I was impressed with how clearly and compassionately Bob understood our unique family dynamics, and the gifts that we bring. In order for Africa to be a good fit for our family, we would need:

  1. A place where Ken would have easy access to internet and transportation, so that he could help with the French-speaking churches of Africa, and with business management.
  2. A place where the kids could attend international school. Boarding school wouldn’t be a good option for our family, and homeschooling might limit our ability to build relationships, especially for our kids, who have already had to make new friends many times over in their short lives.
  3. A place where I would be able to find needs and be able to fill those in the medical field. Physician assistants are not able to practice medicine in all countries, so I cannot just move anywhere and use my skills in medicine.

In advance of our conversation that day, Bob had already thought through all of these complex issues for our family, and suggested the country of Ghana.

Ghana is an English-speaking country that has many international schools that could be excellent options for our kids. Though Ghana is a Christian country, the northern part of Ghana and its northern neighbor Burkina Faso are predominantly Muslim — and this is where the church is rapidly growing! There are many churches being planted in northern Ghana and in Burkina Faso whose pastors need mentoring, training, and encouragement.


Overall, Ghana also has a tremendous need for medical providers, with a ratio of one medical provider for every 10,000 people. In southern Ghana, there is even a clinic run by The Wesleyan Church. In northern Ghana there are fewer medical resources and the ratio is one physician for every 93,000 —  the needs are critical.

At the close of our conversation, Bob recommended two things: that we consider taking a vision trip to Ghana and Burkina Faso to see for ourselves what God is doing in Africa, and to begin to fill out our applications to become long-term missionaries.

As for the trip that we spoke of with Bob in August, we are leaving for that very vision trip this Friday, October 24th. Ken will be preaching and meeting with several of the new pastors in the area to encourage them, and I will be seeking opportunities for creating sustainable health practices in Ghana using networks of the local church to address medical needs. We are excited to see what God is doing in West Africa, and to explore how God might use our family in this part of His kingdom!

Things are just about to get very interesting.

Along the Way

After nearly two months of praying, considering, seeking advice, Ken and I decided to start talking about Africa. Had he been hearing from God in ways that I had?

Honestly, no. Ken’s primary concern was for me. The funny thing about Ken and me is that we always worry more about the other person. I love the fact that my husband protects me more than I do myself. And in this case, he was worried about me, and more specifically, my lungs.

As many of you know, I have suffered from asthma since 2004, shortly after I moved to Tennessee. I’ve had up and down times, but it’s been manageable as an outpatient. It’s been mostly more of an annoyance than anything, but sometimes it’s been more. I’ve always had the medications and tools to manage it myself, and I’ve learned how to juggle all of the medicines and titrate them appropriately. But how would my lungs adjust to Africa? Last time we were there, they did great, but Africa is a big place.

Along our journey, God has spoken to each of us through this Scripture passage:

Luke 17:11-14 HCSB

11 While traveling to Jerusalem, He passed between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As He entered a village, 10 men with serious skin diseases met Him. They stood at a distance 13 and raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

14 When He saw them, He told them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And while they were going, they were healed.

In this passage, it is interesting that Jesus didn’t heal the ten men with skin diseases (lepers) right away, as He had with so many others. Instead, Jesus asked for their obedience, and then their healing came along the way. Now, because the ten lepers were considered unclean, there really was no justification for them to go see the priest, unless they were already healed. So to even begin their journey as men with leprosy, they had to have enough faith in Jesus the believe that their journey would end without leprosy. Then the priest would declare them “clean” and they could rejoin society. The healing only took place while they were taking steps of obedience in faith.

Sometimes God uses the very act of our obedience as the means of our healing.

We both decided to commit my asthma to God for healing.

“So,” I asked Ken, “If my lungs were to not be  a factor, what would you want to do?”

“I would go to Africa in a heartbeat.”

It was time to start making phone calls, trusting in God’s healing along the way.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, I am now off of all asthma medicines for the first time in more than 10 years.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Where I Am I Needed Most of All?

Ken and I were both disappointed in each other for not responding to the altar call.

Wait. Disappointed?

Did we both each really want to move to Africa instead of taking the easy path of staying put in our new home in North Carolina? Were either of us hearing God’s call, but waiting for the other to have the same clarity? Can God call a person through their spouse?

The only way to sort this out was to pray and let the Holy Spirit do the sorting.

