To the Africa Family

"I bless the rains down in Africa . . ."

This morning, I relived a special feeling when Toto’s “Africa” fed through my earphones. Its signature lines about the great continent bring fond memories. In just a couple of weeks, it will be one year from the date six incredible people allowed me to join them on an adventure to Rwanda and Kenya. And even though we spent many hours together preparing for our trip, it was the trip itself that set our relationships in a framework that can only be viewed as remarkable and led to our claim to be “the Africa family.”

In regard to the song, I should note that we never heard live drums echoing in the night, nor did we see Kilimanjaro. Our closest parallel to the imagined journey portrayed in the lyrics was our time on the Serengeti. Even those rains eluded us. We preceded the rainy season by a couple of weeks.

Still, as I listened to the melody cascade over the distinctive drum track, I came face-to-face with special moments. Quiet conversations were frequent. Laughter was a major feature of every single day. What I remember most deeply is the feeling of comfort I had when I was with my Africa family. Thousands of miles from home, that little group became my touchpoint.

When you experience a time of life with a close-knit group of friends, you encounter not only your own feelings, but are immersed in the perspectives and emotions of those around you. I believe that my memories of this particular group of people will always bring me comfort. Thanks Betty, Allison, Robyn, Aaron, Dan, and Malcolm! You changed me.

So, to my Africa family, I want to say “thank you” for sharing that incredible journey. But, more importantly, thanks for opening your lives to me. Over time and the separation of distance, our family will lose some of its familiarity. I hope that you will never lose the feeling of community that was created. I know I never will.

Day 12 – Re-entry

Boarding our red-eye flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam brought a sense of relief. Our team of peacemakers was tired and we were eager to see family and friends back home. Yet, our relief was not about our re-entry to our own lives and routines. No, we were just pleased to finally be beyond the checkpoints and into a series of flights and layovers that would be routine.

Well, that didn’t quite work out.

That first leg of our flight was uneventful with the excellent level of service we had come to expect from a KLM-Royal Dutch Airline crew. Polite, helpful staff, clean airplane, and excellent dining. Most of us tried to follow the advice we had received to “sleep on the first flight — stay awake on the second” in order to ease jet lag on re-entry. Well, let me put it this way. I followed the advice. The rest of the team managed to get seats in pairs. So, it’s possible that they decided that this ten hours was better spent in conversation. The German guy next to me simply put his blanket over his head before we left Nairobi — a pretty clear signal that we wouldn’t be talking.

The blanket did come off the German quite rapidly when we touched down in Amstersdam. And I heard more words from my seatmate in 10 seconds than I had in 10 hours. German words. Although I’m pretty sure they weren’t nice German words.

2014-10-01 08.39.04Of course, almost everyone came to attention at that moment. Within seconds of touching down, the 747’s brakes malfunctioned and locked on the right side of the plane and we rapidly came to a stop, nose and right gear off the runway. (Later we would learn that the captain accomplished a heroic feat in keeping the plane upright.) Our great crew put us all at ease and we watched from inside as fire trucks, ambulances, and light trucks began to surround us.

2014-10-01 08.39.16Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt. We began the slow process of deplaning, boarding buses, and making the 15 minute journey to the terminal. The flight attendants, ever friendly, invited me out on the stair platform for fresh air and to shoot a few pictures while Aaron, Betty, and I waited for the last buses.

We had a 5-hour layover, so none of us were concerned except . . .

2014-10-01 08.42.45Did I mention that Betty and Robyn were leaving us in Amsterdam and flying to London to attend a special event honoring Nanon Williams, Betty’s co-author of The Darkest Hour? So I probably didn’t mention that their layover wasn’t as long as ours, did I?

2014-10-01 08.41.38Nevertheless, the dynamic duo did make it on board a plane bound for Merrye Olde England, without bags, of course. And the rest of us took advantage of our remaining layover to charge phones, grab a bite to eat, and stand in line for the ever-present security checkpoint.

