I think not having enough words or the right words is one of the worst feelings. For someone like me who values verbal and/or written communication in so many contexts, it’s frustrating when I’m the one who doesn’t know how to do that well. Regardless, I am going to make my very best attempt to recount an incredibly formative summer.
When people approach me with a glimmer in their eyes and say, “how was Africa?! I want to hear all about it!!” I get excited all over again in the first second because of the memories that immediately flood my mind, but in the next I feel overwhelmed, wondering how in the heck I’m supposed to describe it all. I’m afraid that what I say won’t be enough because in reality, that fear is valid; it just won’t, no matter what. And being the people pleaser that I am, I want to say enough; I want to say everything people want to hear. But unless you experience it, my words won’t do it justice. I do want to fully acknowledge people’s kind intentions in asking to hear about it. I appreciate so much the interest taken in where God brought me and what it was all like. I do love having opportunities to share that, and even more, having people in my life that care enough to want me to. That really means a lot. That said, it’s obviously a personal issue of mine that I don’t quite know how to talk about it in a way that does the experience justice, not annoyance over the fact that when people ask it means I have to try to. Bare with me as I do just that. ❤
When asked about Africa, I have to separate my experience as a first-time staff member on a mission trip from my experience of the people of Sierra Leone and the country itself.
Everyone on staff (so everyone with financial, medical or food responsibilities for each team this summer) knew going into this that it would be taxing in a lot of ways. We were all told before and at training camp that this would be a summer of self-sacrifice on a completely different level than that which is required as a student. Our team was our mission, and this summer was their mission trip. We were there to serve Jesus by serving them and meeting their needs, primarily. That meant doing our designated job (in my case, finances) to the best of our ability, as well as anything else necessary to ensure that the students had the fullest experience possible. I believed that, but eventually realized that it’s one of those things you really don’t grasp the truth of until you’re in it; until you and a bunch of scraps of paper are sprawled out on your bed in a moldy hotel room at 11pm, trying to furiously (but not carelessly) document all of the receipts from the day so that you can go to bed like the rest of the team; until you’re doing more math than you’ve done in like four years, trying to designate spending money to each student when the rate is 7,228.75 Leons to 1 USD; until you’re becoming very acquainted with the sweat of the people you’re crammed next to, nearly sitting on top of, for 40 minutes on a bus to a slum to do evangelism, while simultaneously rifling through your backpack to find the right currency to pay the driver with; until you’re planning the rest of the afternoon while the team is having their quiet time and you wish you were too; until you’re waking up from an unintentional but entirely welcomed nap when you should’ve been doing laundry and now dinner is in five minutes; until you’re delirious with laughter and tears at the end of one of the most exhausting, sweaty, germ-infested yet rewarding ministry days of your life. You don’t realize how much this summer is not about me until those moments when you feel like you have nothing left to give, but you would give anything for a glass of sangria and maybe a time machine to reverse your commitment to do this three months prior. Just kidding. 😉 I seriously would not have chosen any alternative over this. Period. No matter what it was. (I just like to be dramatic sometimes.) These are in fact some of the fondest memories to me, honestly. And that’s part of why I can be humorous with all of it now. I love looking back at every part of this summer because I so clearly see God’s faithfulness literally everywhere. I saw it then, I felt it then, and I can still see it all now. Especially now. Remembering has me seeing it all in a different light and feeling appreciative all over again.
These summers with Royal Servants are never meant to be easy. Quite the contrary, in fact, and that’s actually much of the draw for me. I love the challenges that come, especially because I know that God has things to say through it all and that’s what is exciting. If you read my previous post, “step-in,” you know how clear God made it that this was what He wanted me to step into, and that’s what I held onto all summer long. That’s how I knew there were things I would learn, and I did. That’s what kept me leaning into instead of backing away from every aspect of this summer that had me feeling like a newborn baby calf trying to walk. I may have had a variation of doubtful thoughts along the lines of “wait, why am I here.. how is this my life…” quite often throughout the course of those six weeks, but even more frequently I thought to myself, “LITERALLY (in the most valley girl way), the only way I am okay right now is because of Jesus. And it’s only by His grace that I’m actually better than okay; I’m really good.” Somehow I felt like I was thriving, and I know that’s because of how many people were praying for myself and my team. Thank you!! I was (all of us were, let’s be real) probably the most out of my element that I’ve ever been, but I grew accustomed to my role and our temporary lifestyle in Sierra Leone fairly quickly. As tired as I was, I felt equipped every single day to do what needed to be done. I got to know Christ as my ultimate Sustainer on a whole new level that I will always remember. And that is only a fraction of what I learned. Yeah, it was different and fun and difficult in various ways to be the finance person for the Sierra Leone team, but (to a certain degree) I knew it would be. And on top of that, it was different, fun, difficult, heartbreaking and eye-opening to spend time in this country and do the ministry that we did; to hangout with some of the cutest kids I’ve ever seen; to watch our students organize and facilitate their own vacation Bible school; to encourage them as they developed their own leadership seminar to share at youth groups; to walk alongside them and join with them in the evangelism that we did every day. There were new challenges all the time, but what a sweet six weeks it was. Such is life. Not easy, but you suck it up, buckle down, and do what you have to do, knowing God has called and equipped you. And you have fun in the process. Our team grew close and had each other laughing so hard so often this summer, and that is one of my favorite parts about it all. There is so much joy to be found and that makes everything else more than worth it.