For many years, Ken and I had decided that when it came to important decisions to trust the Holy Spirit to bring us to agreement. In fact, for years, I wanted children, and Ken didn’t, until God changed Ken’s mind. On important issues, I don’t want to convince Ken to do something he is resistant to doing, so I don’t. I trust that the Holy Spirit will bring us together as we each follow Him. So my prayer for us is that God would always make our hearts one, especially on big decisions.

So we didn’t talk about moving to Africa a lot — to each other. We read Scripture, we consulted other believers who have walked similar journeys, used our God-given reason, and waited.

For me, issues of social justice have long been close to my heart, and it has made its way into my home through two adorable African children who have opened my eyes to not only parenthood, but the world. Biblical social justice has also heavily influenced my approach to the classroom. One day as I was preparing for a class, I came across a really interesting interactive page on the website of the World Health Organization. It details the person to physician ratio in every country. (Give it a try!) What I saw was mind-boggling.

There is roughly 1 physician for every 400 people in the United States. In the Congo, it is roughly 1 to 10,000. In fact it is the same or worse in most of sub-Saharan Africa. In Liberia, there is 1 physician for every 72,000. How can one physician treat so many patients under normal circumstances, much less during an Ebola epidemic? Note that the countries below in yellow below have fewer than 1 physician for every 2000 people. Do you notice a geographic trend in healthcare shortage? I did, and my heart sunk. Why had I never seen this before?

Screenshot 2014-10-12 at 9.58.48 PM

Then one day, riding in the back of the van, Palmer asked me, “Mommy, why are there so many doctors in America, and none in Africa? My baby brother died because there weren’t any doctors.”

Any answer I could come up with sounded hollow. “Doctors don’t make enough money in Africa, so they stay here or come here after being trained in Africa,” or “Many places in Africa don’t have the right kind of schools to train doctors,” or “People cannot afford to go to medical school there.” Ultimately, I knew what the Holy Spirit was asking through my son was: Why am I here, when there is a much greater need in Africa?

If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion–how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.” — I John 3:17-18 NLT

For I was hungry
and you gave Me nothing to eat;
I was thirsty
and you gave Me nothing to drink;
I was a stranger
and you didn’t take Me in;
I was naked
and you didn’t clothe Me,
sick and in prison
and you didn’t take care of Me.’

“Then they too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or without clothes, or sick, or in prison, and not help You?’

“Then He will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me either.’

“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:42-46. HCSB

But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works—this person will be blessed in what he does.” James 1:22-25 HCSB

I could not forget what I had heard. I could not forget what I had seen. I could not forget that my children lost beloved family members because of the disproportion of healthcare workers around the world.

And I was one of those healthcare workers.

At the same time, there is no easy solution. If I go for one week, two weeks, or more and only see patients, it will still be only a drop in the bucket in a continent dealing with desperate medical needs. Could there be a better solution? A more sustainable solution?

With my years of teaching in medical education and my love for the church, God began to create a vision in me for how He has already uniquely gifted me to serve the people of Africa.

But would anyone let me do it? Would people think I was crazy for even wanting to pursue healthcare in West Africa? Was God calling me long-term or short term? What about Ken? How was the Holy Spirit speaking to him? What would the children think? Was God speaking to them too?

After a whole month of not talking to each other about it, Ken and I sat down to talk about how God was working in my life, and in his.

And then it would be time to talk to the children.

Here I Am, Lord, Send . . . Someone Else!

Ken and I took a full a week to even speak about our conversation with Bob Bagley. Ken had laughed it off as an impossibility. I was afraid that it wasn’t.

Riding home from East Gold Street Wesleyan church the following Sunday, the ice was finally broken. We were discussing attending North Carolina West District Conference to try to make connections in the hopes that Ken could transfer his ordination from the Nazarenes back to the Wesleyans. The District Superintendent would be there, as well as Jo Anne Lyon, the General Superintendent. The speaker for the night was Dennis Jackson, Executive Director of Global Partners.

Ken and I had both been familiar with Global Partners for years. Ken’s college roommate, Peter, was the Director of Operations, and Ken had participated in numerous mission trips with the organization. I had been working with Global Partners for three years in mobilizing physician assistant students to do international rotations, in the hopes that exposure to the world’s shortage of medical care and theological teachings on holiness would inspire students to pursue mission work as a career and calling.

