I did my best to prepare them, I truly did.
I was gifted with the trust of Carson-Newman University parents who believed in my promise to diligently protect and educate their son or daughter while on a recent mission trip to Chokwe, Mozambique. Ten C-N students joined my husband (Al) and me on a 16-hour flight to South Africa. The trip included a night in Johannesburg, another flight to Mozambique (much shorter, thank goodness), and then a four-hour bumpy van ride to Chokwe. Around the world to a place where cold showers, one bathroom for 12 people, interesting food, little to no Internet, and being stretched to your limit in numerous ways were all a guarantee. So I, being the type-A, OCD person that I am, made sure we were prepared; or at least I tried.
But nothing can prepare you to live even for a short time in a world so different from our own comfortable, air-conditioned, internet-saturated, fast food, fast media world. And absolutely nothing can prepare you for the overabundance of the love of Jesus seen in the community of believers living in Chokwe. Their desire to serve you before themselves above all else — from washing our hands with pitchers of water and clean towels before each meal, to all 12 of us being served a full meal prepared by a widow who had nothing, to gifts of beautiful capulanas from our newfound brothers and sisters in Christ — nothing can prepare you.
We went expecting to serve because, after all, we had the most to give, right? My students were mostly pre-service education majors who made great plans to teach children ages 3 through sixth grade at a Christian school in Chokwe. We had games and crafts and rotations all worked up. And then we got there and realized how all of our carefully prepared lessons would have to be completely revised. That was because teaching in a second language to children who are not accustomed to learning by playing or by rotating to stations makes this hard — really hard. And so, while still trying to adjust our American selves to the realities of Africa, we were also working each evening to adjust our lesson plans to accommodate the sweet faces we would see the next morning. But I was still missing it.
A day into the trip I realized I had not prepared my students for the most important thing: “relationships” and diving deep into a community of believers in Jesus who understand on a deeper level how to live in community together. When how you live is not so cluttered with “stuff,” it changes you. Community in Christ becomes THE thing — not the things you have, the degrees you earn or the status you acquire. None of that matters. If my students left Mozambique and had not at least connected with one person there on a deep level, deep enough to know how to pray for them once back in the states, deep enough to wish for the time when they could see them again, they would just be adding an experience to a cluttered list of things acquired in a lifetime. And so, I made sure to tell them to choose, not an experience added to a bucket list but a relationship created that would extend beyond a bucket list — one that would extend into eternity.
I sat back and watched it happen. They asked our translator on the day we left why we were crying. She smiled and said we were sad to leave. Sad was a bit of an understatement. Our hearts were torn; our spirits were renewed and freshened beyond words, and we were leaving a bit of ourselves with them. People who loved and served us well in the short time we were there, but that love, oh that love, was so big and so humbling, and we knew we would be back. Not because of a really awesome experience (even though it really was), but because we had people who we hoped to see again, people who served us with the love and light of Jesus. They showed us we were not really there to give, but rather, we were there to receive — to receive showers of abundant gifts that reflect the community we are meant to live in as brothers and sisters in Christ. They call me “Mana Cindy” (Sister Cindy). I like that because it is a reminder of who I am within the body of Christ — a community of brothers and sisters dedicated to loving and serving one another out of the abundant love and mercy given us through the grace of Jesus.