Saturday, January 11, 2014

I Go to Swaziland to Count Rocks

Whenever people find out I’ve been to Swaziland, Africa, people are very excited to talk to me about it. Their eyes light up and they ask animatedly,

“So, what was the highlight of your trip?”

It seems like a simple enough question, but I feel like my answer always comes as a disappointment. People want to hear that I taught a child to read or built a house for someone or helped give birth to baby in some remote village. Instead I have to let them down by telling them this:

“The highlight of my trip was sitting in the dirt and counting pebbles with a very sweet little girl.”

There’s always a pause, as if I am speaking foreign language that nobody can understand. I get a quizzical look, where people wait for me to laugh and scream, “Just kidding! The highlight of my trip was helping a mother birth twins on the mud floor of a hut!” But when the laugh doesn’t come, and they realize I am serious, their faces fall, their eyes break away from mine, and they look away. I can almost hear the scornful thoughts radiating out of people’s minds.

“You mean, you raised over $3000 to go sit with a kid and count rocks? What a waste of money.”

And it’s funny, because if my trip to Swaziland had absolutely anything to do with me desiring to achieve something physical, tangible, or objectively measurable with the money that allowed me to take this journey, I could almost agree. If I thought that the $3000 that was miraculously blessed to me was meant for me to go magically end poverty and transform an entire country in one go, then I might share this same point of view.  If counting rocks with a 5 year old in the dirt was the highlight of my time in Swaziland, it means I probably had a pretty epic failure of a trip to the other side of the world.

But, I firmly believe, with all of my heart, that my trip was not a failure at all. In fact, I pray I will be able to do it again in the future. That’s right. I would spend $3000 again to sit with a child in the dirt counting rocks. You see, the purpose of my trip was never to end poverty. The purpose of my trip was simply to show my brothers and sisters in Swaziland love.

In the Western world, we have become obsessed with a demon called convenience. We like things to be simple and we like them to happen right away. We want entertainment? We turn on the TV. We’re hungry? We open the fridge. We need to shoes? We get ready to go the store, then decide it would be easier to shop online so that we can keep eating our snack and watching our show on TV. And while this alone isn’t necessarily bad, we have started looking even for the most convenient ways to serve others.

It’s pretty easy to help others by dropping a few coins into the bucket that stands next to the Salvation Army people ringing their bells in front of the grocery store. What are a few extra coins? We’re spending money on groceries anyway. It’s also pretty simple to cut box tops off of cereal containers and feel good about doing something for American education, or save all of your Yoplait yogurt lids and feel good about helping people with cancer. And it’s certainly very fast and efficient to click the “donate” button on the top of a charity’s page and feel good about changing the world.
Please don’t get me wrong. Those things are good. Donating money is good. Money is important. In fact, there’s no tool more powerful than money when it comes to changing the world except your hands, your time, your devotion, and your love.

And the funny thing about things that demand our hands, our time, our devotion, and our love is that they are almost never convenient. They are almost never quick. They are almost never easy. They are almost never simple. But they are always, always, worth it.

I firmly believe that if every person on this earth who had his or her own basic needs already met, turned to a neighbor in need and devoted themselves to spending time with this person, listening to this person, sharing love and encouragement with this person, there would be no such thing as poverty.

There are so many things that people in poverty need. And I do not wish to diminish the urgency with which we should act on these needs. Yes, there are educational needs for people living in poverty, health care needs for people living in poverty, emotional needs for people living in poverty and if these needs are to be fulfilled, money is most certainly required. By all means, give your money to good causes.

But when I look at the world, I truly don’t see a planet that is suffering from a lack of money. People have so much money, too much money, and they are willing to give it if you can make a convincing enough plea. No, we are not suffering from a lack of money, but rather, a lack of personal investment. It is truly very easy to convince people to give their money to a good cause, but very difficult to convince them to give themselves.

While these children in Swaziland are very appreciative of the material needs we help meet for them with our money, I am convinced they ultimately care very little about the things we give them.

However, I know the children do care about other things. They care about being seen. They care about being heard. They care about being loved, they care about feeling worthy and they care about the time devoted to them because they know that the time a caring person gives to them is a resource more precious than anything money could ever buy.

So let us not be afraid to be inconvenienced. Let us not be afraid to use the gifts of our hands and our hearts to do the work that needs to be done in the world. Let us not be afraid to give our time to just sit and be there with someone who needs us.

I am positive that our hands were made to do more than simply cut off box tops for education, or yogurt lids for cancer. Our hands were made to do more than mindlessly sign checks that benefit people we choose not to interact with personally. Our hands were made to do more than move a mouse to click the bright yellow “donate” button at the top of a computer screen.

