By Jordan Rabenstein
I visited Liberia, Africa, in July 2018, as part of my first-ever short-term mission trip. I learned many lessons through various experiences and encounters, but visiting an orphanage for the blind left the deepest mark on my heart.
When our group was told we would be visiting such a place, I commented to a friend, “It’s not enough that they are orphans in Africa, but they are blind too? Can you rip my heart out any more?” I really had no clue.
During that visit, we found the majority of the children were away in the village, but while we visited with an older man (people of various ages live there), a few children made their way to us.
I suddenly found myself looking down at a shy but smiling 6-year-old girl named Princess. She had an eye that looked almost normal but rolled off and didn’t focus and an eye that was mostly shut; she had no vision in either one. I let her “see me” through feeling my skin, face, and hair. She came across my sunglasses and placed them on her own face. I gently switched her sandals to the correct feet, which seemed to cement our friendship as she felt for my knees and climbed into my lap.
I spent the rest of this visit reading Bible stories to Princess as she turned the pages of my book. She overcame some of her shyness to sing to me about love being all we need.
While I was on the porch with Princess, some members of our team met with Kennedy, the blind principal of the school. His computer allows him to type words and hear them repeated back. In a matter of seconds, he created a sheet of Braille that included the entire alphabet, numbers 1 to 10, and a personalized message for HOPE2, our organization. The time came to leave, but I wasn’t ready. For the first time, I prayed to return to a place we’d already visited.
An Adventure into Darkness
The next morning during our team meeting, our trip leader, Sam, asked who among us considered themselves to be adventurous. The nine of us who volunteered soon learned we’d be spending the next three-plus hours blindfolded at the orphanage for the blind. I was conflicted. I was thrilled at the opportunity to go back to visit with Princess, but I lamented not being able to see her face, read to her, and help her navigate. I wondered whether wearing blindfolds to approximate blindness would come across as disrespectful. Was this really a good idea?
Upon arriving, Kennedy said he loved that we would attempt to step into a blind person’s shoes. We were helped out of the vehicles, and most of our newly “blind” team members just stood still. We felt utterly alone and helpless unless someone was touching us or guiding us. We could hear people moving around and visiting, but we felt like we were not a part of things.
Later, we talked about these feelings, about how vulnerable we felt during our brief time living in darkness. We learned it’s more difficult to build relationships when one is sightless. I was fortunate in that I had the foundation of a friendship on which to build.
Little Princess was the first child over to our cars; she was searching for me, I was told. She heard my voice and reached out for me, and we embraced. I couldn’t see her face and she would never see mine, but our hearts knew one another. This time, instead of reading to her, I sat on the porch, held her in my lap, and recited a Bible story from memory to her. Then Steve, a team member who’d become my blind guide for the day, read to both of us. In all this, I got to know Princess differently than the day before. I became more attuned to this sweet girl by touching her braids, holding her tiny hands, feeling the heat of her skin, hearing her voice.
She sang to me as she had the day before. It was more difficult to understand her because I couldn’t see her mouth moving, but I experienced the music altogether differently, especially the way she sang the music, because there was nothing to distract me.
In a schoolroom, Sam taught that Joseph overcame multiple challenges after being sold into slavery; Sam stressed that God is able to work anything for good and beauty. His message seemed especially appropriate as I sat there, unable to see, and imagined living in a destitute country with a physical affliction likely to cause even more hopelessness.
Steve had guided us into the schoolroom. As we listened, Princess got up from her chair, hurriedly got onto my lap, wrapped my arms around her, and hugged my neck with her thin arms.
Over the two visits, our bond grew deeper. When it was time to leave, I held her longer than before; I told her I loved her and that Jesus loved her. I felt her face smile and she said, “Yes, Jesus.”
Life changed for us that day.
Some in our “voluntary blind” group spent that visit in chairs in the corners of rooms feeling very alone and unsure. Some others felt the weight of the difficulties these people face daily and gained appreciation for their perseverance and resilience to overcome trials and adversities. Still others forged unexpected bonds when their hands and heart did their seeing for them.
One Final Visit
We went back to the orphanage one final time on the last full day of our trip. We put on a small carnival for the kids. Earlier in the trip, we had put on a carnival for children with sight. For the second carnival, we revised the games and offered help at every turn. For prizes, we handed out trinkets that made noise or had interesting textures. We openly built relationships; their physical handicap had ceased to be a barrier.
At that event, we behaved with a compassion and understanding we may not have possessed had God not challenged our spirits through the experiment of becoming temporarily blind a week before. The level of participation by these little, blind orphans—their joy and excitement, their determination and tenacity—spoke volumes to our hearts.
As we left, I embraced Princess a final time.
If God allows me to return to Liberia, I hope to find this beautiful soul again. No matter what our futures hold, no matter what she remembers of me as she grows older, I will never forget a little blind girl who climbed into my arms and into my heart halfway around the world.
Upon returning to America from Liberia in 2021, Jordan Rabenstein took on a full-time position with HOPE2. She has a passion for loving others, building relationships, and watching God create beauty from broken people.