The last leg of our journey into the United States was uneventful. I watched 3 movies in a row, ate the two meals that were served, and walked the aisles to stay awake. I was determined to conquer jet lag.

Leaving the plane in Dallas, we made our way through passport control and down to baggage claim. Because of the mishap in Amsterdam, there were no bags. But the KLM agent we contacted had documents waiting for us. Aaron, Allison, Dan, and Malcolm would need to return to DFW for theirs. Mine would be flown on to Abilene.

So, we said goodbye. Hugs and a few tears. Then, we parted.

Re-entry. Initially it seemed it involved a few plane rides, gathering our belongings, and a short drive home. But in the ensuing weeks, we found it was much, much more.

Re-entry came to be about a far different worldview from that we had experienced in Rwanda and Kenya. Re-entry surfaced as a longing and loneliness for the new African friends we had made. Re-entry became a complicated attempt to extricate ourselves from the daily lives and routines of our life-long partners in this adventure.

Africa Team

Photo: Betty Gilmore

Betty, Robyn, Allison, Dan, Malcolm, Aaron, and I had formed a bond that was stronger than any of us had anticipated. We had become brothers and sisters in a very special calling.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9.

Day 11 – Connection

After a day of safari and a welcome break from our constant schedule of trainings, Tuesday, September 30, 2014 was our last full day in Africa. We were excited to be with the children from Made In The Streets Ministry in Kamulu, Kenya. And, for all of us, there was a real belief that a special connection would be made during these final hours.

2014-09-30 00.00.24At 8 a.m. on school mornings, the children gather for chapel. Twenty minutes of energetic singing and our team was ready for the day. I was asked to speak to the group and I spent a few minutes sharing scripture from Romans 8 and detailing how, even in the most difficult of times, God stands with us. We felt a connection with these children.

Video: Aaron Horn

The children were dismissed. The faculty and staff remained for a few announcements and prayer. Then we were off, splitting into three teaching teams to bring some basic conflict resolution concepts to these teens from the streets of Nairobi.

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Photo: Aaron Horn

IMG_1335Betty and Aaron were dispatched to work with the oldest group — the ones spending their days at the Skills Center learning a trade. Allison and Robyn volunteered to take the youngest group while Dan and I worked with the “in-between” students. Even though Malcolm and Aaron had a wonderful experience with the group on Sunday, we were all a little anxious whether the lessons we had planned would connect — culturally and through an interpreter.

IMG_1340Thankfully, the connection was made! The human spirit naturally wants to find ways to bridge gaps and build relationships. And that is exactly what we experienced in these classrooms.

But we would see a connection in another way, not just once, but twice, that day.

IMG_1344In preparation for our trip and our time in Kenya, each team member had spent time researching our host organizations. Robyn excitedly told us months ago that she would be sponsoring a child at Made In The Streets — one of the tiny ones, a child of a child. And Malcolm, shortly before we left the United States, made final arrangements to sponsor one of the new boys, fresh off the streets of Nairobi.

I wish you could have been there when Malcolm met Samuel and Robyn met Dennis. Connection takes on all new meaning.

IMG_1350And connection is what this whole trip was about. Meeting new friends. Helping others find ways to connect and reconnect. Making reconciliation a center piece in our lives. We couldn’t have had a better day.

#SMURwandaPeaceMission2014

Day 10 – Creation

I realize that when most of us talk about creation, we are limiting our comments to those things immediately before us or those things fixed in our memories. Sensational sunrises. Majestic mountains. Verdant valleys. Babbling brooks. Kind and caring people. Yet, pieces of creation await discovery by all of us. Our day in Kenya was a time of wonder as we boarded a pop-top van and headed on safari to see wild animals in their native habitat.

IMG_1169Jackson, our African friend and safari guide, picked us up at 5 a.m. The animals begin their day early at the Nairobi National Park and were expecting us when we rolled up to the gate. The lions were roaring not too far from us. And the monkeys, the “common thieves,” were perched warily in the trees just hoping that we would leave items unattended.

