Below the luminous face of 15-year-old Lillian, a simple silver cross lies on her neck.
She wears it on the grounds of the Agape orphanage in Kampala, Uganda, where she lives now, her mother dying of AIDS, her father already taken by the disease.
More than 7,000 miles away, Katie Firth sits in her kitchen outside LaGrange. She’s married with children. There’s a dog to protect the house and doting parents just down the hill on the family land. Her sister lives down the hill in the opposite direction.
But Firth wears that same cross around her neck. She and Lillian share a connection. Soon, they will be connected for life.
A few days later, a week before Mother’s Day, Firth and her husband Paul, leave the comfort and safety of their home and leave the care of their children to their family. It’s a trip they’ve made before, with their church to Lillian’s orphanage. But this time it’s more breathless, there’s more on the line. They have a court date in Uganda to adopt Lillian. When Katie Firth returns in six weeks, she will be bringing her new daughter home.
“God has orchestrated this thing from the whole beginning,” said Firth’s mother, Marie Jackson.
The Agape orphanage was founded by a man named William Nsubuga, who escaped the genocide in Rwanda and spent 10 years in America. While here, he worked with SIFAT – Servants in Faith and Technology – in Lineville, Ala.
SIFAT was started by the Methodist church and trains missionaries to bring sustainability to third-world countries, said the Rev. Greg Brown, pastor of Western Heights Baptist Church where the Firths are members. It also helps those who want to serve people in the underdeveloped countries. Nsubuga used his SIFAT training to help him establish the orphanage.
Western Heights has had a partnership with Agape for the last three years. Katie Firth and her father, Glen Jackson, went on the first mission trip in 2011.
Katie Firth met Lillian on that trip and says they bonded right away.
“I think we made earrings,” she said. “It was just like she’d known me all her life.”
Katie and Paul Firth decided after that trip to sponsor Lillian, sending money to the orphanage to help provide for her care.
About a year after that, changes in the Firth family caused them to have to stop the sponsorship.
“Unbeknowst to us, Mama and Daddy picked up Lillian’s sponsorship for that year we couldn’t,” Katie Firth says.
And unbeknowst to Marie and Glen Jackson, they picked up the sponsorship of the child their daughter had sponsored.
“We picked her name out of a list,” Marie Jackson said. “We picked her because she had my name. My real first name is Lillian.”
A year ago, the Firth’s situation had stabilized and they picked Lillian’s sponsorship back up. They also began to think seriously about adopting a child.
They got on the waiting list for a child from a foreign country from age birth to 3.
Then Katie and Paul Firth took another mission trip to Uganda.
“Paul said to me, ‘Why don’t we just adopt Lillian?’ and I just dismissed him,” Katie Firth says. “He said, ‘No, really.’”
The next day she went to speak with Nsubuga, who had always said the children at Agape were “not adoptable.”
“His intention was never to adopt the children out, he was just trying to get them off the streets,” Katie Firth said.
To be an orphanage that adopted out children, each child would have to have a “care plan,” like children in foster care in the United States. Nsubuga hasn’t had the staff or the resources to get the orphanage to that point. In fact, when Western Heights first started going to Uganda, the mission was to build a school where the children could live, since the building they were in was next to a nightclub in a bad part of town.
When Katie Firth first went to speak with Nsubuga, he told her Lillian was adoptable. Not sure if she was being taken seriously, she took her husband back the next day.
Lillian indeed was adoptable and the Firths wanted her.
After the decision, it was mostly paperwork and waiting. And prayer. Because the Firths had asked first to adopt a young child, they had to pay to change the age on the home study that had been completed. Because they found a “pre-determined” child to adopt, they were bumped up the waiting list to the front of the line.
When they were asked if they wanted to change Lillian’s name, the Firths said no.
“All our children have either a first or middle name that is a family name,” Katie Firth said. Since Lillian already had her new grandmother’s name, it wasn’t necessary. And it was just more proof to the family that Lillian belonged with them.
Marie Jackson says she also made an immediate connection with Lillian when she went to Uganda the first time.
“I felt like I was greeting my grandchild,” she said. “I just said, ‘my baby, my baby.’ Only God can do that.”
That love has expanded to far beyond Lillian. Marie and Glen Jackson make trips to Uganda to teach and preach whenever they can. They were there for a month this winter.
“You feel like a month is going to be an eternity but when we were packing up to leave, we realized we didn’t have time to do everything we wanted,” Marie Jackson said. “It’s a journey that we’re on, but we feel a definite call to be there. We feel such a burden for those children to be discipled.”
Glen Jackson is an ordained elder of the church. The children in Uganda call him “Pastor Glen.” Brown says Glen Jackson has made Uganda his personal mission in retirement.
“He said to me one day, ‘I don’t want to be remembered as someone who played golf,’” Brown said.
Brown praises the Firths for their choice to adopt Lillian. The couple also still wants to adopt another child, they are back on the waiting list for another opportunity.
“This is the maturity of a mother,” Brown said. “Katie has always been this way. She was a mentor to my own three daughters even before she had her own children. This is an act of God’s grace in all their lives. This is not about taking someone from poor to middle class or giving her an iPhone and an iPad. This is about cultivating an awareness in her that God loves her. Her life will be profoundly changed.”
It seems everyone in the Jackson family now is adopting. Katie Firth’s sister, Corrie Killmer and her husband are adopting a child, and her brother Ben Jackson and his wife are adopting a nephew. Katie Firth admits adopting children wasn’t a goal from the beginning. She and Paul have four children: 9-year-old Cason, 8-year-old Braden, 5-year-old Ella Kate and 3-year-old Chloe.
“We felt like our family was complete,” Katie Firth said.
Once the idea caught on in their heads, though, they started reading books about adoption, being reminded of the Bible verses that talk about taking care of the “orphans and widows.”
Soon all the reading will be put to use. The Firths will become Lillian’s legal guardians after the court date, and the rest of the adoption process will be done in about six weeks. Katie Firth will have to stay in Uganda with Lillian that long, to complete the process and go through about 20 hours of adoption training all new parents are required to attend. Lillian, luckily, is in perfect health.
Katie Firth knows her family may get some odd looks once Lillian is home.
“I told our children, ‘God doesn’t see color and I don’t either,’” she said.
And LaGrange will be Lillian’s home. Before leaving for the adoption, Katie Firth got Lillian’s room ready – it already had been painted pink, her favorite color – and hung pictures of her on the wall amongst her other children. Lillian is on the family wall already.
It will be Katie Firth’s first Mother’s Day away from her four birth children. She is a stay-at-home mother.
“It’s going to be hard,” she said. “I will miss my four children, but I can’t think of a better way to spend it than with my new daughter.”