Our hands were made to reach out to our neighbors. Our hands were made to hold a child’s. Our hands were made to pull rocks out of the dirt and willingly count them over and over and over again, not because it is a convenient or quick process, but because that is what is needed of us, and because that is what it means to love.

Let us not be afraid to give this kind of love, the kind of love that others view as a waste of time or money or talents. Let us not be afraid to travel as far away as the other side of the world or as close as our neighbor’s front door for this very simple purpose. Let us not be afraid to sit in the dirt and count pebbles with a child who needs our love.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Grave in Red Dirt

It happened so casually that day as we walked back from a homestead visit, around the edges of the rocky trenches that looked like they once held a river and through the thorny brush. We had walked what must have been about a mile to get to the homestead, escorting hoards of children with us, trying desperately to keep the little ones (some barely able to walk on their own) from tripping off the narrow ledges we walked on and tumbling down that treacherously steep fall into the ravines. Now, on the way back to the CarePoint, free of small hands clinging to our own, our progress to our destination was going far more quickly.

Vile (pronounced Vee-lay), dressed in a tight black skirt, and navy business jacket, sporting sleek ballerina flats on her feet, leapt from one side of a trench to another, carefully sliding down the steep inclines with so much ease that she looked like she was flying. I, on the other hand, found myself scaling the edges of the ravines with about as much grace as a football player trying to do a grand jete. I clambered up and down the steep stretches of rock-laden dirt as fast as I could, not wanting to lose sight of Vile somewhere in the middle of the African bush, but I often lost my footing and slid down, down, down into the trenches. It took all of my will power to scramble myself up and continue, sweaty and covered in red dirt, to follow after my guide.

Thirteen years of dance training didn't seem to have any effect on my ability to travel through the wilderness of Africa, and Vile found my lack of agility to be of great amusement. She laughed hysterically as I tripped over a rock and skated down the dirt as if it were ice, landing in a small ditch.

"You Americans don't even know how to walk!" Vile giggled as I pulled myself off the ground once again and climbed to the top the ditch.

She watched cheerfully as I pitifully attempted to dust myself off, my face now covered in so much dirt that its features were barely recognizable. Vile, as clean as ever, took a step away from me jokingly, as if the filth on my body might jump off of me and latch itself onto her wrinkle-free clothes.

She smiled and said in a mock-soothing voice, "Don't worry my sisi. We are nearly there."

And she was right. As I looked up, I saw that we had made it out of the trenches and had gotten back to a flat path. I could just make out the CarePoint we were trying to reach through the clusters of trees and bushes. I started down the path with Vile, a new burst of energy in my steps with the prospect of soon being able to get rest and a drink of water.

We had taken no more than fifty steps, when we came across a large pile of smooth stones, resting by the base of a tree, smack dab in the middle of our path. Vile skirted around the pile without a second glance, but I paused. Even for all of the unusual things I had seen in Africa, this pile of stones, caked elegantly in soft red dirt sitting in the middle of my path, captured my interest more fiercely than a black mamba catches its prey.

"Vile?" I called slowly. She was already several yards ahead of me.

"Vile, what is this?"

She turned and saw me pointing down at the assembly of stones.

"That?" she asked, seeming uninterested.

I nodded.

"That is a grave," she said, shrugging nonchalantly, then turned and kept walking.

I stood motionless to stare at the smooth stones, painted in red dirt, lying among the gnarled roots of that leafless tree. How many times, I wondered, had death crossed Vile's path for her to consider a grave in red dirt, stuck in the middle of a path, to be commonplace? How many times had she come across death, skirted around it, and kept on walking forward, straight through the thorns?

The sun was getting low in the sky, casting glowing rays through the mass of brush. I lingered for a moment longer, then turned to walk on after Vile.

Friday, July 19, 2013

At the Stroke of 12...

Has it really and truly been almost a year since I got on that very first plane to Africa? I feel like the entire universe has melted and reformed around me in a completely different way. The way I think has changed, the way I look at the world has changed, my old, cold, unknowing, heart has been flattened and sculpted again, completely anew, since that day last July. So very much about my life is different. And yet, tonight at the stroke of midnight, I will be meeting up with my team once again to head out to Swaziland, just as I did a year ago.

The funny thing is, I was so sure that this year, because the experience wouldn't be new to me, that I wouldn't be afraid. I thought that I'd be totally comfortable heading back to Africa. I somehow thought I had grown tougher, braver, and would be better able to handle it all. Yet this morning came, and I woke shaking under the covers because I am so nervous to do it all again.

