If the journey of the Landers family over the last six-and-a-half years were a song, it might be called, “Embracing Brokenness.”
Andy and Jody Landers and their three boys–Dawson, Gabe and Max–were living in Muscatine, Iowa, when their fourth son, Quincy, was born with bladder exstrophy, a rare birth defect in which his bladder formed outside of his body. Since Quincy’s condition required three reconstructive surgeries during his first two months of life, the Landers became regulars at the University of Iowa’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
After Quincy’s initial surgeries (he will need another series of procedures within the next few years and then another when he reaches adulthood), life returned to a semblance of normality for the Landers. Andy played gigs with his indie folk band and served as the worship pastor of a thriving local church, and Jody connected regularly with her network of friends and fellow moms. But their ordeal with Quincy had forced them to see the world so differently that when Jody’s parents, Jay and Laurie Lorenzen, started an informal network called Families for Africa, Jody and Andy began to consider adopting internationally.
Jody says, “We had always had some sort of arms-length involvement [overseas]. We had Compassion [International] kids and we always valued it in other people, but it was our first dive into it becoming more personal.”
“Most of my music is bent toward the outcast, the hurting, the struggling, so that’s kind of always been on my radar…but without Quincy, I don’t think we would have adopted,” Andy says. “It’s like when you go to the eye doctor and he’s flipping those [lenses] and he’s like, ‘How ‘bout now? How ‘bout now?’”
Sweet Sierra Leone
- In June 2008, after 15 months of paperwork and two trips, Andy and Jody arrived in Sierra Leone to pick up Kora and Zeke, their two-year-old twins. To avoid a day-long car trip from the inlet-bound Freetown airport to the kids’ orphanage on the mainland of Sierra Leone, the Landers had some choices: helicopter, hover craft, ferry or jet boat.
On their first trip to Sierra Leone, they took a helicopter to the mainland, but since it had blown up several months before their second trip, they chose a 45-minute ride on a jet boat, which according to Andy was, “nothing but a glorified, busted-up canoe with a tiny little trolling engine.”
“To get to the boat you have [to wade through] a good four foot of water, and so Sierra Leoneans [working as porters] carry whoever is getting off the plane to the boat. It took like three of them to get me to the boat…I know that whatever they were saying to each other, they were making some pretty big jokes…It was not a smooth trip. It was like a low-budget Indiana Jones film. They give you a big old tarp to pull over your head to keep from getting wet on the ride. At first we were watching, but then with the waves, we decided to use the tarp to keep from getting soaked.”
“There is no escaping the extreme poverty in Sierra Leone,” Jody says. “It is everywhere. Nearly everyone there is simply trying to survive. It felt like a totally different planet. I can’t even describe it.”
The Landers arrived safely home with the twins, but it took time for Kora to trust Jody enough to allow her to “mother” her.
“Even when we met them Zeke was cuddling and she wouldn’t come close and just watched us for a very long time,” Jody recalls. “Zeke was little and timid. It’s been neat just watching him become stronger, learning to stand up to Quincy, who just walked all over him [at first]. It was like, “Go, Zeke!” It’s one of the few times, we get proud of our children for fighting.”
“I think it was several months after that,” Jody says. “When I was chatting with a small group of girlfriends in Muscatine who met [periodically] for coffee, and we’re settling back into life, and we were talking about how easy it was to get back into the American way of comfort. I was so happy to be done with [the adoption] process. And I said, ‘I’m going to have to create ways to keep our eyes and hands open.’ So we started to create little projects.”
They collected backpacks for local foster care kids and bought Plumpy’nut through UNICEF. Then, as Christmas approached, they considered funding a clean water well in the developing world.
Jody remembers, “At first we thought, ‘We can’t because people are strained financially [around Christmas]. We sat on it for a few weeks, but then we thought, ‘That’s kind of the point—to replace our consumerism with compassion. So it was like four or five girls in a living room, and through our blogs and email, we said, ‘Our families are doing this. Would you give up something for Christmas so you can join us?’ We set up an account with charity:water, and then [the campaign] kind of took on a life of its own…I think it was just kind of like one of those awakenings and if you just give people the opportunity, and you’ve [already] done the research, people wanted to join in.”
The 2008 Water for Christmas campaign raised $60,000 for on-the-ground water projects in Africa.
“We got to the new year and people were like, ‘What are we going to do now? Let’s keep going.’ So we carried it on throughout the year…We did campaigns in the schools and little races. The group got larger and people brought their own piece to it and it was like pooling and engaging everyone under a singular cause.”
