Christian author and speaker Lisa Harper has made a career out of bringing hope to women, many of whom are mothers. But Harper — a victim of childhood sexual abuse — says when it came to becoming a mom herself, she felt hopeless.
Harper spent much of her adult life struggling with the shame brought on as a result of her abusive childhood, and after finding herself single and in her forties, the Tennessee woman felt the desire to become a mother and began considering adoption.
“A woman at my church told me that, because I had been abused as a child, I would not be a good candidate to become a mother because I might transfer that trauma onto my child,” said Harper, adding that the woman’s words came as such a blow to her that she put her adoption application in an office drawer and adopted a dog instead.
“It was another seven years before I would start the adoption process because there was just enough of what she said that resonated with me because of the shame I felt,” said Harper. “I was scared to death that I wasn’t good enough.”
Harper says after the death of her step-father, being diagnosed with skin cancer herself, and going through a bout of depression, she began to attend counseling. And, as she recovered and “got braver,” she says felt a renewed call to help a child who couldn’t help themselves.
Harper began moving through the process of two failed adoptions, the second of which came as a complete shock just one week before the baby was to be born.
“I was devastated by both losses,” said Harper. “But I don’t really have the words for how eviscerating that second loss was.”
But Harper continued to search for the child she was meant to have, giving very specific instructions to her adoption agency.
“I said I wanted a kid nobody was standing in line for,” remembered Harper. “I didn’t say that because I’m sweet — I said it because I’m single and I believe kids deserve a momma and a daddy. So, I told my adoption agent, ‘If there’s a kid that doesn’t have a shot at getting a mom and a dad and their only other option is dying in a third world orphanage, I’d love — as a fluffy, single mom in middle Tennessee — to be put into that equation.'”
At age 49, just weeks after her devastating adoption loss, Harper received a voicemail from a friend who had just returned from the village of Neply, Haiti.
“She said a young mom in the village had died of AIDS while she was there and left behind a two-and-a-half-year-old girl who was diagnosed with HIV, had cholera and probably had tuberculosis,” said Harper. “The doctors in Port-au-Prince had said she would die within the next two months, and she said, ‘Lisa, will you pray about this?'”
“I called her back and said, ‘Nope. I’ve been praying about this for 30 years. Sign me up.'”
It was then that Harper learned the little girl’s name — Missy.
“She was two-and-a-half and she maybe wasn’t going to make it,” said Harper. “She was really, really sick and that was all I really knew.”
Six weeks later, Harper was in Haiti, meeting her daughter.
“Once Missy wrapped her little hand around my finger and said, ‘Hello, Mama Blanc,’ which means White Momma, I was ready to do anything for her,” Harper recalled. “I just fell in love with her from the beginning but I was so scared because she was so sick.”
It took almost two years of paperwork, visits to Missy’s Haitian orphanage and waiting, but in April 2014, when Missy was four years old, Harper traveled to Haiti to bring Missy home to Nashville, Tennessee.
Today, Missy is a thriving, healthy 8 year old, whose HIV is undetectable in her blood. Missy has no scarring on her lungs from her bout with tuberculosis, nor does she have liver damage from having cholera. Missy’s doctors tell Harper her daughter’s health is a miracle.
“She needed modern medicine, she needed clean water and she needed a whole lot of love,” said Harper. “She is an amazing little warrior and we just fit together like a hand in a glove. She is happy, vibrant and just an amazing kid.”
Harper says becoming a mother in her fifties has been easier than she imagined, something she credits to Missy’s resilient personality.
“She does not have a shadow of that orphan spirit on her,” said Harper. “I grew up in America and I struggled with feeling like an orphan and feeling unwanted for decades. Through adopting her and seeing her grow — I feel like I’m the one who got healed in the process.”
“She’s like a flower that’s bloomed from cement — I added a lot of love to it, but she is just a little survivor and once she tasted joy and love, it’s like she just shot up and hasn’t stopped growing since.”
For Harper, it’s an important part of her parenting to teach Missy to speak openly about her health, and being HIV positive.
“When I was a little girl, I thought, ‘I can’t tell on these men who have sexually abused me,'” said Harper. “It made me quiet for most of my adult life, but I think secrets make you sick and it is not Missy’s fault that she has HIV, so I’ll be darned if I’m going to saddle her with that.”
Harper says she also has open conversations with her daughter about her birth mother and father, and the conditions in the village where she was born. In fact, portions of the proceeds from Harper’s latest book, “The Sacrament of Happy,” go toward building a four-acre community vegetable garden in Missy’s village, where Harper and Missy volunteered their own time earlier this summer.
“Because of Missy, there’s not just more love in our family — I feel like I have so many more opportunities to love the world around me.”