The email arrived in 2006, we both agree. I remember wondering if this were yet another ridiculous scam birthed in some dark room in Africa. He wondered if my terse reply was a sign of good intent or ill.
Born August 22, 1982 to a woman in her early teens and her school-mate lover, Waidha Isaac lacked all the proper introductions normally afforded a first-born son. It would be a few years before the ‘family’ was made official, but the sovereignty of Providence remained unaffected by the complications of such a beginning.
Isaac’s father completed his secondary (high school) education and took the woman to be his wife. Even though he was a quiet man, it was well known that he was devoted to this woman; to her happiness and well-being. Although his work as a transportation officer caused him to be away for long periods of time, he remained closely connected to his family. The man was a firm and sometimes too enthusiastic disciplinarian, but he was also generous and kind to his family. His kindness extended beyond his family to include members of his village and his friends. The man often returned from his travels with large quantities of oranges, potatoes, or fish–sharing the abundance with as many as he could.
The young woman was so happy with her home she left a promising job and its extra income in order to devote herself to the making of her home and raising of her children. Their home was spacious and after some years she received the blessing of a second child, Peninnah.
Waidha Isaac was sent to primary school and expected to excel, taking up the legacy of a grandfather who was a learned man, an educator, and a respected churchman. Isaac’s dominate hand is his left hand, which caused great upset to his father. Isaac learned quickly to hide his left hand at home and to use only his right hand whenever his father was present. Although temporarily hidden, the God-given creativity often associated with left-dominate people would serve him well in the years to come.
When Isaac was mid-way through primary school, his father returned home from his working travels. He was very ill. His family did their best to serve him and to heal him, but the disease working in his body was too powerful. Near Christmas Day, Isaac had a vivid dream. Isaac dreamed that his father came home from his travels and that Isaac ran to him and was welcomed into his arms. Isaac woke the next morning, certain his father was well. It was the very same night of the dream, however, that Isaac’s father died in a tuberculosis ward.
His father’s death came just a few days after Lionel, Isaac’s brother, was born. While many were celebrating the new year’s coming, Isaac’s mother tried to comprehend being widowed and without income, left with the responsibility of a new infant and two older children.
Efficiencies were quickly made. Isaac’s family left the only house he knew and they let out a single room to serve as shelter. Neighbors and friends were asked for help to assuage the need. The largess distributed by Isaac’s father was either forgotten, or neighbors and relatives were too overwhelmed by their own responsibilities to share what they had. Only Edward, a close friend of Isaac’s father, came to their aid.
Edward died soon afterward and the family was left to make ends meet through the selling of tomatoes and through whatever other work could be found. This sparse existence was further challenged by Isaac’s mother falling ill. The severe sickness took Isaac’s mother and he was left orphaned about the same age as his mother was when Isaac was born.
Then came the first adoption. A Reverend in Jinja town took Isaac in and included him as one of his own. Peninnah and Lionel were received by their aunt, a woman called Faith who lived by faith in Christ Jesus. Isaac excelled at reading and fell in with the Reverend’s other sons so well that many in Jinja know Isaac only as the Reverend’s son. Although the Reverend was not able to pay for school fees, he used his influence on a local private school board to keep Isaac enrolled and progressing through secondary school. Isaac leveraged his aptitude for his studies to win financial assistance in the form of bursary awards year to year. Using the income she received as a hotel worker, Isaac’s Aunt Faith provided him with the balance of the school fees not covered by the bursary awards.
Isaac’s last two years at school were full of challenges beyond his ability to handle, even with the assistance of Faith and the Reverend. The demands of the maths and sciences caused Isaac to fall out of the top performers in his class and he lost his bursary award. It was only through the graces of a sympathetic instructor, the continued influence of the Reverend, and the grace of God that he was able to take and pass his exit exams.
His pre-university education complete, Isaac sought work and found little to none. He was able to get by working as kitchen help to a caterer and by laboring for an organization serving the then ubiquitous HIV positive community in Uganda. The war in Iraq raged and Isaac tried to join the military. He was rebuffed as an enlisted man because of his completed secondary education. The entrance into the officer corps was likewise stymied.
Faith fell ill and Isaac took responsibility for the care of Peninnah and Lionel. They sought out any opportunity they could find to support themselves. Isaac once observed a muzungu (white) purchasing beads from a local supplier and thought there may be a market for such things in the USA. He quickly learned how to manufacture the beads using recycled paper advertisements and a bit of shellac. Isaac, Peninnah, and Lionel devoted themselves to making beads by the thousand and constructing necklaces and bracelets for sale.
Isaac needed buyers and the competition in Uganda was fierce. The secondary school Isaac previously attended received second hand computers from a school in the United Kingdom and Isaac had learned how to use the computer there. Isaac leveraged this knowledge and what shillings he could put together to begin to email as many people in the USA as he could find. He rarely received responses. The ones he did receive were most often referrals back to institutions and organizations in Uganda, all of which were overwhelmed with similar requests and needs as Isaac’s.
He persisted and received back my one sentence reply, “How can I help?”.
“I have crafts to sell and no market, will you sell them for me?”
“Yes, send them to me and I will sell them for you.”
Isaac borrowed money from everyone he could and sent the crafts to me based solely on my email response. After several weeks following that last email communication with Isaac, I was astonished to see the box of bead necklaces arrive at my office. I sold as many as I could to members at Main Street church, friends, family, neighbors, and complete strangers and quickly accumulated $350 (at the time equal to about 650,000 Uganda shillings).
As promised, I sent the funds to Isaac.
Isaac had never in his life seen so many shillings. Just a few years earlier, a 400,000 UGS school bill seemed to be an insurmountable sum and now he held in his hand far more than that. Scott and his wife, Debbie, were intrigued by Isaac’s desire to attend university and provided me with another $350 to send to Isaac to assist in applying to Makerere University in Uganda. My friends Tami and Denise took the necklaces from me and sold them at craft shows and any other places they could find. A new friend, Nancy, provided many things for Isaac, Penny, and Lionel along the way, blessing them with an abundance.
Isaac soon had over two million Uganda shillings. Since access to banking is difficult for Ugandans, Isaac kept the accumulated funds in his mattress, a favorite hiding place for riches in the USA in centuries past. He applied for and won a placement at Makerere University, and sent his brother back to secondary school.
Isaac’s emails to me became far too personal for my liking. He constantly referred to me as ‘dad,’ a position I don’t take lightly and would not be ‘forced’ into under any circumstances. In a fit of curious frustration, I asked Mark, a dear friend of mine, to accompany me to Uganda to meet this man Isaac. I leveraged the trip as a mission and connected with our Uganda missionary in Kampala. Even if the whole relationship with Isaac was fraud, I would at least be able salvage meaning from the trip by serving the Church.
Joining God in his work will always take our wildest dreams and make them seem like empty fantasy. The trip to Uganda introduced me to a work of God beyond my comprehension. I worshipped with people nearly naked in their poverty but joyous in their affirmation of God’s provision and goodness. I discovered a missionary family who have become treasured friends and people I aspire to emulate in many ways.
And I fell in love with Isaac, Peninnah, and Lionel. The sweetness of Jesus flowed through them and I could not help but to adopt them as my own which I did in a simple ceremony attended only by Mark, our hired driver, and the three of them. The straightforward act of taking responsibility for them as a father would has redefined my understanding of family in many ways (more on that later).
The left-handed orphan is an orphan no more. He is living witness to the immensity of God’s family made real, a man with many fathers and mothers. His shillings are now hosted properly in the bank. Emails back and forth are now conversational and the pages of the story still being written.