Thanks in part to a benefit concert by Andy’s band, The Andrew Landers Project, an Etsy campaign by the “blog world,” and a series of presentations by charity:water’s founder Scott Harrison at local schools, churches and social clubs in southeastern Iowa, Water for Christmas raised $150,000 in 2009. As of the beginning of 2011, it had raised a total of $350,000 for charity:water.
Spearheading Water for Christmas garnered Jody attention from the Muscatine Journal and the Quad-City Times, and the Lifetime channel featured her along with Maria Shriver, Sonia Sotomayor, Gloria Steinem, Queen Latifah, and others, in its “Remarkable Women” campaign. In the fall of 2009, Jody accepted an invitation from charity:water to visit some of the clean water wells she helped fund in Liberia.
“Crash” (click link at left to play)
When Jody returned home she experienced a new kind of brokenness. “I got off the plane and came home to disaster in our own home. And it was just kind of that awareness that the brokenness in Sierra Leone is so obvious, but then coming home and realizing it’s everywhere. After several weeks of trying to grasp how people live in poverty, stripped of dignity, and then coming home and realizing that person is me.”
Adding to the difficulties unearthed in the Landers’ marriage, was their subsequent break with their church of 12 years.
“I felt broken beyond anything. But I look back at Quincy and his body and having to embrace that sort of brokenness and then choosing to move toward the brokenness in the “Third World,” and then encountering the brokenness in our own family. It gave me a compassion for people that I didn’t have before.”
The Landers moved to Colorado in 2010 to be near Jody’s family as Andy and Jody began the healing process.
Jody says, “We were really looking for a new start, and we left hoping to never do ‘ministry’ again…One of those lines that I drew in the sand was, ‘We will never, ever, ever do this again.’”
But then, unexpectedly, Andy interviewed for and got a part-time position as a worship leader at Grace Community Church in South Denver.
“[The leadership team at Grace] made me feel human again,” Jody says. “They were so gentle and kind and healing and hopeful for us…And then it ended up being this really cool working relationship. [After leaving Iowa] I couldn’t walk into a church without shaking and having panic attacks, so to eventually be where I felt safe was pretty much a miracle.”
The rapport between the Landers and Jim Ladd, the now-former senior pastor of Grace, has grown so deep that Landers recently decided to move again so that Andy can join Jim on the pastoral staff team of a church in Olympia, Wash.
“Squeeze Play” (click link at left to play)
In between the Landers’ move to Colorado and their decision to move to Washington, Jody had dinner with Becky Straw, a friend she’d made during her November 2009 trip to Liberia with charity:water.
“She was part of the original three people who started charity:water,” Jody says of Becky. “But we were both really unsure of the future, trying to pick up the pieces, but feeling our hearts beating similarly. So we started chatting over next couple months.”
With Becky’s educational background and experience with charity:water, and Jody’s understanding of what ordinary people need to begin investing wisely in social enterprise, The Adventure Project (TAP) was born.
Andy remembers, “One day [Jody] goes, ‘Hey I’m thinkin’ about doing this non-profit with Becky Straw,’ and I said, ‘That’s kind of cool,’ and then a few days later she’s like, ‘Can I go to Haiti in three days?’ I am fully behind and believe in what she’s doing. It’s just with six kids it’s a total balancing act.”
Through its four annual projects based on the basic “elements” of fire, water, earth and wind, TAP facilitates job creation in some of the most economically needy places in the world, and helps create markets so people can say, ‘I did this myself!'”
“Becky says, ‘Everywhere I go, no matter what sort of project it is, people say, ‘I want to work and provide for my own family.’”
TAP’s first “fire” project encouraged people to give “Coal for Christmas,” by providing charcoal efficient stoves to displaced people in Haiti. Its second project has yet to be officially unveiled, but it will likely involve “water” and India.
“Broken Hallelujah” (click link at left to play)
In looking back on the last several years, Jody says, “A lot of times in the past I thought of blessing as things that are nice, without trouble, that blessing is where things are going well. But I’ve found God in the middle of the most broken places in the world, the most broken families.
“Because of Quincy and Zeke and Kora, the people that we are becoming because of those things, you can’t find that anywhere else, unless you walk through those roads, embracing that pain, allowing ourselves to feel that pain and not being afraid.”
“We’re working through this with our eyes wide open,” Andy says. “It’s been hard. Still is. As a discipline I’d try to write a song a day for 12-13 years…If you’re going to write with any significance or depth it’s a painstaking process. That’s what I think I’ve lost. Since last February, there’s been nothing.
“Going through what we’ve gone through, we can’t project, and I’m learning to not look back. I’m just trying to realize that the most important part of our story is today.”
To keep up with the Landers, check out Jody’s blog.