By MARILYN TINNIN
Jenni and Lee Smith
I knew from the second I stopped in front of the house I was going to love interviewing this family. The house had its own personality and seemed to scream, “Welcome!” I walked up the brick sidewalk admiring the front porch and the white swing with bright pillows. The grapevine wreath on the chocolate front door had a big burlap bow on it, and before I could even ring the bell, the door opened and five-year-old Moses Henry Kidane (Kee-don-a) Smith flashed a big smile and called me “Mrs. Marilyn” as though he had been waiting for me all day.
I was smitten.
Moses was born in Ethiopia. He also has a disability known as cortical visual impairment. His eyes are healthy, but he sees poorly due to a neurological malfunction between the visual center of the brain and the eyes. Although he is about as bright a child as you will ever meet, his eyes put him in a “special needs” category.
It was sometime in late 2009 that Jenni and Lee Smith’s faith journey made a dramatic turn—a radical turn. It began with what they call “a stirring,” a sense of restless discontent with the status quo.
Lee’s job as a pharmaceutical salesman had provided well. A four-year-old son, an almost one-year-old daughter, and a house with a picket fence—what else was there? They could have stood up most any Sunday at Pinelake Church where they were members and testified to their abundant blessings.
As part of a couples’ small group ministry, they were studying Francis Chan’s book Crazy Love at the time. The book’s subtitle is Overwhelmed by a Relentless God. To say the message transformed their lives, their family’s lives, and changed all of their plans and priorities barely begins to tell their story.
The question was posed, “What are you living for?” Chapter after chapter, week after week, the question brought a deeper, more soul-searching reflection on what it means to live authentically as a Christ follower.
Lee and Jenni felt a great sense of conviction that God wanted them to step outside their comfort zones and allow Him to use them in a way they had not thought about until now. Their daily prayer was that He would show them what this something was and give them the strength to obey.
As Jenni said, “We just had this ‘sense of ‘oughtness,’” but there was frustration in not knowing what God wanted. What could this something be?
One of Lee’s mentors challenged, “Have you thought of just putting your ‘yes’ on file with God?” No conditions. No ifs or maybes or we’ll try—just “Yes, Lord. Whatever it is, we say yes.”
He adds, “For a couple of control freaks like us, that was kind of hard because we wanted to know what we were saying yes to.” This was totally uncharted territory for both of them.
They were now waiting for God to reveal the question.
Lee had had thoughts about ministry for years. As far back as high school, he had inklings that God might call him to full-time ministry at some point. He didn’t know exactly what that might look like, but he remained open to the idea. He asked God for clarity.
“I knew that two of the most miserable people in the world are those who are called into ministry and don’t go into it and those who go into ministry and aren’t really called to be there. I didn’t want to be in either one of those places,” he says.
With an undergraduate degree in Psychology from Mississippi State, he went into the marketplace in 1998 and discovered he was good at sales. But that tug at his heart for ministry never completely vanished.
When he walked in one day and told Jenni he thought he would go back to school to work on a master’s degree in Psychology, her first words were, “Why would you do that? Our life is so great.” However, it wasn’t long after that conversation that God began to work on her, too.
The pharmaceutical company Lee worked with at the time offered to pay for his schooling because they could see some benefit. “People skills” were critical to his success in working with physicians and clinic personnel. His employer’s only stipulation was that he would stay with the company for three years after receiving his degree.
Six months after receiving his degree, he was part of a massive layoff in the Great Recession. He fully expected God to open the doors to ministry at that time, but God took him on a detour. Another pharmaceutical company called, and he was back in sales for two more years.
It was in 2011 that representatives from Pinelake asked him to come on staff and take responsibility for their Small Groups Ministry. This time God’s call was clear. Lee and Jenni may have assumed they were coming to the end of a mysterious quest when, in reality, God was just getting started on something else!
The “Yes” Question Revealed
The Smiths had been part of a close-knit small group long before Lee joined the Pinelake staff. One of the couples in that group was in the process of adopting a baby girl from Ethiopia. (See MS Christian Living May 2014, Alison and Jody Schmelzer,).
Jenni says, “Adoption had never been on our radar.” The Schmelzers experience impacted them, and the more they learned about a worldwide orphan crisis, the more they began to discuss it but not entertaining the idea personally at first. And yet, the memory of that “yes” they had put on file with God kept coming to mind until they couldn’t get away from the idea. Adoption was very much the “it” God had planned for them.
