It started with one word: “Yes.” To one request to take one trip. But Kristen Welch will never be the same.
Neither will the 16 lives rescued from desperation and danger when Kristen joined with one of Compassion’s program graduates to create a haven for pregnant girls in the heart of Kenya.
“It was a thousand miracles,” Kristen says, that began Mercy House and radically redefined her life.
A Christian since childhood, the writer of a popular mom-blog, and a mother of three, Kristen was leading a comfortable life in one of Houston’s most affluent neighborhoods when Compassion asked her to join other bloggers on a 10-day trip to Nairobi in 2010. She would write blog posts every day, raising awareness of life in one of the world’s most hopeless places.
They traveled to Mathare Valley, a slum with more than 1 million people. Kristen says that seeing its outskirts was bad enough. A mile-long hike to its center, however, led to realities she was not prepared for.
“I knew I would be going back a changed person.”
She walked on piles of trash, past open sewage, along paths lined with the sick and dying. “It was oppressive, dark, almost suffocating. The smells were unbelievable.”
She became angry at God.
“As I walked, I was crying and asking God: How could He allow His people to suffer so much — how is this love? And as soon as I thought it, I felt Him ask me the same thing: What are you doing, Kristen, to help?”
It’s a question she wrestled with for months. Back home, she couldn’t shake the burden she felt, the restlessness, the sense that God was asking for a response to what she’d seen.
Kristen could no longer look at life the same way. Her husband, Terrell, a former pastor, was ready to get involved. “He was already gung-ho,” she says. She and Terrell sold their house and moved to a more modest neighborhood.
“The tables were turned on me in Kenya,” she says. “I had a redeeming experience. I felt rescued from my wealth and the American life. In America, we want more, we want bigger, we want better. All that turned upside down for me when I was there.”
Kristen and Terrell prayed and waited for a way to make an impact. Then Kristen saw a TV news story about Kenya’s backstreet abortions and girls, as young as 12, asked by their own mothers to sell their bodies for sex in a desperate measure to feed their families. Many women and girls die from botched, illegal abortion attempts.
Kristen contacted Maureen Owino, a Kenyan Leadership Development Program student with whom she had become fast friends in Nairobi. Maureen gave Kristen a firsthand account of the horrors reported in the news story. When she told Kristen there was no program or home for pregnant girls in Nairobi, Kristen’s longing to help came into sharper focus.
Maureen, herself born into severe poverty and sponsored through Compassion since age 7, was just months from graduating from the Leadership Development Program with a degree in education. She planned to teach high school and volunteer in the child development center she’d attended.
“I wanted to do what my beloved sponsors and Compassion instilled in me. They lifted me up. I wanted to do that to others too,” Maureen says.
Much like Kristen’s future, however, Maureen’s became clearer a few months later when she took a trip to the U.S. with other Leadership Development Program students. Kristen and Terrell drove to meet her, and together they decided to start a home for pregnant girls. Maureen would be director.
Mercy House opened in a rented structure near Nairobi in March 2011. It now shelters eight girls, ages 15 to 17, and the eight babies they delivered after moving in.
Girls selected for the home come from the most critical situations. Some have been raped, some are victims of incest, and others have been beaten or burned.
Maureen is able to connect with them from the depth of firsthand knowledge.
“Growing up in the slum is one of the worst experiences in the whole world, but I thank God that I passed through it, so that when I speak and touch the lives of the teenage mothers and babies, I am doing it out of experience,” Maureen says.
“I can fit in their shoes … I saw my own friends being raped by their fathers, other close relatives and drunk men,” she says. “I have a very close friend who, while in elementary school, aborted six times.”
Mercy House’s young mothers stay for about two years. For the first time in their lives, they have a safe environment, nutritious meals and basic education. Prenatal and postnatal care, as well as counseling for the traumas they’ve endured, also are provided.
Maureen is paid with funds raised through Kristen’s blog.
“Mercy House is successful because I said ‘Yes’ and other people said ‘Yes,’” Kristen says. “It’s a lot of people doing a little bit. A lot like the Body of Christ. It’s not because we’re extraordinary, or more special, or more spiritual than others. This is just the ‘Yes’ God called us to.”