last place on earth (pt.1)

I met Whitney in Kibera. Spending the summer in Africa, she flew in from Uganda and joined us at New Hope to work with Manna for a couple weeks. We quickly became friends. One of my favorite memories is sharing stories over Ethiopian food. It's obvious to anyone who comes in contact with Whitney that she's directly in the middle of where God wants her. Her story of God calling her to the one place she feared is unbelievable. To say it was hot would be an understatement.

Unlike the brisk winters in Virginia where I spent the last four years of my life, January in Uganda reminded me of the summers of my childhood. The only difference?  In humid and sticky Houston, we had swimming pools and air conditioning to comfort us.  In Banda (a slum sitting on a hillside just outside of Kampala, Uganda), luxuries such as these are laughable. In fact, I don’t even know how I would begin explaining a swimming pool to this group of women from the Acholi quarter, and I wouldn’t have dared to complain about the sweat that was ever so slowly trickling down my back…

While the lady with the baby tied tightly to her back shooed away the neighbor’s chicken, another got busy wiping off the dusty stool for me to sit on. She used part of her threadbare skirt to clear the surface, and gave a small smile of satisfaction as I settled into the seat of honor. The rest of them joined us. There were fourteen women in all, and I didn’t even begin to count the number of children playing in the dirt nearby, or napping cozily against their mother’s breasts. I had to smile to myself. Even though I’d been working across East Africa in slums and villages just like this for over eight months, the irony still crept up on me in unexpected moments.

I never planned on doing this.

In fact, I used to say emphatically Africa was the very last place I would ever go. When I was a kid, I was terrified of the naked tribal men who carried spears and ate human flesh. There was also an apprehension towards lions. And black mambas. And witch doctors with demons and potions. As I got a little older, however, I began to realize that all of Africa wasn’t necessarily like the pictures I’dseen on the Discovery Channel.

In high school, I saw an infomercial from an organization trying to get donations to “feed Africa’s children”. The narrator’s deep, sad voice accompanied the most disturbing images I had ever seen: a baby with flies in his eyes, a bloated belly, and dirty tear tracks running down his cheeks. It bothered me no one would pick him up. He just lay there screaming.

Why wouldn’t someone pick him up?

A little girl dressed in a ratty men’s tee shirt was digging for food in a dumpster, her malnourished siblings close behind...

I remember being haunted by those pictures. This was a side of Africa I had not seen before. Even bigger than that - this was a side of humanity I had never encountered. How could people let this happen? Where were these children’s parents? And what of the government systems in these places- wasn’t it their job to take care of their hurting people?

By the time the phone number was flashing on the bottom of the screen, my entire understanding ofthe world around me had collapsed. Children belonged in school, not knee deep in rotting dumpsters. Little girls wore pink dresses and hair bows, they didn’t walk around barefoot in filthy, soiled rags. I couldn’t get those faces out of my mind. I knew someone needed to do something about their situation, but what could someone like me do? I tried to tell myself  it was all an exaggeration- there is no way things could be that terrible.

No, I did not want to ever visit a place like Africa. At this point, it had nothing to do with spears or lions or witch doctors… it was the little girl digging in the dumpster. It was the flies and the hunger. And, while I may not have recognized it at that point in my life, I now believe the root of my fear camedown to one, lone fact -

I knew once I saw the struggle with my own eyes, once I held that cryingbaby in my own arms… something more would be required of me.

I knew my life and future would eternally be altered. I knew I would be wrecked. Now that terrified me! So, as many of us have been conditioned to do, I tried to busy myself with other things and forget about it.

But a seed of curiosity had been planted.

By the time I was in college, I picked up a book about “The Lost Boys of Sudan”. Once again, I was dumbfounded as I read about the genocide taking place in Sudan for much of my life… How had I never heard about this before? I would get lost in libraries, buried for days in books and documentaries, familiarizing myself with rebel groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, and The National Forces of Liberation in Burundi. I read about the throngs of people starving in Ethiopia, and the genocide in Rwanda. My friends tried to be as understanding as they knew to be, but on more than one occasion I got confused looks.

I could tell some people didn’t know what to do with me.

Even I didn’t know what to do with me! No matter how much I tried to ignore all of this newfound information, it was still there. The faces from every Time magazine waited patiently at the back of my mind as if to say We're still here. We are real. Please, do something to help us. In a sense, I was tormented.

Around this time, I had a serious “spiritual awakening”. Even though I grew up in a very strong Christian home, my faith was small -  my heart divided. There had never been that moment Andrew Murray talks about, the moment of “absolute surrender”. During this season, Jesus Christ became more than just my Savior- he became my Lord.  I handed over the map I’d drawn for my life and watched him erase everything. He asked me to trust Him to lead and direct from that moment on, and I agreed to follow.

Jesus doesn’t always ask us to follow him to safe and pretty places (it’s probably a good thing I didn’t realize that at the time, or I might have hesitated a little). Sometimes He asks us to walk through “the valley of the Shadow of Death”.

The following summer, God told me to go to Africa...


Come back tomorrow to read the rest of Whitney's story - I promise you won't want to miss it.

Posted on November 2, 2010 and filed under africa.