As for Sierra Leone itself, I have much to say. I think it is an incredible gift to be able to designate space in my heart where I get to keep that separate from the logistics that took up much of the space in my mind.
Being a third-world country, Sierra Leone is insanely different from what I’ve been surrounded by my entire life. It contradicts almost everything I’ve grown accustomed to, and that is refreshing because it obviously brings a whole new perspective. If you let it. I’m choosing my words carefully and restraining from sharing detailed descriptions for various reasons, but feel free to use your imagination. I’ll say what is important. Sierra Leone became beautiful to me because God was there in the midst of the discomfort, the chaos, and the unfamiliar, telling me repeatedly to just “be still.” I remember walking down the street near our hotel one day, and I looked down at the bracelet my mom made and had given to me right before leaving. The charm on it says “be still” because in general I have issues with that, and I was struggling with it especially before this trip. Immediately, in the midst of recognizing this tinge of anxiety that I constantly felt when we were outside, surrounded by crowds of people talking, yelling and selling things, and avoiding cars that were honking incessantly, I prayed, “God, how in the world am I supposed to be still right now.. how do you expect me to do that when I am completely submerged in the exact opposite in every way?” There wasn’t really an answer. I just knew it was something I needed to be thinking about; a theme He had for me. Be still. The irony.
Sierra Leone was beautiful because it was different; because it’s not where I expected to be; because it is the very place where God became so much bigger than I have ever known Him to be. It was beautiful because the people there that love Jesus understand Him on a level that I envy. And they don’t even have to say that to you, you can just tell. Their worship brought me to tears. Their demeanor, the way they welcomed us, made eye contact with us, smiled at us; the way no one is ever in a frantic frenzy like we so often seem to be in America; the way they embrace simplicity and it’s more than enough brought me to my knees as it reshaped and refined my understanding of God and that He. Is. Good.
Rewind to those first three weeks in Wisconsin, preparing for my role overseas, anticipating spending the rest of the summer in a place I never guessed I’d be. I was one of several alumni interviewed for a social media promo video. The question was “why did you return on Royal Servants this summer?” (I don’t actually know where it is or if it ended up in a video anywhere). My answer was “I came back because God called me here, and because I believe that He wants to expose me to a greater understanding of His goodness this summer.” I was happy to verbalize that because it was something I’d been thinking about for weeks. I wanted a solid “reason” for doing this this summer. I wondered so often why God presented me with this opportunity the way He did, why He gave me peace about committing to it, and why this was really happening. As much as I know it’s important to be obedient no matter how much we may or may not know about a given situation, I wanted something specific to look forward to learning; something to seek out and be able to see through the lens of Sierra Leone. Understanding what it means that “God is good” is something I’ve been thinking so much about in general, even before any of this happened. What does it mean that “God is good”? My definition of “good” is so not enough to hold Him. I like a good movie. A hot shower on a cold day feels good. “How are you?” “I’m good.” It’s such an overused boring word, yet we use it when we talk about God, and when we sing to Him and proclaim His goodness. What about when “good” to me is nothing more than a description of the piece of pizza I just ate? Or the past week I just had? What does good even mean? It doesn’t seem right to fit God into that same category, and I already put Him in a box as it is. I already too often base my understanding of Him on my circumstances and emotions, when I know He is so much greater. So my prayer became, “God, I know that You’re good, but please show me what that really means.”
And He did.
And still is.
He’s good because He is outside of our circumstances, whatever they may be. He’s good because He is still there when we are running around looking for everything but Him to satisfy us. He is good because He is more than enough when the world tells us we need more. He is good because His goodness surpasses our ability to comprehend it. I’m learning how to be accepting of that and let it draw me to a deeper place of worship rather than a place of feeling frustrated at the limits of my humanity. [“For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” Psalm 103:14.] He knows we’ll never be able to fully grasp all of who He is this side of heaven. He is gentle with us because of that, and He also very willingly and graciously exposes us to parts of His character that we want to know more about when we ask Him.
I learned so much this summer on every level. I learned how to love people better. I learned about my own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to leadership. I learned how easily I compare myself to others and the importance of not doing that. I learned how much I value integrity and want to be better at making sure that’s apparent in me. I learned about sacrifice, discipline and time management. I learned to have eyes that see beyond my little world, and that it’s okay that I can only understand so much. I learned to extend grace, to pray more often than I complain, and felt the conviction to harness my words better, in general. I learned more about who God is, but also became very aware of the fact that no matter how much I feel like I know about Him, He is endless; there will always be more to learn. This is just the beginning.