SOUTHEAST ASIA (BP) — In a Southeast Asian orphanage, a 20-year-old woman struggles to stand up. Her muscles are soft from disuse and her feet wobble on the tile as she steps. She throws her head back and opens her mouth in a silent squeal of joy.
Jessica Newberry from Pleasantview Baptist Church in Derby, Kan., grasps the woman under one arm.
“You can do it,” Jessica says.
Rohana Azhar* grins again. She takes another step.
Jessica, 19, tightens her hold. She wishes she could call home and describe Rohana’s wobbles to her mother. But she can’t.
For the past several days, Jessica and other high school and college students from her church have dispersed throughout a city in Southeast Asia to work on community service projects in conjunction with the International World Changers program. They joined volunteers from Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and a few other churches to work at orphanages, host children’s programs and paint murals in a local church.
Jessica has spent most of her time at the orphanage playing with Rohana, a Southeast Asian woman with an infant’s mind and a severely underdeveloped body. The other IWC students find glimpses of God in the smiles of these orphans, but for Jessica, this trip has been the satisfying end to months of crying out to Him. As she helps her handicapped friend walk, her heart flows with happiness, which the Lord uses to heal a pain that began in Kansas.
Four months before Jessica flew to Southeast Asia, her mother died.
Jessica and her mother, Janol or “Jan,” were the only Christians in her family when, three years ago, Jessica accepted Christ and her mother rediscovered her faith. While Jessica’s father and brother couldn’t grasp their fascination with God, the common Christian ground she found with Jan deepened their relationship.
“Maybe because we were so close, and she saw that [Christ] was going to become a big part of my life, she wanted to be able to be involved in it too,” Jessica said.
After years of growing spiritually alongside her mother, Jessica felt God calling her to board a plane for the first time in her life and fly to Southeast Asia. She wanted to travel with IWC and work with underprivileged children. At first, Jan thought the trip dangerous, but after attending one parents’ meeting, she understood the blessing it could be to Jessica. She became her teenage daughter’s biggest supporter. Jan assembled contributions for gift baskets to be auctioned at a fundraiser. She took notes and asked questions at subsequent meetings. She remarked that she felt so excited for Jessica and wished she could go as well.
Then, one Sunday last March, Jan went to bed after church saying she wasn’t feeling well. Jessica said goodbye and drove to her dorm at Wichita State University. That was the last time she spoke to her mother.
That night, Jan died of heart arrhythmia. Jessica could barely handle the news.
“I was literally screaming at the top of my lungs because I was so upset,” she said. “I’ve never been that upset about anything in my whole life…. It’s like I couldn’t believe that it was happening. It was like an out-of-body experience.”
She grew angry at God, demanding to know why He took her mother with no warning. The Lord never quite answered her question, but He brought her comfort in ways she did not expect — mainly support from fellow Christians and change in her father Steve.
While Jessica’s family reeled from shock and grief, Pleasantview Baptist Church brought food to the family and helped her father with funeral arrangements. Most had never even met Steve. He was touched and, in return, he attended services.
“That was just amazing to me that, as a result of this, the people at my church were so loving and so giving in our time of need that he wanted to be able to — I guess in a sense — pay them back, but also, he still goes [to church] now,” she said.
In addition, Steve took over for Jan in IWC parent meetings. He asked fewer questions but took notes, and Jessica saw this as an act of love.
Still marveling at the change in her father, Jessica has found fulfillment in the trip her mother so zealously supported. She walks down streets full of women in black burkas. She tastes the sweetness and the spice in Asian food. At the orphanage, she tickles Rohana and helps her stretch. She sees and feels an abundance of new experiences — experiences she would normally store up in her memory for release in conversations with her mother at home.
But Jessica believes Jan already knows the color of the burkas, the taste of the Asian flatbread and the rough feel of Rohana’s hands. She believes Jan is watching.
“In a way, it’s kind of neat because since she’s in heaven, it’s almost like she gets to be here with me now, as opposed to if she were in the States, then we would be apart for so long,” Jessica said.
This feeling, however, hasn’t kept Jessica from sinking into grief. In between working in the orphanage and soaking in cultural wonders, she has taken time apart from the group to cry for her mother and to pray.
That’s when God meets her.
“I was talking to God, and I think, He was just telling me how proud she is of me and how proud she would have been if I could tell her about this trip, too,” she said.
After grieving, Jessica wrestles her emotions under control. While she still can only guess why the Lord took her mother so early, she looks at her life and sees evidence of His love for her in the midst of such pain. Her father and brother still attend church. Her Christian family helped pay for her trip to Asia. Rohana smiles at her and gives her hugs. She knows God offers comfort through these blessings, and she uses the thought of His grace and love as a source of strength. As she recounts her mother’s story, she never sheds a tear.
“A lot of people think I am a really strong person, but I know that it’s God who is strong for me and I think that my mom has added strength to that, as well,” she said.
With emotional support drawn from the Father, Jessica will return to the United States in a few days. She will leave this country, with its Islamic rules and calls to prayer, and she will leave Rohana, the young woman whose very steps have become a blessing to her. But Jessica vows to come back. She has seen God in Southeast Asia, and she wants to see more.
And while she can no longer tell her mother about her adventures, Jessica knows that the Lord will continue to bless her.
His comfort will never cease.
*Name changed. Shiloh Lane writes for the International Mission Board.