Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Short Chapter

     There are some moments in life that you can never fully prepare for. This became clear to me when I found myself sitting in the dirt in a remote village in Togo, Africa, surrounded by flies and holding a baby. He wore no clothes and no diaper, he was wrapped in only a thin blanket. His mother handed him to one of the other missionaries as soon as we arrived, and eventually he was handed to me. When he was placed in my arms, memories from my trip to Honduras flooded my mind. Memories of sitting in that upstairs room at the orphanage, holding a baby that was far smaller than she should be for her age. As this baby, who also felt too light in my arms, looked up at me with curious eyes I saw that he was covered in bug bites, and there were flies all around him. He didn't cry about being held by a complete stranger, he just looked at me.
     At that moment, I felt completely out of my element. Nothing I learned in thirteen years of school, nothing I learned in Sunday school or youth group, fully prepared me for what I was experiencing. This was one of those times when I had to fully immerse myself in the experience, and figure it out as it happened. It was a moment that I don't think I will ever forget, and I don't want to.
     The thing that has kept me from telling this story for so long, aside from the fact that I know it is hard to hear about an unhealthy baby, is the simple fact that this encounter did not have a happy ending. There is no shiny bow I can attach to this package before I present it to you. When it was time for us to leave, I handed him back to his mother and walked away. I believe she was being the best mother she could be in the circumstances she was in and I truly admire her for that, but it was still hard to leave him there.
So what finally enabled me to share this memory that has been on my mind all this time? The simple realization I have been thinking of this encounter as a complete story, when in reality it is just a short chapter. I don't know what that baby's life is like today, or what his future will hold. Whatever happens I am thankful that I got to meet him, even though the meeting was brief. I hope that by sharing this short chapter of my time with him, the story of his life will be honored.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Brown Eyes

     If I was ever asked to make a list of things I do not like, hospitals would be near the top. They are the frigid, sterile backdrop to some of my worst memories. When I found myself visiting a hospital in Togo, I put my brave face on. I pretended not to be uncomfortable, and forged ahead as I've learned to do. I ended up in the pediatric ward, and that's where I met Florence.
     Florence had those trademark big, brown eyes. Like the ones in the pictures that called me to Honduras when I was younger and even more clueless than I am now. They are eyes that hold years of wisdom from a life of trials, and seem out of place on the face of a young child. After my now vivid memories of Togo have started to fade around the edges, those eyes are what will stay etched in my mind. My meeting with her was brief, I said an awkward prayer as her mother held her. I assured her mother that I would continue to pray for Florence, and then I moved on to the next child.
     On the plane ride home, there were two Muslim women seated in the row next to me. For whatever reason, maybe because I watch the news to much, maybe because the I have allowed the biased ideas of other people to take root in my own mind, sitting beside these particular women on an airplane made me uneasy. I am not proud of that, but it is the truth. Their faces were covered completely except for their eyes, and I found myself subconsciously glancing at them every few minutes to see what they were up to.
Eventually, I settled down to watch of a movie and the women sitting beside me faded from my mind as I watched a nun endear herself to seven children and a captain with her musical antics, completely oblivious to the tense political events unfolding around them. Somewhere around the time Maria was learning to climb every mountain, I jumped when I felt someone tapping on my shoulder. I turned around and found myself face to face with the woman sitting closest to me. Her eyes were the only feature not covered, and I noticed that they were brown.

Brown eyes, just like Florence.

     Two sets of brown eyes that my own blue eyes encountered, within the span of a few weeks. One set I met with love and compassion, the other I met with suspicion and fear. Call it justified, call me a smart traveler being aware of my surroundings. Call it what you will, and I will pretend it doesn't bother me.
     Don't misunderstand me, I am not saying that I decided to accept the Muslim woman's beliefs as the truth. There was no discussion of our beliefs, perhaps that is a failure on my part if I wish to call myself a missionary. My interaction with her was brief, she offered me a cookie and I politely declined. Hours later the plane landed and we went our separate ways. For what it's worth, If I had it to do over again, I believe I would have accepted that cookie.
     It's quite remarkable that you're reading this story. Remarkable because it is one I almost didn't tell, at least in part.   Florence's story is safe, she is an innocent child. Looking at her picture will most likely stir up feelings of compassion, not fear.  I went to Africa to meet people and hear their stories, and to share those stories so that others can hear them also.
To quote one of my favorite books, "People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for." I don't know what you're looking for as you read this, and it's not important that I find out. I am simply telling a story, and I wouldn't be much of a storyteller if I decided to leave one of the characters out.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Witness to the Light

