• kendall emmert

Flies, Leprosy, and a Black Night of the Soul

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

I am in the dark, curled into a ball on my neatly made bed. Arms squeezing knees tightly to my chest, eyes clamped shut.

A sound escapes: an unrecognizable deep, guttural sound. Coming from me. Tears slip down into the comforter.

My soul has curled my body into this strange position. It has that ability sometimes.

My reality is not in that room. I am actually in a battle.

My mind and soul are hovering on the rocky edge of an unimaginably deep canyon. Looking down into an absolute unknown, I am not sure that I’m going to survive this struggle.

My husband and I had just returned from a six-month trip to Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, where we had lived with teams of families who were working among the poorest of the poor.

We had been home for a few weeks now, making our way through reverse culture shock. We got the phone call that we had been waiting for from Mission: Moving Mountains, the organization that we hoped to join! Yes, they would love to have us be part of a team! Would we accept?

It was time; time to decide whether or not we would join them and permanently move to East Africa. Commitment: fifteen years. I was twenty-eight years old.

Andy, my husband of one year, was glowing. He was ready. He was all in. He told me that he had found his life’s purpose.

But me? I was terrified, staring down into an endless, black pit of unknowing. Or maybe I knew too much.

(Even as I write these words nineteen years later, my stomach is tightening

up, beads of perspiration tingling under my arms. My Fitbit says my heartrate is increasing. Well, that could be the coffee. Second cup. But still.)

Every. Single. Person. In. My. Life. Expected. Me. To. Go.

At twenty years old, as a baby Christian, God had made it clear that my path and purpose was to be a missionary. From that very moment, I began to redirect every choice, friendship, and decision toward that goal.

I broke up with the guy that I was certain I would marry. I moved to Hungary and taught ESL as a high school teacher, leading Bible studies, sharing, sharing, sharing my faith. After that, I pursued a degree in Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School as a seminary student. I spoke at churches, I led groups, I pursued truth with all of my mind, heart, and strength.

Every box checked! I was made “for a time such as this” and ready to go!

Except this cliff. Now.

Here I was, toes dangling off of the crumbling cliff edge of my future, rocks and pebbles echoing as they crashed their way down to the bottom of a black pit. Panic and fear overwhelming every cell of my being as I realized that I did not have the courage. The faith. To jump; jump into the life that I had been preparing for over the last eight years.

I was no longer the bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed twenty-something, excited about the IDEA of being a missionary . . .

I had seen things.

In Addis Ababa, weaving through piles of human feces as we walked along roadsides, I had stepped over bodies and did not know if the piles of emaciated flesh and tattered clothing were alive or dead.

A little girl, limbs and face eaten and destroyed by leprosy, staring at me with a huge beautiful, distorted smile. Hopping on her one good leg, she hoped I could offer something. My pale skin advertising that I was a ferenji (foreigner), and certainly that meant that I had something. Anything. Bread. Money. Friendship. A way out.

The day after we arrived, Eritrea had declared war on Ethiopia and the evacuation of American citizens began. The team decided to stay. They were in the middle of their own war, fighting between themselves about which direction they would take their ministry: work within and among the Orthodox Church, or alongside the young, evangelical movement. The two churches hated one another. And so, the two sides of this team began to mirror the culture around them, taking sides, fighting among themselves.

As I watched my idealized version of missionary life crumble, this team that we were supposed to join, disintegrated. When we left two months later, they also left for good.

We still had four months left, three countries and three more teams to visit. I was in shock after Ethiopia.

My soul was a dark cave, no light.

All the years of preparing for this moment was a lie:

God did not exist.

I was a fool.

Sitting on a stump outside of a hut in Tanzania, I watched a little boy with no pants and a tight, distended belly hanging out of his ragged, dirty shirt, crying in the dust. And the flies. So many flies . . . crawling in and out of his sloppy, hungry mouth, feasting on the dried snot flaking on his face.

Round and round a dirt yard, his mother was chasing THE skinniest chicken, covered in bare patches of missing feathers. She was preparing a feast for me. Because I was “visiting.” I wasn’t sure that any of them had eaten in days. I was assured this was the cultural thing to do. Accept hospitality or they would be shamed.

I was ashamed, looking down at my clean fingernails and shaved legs, my healthy skin glowing with newly applied scented lotion.

And the food was awful.

I scooped handfuls of sandy millet, covered in pieces of barely cooked chicken fat, gagging it down past a plastered smile, my head, nodding dumbly up and down as I made sounds indicating how much I was enjoying it. The boy was grinning at me, shoveling in his feast.

Don’t get me wrong, I felt like it was a complete privilege to be there. I was in awe. But I was staring down a future with days filled with all of this. (It’s not quite the same thought process on a short-term mission trip experience. The weight of reality sits differently when you plan to stay. And have babies there.)

That night, I shared a bed made of boards with Stephanie, who had been living there for years and still does. Listening to the termites crunching their way through the mud and straw, while rats scuttled across the floor, our clothes began to feel damp. We realized that we were laying on a urine soaked piece of cloth.

All we could do was laugh. And we laughed and laughed until we cried.

Where was I?

Where was God in the middle of such wretched poverty?

I could not reconcile that these places co-existed with the West County suburb of St. Louis in which I had grown up. We had taken a plane here for crying out loud!

Then I remembered! Riiiiight . . . WE were the missionaries. Bringing a “message of hope” to the poorest of the poor.

Well, we were definitely among the poorest of the poor.

But I could not find a message of hope. The light inside of me was extinguished. I had nothing to give.

And so, after six months, I was curled up in the dark bedroom of my apartment. I was certain that I could not live there. It was not in me. I was a fraud and a failure of the worst kind.

Now, on my bed, swaying on the edge of the cliff in my soul, I was panicked. Poised miles above a black pit, lined with jagged rocks ready to rip me into pieces as I plummeted to my end.

And God whispered, “Jump.”

I almost threw up.

Pushing down panic, clutching the proverbial mustard seed in my fist, shaking and crying, I screamed in terror and leaned into the all-consuming fear, preparing myself to fall.

A blink of an eye later, I realized that I had only fallen two inches down from the top of the cliff. Safe. Still.

I had fallen right into my Rescuer’s hands.

Overwhelmed with thankfulness and wonder, the all-consuming fear began to transform into faith!

“Stay or go,” He told me. “You are mine. I will love you either way.”

“Really?” I was crying. “Really??”

“I know you. You are fully known by Me. But, if you want to know Me, if you truly want to know the One who created you, then you will go.”

Sitting in those enormous hands, there was only one choice to make.

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires.

Commit everything you do to the Lord. Trust him, and he will help you.

Psalm 37:4-5


Read Genesis 22:10-14

And Abraham picked up the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. At that moment the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven . . . Genesis 22:10-11

§ Use as few words as possible to describe the edge of the cliff or laying upon the altar.

§ Write something about your life story that parallels Abraham’s story. What kind of hill have you climbed? What were the details of the process of building the alter? What or who were you required to lay upon that alter? Has there been an outcome?

§ Maybe you have been Isaac? Has someone placed you upon an alter? What was it like to lay there, looking up into the face of a father willing to sacrifice your life? Write about that experience. What was the ram that God provided for you?

§ Cliffs, alters, mustard seeds . . . create a metaphor through words or images describing a faith-building moment in your life.

§ Write about an experience in your life when God took your tiny mustard seed and transformed your fear into faith? Maybe a poem.

§ Write a prayer remembering a time when you sat in your Rescuer’s hands.