"This is the best graduation I have ever seen - including my own kids," said one of our team members. "I have never experienced anything like it, and I want to come every year." Our Justice & Mercy Graduation celebration in Moldova is absolutely incredible. These are kids who have completed our Transitional Living program and before they enter our Independent Living. To see the joy and to feel the accomplishment is almost indescribable.
In Moldova, children have to leave the orphanage at age 15 or 16 (imagine after 8th grade in the States). Most of them have nowhere to go. They are so poor and many have no family nearby (this is why they were in the orphanage). Therefore, many of the girls are extremely vulnerable to sex-trafficking (Moldova always ranks among the highest countries on record) and the boys end up in organized crime, prison or committing suicide. Several years ago, as a church, we realized we had to do something. Through JMI, we started Transitional Living Homes for girls and boys to give them a "place," share with them the love of Christ and prepare them for the future. To give them "a hope and a future" as Jeremiah writes (29:11).
Today, through JMI, we have a Grace House for girls in the capital of Chisinau and a home for Boys called Boys to Leaders. In addition, we have a new home we recently purchased in the northern city of Baltsi. Through doing Summer Camps in various villages in Moldova with American church teams, we are able to identify some of the most vulnerable children and invite them to be a part of this program. And, wow, is it ever working! Our God is raising up the most incredible young men and women in this country. They are passionate about Jesus, and they are already going back to the orphanages with our American teams to tell the younger kids about Christ. Praise be to our great God!
By God's grace, we have incredible house partners at each home who disciple the kids. We have social workers and a psychologist, as a part of the JMI Staff, who assess each child's needs and help enroll them in additional education. We even have a vocational director who helps them find part-time jobs and learn essential life skills. In addition, there are English teachers and many others who pour into these children.
After three years in the program, they "graduate" from living in one of our Transitional Living Homes to an apartment with three or four of others. It is truly incredible to see how God is protecting and growing these kids. They are maturing and becoming leaders that our God is using in an incredible way.
Their Graduation is a huge celebration! They wear a cap and gown. Their American sponsor (or someone who has invested in them) walks them down the aisle. They hear a "Graduation Commencement Address" as well as encouragements from their leaders and others who have completed the program. And, then they are awarded their diploma.
After this, the celebration begins. There is dinner, a giant cake and then a full traditional Moldovan band. After dinner, everyone dances, and you can truly feel the joy. The traditional dances center around holding hands in large circles. Everyone is smiling, laughing and there is nothing like it. These kids who had nothing (literally moving into the Transitional Homes with what they have on and maybe a plastic bag with another shirt or a book) to celebrating like royalty in Moldova. It is a sight to behold.
Every year, this is one of my highlights! I never want to miss this. And, this year was even more special because I was able to share Graduation with my wife. Ever since we, as a church, started coming to Moldova in 2003, Lisa has not been able to come because our kids were so young. She has faithful prayed, listened to the stories and sponsored many of the children through JMI. This year, Lisa came with our first Rolling Hills Mission Team to serve in the village of Risipini, and then to be there for Graduation. How awesome to hold her hand and to watch her see the joy of these children that she has loved and invested in from afar. I will forever cherish that moment.
This is life-change in Christ. Life-change for these kids, but also life-change for those who by God's grace invest and experience it. God calls all His people to invest in the least, the last and the lost of this world. When we do, we see something that is so much bigger than ourselves. I am so thankful for Rolling Hills, for JMI and for my wife. And, I am so thankful that we have a God who changes the life of the orphan and changes our life as well. There is nothing like it!
Jeff Simmons is the Founder and Lead Pastor of Rolling Hills Community Church in Franklin, TN. He also serves as the President of Justice & Mercy International, a nonprofit that exists to make justice personal for the poor, the orphaned and the forgotten of the world. His faith in God and role as husband and father motivates him to be the leader he is and to do the work he has been called to.
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