In Togo, it is not uncommon to see very young children walking around with machetes. Farming is the typical way of life, and machetes are a common farming tool. So common, in fact, that kindergarten boys are asked to bring a machete with them when they start school. Standing here in this pulpit today, I feel like a five year old that has been given a machete. It’s exciting to have this opportunity, but it is intimidating. I could be so scared of the machete that I tiptoe around it and never really get to the point, or I could become so excited by it that I use it recklessly and cause a big mess. I never heard any stories of the children getting injured by the machetes, and I witnessed some of the younger boys at the school using them with surprising precision. They understand how to properly use the tool they have been given to get the job done. That is my hope for this morning, that I can use this time I’ve been given to share my experiences in Togo
    The story begins back in April, when I got a Facebook message from Samuel Lunsford. He told me that he had been reading my blog, where I frequently rave about how much I loved going to Honduras back in 2013. He said that he and his wife would “love to have me come visit them in Togo” almost as casually as you would invite your friends over for dinner. I was blown away by this huge opportunity they had presented me with, and I wanted to know more.  He invited me to have dinner with he and his wife Lauren and talk more about what they do as missionaries in Togo, and I accepted.
   The night that I visited them, They told me a lot about Togo, which is a country in the western region of Africa. It is a small nation, slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia. Farming is the main source of income, and the income level is what we would consider extremely low for the majority of the population.
     During my visit, Samuel told me that many of the blind children at the school are led to believe that their blindness is a punishment for sin, and that is the moment I started to feel that I really needed to go there. It wasn’t like I heard a loud, booming voice of God speaking to me or saw a burning bush. It was more like a restlessness, and an inability to stop thinking about Togo. It bothered me that children there believed their blindness was because of sin, and I knew that I was in a unique position to show them that God does not use disabilities as a form of punishment. I even knew right away which scripture I would reference if I ever got an opportunity to talk to these students.
    After discussing it with my parents, who were supportive right away, and discussing it carefully with Pastor Meghan and close friends whose advice I trust, and of course praying about it, I made the decision to accept the Lunsfords’ invitation, and preparations for my international journey began.
    Since this was not my first mission trip, I felt like I knew a little bit about what to expect. I knew that there would be a language barrier, but I didn’t remember it being much of a problem in Honduras, even when our translators weren’t around. What I failed to realize is that much of the way we communicated with children in Honduras was through visual cues and body language. We could communicate what we were trying to say by doing things like pointing at what we were talking about. This time was different, because with blind people, you have to rely almost completely on your words to communicate. Even though I took three years of French in high school, it seems that my brain can remember numbers, letters, and some words, but only if they are spoken to me slowly, and no one in Togo speaks slowly. Because of this, it did not take me long to figure out that connecting with the students was not going to be an easy task.
    One of the things I was asked to do during my time at the Village of Light was interview the students and write short biographies about them. Since I had a translator for the interviews, I was able to use them as a time to get to know them better. The students at the school have varying degrees of blindness, from different causes. Some were born blind due to genetics, some became blind at a young age from illnesses like the measles. Some were taken to hospitals by their families when they became sick, some were taken to witch doctors that probably made them worse than they already were. These stories were not easy to hear, and I quickly learned to only do a few interviews at once, so that I had time to really process the personal story of each child. I met children who had not been able to go to school at all before coming to the Village of Light, and I met children who did not come from Christian families and were treated poorly in their villages because of their blindness No matter how sad their stories were, each of these children could tell me something that made them happy, whether it was playing soccer, (or football, as the boys kept reminding me to call it), or singing in the choir as so many of the girls love to do. The more I got to know them, I started to see them less as blind children living in extreme conditions of poverty, and more as the bright, resilient people they really are, who are thriving in an environment where they know they are loved, by their teachers and by God.
    I had an opportunity I was not expecting soon after I arrived in Togo, which was to go with some of the Lunsfords’ missionary friends to visit people living in villages near the school. At first I was a little frustrated by this, because I felt like it was taking away from time that I could be spending at the school. I was even hesitant to share pictures from these visits on social media at first, because I was worried that people who had helped me raise money to go to the Village of Light would wonder why I was clearly not even at the school. But those visits made a big impact on me, and I really think God meant for me to have that experience. With each family we visited, I became increasingly shocked by the level of poverty I was seeing. I also became confused about why God would choose this experience for me. I am certainly not an expert in theology, and I don’t quite feel qualified to express to you the intensity of what I saw, or the various emotions I felt as I witnessed these things.
