ight months ago, I was forever away from returning home. Lufthansa flight 758 had just made its midnight landing in Chennai, Tamil-Nadu, India. I hopped off the plane, feeling completely alone. For the first time in my life, I felt orphaned. All that I’d ever known was a world away.
Standing in crowded customs queues, where the only people who looked like me were off to five-star hotels or business meetings, I wondered if I’d made a bad choice. The thought I don’t belong here ran through my head repeatedly.
After getting my passport stamped, I headed down the escalator and waited for my bags. Starting my immersion experience off right, I thought when they showed up an hour later. I hauled my stuff outside the air-conditioned terminal and stepped out into the suffocating heat. Here we go.
I made my way through the crowd and found the only thing that looked familiar, my Anna (Tamil for elder brother), also known as Israel. He put flowers around my neck and gave me a hug that made me feel, if only for two seconds, like I was back with my family in America. “Welcome back,” he said.
I put my things in the trunk of a taxi and crammed my knees into the passenger seat. We pulled into Israel’s driveway around three A.M., and for the next few hours I attempted to sleep. Later that day, we took the all-night train to go to my pseudo home for the next eight months—an orphanage. A fitting place for my brand-new life without a family.
The next morning came a few hundred kilometers down the train tracks, and I’ve never been the same since. I reunited with the kids I’d met a half year before, and we quickly became family. For months before leaving for India, I’d stressed about leaving home, but when I found those kids, that anxiety faded away. For the first time, I felt like I belonged where God had put me. I was home.
The following months were nothing short of completely nuts. I got to try my luck at being a traveling journalist, a preacher, an architect, a tour guide, and a host of other things I wasn’t qualified for. Those days away from the orphanage were full of adventure, but they in no way compared to what it’s like to be with my new family.
These 13 kids are the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. Even though it’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit at night and no one understands what I mean by Olive Garden breadsticks, I count myself among the luckiest people in the world. If God calls me to be a stay-at-home dad in India for the rest of my life, I’ll happily accept (and maybe throw in a request for an air conditioner).
Adventist Volunteer Service facilitates volunteer missionary service of church members around the world. Volunteers ages 18 to 80 may serve as pastors, teachers, medical professionals, computer technicians, orphanage workers, farmers, and more. To learn more, please visit AdventistVolunteers.org.
People have asked me a lot how this year has changed me. I’d been sort of disappointed that it hasn’t been the life-altering quest that I’d dreamed it might be. I’d hoped to have one of those “radically changed” life stories to tell when I got home.
I asked God why I didn’t feel extraordinarily different, and His response was daunting. “Did you come here to change your own life, or did you come to change the lives of others?” Ouch.
I immediately recognized that I’d been looking at this whole experience from a me-centered perspective and determined to end such selfishness. I threw away my list of goals for myself and started focusing on the kids. What followed was a far more fulfilling mission experience because it no longer had to be about me.
In just three weeks, I’ll be back on that plane headed in the opposite direction. I’m sure there’ll be a few tears. Unlike the trip from America to India, this time I won’t know my return date, which won’t make for an easy goodbye. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to have had such an opportunity. I started my journey as a temporary orphan trying to help permanent ones, and now the word orphan never crosses my mind. None of us are orphans because I’ve adopted them, they’ve adopted me, and God has adopted all of us.
What began as a project has given me so much purpose and fulfillment. I’ve tasted the joy that only sacrifice can bring, and I’m content to never taste anything else. Even though the looming goodbye is going to be awful, I wouldn’t trade this year or this family for the world. I’m not an orphan anymore, and I have only my heavenly Father to thank.