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.

One Year of “Only” Memories

I’ve been at that stage of life for a number of years when it seems we are too often saying our last goodbyes to people we love. And we often acquiesce into the rhythm and relationship of “only” memories.

One year ago today, I was in a meeting in Austin when I received a call from my brother, Carl. My dad, Joe Bill Cope, had passed away earlier that morning following months of illness and decline. Although I regretted being hours away, I was happy for him and his eternal victory.

Through the next few days, weeks, months, and now, one year, my mom and my entire family have walked that road of being without. But, I feel certain I can say for all of us that Dad left us with far more than memories.

I don’t just remember his smile, his voice, his words of advice, his hands on his golf club, and his laugh — sometimes at jokes he couldn’t really hear. I can see his smile, hear his voice, his advice still stops me in my tracks and redirects me, I can smell the grass on the fairway and see his ball shoot out (usually skimming the fairway grass), and hear him join us soulfully with his incredible sense of humor.

It’s been a year. But far much more than “only” memories.

Love you, Dad!

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.

Day 6 – Bigger

After one night away from our homebase at the ALARM Rwanda Center in Kigali, I noticed a strange feeling surfacing. Despite the fact that I was 8,500 miles from actual home and my immediate family, I felt a calming effect as we returned to our rooms and our comfortable routine with the local staff. I couldn’t escape the feeling that my presence on this trip was, indeed, providential and part of something much bigger than I had anticipated.

For one thing, our training with the ALARM staff was scheduled for days 6 and 7. The entire team was looking forward to that event. Working with a small group of 10 who have a focused agenda would be far less stressful than our work with the security forces from the Kinyinya District and our trying time with the refugee camp. We had become well-acquainted with about half of the staff and were eager to be with the whole group. Benjamin Nkusi, the national coordinator for ALARM Rwanda, had also been expressing his anticipation and hopes for our time together.

I was also more aware than ever that our little team of Texans was taking on family characteristics of its own. Each member had a spot and we had come to depend on the strengths — and the humor — of each individual. We also had concerns for each other that were much deeper than we had seen before. From a physical standpoint, we were all mindful that international travel, medications, local food, and possibly unbottled water had taken its toll. Three of our team were moving forward valiantly despite illness. We were to learn that illness in this sort of environment was a rolling curtain — as some revive, others fall victim.

There was this feeling that our alliance of trainers, students, professors, and, now, friends, was taking on a bigger identity. (Indeed, since I’m continuing to write these day-by-day reports following our return, I can see the growing language and connections of our “Africa family.”)

Primarily, though, I believe that our group was beginning to recognize and accept their bigger role — both as individuals and as a team — in a broader picture of peacemaking and peacebuilding. And when that begins to happen, wonderful things fall in place.

It’s a blessing from God to join Him in something bigger.

 

 

22 Days and Counting – Missed

In 22 days, our team will take to the skies to travel first to Amsterdam and then to Kigali, Rwanda. As we fly, we will undoubtedly have thoughts about the adventure ahead. It is our hope that we never have any regrets about what we might have missed along the way. This is a somewhat peculiar post. First, even though it is being posted 22 days before the trip, it’s a little out of order since I am lagging 4-5 days behind on posting due to technical glitches– glitches that I now hope have been resolved. Those delayed posts are still coming, by the way. Second, because of the server outage and then the website feed issues, many of my email readers have missed all of the posts since August 15. So, at the bottom of this post, I am providing links to each of those posts. Finally, this post is a little peculiar because I want to assert a point of personal privilege to write just a few thoughts about someone I’ve missed.

Jack Lawrence Agnew was an extraordinary man who, if he were still with us, would be 100 years old today. Born in 1914, Jack was a native of Rising Star, Texas and a member of one of the founding families of that little community. His father, E.F. Agnew, operated the local grocery store and both Jack and his older brother, Ray, worked in that store for years. Jack married Ileta McWhirter and, when the economic necessity arose, moved his family to Lubbock, Texas where he continued in the grocery business.

If you had known Jack, you would have loved him. He was one of the kindest individuals I have ever met. And, even if he wasn’t lovable and kind, he would have been special to me because he was the father of my lovely wife, Nancy.

I didn’t always know what to think of Jack. In my early days of dating Nancy, he worked late hours, often coming home long after I had said my goodbyes. I recall vividly the time that Nancy accompanied my family on our vacation to the lake. On our return, I helped carry her bags to the front door. Jack answered the doorbell and, on seeing Nancy, grabbed her, hugged her and said, “I had no idea that you were going to be gone this long!” He whisked her away to see her mom and promptly closed the door in my face. I waited a few minutes and, when it became evident that it might be a while, I opened the door, placed the bags in the entry hall, and walked slowly back to the car. “I’m pretty sure her dad will never let me see her again,” I told my parents.

That, of course, did not prove to be the case. Nancy and I have been together ever since. And our families have been a huge part of our lives. Because I worked for Jack for a couple of years in the grocery business while I was in college and then spent hours with him at the farm in Rising Star after he retired, I have some powerful memories of him. Jack didn’t waste time on politics or celebrities or anything that might be negative about other people. Jack was, in a word, pleasant.

Jack could be a handful. He was stubborn about some things. When many husbands would have sought help caring for sick family members, Jack cheerfully and dutifully cared for Ileta during her last difficult years. No matter what, Jack’s love for her was evident in all that he did or said. He was also determined to keep working on the farm, even though he could hardly walk. Jack had reluctantly agreed to move to town and leave the farm. We moved his things to Abilene to a retirement center nearby and took delivery on one of those scooters. Jack only asked to stay for one more weekend so that he could oversee the workers coming to harvest his last pecan crop. On a Saturday morning, before the crew arrived, Jack was out in the orchard and fell, breaking his hip. Complications from that fall and the surgery eventually claimed his life on Christmas Eve of that year.

I have missed Jack, just as I have missed Nancy’s mom and my dad. When I see pictures of Jack I can almost hear his voice and I wish that we could sit and talk again. He would talk about baby calves and the need for rain and how he needed to get into Brownwood to pick up this or that. But, it was the things that he didn’t say that made those conversations so appealing. I never heard him talk about anyone else in anger. Occasionally he might express disappointment, but that was the extent of it. He spent his time pointing out the good and beautiful things of life. He loved his wife, his daughters, and his son. And his grandkids. And baby calves, of course.

As I think about things I have missed, I have become increasingly aware that I have missed meaningful times with genuinely beautiful people. Growing older, I am also more aware that most people are genuinely beautiful when you give them a chance. Jack knew that. And that’s why so many people would drive miles out of their way to spend time with him.

This trip to Africa is presenting unbelievable opportunities for our team to spend time with people and to give them a chance to be beautiful. None of us can afford to miss that. You don’t have to go to Africa to make that happen.

I miss you, Jack. Happy Birthday! Thanks for seeing the beautiful!

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So, if you missed a few posts, here are the ones that didn’t make it out to my email subscribers. Just click on the links and you’ll be magically taken to each and every one.

36 Days and Counting – Songs (This one was emailed out but the video links didn’t work. So here it is again.)

35 Days and Counting – MITS

34 Days and Counting – Difficulties

33 Days and Counting – Excitement

32 Days and Counting – Anxiety

31 Days and Counting – Dependent

30 Days and Counting – Shots

29 Days and Counting – Compassion

28 Days and Counting – Recognition