I may know what to expect on some level, but perhaps it's because of this that I am afraid of facing it again. Swaziland is hard. Being there is hard and uncomfortable and sometimes even scary. It breaks down your boundaries and squashes your idea of structure or plans, or predictability. It redefines every aspect of "normal" life.

I am nervous to go back to Ludlati. I am nervous to see those kids again. I am nervous to laugh with them and sing with them. I am nervous to play with them and hold them and love them. I am nervous, nervous, nervous because it isn't easy to go see the reality of the world, to participate in the very life we, as Americans, so often shield our eyes and our hearts from. It isn't easy to see malnutrition and disease and lack of adequate shelter. It isn't easy to see loneliness and fear and death. It isn't even easy to see the joy and beauty that I still, a year later, cannot properly explain.

So here I am, seven hours away from getting in that van and heading to the airport, and I feel as though this might as well be my first time going to Swaziland, because I am terrified. And yet, as I knew last year, there is that inexplicable peace inside of me that is telling me, "You are doing what you love, you are doing what you are called to do, and even in your fear, it's going to be totally worth it."

Friday, June 21, 2013

Grace and Gratitude

Sierra and I are sitting at a table in Panera Bread next to a window, sipping our sweet smoothies slowly. On the other side of the glass, sitting under the blazing sun just feet away from us, there are two women with giant salad bowls talking animatedly to each other. They look so carefree, their pearl white teeth practically glinting as they smile broadly at each other. Sierra and I have just been having a long conversation about some of the biggest things we struggle with in our lives. Sierra stares down at the table gravely and says,

“We are just so far from having it all together aren’t we?”

I nod and grunt a wordless agreement. Sierra pauses thoughtfully, then lifts her head and looks at me straight on.

“But isn’t it great how God can use us anyway?”

Since the moment I stepped foot on that red Swaziland soil last July, I knew I wanted to return to that country again. I knew I wanted to go back and walk those walks through thorns and cow droppings to visit the homesteads of my new friends. I knew I wanted to go back and squeeze little Tanele against my chest and hear her squeaky voice mutter, “I love you!” I knew I wanted to go back to sing and pray and laugh and cry and love the people who I knew for such a short time yet so easily came to feel like family.

For months I said the same prayer, asking for guidance on if I should go to Swaziland and how I should make that happen. And call me crazy, but for months I heard the same answer:

“What are you willing to let go of?”

I started going through everything. Was it money I was supposed to give up? Time? Possessions? I tried doing all of that, but nothing seemed to click.

And then all at once, when I was sitting at home the night after meeting with Sierra and a person I would never have suspected in a million years asked how to donate to my trip, and then a few minutes later another person asked, and then another, I realized that what I was supposed to give up was something much simpler, but much scarier, than I had imagined.

Pride. I had to let go of pride.

I had to let go of that nasty little voice that kept leaning in to whisper and sometimes even to yell, “You’ve got to figure out how to make this happen. You’ve got to get this taken care of! You’ve got to do this on your own!”

I had to let go of the idea that I could make a trip to Swaziland happen. I had to let go of the idea that I was going to do it all myself. I had to let go of the idea that I was even remotely close to having it all together because I didn’t at all and I still don’t. But I think that there’s something beautiful in knowing that, something beautiful in letting go of the idea that my small little self is somehow so mighty and all-powerful.

When I let go of my pride and washed off the paint of pretending to be totally independent and capable, I found out that just because I can’t make a trip to Swaziland happen all by myself, doesn’t mean that a trip to Swaziland can’t happen at all. Because it turns out that people exist in this world who will spend countless hours helping you bake pies and cookies and brownies. And even more people exist who will order those treats and will tell their friends about them. And still even more people exist, who barely even know you but scrape a few dollars out of their pockets to give you and then sit down to hear your story and decide to scrape out just a few more. People exist in the world who manage to embody the meaning of grace in the simplest ways. And that grace is what will be carrying me to Swaziland when I cannot do it on my own.

I have yet to reach my goal to get me on that plane and through the journey, but every day, purely and simply because of the blessings other people have so generously poured out onto me, I am getting closer. And when I get back there, and stand with that blaring African sun beating down on my head and the red dirt blowing off the ground and into my face, I will not be alone.

I will be clinging to that grace that showed up in the form of flour, sugar, and fruit, in a shared photo on Facebook, and in all of those five dollar bills that added up to make a sum that seemed impossible just days before. I will not be alone because I will be carrying with me all of the people who helped me get there.

I may not have it all together, but I am so thankful that I don’t have to. I have cried so many tears of gratitude for the grace that people have shown me in the most unexpected ways.

