Philippians 2:1-8 & 12-13
I remember so clearly sitting in a tight circle at the feet of Miss Desborough, my second-grade teacher, and listening intently as she described the difficult conditions that the children of Africa endured. It is surprising how the images from our “Weekly Reader” seared into my memory. If I close my eyes, I can still call up these photographs of the sun-baked continent populated with thin cattle and small children with bloated bellies. When our teacher introduced this new program sponsored by the United Nations, I was committed making my mark. How excited I was to receive that small orange box with the picture of the world on it and how happy I was to go door to door in my little community and “trick or treat for UNICEF!”
As a child, I would lie in bed and dream that I would one day join the Peace Corp and travel to Africa. My dreams, of course, were like those of young children who never dream only to be in the Olympics but dream to win the Olympic gold medal. I did not dream that I would travel to some small community in Africa; I dreamt that I would save some small community in Africa.
I always believed our world could be like the world that is described in Isaiah: a world with no more cries of anguish, no weeping in the cities, no babies dying in the cradle. A world where people live long, rest safety in their homes, and have food in abundance.
As I matured, that vision of the world and my dream to go to Africa shrunk beneath the shadows of more immediate priorities and distractions. But every now and then, circumstances on the Dark Continent would become so dire that the media was obliged to offer some coverage and each time television brought news of famine in Ethiopia, or Apartheid in South Africa, bloody wars over diamonds in Angola, children warriors in Sierra Leone, or the HIV/Aids epidemic that sweeps across the continent still, there would be a twinge from that dream-seed planted so many years ago.
And then, almost by accident, the opportunity presented itself and some forty years later, I set out for Africa.
Now, I am a person who likes to think of herself as rather worldly and capable of meeting any challenge. In fact, during the months and weeks that led up to my departure, I read Kenyan history and studied her culture, I practiced Swahili, and researched how I could best manage life in a third-world country. By the time I had received my placement at Restoration Orphanage, that Olympic flame again gilded my dreams. “I am ready,” I proclaimed, “to overcome cultural differences and language barriers…poverty and disease, and bring to this small place, a school.”
After one day in Mombasa, the edges of that dream had frayed a bit. Having touched down on a Sunday, the streets were deserted save the homeless who slept in the doorways and under trees in the medians. The beautiful landscapes I had painted in my mind were in reality cluttered with garbage. There was no comfort in the hotel room, which was no larger than a closet and was shared with two strangers, neither speaking English. In the whole city, there was nothing familiar or friendly. And I certainly felt less than worldly when I was served a Sunday dinner of rice and a chicken complete with feet, comb, and everything in between.
The realities of life in Africa pinged against my dreams over the next few days as I struggled to convince myself that I could handle anything. I had been somewhat disappointed by the “western comforts” that were advertised for my home base. I struggled to find something I would eat while trying to hide just how fussy an eater I really am. I was constantly disoriented as I walked through the closed-in and crowded alleys of the Muslim district and fought against the fear of becoming lost. I was always wet from downpours that happened instantaneously creating rivers out of the paths I followed to Restoration and, as silly as this sounds, I struggled to avoid getting muddy. Somewhere in the back channels of my thinking, I could hear my resolve falter.
And then there was an earthquake. It was mild as earthquakes go but it shook the ground from Nairobi to Mombasa. Further shaken, I made my daily trek to Bamburi and hiked to Restoration only to find that one of the walls of the school had collapsed during the quake. Of course, priorities shifted and the immediate concern was rebuilding the wall. Pastor James and the older children worked diligently on the reconstruction. Even the young children worked to gather the mud used to fill the frame. As the day waned, my dilemma became increasingly urgent.
I looked at the work that remained and measured the time. There was simply no way we would be done before darkness fell. If I left soon, I would still be able to make the six-mile walk to the main road and could catch one of the last matatus back to Mombasa where there would be a shower, however primitive, and a bed. If I stayed, I would have to sleep on the dirt floor of the orphanage, I would have no mattress, no blanket, no mosquito netting. I would have no running water to wash with and no bathroom facilities. I would have no electric, no radio, no contact with the outside world.
There is no denying it: I wanted to leave. Surely, that would seem self indulgent when measured against the children who still worked diligently to repair the school; children who live in the conditions I was now fretting.