The physician assistant programs in which I have taught have been Christian programs, each with an emphasis on raising up medical missionaries. While each program has sought out applicants who have a desire to serve the poor, the number who actually became long-term missionaries was low in one program (2 in 10 years) and the other program is so new, it has yet to graduate any students. I have begun to feel wildly unsuccessful in regard to mobilizing medical missionaries, in spite of the word’s great need. Students have come to my programs wanting to do good, and the vast majority of students have left the program wanting to do well. The lure of paychecks and the skyrocketing school debt leave many hopeless that missions is a possibility for them. I don’t blame them, but I mourn my lack of success of being able to produce missionary medical providers. When I have pleaded with God to send me, the God’s answer has always been that some people are called to be “go-ers” and some people are called to be “senders.” God had put me in the senders category.

As the conversation turned to going to hear Dennis Jackson, the subject of our conversation with Bob Bagley, who also serves with Global Partners, came up.

“Wasn’t that crazy that Bob straight up told you he needed you in Africa?”

“I was wondering if you even remembered that,” Ken replied.

Remembered it? I’ll never forget it. As Ken and I talked about it, we reviewed all of the reasons why moving to Africa was a bad idea. We just bought a house, we had moved only weeks prior, our kids have unique educational needs, we have two dogs that we would have to leave behind, I still have school loans, we don’t like raising money, our last trip to Africa had been less-than-ideal, our kids may not want to go back, I just started a new job, and the timing couldn’t be worse. The list was pretty long. But nothing on the list was bigger than God.

A life of sanctification means giving God the power of veto on anything. God had called both of us when we were young to live lives of total surrender to God, and now that commitment was being challenged. Ken and I agreed that we had to at least be open to hearing the call of God on our lives. But was it God calling, or Bob Bagley asking?

The next night, Ken and I found ourselves at North Carolina West District Conference with the kids in tow. The music was moving, the atmosphere spirit-filled, and Dennis Jackson’s words were challenging. The phrase that I’ll never for get is, “We find that the best people to raise up other missionaries are missionaries themselves.” This should not have been a profound thought to me, but it was. All these years I have been trying to be a sender without ever being a go-er. But I’ve never been called to be a go-er. Was God now releasing me to go?

Finally, the moment came: the altar call. The music played softly. In a powerful moment, Dennis broke a snow globe on stage, challenging us all to break out of our tidy lives and ask if God was calling us to serve on the mission field. I waited for the prompting of the Holy Spirit — the compulsion to go forward, the pounding heartbeat, the mild nausea, the “Holy Spirit sweats” but they never came. Instead, I stood there thinking how much I thought KEN should go forward. I thought to myself, “Why isn’t Ken going to the altar? Didn’t we just talk about this? Ken is so gifted in so many ways — preaching, teaching, administration. Did Ken not hear Bob Bagley say that he needed him in Africa?”  Though strong, I resisted the temptation to give Ken a little push out into the aisle.

And then it was over. The lights came up, the service was dismissed. We socialized. We stopped by Five Guys and bought some burgers for the road.

The ride home was quiet, until the silence was broken by Ken. “Robin, I was really surprised that you didn’t go forward tonight during the altar call. I know God could really use you in Africa.”

The Not-So-Black-And-White of Our Black and White World

We always knew there would be challenges raising black children in a Caucasian home and a predominantly Caucasian culture. However, recognizing the need for homes for children in desperate need, we were willing to accept the risk of being a “different” family. After all, isn’t a child better off healthy and well educated in a culture where they don’t quite fit in, than having a sense of belonging in a culture where they would not receive education, health care, and proper nutrition?

So in August of 2012, we brought our very black children into our very white world. Our son now recounts the scariest moment of the entire time he’s been with us as the moment we walked off the plane in Nashville and into the arms of dozens of our friends. Our Caucasian friends. Our kids were given balloons, toys, signs, handshakes, high fives, and hugs. But all Palmer could see was all of the whiteness all around them. This is a child who has endured severe burns, wild animals, abandonment, starvation, and all manner of unspeakable evil, but the thing that frightened him the most was a bunch of white people?

As the kids began to speak more and more English, we realized that the differences in their color from ours was becoming a big deal to them. There were frequent questions like, “Why are there no black people at the zoo?” and “Why are there no black hockey players on our team?”. When we enrolled them in an all-Black summer enrichment program so they could be around other children who looked like them, they were bullied and teased, not only for being from Africa but for having white parents. Both kids showed subtle but clear signs of stress because they didn’t fit in with black kids, and yet they clearly weren’t white. And unfortunately, there is a severe lack of black children with white parents with whom they could identify in books, television, movies, and real life.

