Linda Staats’ story, centered on children, bears striking similarities to the biblical story of Sarah, who was 90 years old when God surprised her with a child.

God promised Abraham that Sarah would be a mother of nations and that she would conceive and bear a son, but Sarah didn’t believe (Genesis 17). Isaac, born to Sarah and Abraham in their old age, was the fulfillment of God’s promise to them.

Staats, 74, a lifelong Lutheran, was a septuagenarian before she became a grandmother. It was a life with which she was unfamiliar. She felt a void.

She kept her faith.

Staats, who lives in Arizona with Dick, her husband of 55 years and a retired ELCA pastor, grew up in a European-descent family with eight biological grandparents and great-grandparents, all of whom lived within 7 miles of her in rural Iowa. She had great-grandparents and grandparents who lived into their 90s and beyond. Her educational degrees were in child development, human development and the family.

“My life has been rich with interactions with youth and children throughout my career and focus on intergenerational relationships and lifelong faith,” she said.

Linda, who has served as assistant to the bishop for two ELCA synods, currently serves on the Grand Canyon Synod stewardship team. The day she turned 65, Linda was coordinating the children’s program at an ELCA Global Mission gathering, surrounded by more than 80 children from around the world.

“With active support from our family, these two youth completed college, secured internships, married, had babies, found meaningful work.”

“I always thought of it as God’s sense of humor that I did not have biological or adopted grandchildren—and God’s surprise was that my life has been filled with children in unexpected ways,” Staats said. “My family looks different than what I knew growing up in rural Iowa and with what I ever imagined or expected. Instead, it is one extended grand-family.

“God’s timing made me smile.”

Staats believes God began planting seeds when the couple’s son, Kai, first traveled to Kenya in 2007. He always wanted to go to Africa, not as a tourist but with purpose. He volunteered with a U.S.-based organization that worked in orphanages in Kenya.

Kai spent three consecutive summers at Pistis, an orphanage in Nakuru, Kenya, where he installed water pipes and electrical wiring, built food storage systems and met its youth residents—two of whom, Bernard (aka Ben) and Lindah, he built lasting relationships with.

When the orphanage closed, Bernard and Lindah reached out to Kai. That was the beginning of an extended-family relationship between the Staats family and Bernard and Lindah. Kai stayed in touch with both, meeting up with them on many return visits and traveling around Africa together, as they each went to school and started families of their own.

“With active support from our family, these two youth completed college, secured internships, married, had babies, found meaningful work,” Staats said.

They relied on WhatsApp, Skype and Zoom for communication as the Staatses assisted the couple with homework, arranging internships, securing jobs and negotiating a dowry when Bernard married his wife, Truphena. Most recently Linda has helped with the paperwork process for them to receive a visa.

Doubt turned into faith

“We had always hoped that Bernard and Lindah could come and visit us in the U.S.A.,” she said.

Staats hadn’t considered the possibility that either would have the opportunity to become lawful permanent U.S. residents. But Bernard and his family were able to through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, also known as the green card lottery. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1990 established the lottery, which makes up to 55,000 immigrant visas available each year through random selection.

The chance of one’s name being drawn and then successfully completing the paperwork and application process is small. “Of the more than 800,000 Kenyans who submitted an application for 2022, Ben’s name was one of 19,021 drawn last May as [being] eligible to complete the extensive paperwork,” Staats said.

Despite the odds, the couple arrived at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Jan. 21 with their 3-year-old daughter, Marie. They entered Arizona as lawful permanent residents, having secured diversity visas in September 2022, following a two-year process, with help from the Staats family. “Ben was notified last August that he and his family were selected for an interview at the embassy on Sept. 18—two weeks before the deadline for all paperwork, medical exams and interviews to be passed, processed, completed and signed to receive a 2022 diversity visa,” Staats said.

“Of the more than 800,000 Kenyans who submitted an application for 2022, Ben’s name was one of 19,021 drawn as [being] eligible.”

Until this year, the young couple and the Staatses had been acquainted only through a virtual, long-distance relationship. Now they have been able to be present for Bernard and Truphena when the couple’s son was born in March.

“I am in awe of it all—from our son’s first encounter with Bernard in Kenya, to Bernard and his family’s arrival in the U.S.A, and now being a part of our lives,” Staats said. “And at our age, learning about the world of caring for children—and car seats!”

In addition to car seats the Staatses helped Bernard secure an apartment, furniture and appliances. The two families now live a short walk from each other.

Linda said her life is blessed by her sons and their partners, who are Korean and Navajo, respectively, and now the joy of embracing Bernard and his family.

“At an age of almost 75, I can relate to Sarah, ‘mother of nations,’” she said. “Doubt turned into faith, trusting in God’s surprises in the unfolding of one’s life.”

Learn about how to participate in and support the work of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.

Cindy Uken
Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning reporter based in Palm Springs, Calif. She has worked at USA Today, as well as newspapers in South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and California.

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