Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A reunion

This semester, I’ve gotten the incredible opportunity to take the African Biblical Interpretations class, where I am learning how we might read the bible in community across continents, where I am asking tough questions about the bible's connection with colonization and oppression, where I am thinking more deeply what it means to read and teach and proclaim the Christian scriptures. It is also a class that culminates in a funded trip to Uganda, where we will meet with East African church and nonprofit leaders who are working in the area of reconciliation.

This means, among other things, that there will soon be a reunion—between me and Tanzania—me and my Tanzanian friends—me and the me I was eight years ago when I lived in East Africa. I am terrifically terrified.

I loved my time in East Africa in some ways more than I’ve ever loved another time of life. In Tanzania, I fell in love with John, I fell in love with the beauty of the life I’d been given, I fell in love with a million girls singing at night, and with a family who shared with me everything.

And I loved who I became: unconcerned with achievement or measuring up, secure in being valued simply for my presence, full of laughter and music. Tanzania healed me of doubt, made me generous and spontaneous, showed me a new kind of person I could become, dwelling in possibilities.

What frightens me is that I no longer feel like that person. Over the past few years, I feel like I have become a more critical version of me, more concerned with achievement, more needful of control and planning, and laden down by the burden of owning couches and dressers and a 401K (by marriage). It seems worlds away when I was able to live out of a small duffel bag for a year, to live without electricity or internet, to hop on the minibus and crack a joke in Swahili to unsuspecting ears.

In the same time, the memory of Tanzania has become more complex for me. Intellectually, I've learned to interrogate any missionary project. Emotionally, I think as often of the annoyance I felt at cat calls and constant standing out as the utter joy and belonging I was gifted without ever deserving it. And when I talk to my host sister Esther on the phone, she complains I’ve forgotten Swahili. So I don't call much anymore, unless it's about the money she needs. She named her first daughter Katie, which somehow has the effect of making my feel guilty rather than honored, because I have not called often enough, and I have not always said yes to her pleas for help. Many days, I remember the hassle of the phone calls more than I remember the mosquito-net-covered bed we shared for months, the whispered confidences and the side-aching laughter. 

Beyond Esther and her family, I’ve lost touch with the others. I don’t remember how to weave through the complex bus system to their homes, and I’m not even sure I’m laid-back enough anymore to ride those buses. I'm considering forking out $200 for the plane from Tanzania to Uganda rather than the long-distance bus that might give me a panic attack, speeding through the night.


It's clear that this reunion will not be simple. But then, what reunion is? They often fail my expectations. The conversations aren’t as deep; the time is not enough; the mutual understanding has shifted or faded. I am forever learning that my rosy spectacles of nostalgia for the past will often be disappointed.

And as much as I may lament the loss of a relationship with my host family or even the loss of some piece of myself, the truth is that I don't want to be my 22-year-old self again. Sure, I was learning to be carefree and independent and full of complicated love. But there was also a lot I was unsure about, a lot I didn't know.

I didn't know, yet, that three or four years later I would begin to explore and confirm a sense of this call to seminary and ministry--a call that has been terrifying and beautiful all at the same time, because it's so real and meaningful and yet so vulnerable to being subverted. I didn't know, yet (though I certainly hoped!) that on my next trip to Africa, I'd be four years into this marriage that is no longer a wade into the stream but a full submersion into this life together, with all its ups and downs. I didn't know yet how much I still needed to be humbled, by all the injustice in the world to which I am a part; I didn't know how much I still needed to be built up, with affirming communities and spiritual practice to unravel harmful self-talk.

I see the Spirit working in who I have become, who I am still a long way from becoming. I do not want to go back, nor can we, ever.


Still there are questions. When our plane lands in Tanzania, will there still be deep love and gratitude in my heart when I touch that ground? Will I feel a sense of that giddy, carefree Katie, or is it even fair to wonder? Which do I fear more, that my friends will ask for money, or that they will not, and I will have nothing else to give? How will I re-learn to receive? What will I see differently this time? How can I let Tanzania speak to me not as I was but as I am?

I do not know the answers. I do not know if there are answers.

What I pray for is grace--grace for me, grace in me for others. That I may be slow to judge and quick to listen and full of compassion. And I pray also, I think, for just a glimpse of my 22-year-old self. Perhaps she has something to offer me for today.

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