Teenagers are teenagers no matter where you go in the world. There will be boy-girl drama, family problems, girl fights, and school issues. And while living in a different country and culture can be quite overwhelming at times, doing youth work here is like slipping back into an old pair of shoes. It feels natural and familiar.
This past week, we had 150 teenagers flood our campus for our yearly December youth camp. I registered campers, printed name tags, coordinated small groups, led an afternoon of team-building games, and supported our student leaders. Every day I went to bed more tired than the day before. But every day I also went to bed knowing more and more why we do this camp. It all came to a head mid-week when we had something called “family time” where all of the leaders got up on stage and the campers could ask us questions about life. Simple enough but it quickly turned very real.
“What challenges did you face as a young person?”
I thought back to my time in high school as I looked out at the crowd of faces that earnestly wanted to know the answer. “My biggest challenge as a teen was not resisting temptation to do things I should not be doing like having sex or drinking. My biggest challenge was loneliness. I felt like I did not have friends and that the ones I did have did not really know me. I became depressed and no one knew. That time also translated into an attitude of very low self esteem that I am still trying to heal.”
One girl off to the side of the auditorium raised her hand, “How did you combat that low self esteem?” I could see in her eyes that it was not just a question. She knew what it felt like to not believe she is beautiful or capable.
“I know what that feels like. To be so low that you feel like you could never believe in yourself. I remember a specific day when I was 20 years old sitting by a lake in the States and I thought to myself, ‘I can’t go on thinking so little of myself. I know in my head that God thinks I am worthy and beautiful and just plain awesome, but I just do not believe it myself.’ But you know that you change your patterns of thinking by the things and people you have around you. So I decided to just swim in these truths that I did not believe and maybe just maybe it would sink in. So I wrote ‘You are Beautiful.’ On a note card and placed it smack dab in the middle of my mirror so that I would have to see it every morning. And you know what, it slowly worked somehow. At first I would look at it and say ‘yeah right.’ But the next day I would be like, ‘yeah right…?’”
The session went on with question after question. How do you deal with anger towards a mother who was never there for you? What do I do if I feel crippled by depression? How do I relate to my family that has such an unhealthy dynamic? As I sat on that stage, my heart just broke. These teens are hurting and have the weight of the world on their shoulders. And after that night they go back to their hard realities. But the thing that we ARE able to offer is reassurance that they are not alone and a hand to walk along with them even after camp ends, whether that is physically us or directing them to supportive communities.
It has been a long day. Two phone meetings, two in-person meetings, and a session of fundraising class. This season of my life is sending letters, emails, messages, texts, meeting with people, spreading the word about what we do in Zambia, and asking people to partner with me by praying and giving financially. It is a huge task! My monthly budget is $2000 per month (including everything like insurance and social security and pay check) in order for me to be able to work as a relational mentor to these students in our gap year program. And I have over 45 people giving to make that happen.
I sit over a cup of strawberry kiwi tea with a wonderful lady from my mom’s small group from church. And I just shake my head. What has been running through my head all day comes out: “I don’t deserve this. I definitely believe in the work I do in Zambia and I truly think it is filling a huge need. But every time someone offers to commit to take time out of their busy lives to pray for me or when they commit to giving money every month out of their hard-earned paycheck, I just can’t believe it.”
She smiles and says, “Of course you don’t deserve it. None of us do.”
I stopped to sip my tea.
Okay let that sink in. We are not able to do what we do–working in Africa or not–because we deserve it. All of us have been given gifts. (Start with the gift of life and just continue on from there.) We are creatures that mess up and hurt each other but we still get showered with gifts from some unfathomable Love. Honestly it defies reason.
And I know I am not perfect. Yet through the generosity of other people, God is giving me all that I need to be able to live and work in Zambia.
I don’t deserve it and neither do you. We don’t deserve any of this crazy amazing life God gives us. I just get a more tangible bottom line of knowing exactly what those gifts are that I am given. Two thousand dollars per month, lots of prayer, the opportunity to influence Zambian teenagers, and some amazing partnerships to be exact.
I looked around the playing field with the hundred or so kids running around, screaming, and braiding each other’s hair. I took a deep breath. This was our second kids’ camp and I now knew that while kids’ camp was Disneyland for the children, it was no vacation for the leaders. Suddenly a small body collided into my legs from behind and little arms wrapped around my thighs. “April!” I turned around. It was Addy.
Addy was one of my favorites. I know you aren’t supposed to have favorites, but let’s be honest, people, we all have them. At 9 years old, she is small for her age but she has a personality to make up for her size.
“I am in your small group this week!” she beamed up at me with a snaggle tooth grin.
“Yes, you are,” I responded. “But, girlie, what happened to your tooth?”
Her face fell a smidge. “I fell and it broke in half.”
“Ouch that sounds like it hurt. But I am so glad you are here this week!” She nodded, gave me one more hug, and ran off into the sea of kids.
We had an awesome time that week. Art projects, balloon fights, and lots and lots of crazy praise songs with crazier motions. We culminated our week by meeting in our small groups.
“What was your favorite part of this week,” I asked my group of eight. As we went around the group, the kids saidthe water balloon fight or the monkey dance. But when we got to Addy she paused.
“I broke my tooth and everyone at school has been teasing me. So I almost did not come but my mom said I should still come. I was scared the first day. But no one made fun of me and I had a really good time.”
I had had no idea that this outgoing little girl had felt so self-conscious. But without even trying, we had lived out the unconditional love of God. We loved her as she was.
Kazangula is a small town (if it can be called that) on the watery border of Zambia and Botswana. A group of 12 of us from GLO had taken the long, hot journey to Southern Province for a 3 day mission trip. And this was our first day of evangelism.
Within a few minutes, our group of four came across two women building a mud house. We were greeted with kind but slightly skeptical smiles and mud-caked hands. Immediately the two older preachers we were with began to ask these ladies bombarding questions like “Do you know God?” “What do you think about church?” And I sat there a bit lost and helpless because I did not speak any of the 5 languages floating around the community.
As they continued the conversation impregnated with long pauses and open Bibles, I saw my friend Emmanuel move towards their house. He looked at the pile of mud they were mixing for the wall, saw that their two yellow water containers were empty, and with less than a word he picked them up and walked away. The preachers continued to talk as I watched him walk into the distance, the yellow containers getting smaller and smaller. He stopped to ask a man something and continued up the hill to a half-finished church building. After about 10 minutes he was coming back down to us, sweat beading on his forehead in the midday sun, water sloshing on his jeans from the containers.
In that moment, I realized that THAT is the kind of missionary I want to be. I want to be a sweating missionary. The people of this country hear lots of words—it is not uncommon for church service to be 5 hours long and school is notoriously lecture-based. So how many times do we come across someone who is not concerned with words but is willing to get down into the mud of life with us? It means being able to really see people and their needs, which, yes, does take a certain level of cultural competency that I am still working on. But maybe I can bumble, sweat, learn and love my way towards that goal.
So when the preachers turned to me and asked if I wanted to say anything. I shook my head. No. Emmanuel without even speaking had said everything I wanted to say.