IMG_1170After paying our fees, we reboarded our van and Jackson began the painstaking task of stalking the great beasts of the plain. We were not to be disappointed. A few minutes into our journey, we rounded a bend in the road and were met by a solitary giraffe.

Just moments later, we scrambled to view a creature that had scurried across the road and who waited for us to pass — the elusive bunny rabbit of the Serengeti. We laughed a bit over our eagerness to see anything in this new setting, our new view of creation.

IMG_1180Malcolm remained watchful. Constantly on the lookout for lions, he never lost hope. But alas, the lions chose not to reveal themselves on this outing.

Betty remained in place as our vigilant leader. Camera in hand, she held us spellbound with her knowledge of African wildlife . . . or something like that.

IMG_1188Meanwhile we enjoyed the thrill of our open-air, standing tour of the plain and the constant challenge of spotting God’s creatures.

Animals were everywhere! Herds of zebra and antelope, mixed in with a few wildebeest were consistently present. What better way to record one’s visit to Kenya than with a few selfies with these majestic beasts.

IMG_1194Some photos turned out better than others.

Remarkably, most of these wonderful creatures were undisturbed by us and the clicking of our camera shutters and, occasionally, squeals of delight — primarily from Allison and Betty.

A few of the animals weren’t interested in making our acquaintance. This rhinoceros, for example, was a little standoffish. And even at a distance, he looked threatening.

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The variety of animals was amazing and despite the missing lions, we were greatly amazed at our new discoveries of creation.

Jackson had one more surprise for us — baby elephants!

We may be limited in our ability to comprehend all of God’s creation. But what a wonderful gift we receive when we can fully see the creation right in front of us.

 

 

Day 9 – Reset

With our landscape rapidly shifting behind us from Rwanda to Kenya, our team began the traveler’s necessary task of reorienting and redirecting. I found a great deal of comfort in walking to the Octagon multi-purpose building on the Made In The Streets Ministry outside of Nairobi, the meeting place of the Kamulu Church of Christ. Where better to reorient and redirect than in worship and Bible study? I could also sense a great anticipation from all of the team, as we approached this time to reset our priorities and meet new friends in a place so far from our homes.

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Our Sunday morning adventure didn’t disappoint. For the first time, we were able to gather with nearly 100 children who had been invited to leave the tough streets of Nairobi to enter the world of Made In The Streets and a future marked with hope.

We were overwhelmed by this opportunity. The worship was different from our experience in Kigali just seven days before. But although this sanctuary didn’t feature giant sound systems, multiple choirs, and a huge crowd, the spirit and the enthusiasm was there. Seems like you can always see that when God is in a place.

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Much of the singing was in Swahili. You haven’t experienced worship until you sing in Swahili — made all the better when you have Malcolm McGuire and Betty Gilmore joining in at your side. We were surrounded by Kenyans and moved by their desire to welcome us into this holy place. Holy place? Not just the church service. The holy place that emerges whenever people come together to do good.

Our gang of peacemakers and travelers were, just moments before, weary and somewhat leery of what was to come. Our shift in training was from adults to children. And, these children. Could we connect with kids who have been through what these have? Living on the streets of Nairobi. Many involved with drugs and crime. Plucked out of a desperate place and dropped here. Here. Right in the lap of people who loved God and, thus, loved them.

Our trial session came that afternoon. Malcolm and Aaron took the lead. For two hours they stood before the recent graduates of Made In The Streets. These 18 and 19 year olds were about to be sent out to jobs they had been trained for and into a world that was waiting for them. And, thanks to Malcolm and Aaron, with some conflict resolution skills that would serve them well.

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As the sun went down in Kamulu, we knew that we had been given this day to reset our outlook and our priorities. In the words of a song we would sing with the children in the next couple of days, “this was the day that the Lord had made” . . . for us.