Last year, I watched as a shirt was picked out of nearly 1,000 and I won a trip to Swaziland. I called that a miracle. But this year, I watched as $5 turned to $15, then  $50, then $150, then $1500. And I continue to watch as treats are baked and sold and eaten and as donations show up every day in the mail or online, and how a neighbor knocks on the door with a check in hand even as I am writing this and how each part of this alone seems small or insignificant but when added together forms a miracle even more spectacular than winning a trip.

All I can really do at this point is say thank you. Thank you for showing me the meaning of grace. Thank you for being a part of building this miracle. Thank you for doing this with me, because I definitely do not have it all together and I most certainly cannot do this alone.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Coming Back Home

A few days ago I woke up in the middle of the night tense and sweating. “It’s April,” I thought. "And if you’re going to go to Swaziland this summer, you need to seriously buckle down on fundraising."

Unable to get back to bed, I sat up and began typing out a draft of a fundraising letter to send out to friends and family. I started to tell the story of how I got to Swaziland last year, of my desire to serve, of my lack of faith that God would provide a way for this to happen, of that crazy t-shirt contest, and of the journey that changed my heart forever.

But just a few paragraphs in, I had to stop. My arms were shaking, my stomach felt more twisted than a pretzel, and my heart was pounding in my chest. “Why are you even writing this?” a sinister voice whispered in my head. “Do you really think your letter will move anyone’s heart? Do you really think this matters enough to anyone else besides you? You’re just being selfish asking other people to help you.”

Yes, even after all that my journey to Swaziland has done to give me faith in love, compassion, and miracles, I still found myself in a dark room that night wracked with fear and doubt.

“Maybe you should reconsider this…” I told myself. “I mean, just because going to Swaziland was the right thing to do last year, doesn’t mean it is this year.”

I tried to make up excuses. I decided that maybe it was more important for me to work and get some money during that time in July I’d be gone. Maybe, I needed to spend that time with my family instead. Maybe there was some camp in my hometown where I could be of more use. The list goes on and on.

But somewhere in the middle of this mental chaos, I had to face the truth. And the truth is that

I’m afraid.

I’m afraid to ask people to help me get to Swaziland, because I’m afraid to reopen that part of my heart to others. When I came back from Africa last year, I vowed never to cover up how this trip impacted me. I vowed to continue to tell my story, to show people how important this was and how much love I have overflowing in me for a place on the other side of the world. And yet, it’s become painfully obvious just how much of my experience in Swaziland that I have buried inside myself. I have piled pounds and pounds of dirt over the spot where my story rests because I still can’t find the words to use that will make other people see the light of God in the faces of those children in the way that I saw it, or feel the simultaneous heartache and joy of Ludlati CarePoint the way I felt it.

But my fear goes beyond that. I’m afraid to ask people to help me get to Swaziland, because ultimately, I’m afraid that they will. I’m afraid that in its own unique way, like last year, I’ll experience a miracle. I’m afraid God will provide. I’m afraid that I’ll find myself back on that plane to Swaziland, back in Ludlati CarePoint, back with the very children who stole my heart, back to the place I love.

And to be completely honest, I’m afraid to fall in love again, because the kind of love that happens in Swaziland really isn’t easy. This was the love that not only exposed me to the deep and agonizing wounds of others, but also to my own brokenness and inadequacy. This love wasn’t shy. It looked me directly in the eyes and said, “So, what are you going to do about this? How can you solve these massive and overwhelmingly devastating problems?” And I feel almost ashamed to look back, close to a year later, and admit that I still don’t have that answer. I still don’t know.

And finally, I think the biggest thing that I’m afraid of, the thing that makes me want to hide away in the security of my own bedroom, the thing that really and truly terrifies me about taking the journey to Swaziland again is this:

I’m afraid of coming back home.

I’m afraid of tasting my meals from the mouth of a starving child. I’m afraid of walking the well-kept roads of my neighborhood with my unblistered feet, bound up in tidy new shoes. I’m afraid of feeling the fullness of my family from the heart of someone who has none. I’m afraid of looking at my culture through the windows of a one-room hut with a crumbling roof.

I’m afraid to go back. I’m afraid to not have the answers. I’m afraid to not be able to explain the story of Swaziland to others. I’m afraid of falling in love once again.

But despite all of this, despite the fear and doubt and feelings of inadequacy that plague me, there is another voice whispering to me, a voice that has occupied my heart since I first thought about going to Swaziland in January of 2012. This voice has never stopped repeating the same message, over and over and over to me, no matter how many times I have tried to plug my ears or scream to drown it out. This is the voice that says,


And I know that no matter how hard it will be to come back home,  I have to listen.