An Awkward Branch

Sometimes, after a full day of squinting in the West African sun, finding my way through the market maze, I would be startled by my own pale reflection in my bathroom mirror. Like, I would actually jump a little: my light green eyes, very pale, freckly skin, and blond hair were all so . . . bright . . . compared to the people living all around me. I was very aware that I was other. It was almost like I was from another planet. People constantly asked, “Why are you here? Are you with the CIA? Why would you leave America?” Little children would sometimes run from me, dropping everything, screaming in terror, tears and snot and fear. They had never seen a white person. I found out later that I was a real threat. Senegalese mothers sometimes told their children that if they were bad, the white people would take them away—actually devour them. Wow. Not exactly the picture of Jesus and the little children . . . Being in this tiny portion of sub-Saharan Africa, which looked nothing like the St. Louis suburbs that had developed my entire worldview, well . . . it felt really weird. How did airplanes exist in this same world where people lived in thatch huts? How could we send people to the moon, and yet, here in this place, a teenage girl was going to die because she tripped the other day and now there was an inflamed, throbbing, untreated cut on her toe? She was going septic—and she wouldn’t use the Neosporin, because her father didn’t trust the toubab medicine. She headed to the witchdoctor instead. Where was I? And who was I? Now that I had been here for five years and had two babies, I was different too. I had adopted the posture of walking behind my husband through the sandy streets, resisting the urge to reach for his hand. I didn’t look men in the eye when I spoke with them. I curtsied when I shook the hand of an elder. I carried my babies on my back. (I also used my Swiss front carrier on days when I was feeling bold and could handle the criticism from women accusing me of putting my baby in danger, all out there in front of me.) But this moment, this day, walking across the village chief’s courtyard, in the middle of the sandy village in which his ancestors had lived for 400 years, I noticed the sound of my Target flip flops slapping against the bottoms of my forever-dusty feet. In a rare moment, I was alone. I stopped under the harsh, boiling, midday sun and took note of myself. There. I looked down and saw: pale, pink toes with chipped polish, and a wax, wrap skirt lightly brushing the tops of my feet. It was purple with pink embroidery and coordinated with its matching, loose-fitting, orange top with fun fringe. The “latest fashion,” my neighbor had promised me as I handed her my money. What did I know about fashion in an African village? When I wore it, however, I received more compliments than usual, so she must’ve been right. In this unexpected moment of quiet, I was overwhelmed and in awe. I felt the great privilege of being here settle upon me, overwhelming my senses: the burnt smell of cooking fires, the sound of braying donkeys and screaming goats and women laughing and chattering in another language, the feel of sand in every crevice of my skin, big flies incessantly buzzing around my face, and the grandeur of a baobob tree having grown in that spot for generations. Being here was so utterly other. But so was I. The truth that all of my Wolof friends and neighbors understood was that if I got ill, if one of my children caught yellow fever (and of course they wouldn’t because we had all been vaccinated at the travel clinic), when a famine came, or a severe drought choked the already parched land, I could get on a plane back to the Land of Plenty: the United States that we affectionately called, Glory Land. In this way, an enormous chasm separated me from them. I would never know true poverty or depend upon the whim of the rain that only graced Senegal with eight inches a year. I would never know the fear of not knowing what to do while holding my dying child who was just dehydrated. I had never been as thirsty as a woman living near a dry well, nursing her fifth child, gathering bits of vegetables to serve over rice to feed her family their one meal that day. Never. But I was here. God had asked me to come here. What was he thinking? I felt silly wearing their clothes and wrapping a “musor” around my head like I was playing dress up. I sounded uneducated when I tried to speak their language, often hearing someone say, “She doesn’t know anything” (I could understand more than I could say). Eating out of a common bowl, trying to form little balls of oily rice to pop into my mouth sometimes inspired empathy: once, a woman made one for me, handing it to me as she had just done for her toddler. The girl inside of me was at a complete loss for how to be an effective missionary. It felt like a ridiculous task. My only hope was to move bumbling, stumbling, confused me out of the way, just enough to let His light shine in some way that they could see. And even that was proving to be hard. Being a tiny branch on the Vine sometimes felt so insignificant, so impossibly ineffective. What kind of fruit even grew in this faraway place? Despite all of this, today, I was spending the day with the chief and his family. Looking around again, I breathed in the absolute wonder of it all. Glancing down, I snapped a mental photo of my feet, walking through this sand, under this sun, carrying me to the cooking hut to help the women pluck a chicken for lunch. None of this was up to me. I just had to keep walking. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage (Philippians 2:5-6). RE-WRITE part of this verse and make it about you. Here is my example: Who “being in very nature” an AMERICAN CHRISTIAN did not consider it something to be used to my own advantage. Oh, but I DO use it to my own advantage! What word would you put there? “Being in very nature _________________ and not consider it to be used to your own advantage.” No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me (John 15:4b, c). WRITE about his reality in your life. What fruit do you bear? Or are you a dying vine? What does it mean to “remain in the vine?” Are you trying to bear fruit without being connected to the vine? In your life, what comes first: remaining in the vine or bearing fruit? What needs to change. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some (1 Corinthians 9:22b). ASK yourself these questions: How do I authentically love people so “other” from myself? WRITE a letter to or a journal entry about someone “other” in your life that you would like to connect with. WRITE about the real boundaries around you that may prevent you from authentically loving others. Use a short story format to create characters based on your life or a memoir format to tell a real story from your life. Therefore, my dear friends . . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose (Philippians 2:12b-13).

An Awkward Branch