Rodney and Christy Richardson left Mississippi for the Pacific Northwest after both graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. Rodney landed a dream job as a freshly-minted graphic designer with Nike in their Portland headquarters. But following the birth of their first child, the couple began considering where they wished to plant their roots and Rodney, where he wanted to develop his own business.
Rodney handed Christy a US atlas and asked her where she wanted to call “home.” When she turned the page to Mississippi and pointed to Hattiesburg, he responded, “I don’t think you understood the question. I said anywhere.” The couple laugh over this memory and exchange that glance couple’s who can see through to the other’s backbone share. Twenty years later, Rodney’s business, Rare Design, is an industry leader in professional sports branding, the Richardsons have grown to a family of seven, and those roots they wished to establish now stretch from Mississippi to Uganda and back again.
“Seven years ago, I didn’t even know where Uganda was. I thought it was a country in South America,” Christy said jokingly. She poked fun at herself throughout our interview. A woman filled with grace, it’s one of the many ways she puts others at ease. Her gift of hospitality is as effusive as it is contagious, and it’s born from something running far deeper than being a Mississippian.
An outgrowth of the Richardsons’ faith is the desire to encourage others. Both have cultivated their own means for doing so and then there’s the Richardson vision.
“We all have a reverb. It’s not a question of whether you do or you don’t, you do. You walk into a room, you’re going to have an impact. The reality is the accountability that comes with that.” Rodney expounded, “We turned that into a vision: to magnify, amplify, impact, and project positivity on everyone and everything around us and defining what that means. We can ask in every situation, ‘What’s my reverb?’”
He illustrated what exploring our “reverb” looks like in regards to our interactions with others and our environment. “That reverb, we define it, and then it becomes an action. That’s part of what led to Uganda.”
The couple had been convicted by the biblical mandate to “see to the needs of the orphans and widows.” As they sought ways to be obedient to this cornerstone of their faith, they were introduced to Agnes’ Children’s Care in Uganda through a college student whom Christy was mentoring.
No area of the world has been more ravaged by three decades of the AIDS pandemic than Sub-Saharan Africa. Agnes created the space to provide for the many children orphaned by the crisis.
Over the course of two years, the Richardsons developed such a fondness for Ms. Agnes, the children and the country of Uganda, they began to consider other ways they could contribute. What began as a means to engage their family in mercy ministry grew into ever-lasting friendships, partnerships with other Ugandan ministries, and the fulfillment of a dream for eldest daughter, Ainsley.
“Our oldest daughter, from the time she was very young, started saving money to go to Africa,” Rodney said.
Christy expounded, “When she was in elementary school, she’d tell her grandparents to give her money instead of presents so she could travel to Africa.”
“To us, that might as well have been Mars,” Rodney said.
Christy laughed, “I can remember this same child, sitting in my lap when she was a baby, and I’m in church listening to this preacher say, ‘what if God calls you to go to Africa?’ And I remember thinking, ‘God, I really love you, but I am never going to Africa.’ My friends joke that if I say I’m ‘never’ going to do something, just give it a few years.’”
In September of 2012, the Richardsons went to Uganda to gain first-hand knowledge of how their benevolence was manifesting in the lives of these children and determine ways they could further care for them. During their two week visit, they were able to put the names and faces they’d seen through photos and emails together with voices and personalities.Their love for Uganda grew all the more tangible as they experienced her sights, sounds, and smells and witnessed her culture and customs.
Most of the children in the home had family members living in the area, all but two, a brother and sister. Aged four and five, the siblings had lost both parents to the AIDS epidemic and no extended family members. Towards the close of their visit, their fondness for these siblings and their attachment to the Richardsons was so enduring, Christy approached her husband, “‘What are we going to do about this?’” As the couple recounted the event, the distress they felt over returning home without them was palpable.
While adoption had been discussed by the family before, the couple expressed it was not their intent for the visit. “One of the things that was birthed out of that trip was the ‘why vs. why not question.’ I knew the answer when she asked,” Rodney said.
“If something is there before us, the question is really ‘why not.’ Why wouldn’t you if God’s given you the means or the opportunity?”
Knowing the possibility of encountering obstacles during an international adoption was great, the family approached it as Rodney has taught them to approach everything, “just do what’s next.”
The family enlisted the help of area friends to search for relatives of the children. Finding none, they proceeded, and in December of 2013, the family returned to Uganda for their adoption hearing. The couple enumerated the events leading to that moment and how miraculously they unfolded. For two and a half months following the hearing, the Richardsons were granted the ability to have the children remain with them in Uganda as the adoption was finalized.
“That buffer time was such a blessing.” Christy described how the waiting period spent in Uganda gave all seven family members time to acclimate to the new life upon which they were embarking. By February, the children (then five and six) were ready and eager to return with them to America as Richardsons.
“We got asked a lot of questions,” Rodney said. “‘What are you going to do if this comes up or this happens’ and I was like, ‘I’m going to talk with them and help them, just like I do with any of our kids.’” Rodney gave a shrug not of indifference but of certainty. The unknown is not something the Richardsons fear because their peace is not rooted in circumstances but in their faith.
When a Ugandan friend called to tell them Ms. Agnes had closed the home and the children who had been in her care were “on the village,” the Richardsons didn’t hesitate to help.
Rodney, Ainsley, and a family friend traveled to Uganda. In typical Richardson fashion, there was no plan other than to find the children and ensure their safety. How, exactly, was something they’d figure out once they arrived. What began as a six day exploratory trip on how to accomplish this ended in the formation of a new ministry.
Unable to secure placement for the children in other area orphanages, with the help of a local pastor, they found an affordable piece of property perfectly situated between the church and a nearby school to suit the children’s housing needs. “Doing what’s next” required furnishing the home and finding a house mother and Ddembe House was born.
“When you’re loving people and loving Him, these decisions aren’t hard,” Rodney stated.
Since then, Ddembe Ministries has grown to include a skill training program for widows and disadvantaged mothers, support for mothers so they may keep their families intact, and sponsoring children attending secondary boarding schools.
In collaboration with their Ugandan partner church, the women are provided training in skill sets marketable in Uganda and create items which are then bought by the ministry and sold in the States. The proceeds are returned to Ddembe Ministries to provide a sustainable means of funding.
“The women get to see the fruits of their labor not just helping sustain the ministry from which they benefit but also helping to support the kids at Ddembe House,” Christy explained. “One hundred percent of the proceeds are put back into the ministry.”
The Richardsons connection to Uganda extends across the Atlantic, families, generations, and into the very heart of their home and to the core of their faith. Ddembe is Ugandan for “be free” and through the ministries they’ve established, they’ve liberated widows and orphans from social stigmas, economic hardship, and remind us all of the power of being faithful in the little things.
“If we’d just do the little things, if we’d all be faithful in the little things, massive things would get done.”