At Christmas time in 2013, I remember as I reflected on Christ coming to earth to live among us, how we had done just the opposite with our kids. Ken and I compelled our kids come to where we were comfortable, where people looked and sounded like us, where the food was familiar to us, and the spoken language was one in which we were fluent. But it wasn’t comfortable for Addie and Palmer. Our kids will likely always struggle with finding a place to fit in because we removed them from the culture to which they belonged. Ken and I had inadvertently laid this burden at the feet of our kids — who had already been through unimaginable tragedy.

If Jesus were in my shoes, would He not go to the needy and live among them? Would it not have been Him to take on the burden of not fitting in, to learning new ways of doing things, to feel uncomfortable in His own skin? Had we missed our opportunity to live incarnationally as Christ had done?

For the first time in our adoption process, I began to feel selfish. I had forced my two children to make the difficult transition here, when I am supposed to be the parent, the strong one, the sacrificial one. I felt imperialistic and arrogant for having assumed that the right answer for my children was moving them to where I felt comfortable. Why had I not been willing to move to them, instead of them to me?

I knew that moving our kids into a predominantly black neighborhood in the United States wouldn’t be the solution — they had suffered the most bullying from kids of the same skin color as they are. Skin color is not the same as culture or ethnicity. At least in a white neighborhood, we would be somewhat of a novelty, as long as we lived in an area where mixed race families were accepted. But that would still be my culture on my terms.

Was there any place where our family could safely, yet incarnationally, allow our children to live where they felt they belonged?

When the words, “I need you in Africa” floated across the table on June 8th, I wondered if this was our incarnational opportunity.

But how would our kids react to being asked to go back to Africa? Back to a continent where they had experienced so much pain and loss? Away from the affluent culture that they had come to love? Away from their new grandma and grandpa, whom they adore? Away from the excellent educational opportunities that had propelled them to success?

While moving them out of their culture seemed a bit unfair, was moving them back to Africa any better?

When Bob Bagley Ruins Your Life

My stomach felt like it had just been punched. How could he say that? Was he serious? The moment is ingrained in my memory. 

We had no idea what lay in store for us when we awoke on that warm Sunday in early June. We had just moved to Boiling Springs, North Carolina and bought a home three weeks prior. It was a large home — over 2500 square feet — with a fenced in yard, jacuzzi tub, bonus room for the kids, and huge kitchen. Our master bedroom suite alone was about the size of our former tiny house in Nashville. This new home was exactly what we wanted at a price that could not be beat, and in a friendly little town straight out of a classic American tale. The kids had adjusted well to school. We were making new friends. My students were great. Life was looking as close to perfect as it ever had.Jewett (47) (1)

Still, we were trying to figure out a few details. While I had a job, Ken was planning on staying home with the children over the summer, prior to finding a employment. We had been considering planting a church in Boiling Springs, since there were no Wesleyan churches to be found in the immediate area, but we discovered that Boiling Springs had more than one church for every 100 people, including a brand new church plant by a prominent author and speaker just a mile from our house. For us, a church plant seemed like an idea whose time had not come, so we began to look for a church home in an established Wesleyan church.

On that particular Sunday, Ken had preached at Shelby First Wesleyan in the morning, then we were having lunch at the home of the pastor of East Gold Street Wesleyan. He had children the same age as our children, and we were looking forward for a chance to let our kids play with new friends. Also present that day were Bob and Brenda Bagley, who serve with Global Partners in Africa.

As we dined on grilled chicken, macaroni and cheese, and salad, we soon found our lunch conversation turning to Africa– the cultural challenges our children face here, and the difficulties we encountered in the process of adoption. Bob chuckled as we told him our tales of the DR Congo because he understood exactly the kinds of things that we faced when we were there. Bob asked Ken about his French-speaking when he was in Congo, and about my efforts to help students answer God’s call to serve the poor through the ministry of medicine.

Eventually, Bob sighed, leaned back in his chair and said, “Ken, I need to be direct with you. I need you in Africa. I need your help with French-speaking pastors who are moving to Burkina Faso. It takes a long time to train someone with no French background, but with your education, experience, and years of exposure to French in Canada, it would be much easier for you.”

I don’t remember Ken’s response. I don’t even remember mine. I do remember recognizing that those words were something that we would have to wrestle with for the days, weeks, and months to come.

I was pretty sure with five simple words, Bob Bagley had “ruined” our lives.