This time last year, Jenni and Chris Cockerham were living in Apex and seriously thinking of adopting two Ugandan children. Chris was a pastor at the Holly Springs campus of Hope Community Church, and Jenni homeschooled their three kids and ran a personal training studio out of their home.
Today, the couple is living in the Ugandan bush with their now five children (three biological and two adopted), working as missionaries as they wait for the adoptions to be finalized.
The initial plan was to travel to Uganda for eight weeks to adopt Jonathan, 5, and Caroline, 7, and return home to resume life in the suburbs.
But in November, a Ugandan judge awarded the Cockerhams custody with the stipulation that the children remain in their native country for no less than three years.
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It was a matter of official Ugandan law versus common law; judges usually apply the latter and allow families to leave for their new home and continue the adoption process from there. But not this judge.
Jenni was by herself when the ruling was read by a Ugandan official. Chris had gone back to the United States for work.
Although flabbergasted, she said she had no hesitation. She had already cared for Caroline and Jonathan as if they were her own for nearly two months.
“Very honestly, the moment I heard, I thought, ‘We’re committed,’ ” Jenni said. “I said to anyone who would listen, ‘I have five children. I’m not leaving without all five.’ ”
That’s how the Cockerham couple ended up halfway across the world more than a year after their first “nudge from God,” as they call it, to adopt internationally.
Chris is with the children now, having resigned his position at Hope Community Church. In order to stay in the country, Chris and Jenni had to get jobs, and the missionary work was a perfect fit.
A slow process
As for the strict ruling, they’re appealing, but things take a long time in Uganda.
They’re willing to do whatever it takes.
Jenni recently returned to Apex for 10 days to visit family and friends and pack up their home, which they’re renting.
“Right now, Uganda’s our home and that feels really peaceful to me, and I’m thankful because I wasn’t sure I was going to feel that way,” Jenni said.
Fortunately, the kids get along great. Jonathan and Joshua, both 5, are inseparable, playing Legos and taking on new adventures daily. Caleb, 8, also seems to be doing well.
But for the couple’s oldest child, 9-year-old Kylee, the adjustment has been the hardest. She misses her friends and her dance classes.
“She misses ballet and dance in a way that I can’t really even express,” Jenni said. “That was her world.”
Kylee is adjusting, and also changing.
“It’s just her seeing Uganda and realizing life is bigger than her dance world. There are real people that are really hurting; there’s real poverty and it’s all around you,” Jenni said. “She’s become so much more selfless. I think she sees the bigger picture. She sees this adventure that we’re on and she’s embracing it. It almost chokes me up.”
Day-to-day life in war-torn Uganda is hard. The nearest store is hours away. Clothes and dishes are all hand-washed.
There are more than 2.5 million orphans in the country, half of their parents lost to HIV and many others killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army.
But the Cockerhams have fallen in love with the country.
“I love the people, the food. I love that all of my children are together there,” Jenni said. “I guess I like different cultures, but the people and the friendships that we’ve made have been really special. That’s been by far my favorite part.
“One of my closest friends was a child soldier from the LRA in northern Uganda,” she continued. “They kidnapped him as a 12-year-old and told him, ‘This is what you’re going to do with your life.’ To be able to meet people like that who are so resilient and strong, it’s just really powerful and inspiring.”
The experience is a walk of faith.
“The Lord was really the driving force to move us in this direction,” Jenni said. “We really believe that Caroline and Jonathan were the children God intended to be in our home. The word ‘rerouted’ keeps coming to mind. So many people in life are rerouted, and it’s all about how you respond.”
Jenni is now back in Uganda, where she and Chris will move north to work as missionaries at Restoration Gateway, a missionary community that cares for orphaned children.
Her biggest surprise is how supportive family and friends here have been.
“They understand it’s hard, they love us and miss us, but they’re our biggest fans,” she said.
To read Jenni’s blog and learn more, visit restorationgateway.org.