Lee says, “There were two things that we felt very confident about from the very beginning. We felt sure God was telling us this child would not look like us. We also felt very clearly that God was saying He didn’t want us to fundraise for this because He was going to provide.”
That second point caused more angst than the first. International adoption is expensive—very. Lee’s salary had been cut in half with his career move. He was also losing a company car and other perks. The timing defied logic. Did God say something about, “Walking by faith and not by sight?” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
They may have had wobbly knees, but they were going to walk this out as God brought confirmation after confirmation.
And God Kept Showing Up
Lee says, “People we didn’t even know just started showing up. One older couple knocked on our door one day. They did not know us, but they knew Jenni’s sister. They had several adopted grandchildren and said they just wanted to bless us because their lives had been so blessed by adoption. They left us with an envelope. Inside the envelope was a card, and inside the card was a $10,000 check.”
Despite moments like that one, doubts sometimes crept in. The couple knew that this was no small thing. Bringing another child into their family was going to affect their lives and their other children’s lives forever. There was no going back once they adopted. There were so many unknowns in this decision, and they did not want to make a mistake.
One morning Jenni found herself especially plagued with doubts. “I finally prayed, ‘Lord, my faith is so little right now. If I need to continue on this journey, please give me something today— just my manna for today.”
Not five minutes later, their adoption agency called to tell her they had received an anonymous donation into their adoption account for $5,000. The representative just wanted Jenni to know when they received their monthly statement that the $5,000 was not in error. As Jenni says, “I knew then we were going to just keep on truckin’!”
From the day their tedious and lengthy application was approved, they were placed on a waiting list and every month they received an update posting their place in line as well as how close they were to the monetary goal required. When they got down to the number two spot, they were still $5,200 short.
Jenni and Lee received an invitation from a former student of Jenni’s from her school teaching days at Jackson Prep. The girl was engaged and wanted Jenni to come by to see her ring and meet her fiancé. During the visit, the conversation turned to adoption, and the family was very interested in the details of this still-evolving journey.
The next week two amazing things happened. The letter came telling Jenni and Lee that they were now number one on the list, and a check from the family of Jenni’s former student arrived in the sum of $5,200.
God’s faithfulness was simply beyond their ability to comprehend.
Jenni and Lee had not requested a baby of a specific sex. When the call from the agency came, they were told there was a four-month-old little boy ready to be adopted and they were given his medical files to study before making a decision.
“It was hard to look at that,” Jenni says. “I think a lot of people look at the joy of adoption and don’t think about the fact that there is so much gut-wrenching pain that leads an orphan to become an orphan. What I want people to know is that EVERY story of adoption starts with tragedy,” Jenni says.
His records revealed a healthy baby. The name Kidane had been given to him, and it meant “my promise” in the native Ethiopian language. In her research over the previous months, Jenni had learned a great deal about the plight of orphans in Ethiopia. Many single women abandon their babies either out of shame or because of poverty. A single mother in Ethiopia has no government safety net to help her feed herself and her baby. Abandonment is sometimes the most loving option among no great choices.
Jenni says, “We can assume from common practices that she placed Kidane in an environment to be found. In his case, it was between a river and the police station. When rescued, he was taken to the police station. From there, he was taken to a government-owned orphanage where he stayed for two months. With so many babies and so few workers, Moses did not thrive. He was very ill, so, in an attempt to save his life, the government placed him in a transition home. The caregivers, called ‘special mothers,’ nursed him back to health. They did a great job as he went from about 6 lbs. at 2 months to about 25 lbs. at 6 months!”
Kidane was a cherub baby with fat cheeks and big eyes. Of course they wanted him. They began to share the news with friends and family. They also began to discuss what his American name would be.
“When a friend told us that we should name him Moses, little did we know how much his story and our journey would reflect the life of Moses in the Bible. His beginnings started a lot like the biblical Moses. Moses’ birth mother in Ethiopia was in a desperate situation to save her child just as the first Moses’ mother was,” says Jenni.
The Plans God Had for Them
Jenni and Lee arrived at the Jackson airport with their baby boy March 1, 2013. Friends and family lined the hall of the terminal to welcome Moses and to show their love for the Smiths. Siblings Ford and Millie could not have been more excited to finally meet their little brother.
It would be lovely to stop there and say, “And they all lived happily ever after.” Although they expected there to be some adjustments and some challenges they had not anticipated, they could never have imagined the most daunting one of all.
