Monday, January 27, 2014

On saving the world

You are seventeen and you hear your godmother talking about her job coordinating aid to refugees, and you hear your parents talking about their new Burundian friend and the problems she faced in her homeland, and you take environmental science at school and you realize the world is bigger than you knew and that you are going to be a part of saving it.

You are nineteen and you are trying to convince your parents that there is nothing to worry about, that these protests they are talking about in Bangladesh are going to be fine, that your month-long study abroad trip is going to be safe and healthy and beautiful, that you are not going to pierce your nose out of solidarity with the Bangladeshi women like the student they read about in the brochure. Deep down, though, you are terrified, and you are terrified as you step off the plane and smell the garbage and feel the hot, thick air and see the beggars outside the gate. You are terrified when you wake up in the hotel room a few days later and read the newspaper slid under your door, which tells you that extremists in the city are bombing tourist hotels. You are terrified as you speed down the road to the village in a bus, amidst taxis and horses and rickshaws and bicycles, passing on the right and narrowly avoiding collisions.

But you reach the village, and the sun is warm and red in the sky in the evening, and the children are tugging at your shalwar kameez and following at your heels as you walk between the huts and past the mustard fields. You hold their hands and let them teach you how to say “beautiful” and “coconut” in their language as you walk, on your way to meet your farmers each day, to ask them questions about their families and fertilizers and crops and toilets.

Each night with your professors, you discuss how to save the world, and then afterwards you and your friends complain about the fact that the teachers are asking you to how to save the world, because how can you, an American student in her first trip abroad, even pretend to know? By the end of the month, though, you sit on the roof of the hostel looking out at the mustard fields, hearing the children laughing and envisioning the tears of the widow whose roof you patched. You feel like you’ve got it, the answer to all of this, which is so refreshingly simple. The answer is love, and your task of saving the world has become so clear: just love each other.

You are twenty-one and you have completely and utterly fallen in love with Africa. You are in love with the way the Swahili words roll of your tongue as you stun the locals in the minibus with your vocabulary; you are in love with your host family’s maid who has taught you the words and poured out her life story; you are in love with the rolling green hills and the familiar feel of the local market and the walking everywhere and living out of a suitcase. You are in love with the stars of the southern hemisphere and with the other American student who sits down to gaze at them with you, who will one day become your husband. You know now that saving the world is complicated and you believe that Africa has given you much more than you have given it, but you are determined to come back after you graduate.

You come back. The ground seems more dusty and your host family’s maid is living with her brother now, where you are feasted on by mosquitoes the night you stay with her, and your bubbly friend is being beaten by her husband. And you are lonely, because while it is not hard to inspire pick-up lines from every man you meet, it is incredibly hard to make friends without a built-in host family or university classes or American compatriots. But you start singing with the Maasai girls in the evenings, and you move in with a new friend, and you share the humdrum, complicated, beautiful life of a regular Tanzanian family, one that doesn’t have a maid, one that makes you share a bed and wake up in the morning to make the chai, and tag along to herd the goats.

The months are passing by and you are still lonely or bored or frustrated at times. But you are also “getting fat,” according to giggling Tanzanian women. As best you can understand it, when they say fat what they really mean is that you are glowing, that you are at home and fitting in and flourishing. Your students are starting to learn English—some of them enough to ask questions about the time zones or about how why Americans have chosen an African as their president—but really you haven’t accomplished much. It’s who you’ve become that matters. The sun is setting and you carefully take the laundry down from the clothesline and go with the children to carry water from the well, and you realize you will never be able to enter this life again, once you have left it. Even if you return, you will be older and maybe married and have a real job, and you will never again be able to blend this closely into their lives. Your heart aches as you say goodbye.

You are almost twenty-eight, and to be honest these days you find yourself forgetting whether you’re twenty-six or seven or eight, because it is all starting to blend together. You are making a difference in America now, educating high-school dropouts and planning to become a pastor. You are getting ready to go to seminary and then afterwards you will get a real full-time job. You have a kitchen full of dishes and pots and pans and closets full of papers and games and gadgets that might be useful one day. You have furniture. You feel the weight of all the stuff, how it means that you will have to rent a moving truck this summer for the first time in your life, how it holds you to the ground sometimes and makes the idea of running off to Africa seem more difficult. You dread calling your friend in Tanzania, because your Swahili has gotten terrible and you can never understand half the things she says, and yet you know every time that the gist is she is asking your for money, and you are tired of taking wads of cash to Western Union for another computer course that won’t really lead her to a job. You want to visit Africa again, most days, but the price of a plane ticket seems so high in terms of rent and grad school savings.

You wonder, sometimes, if you have lost the idealism and the energy that you once had. You wonder if you have become cynical and hardened and lazy and complacent—all those adjectives you once used to describe older people. You wonder if you are still willing to deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Jesus. Some days it is like you are looking at yourself from the perspective of the nineteen-year-old you, and you barely recognize yourself.


In the telling of the story, you see it. You have grown, and deepened. You are wiser.

You have learned to love better, not just the beautiful, exotic people whose culture intoxicates you, but also the people who are infuriatingly similar, who frustrate and try your patience and fail to come through sometimes when you need them.  You have learned to wait, to empathize, to listen.

You have seen that there are plenty of people in your own country who are maybe even worse off than some of your friends in Africa—because they are starving not only for food but for families that aren’t so broken, for community.  You have learned that the greatest power you have to help people in Africa may be the power of your dollar, and you are trying to be more careful about the foods you eat and the companies you buy from.

You have found out more about yourself, and you have truly and deeply come to believe that it is through the path of Christian ministry that you can exercise all your gifts. You are planning to pray with people who are grateful and sit quietly with people who are grieving—but also to mobilize more support for Tanzanian girls who are being sold in marriage or Bangladeshi widows who are being conned or simple farmers all over the world who just need more rain.

You are learning how to live into that word you once pronounced as the answer to all the world’s problems; you are learning how to love.


Still, looking back, you miss some of the conviction you once had. The way you gave half your things away when you returned from Tanzania. The way you were ready to put everything on hold for a chance to serve abroad. The impulse you had to sacrifice your own desires for the path of service. The freedom you felt living that way.

So in honor to yourself at nineteen, you pledge to think creatively about how to do more for the world than give some pocket change to Kiva and World Vision; to write the stories of others; to keep your ears and eyes open to opportunities to love.

And you pledge to do something radical this year: one act of love that will really require you to give something up. 


  1. This was a really neat view of a big chunk of your life and how certain themes trail through it. Loved how you pulled it together and shared the details and realities. I have many friends who did more long and short term missions than I have out of the country and they expressed really similar longings for home and then also for those places.

  2. Beautiful. Growing up is hard--figuring out our purpose is even harder. God calls us ever deeper, ever closer, and sometimes it's hard to see the deepness and the closeness unless we stop to reflect.

  3. Yeah exactly! I think I am realizing the point is not necessarily that we have to be doing certain things in a certain way (as I maybe once thought) but that we need to be reflecting always on how we are called to go deeper.

  4. Thanks for reading both my pieces, Kirsten, and I'm looking forward to being a part of this group.