As a team, we set foot on the Hillcrest campus knowing that our mission for the week was to Be Present and Love Freely. Both are counter cultural ideas that look simple when printed, but begin to grow vastly more complicated when you try to live them out. We had an idea of what we would be doing, but also knew that everything could change, “Blessed are the flexible for they shall not break.”
From the start we were given the amazing opportunity to eat lunch with kids in their homes, an honor given to few groups. We ate together, laughed together, played games together, and were immediately confronted with what it looks like to Be Present and Love Freely. These amazing kids wanted very little from us. All they wanted was our attention and love. Each day we spent time with a different cottage and each day we fell in love with a new set of kids. We took them to the water park and nodded “yes” when asked, “Can we ride that one again?” even though we’d already ridden that particular ride 5 times in a row. “I’ll watch you from here” just didn’t seem to cut it. So we all fastened our seatbelts and screamed our way through round 6 because on that day, that’s what it meant to Be Present and Love Freely.
Other days we had our 7 girls ready for Princess Training where we talked about what it meant to be a daughter of the One True King. As a team, we’d seen these girls and wanted them to be reminded of how God sees them, and how we see them. On our last day of Princess Training we wrote all of their names on pieces of paper and passed them around our team adding words like: Loved, Cherished, Beautiful, Funny, and Joyful. We wrote little notes and verses specific to each girl. At the crowning ceremony, because what Princess Training would be complete without a crowning ceremony, we invited each girl to come up individually. We called them by name put a crown on their head and read the words out loud over each girl. We then asked the girls to add words for each other. They were quick to shout words like: Brave, Nice, Fun, and Helpful. Each girl beamed as she received praise and affirmation from our team, and her friends. I wish I were able to better describe how beautiful it was to watch the uncomfortable smiles become genuine 100-watt, toothy grins.
In the blink of an eye it was the end of the week and we weren’t ready to go. We were just getting started. As a team, we would connect each night before bed and talk about the day. We would laugh about things that kids said, we would share special moments with special kids, and we would cry for our new friends. We don’t know their life stories, but we know that something brought them to Hillcrest and that something was more than likely traumatic. After having dinner with the maternity home and spending time with a sweet 14 year old and her 4 week old baby, we prayed together, because our hearts were broken for her. We prayed together because God brought her to this place where she hears about Jesus and is loved by amazing cottage parents who told us, “It’s not hard. What we do isn’t hard. Someone has to do it, and God asked us.”
We spent our last night praying for kids and their parents wherever they may be. We struggled through the realization that God really does have a plan and His plan is best, even if we don’t understand it. When all we can see is an amazing kid so deserving of love and can’t imagine why their parents would give that up. We were present and we loved freely and that made leaving feel impossible. In the end, those kids will forget our names. They will forget how old they were when they met us. They will forget how many times we rode the Arkansas Twister with them. They won’t remember us, but they will remember God in us. They will remember that there was a group of people that loved them honestly and immediately. They will remember the group that gave them crowns and told them they were enough and in the end, that’s what matters. We will remember them though. We will treasure the time we spent with those kids, and pray for them regularly.
In the week since our return I have been struck by how different life is when your goal is to Be Present and Love Freely. My day to day interactions feel different and I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want to forget what God did in Hillcrest. God’s movement on the trip was evident from start to finish. From bonding us as a team, to bonding with the kids. We saw God on that campus and it was beautiful. I remember sitting on the porch in a rocking chair knowing that we were leaving and our theme words and verse kept rolling through my head.
Be Present. Love Freely.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
These words still rock through my head. If I’m not present, I can’t know the needs of those around me. If I don’t love, it all means nothing. Those wonderful kids at Hillcrest affected me more than I affected them, as is usually the case on mission’s trips. They planted those words deep in my heart. Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, Be Present Love Freely.