I continued working begrudgingly and, by nightfall, had worked myself into a pretty foul mood. The children crowded against me when we finally ate. I wasn’t entertained by their silliness and didn’t want to eat the dried up ugali. I wasn’t interested in conversation and thought, under the current conditions, I was being exceptionally pleasant just forcing an occasional nod. Despite my overwhelming fear of giant centipedes, cockroaches the size of my fist, and everything else that wriggles out in the nighttime, I was thankful when I could curl up into my corner and be left alone.
In that dark loneliness, I fell apart.
I was not able to control the flood of my emotions. I was burning with anger. I was angry that I felt shamed into staying to complete the work. I was angry that the rains had weakened the walls of the mud hut and angry that, with everything there was to accomplish, we had moved backwards. I was angry that that there was only a mud hut to begin with…a mud hut and nearly 100 children expecting to learn something. I was angry that there were no desks, not books, no curriculum, and no plan of action. I was angry at the immense poverty and the horrible conditions it created. I was angry that the government of Kenya seemed to be bumbling around rather than making honest strides to change the futures of their own people. I was angry that these people didn’t get up and do something for themselves. I was angry that God would allow such deplorable conditions to persist. I was angry that I was such a fool to think I could spark any change in Africa. Who did I think I was? What romantic fantasy had I tried to play out? I was angry that I had ever come to know Restoration. In the total blackness before me, I was angry and afraid.
Then, out of the darkness I had feared so intensely, came a poking at my head and the whisper of young Selema. “Baba ni hapa,” she whispered, “God is here.” She stretched out next to me and let her thin arm fall across my chest as she patted my cheek and spoke gently to me. This lovely twelve-year old calmed my thinking with her generous message, “Do not worry or be afraid. Father is here.” Sleep finally embraced me and when I awoke, I was humbled.
Somewhere in the agony of that night, I had learned that this trip to Kenya was not really about my dream of Olympic gold. It was not about me coming to the rescue of some small African community. It was not about me at all; in fact, it was about getting me out of the center of my attention and allowing God to unleash His plan.
His plan began the next morning. I started with what I was sure I could do. I could get to the market and buy some decent food for the children to eat and, in deciding to do just that small thing, I came to recognize how God was always just ahead of me on this journey. From that moment on, every place I went, there was a treasure waiting to be scooped up and lavished on Restoration.
It was that morning in the market place when I spotted a local carpenter mending a makeshift table. Soon, we had an agreement with Mr. Mwanamani to build desks, tables, benches, and blackboards for our school. In return, his grandchildren would attend Restoration School. The delivery of lumber and the sounds of building brought the community to the school to see what was happening. Through them, that we learned about a center in Bombolulu where second-hand books could be purchased. While in Bombolulu, we learned of the bazaar in Mtwapa where we were told one could purchase clothes, toys, and books.
Soon, the school was buzzing with excitement. Students were learning at desks and practicing lessons on chalkboards. They had textbooks, pads of paper, and pens and pencils. They had a daily routine and had even taken the government-mandated tests. The orphanage had a pantry filled with nonparishable food and the rent was paid through November. By the time I prepared to leave, small closets were being built and plans were in the making to purchase additional beds. The school had six volunteer teachers and a roughed out curriculum. There was even a new tailor shop, a little experiment involving Madame Margaret and some of the older girls, that will hopefully grow to provide a modest income for the orphanage and school.
In preparing for celebration of my return, I thought about all of the things I could share with you. Surely, I could talk about the generosity of this community that supported my Kenyan adventure. I could talk about issues that plague Kenyan society. I could share volumes about the work to be done and the generous people I met who are in Africa living out God’s mission. I could talk at length about the lessons we can learn from Pastor James and Madame Margaret, who live their faith believing that God will provide for them and the children in their care. And certainly, I could talk on and on about the children who rose above their daily circumstances and laughed, played, created mischief, and found every imaginable way to share their joy of life.
In the end, I am moved to speak about my gift. It is a gift of humility that cost but one dream of greatness. It is a gift so eloquently defined by Paul in his letter to the Philippians. “Continue to work out your salvation,” he urges. “Know that it is God who works in you to will and act according to His good purpose.”
Certainly, this is the greatest gift any servant could receive.