    But you don’t need me to tell you that there are people living in poverty in Africa. You’ve seen the commercials, and you’ve heard some of the stories, especially around this time of year. I think the most important thing I could tell you is that the people I met were more like you and me than you might imagine. There was Esther, who was home with a bad knee, but excited to tell us about her twin daughters and her new grandchild, and even gave us cookies she had made. She was a woman who was living in a two room mud house in a country an ocean away from my home, but looking at her I was reminded of my own Grandma, who always seems to have cookies to give me when I go see her. There was Dodci and his family, who are struggling because he has been diagnosed with HIV and can’t work, and many people won’t buy things from his wife at the market anymore because of the stigma surrounding his illness. But when I awkwardly asked if they would like me to take a family photo for them with the polaroid camera I brought, and his wife gathered up the children, smoothed out their clothes, and did the universal sign of motherhood, licking her finger and wiping their faces with it, I was struck by how they looked like any family you might see, preparing to take a photo together. In the days and weeks following these visits, when I was back at the school getting to know the children better, the people I had visited were never far from my mind. They made an impact on me, and I’m not sure if even now that the trip is over, I can truly grasp what a lasting impact it was.
    Since the students live on campus full time when school is in session, they have activities to do on the weekends when they are not in classes. When I was there, they were doing a study on the creation story. The last Saturday before I left, they were learning about being made in the image of God, and later it struck me that that’s why I was able to connect so easily with people I had only just met, both in the villages and at the school. We were all made in the image of God, so even though we live on different continents in different cultures, there is an inherent likeness that connects all of us.
    If I was going to tell you about everything I experienced in Togo and everything I learned from all of it, we would be here for days. But Pastor Meghan advised me to keep my message within a certain time frame, and I know you are all probably eager to get home and eat Thanksgiving leftovers and have a few more hours of relaxation before we all return to work  or other chores tomorrow, so some of my Togo stories will have to wait until another day. For now, I will leave you with some final thoughts that I have been considering since I returned home.
    One of the darkest times in my life was when I lost my friend Scott  during our junior year of high school.  I remember going to school the day after it happened and seeing something on a banner memorializing him that I still think about often. It was a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, one many of you have probably heard. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Many times, trying to be a light in the world we live in feels like swimming upstream against the current. With a 24 hour news cycle that constantly needs to be updated with new information, and the technology to access that news whenever we want to, we are constantly reminded that there is a lot of darkness in the world.
    Darkness has always existed on the Earth, and it will continue to exist until the end. Every day, the sun rises and sets, and the world keeps spinning, until God decides otherwise. The negative things we are dealing with, the hatred and prejudice, the need to be right overshadowing the importance of  being kind, these things have been around since the beginning. I believe God is saddened by them, but I do not believe he is surprised or alarmed.  I think the most important thing I learned in Togo is that every day, I have to make a conscious choice that even in the midst of the darkness, I will do everything I can to be a witness to the Light. Every day, I must choose to believe that the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has still not overcome it.
    Something I really loved about the people of Togo is that while they seem so happy, it is not because they are hiding their sadness. When someone asks you how you are doing, there doesn’t seem to be an obligation to say you are fine. Many times when someone would be asked how they were, they would talk about a health issue they were having, or a struggle a family member was experiencing. But very often, they would end with a smile and say “God is in control.”  I love that they can live in the light, without being ashamed of the darkness. It took me twenty one years and a trip across the ocean, but I finally realized that I can be a witness to the Light, even when there are times of darkness in my life. Being a follower of Jesus is not about living a life free of darkness. It is about knowing that even though we will face darkness during our time on Earth, we will one day be with God in a place that is nothing but light.
     We cannot defeat darkness by complaining about it, worrying about it, or blaming other people for it. The only thing that can drive out the Darkness once and for all is the Light. We as Christians know that God is the Light of the world, and I can not think of anything more important than sharing that Light wherever we go. I am so glad God allowed me to travel to Togo and do all that I could to to be a witness to the Light. I don’t know what God has planned for the rest of my life, but I have a feeling that this trip to Togo was not the end of my experience with mission work. Thank you all for being a witness to the Light in my life, and allowing me the opportunity to share that light with my new friends across the Ocean.