Deciding to adopt was just the first step in a journey that turned out to present many more decisions along the way. Jenni says, “One of our biggest hesitations was color. As much as we would like to think that the world is colorblind, it’s not. Lee and I talked a lot about this and we prayed about it a lot, too.”
They did feel that God completely erased any discomfort they feared whether from the stares of strangers or the questions from friends or family members. A genuine bond was immediately formed between parent and child and between siblings, and that was one of God’s great affirmations that Moses was indeed made to belong to this family.
In filling out the initial paperwork, one of the questions pertained to special needs children. Would they be willing to adopt a baby with special needs? They wrestled with that question but decided that would not be fair to their other children who were still so young. They answered that question, “No.”
God had other plans.
Moses had not been home long when Jenni began to notice a few things that troubled her. When she walked into his room in the mornings, he did not have that instant smile of recognition her other two babies had at the same age. When she tried to play peep-eye games like, “Where’s Mommy?” or “Where’s Moses?” he did not pick up on the visual cues. When his finger food was set in front of him at mealtime, he did not reach for it but rather seemed to be feeling for it as though he couldn’t find it easily.
An eye exam with an ophthalmologist showed his eyes to be fine. Jenni went for a second opinion. She knew something was not right, but the second doctor found his eyes to be perfectly normal. He had a slight tendency toward one eye crossing at times, and for that, the doctor prescribed glasses to relax the muscle, but that did not seem to explain why he did not seem to recognize faces or easily pick up his food. His vision did not seem to be any better with the glasses than without.
Jenni continued to get on the computer and google everything she could think of concerning eye issues in children. She finally asked her pediatric ophthalmologist at UMMC to refer them to a neurologist.
Bingo. An EEG revealed that Moses was having absence seizures, a type of non-convulsive seizure that is so subtle and so brief that it is often mistaken for daydreaming.
Jenni’s hunch was correct. He was not seeing, but he had developed amazing compensatory skills with his ears and his fingers that allowed him to develop his unique method of “seeing.” Unless you were with him all the time as Jenni was, you might not immediately pick up on the fact that he was practically blind.
The Smiths were thankful for a diagnosis, but that was just step one. What options were there to help their son? Jenni got back on the computer for untold hours devouring every bit of information on Cortical Visual Impairment she could find.
Surprisingly, it is the fastest growing diagnosis for vision impairment in children in the United States. The reason is that thanks to medical advances, so many extremely premature babies who had no chance for survival twenty years ago are now surviving. The brain is one of the last organs to be fully developed in a full-term pregnancy.
There are few specialists in the United States who treat CVI, but Jenni’s persistence paid off. She was able to get an appointment with a leading CVI specialist in Pittsburgh at the Westminster School for the Blind. Although there is no cure for the disease, there is the possibility of improved vision through certain therapies and assistive technology.
An extensive evaluation put Moses in a promising category. The CVI Project Leader believes Moses will be able to make significant progress and will one day be able to read print. “There have been times on the journey that we have felt defeated, but after the appointment in Pennsylvania, we felt great hope!” Jenni says.
God’s Special Blessings
The Smiths look back at this journey that began eight years ago with that very soul-searching question, “What are you living for?” It seems a lifetime ago in so many ways, and even when they took the bold step of saying “yes” to God before they were even sure what His question was going to be.
They knew even then that He was going to teach them so much, but they just had no earthly way of knowing what that “so much” was going to involve.
Lee sums it up beautifully. “We heard so much in the beginning—it’s so great you are rescuing this child. And what we ‘ve seen is that he’s really the one who has rescued us. I’ve always been fascinated with the Israelites and their journey out of Egypt, and I think over the last five years God has taught me and continues to teach me that getting them out of Egypt was easy. The bigger challenge was getting Egypt out of them. It’s the identity they had bought into. It was the identity they had come to. God has used Moses to lead us out of our own Egypt to kind of lead us out of—for me specifically it was idols of comfort, selfishness—He just continues to pull that out of me. Being able to embrace the unknown and trust that God really does go before you and His way is so good and so perfect even though you don’t know what that is going to look like.”
Jenni adds, “It’s been a refining journey for both of us—the adoption journey, the special needs journey—it’s been like God is refining us, taking the impurities out.”
To watch Ford, Millie, and Moses chase each other across the backyard and to hear them laugh looks and sounds a little like heaven—pure heaven.