On Some of Those Countries

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” – Matthew 5:31-40 ESV

Some time ago I moved from boarding school to university. If I had been lost and confused moving to the Middle East from Africa, it was nothing to how I felt moving from over seas to the Bible belt. Jackson was a phenomenon beyond compare. Massive bill boards displayed endless options of fast food, adult stores, and shooting ranges. Slide your pick up truck into the next lane to catch flashing signs pointing toward one of 200 something churches in the city limits. It was loud, bright, and Southern – and everyone seemed to know exactly what to do except for me. And yet – I adapted. Even though it was different and terrifying (and there was a lot of resentment I had to work through) I adapted to my surroundings. Quickly, I learned how to order light ice so I wouldn’t receive an insane quantity of frozen slush. I discovered that denominations are a big deal in the South; Christian doesn’t cover everything for some people and my theology of loving Jesus Christ with all I am was not enough for the pre seminary men in my classes. Pop culture caught up to me very fast – or rather my lack of knowledge did. When I arrived at University my musical repertoire included every Taylor Swift album, ABBA’s Gold Album, an old Celine Dion CD and the sound track to Les Miserables.  Spotify has since changed my life forever.

I know these learning curves are shallow, insignificant even, but they were a vital part of my culture shock and my adaptation to the United States. It’s important to realize that people from different countries or backgrounds have a steep climb when it comes to naturalizing themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. I’m not sure we do any visitor (long-term or short-term) any favors by exonerating derogatory language regarding foreigners – have we forgotten that we all are foreigners in this broken land?

I was acutely aware of being a foreigner when planning a wedding. First, I had no idea what was required and second, I am the only bride I’ve met who’s mother was half way across the world while I was planning. My mother is a saint and used the internet to arrange my wedding with a skill unknown to our modern world. She might not understand emojis yet but my mum is first-rate when it comes to planning any event from a different country. When our wedding came around my mother and mother-in-law had some photos of us as children to display at the rehearsal dinner. I quite strongly opposed to this – probably very rudely as I was a bride, a full-time nurse, and my wisdom teeth had been removed seven days before my rehearsal dinner. Honestly, I was not the most gracious bride and most likely have many grievances to address from that weekend – but that’s not the point just now. I was against parading our childhood photos for several reasons.

I had seen my husbands’ childhood pictures many times. He has some posed, some candid, some hurried, all lovely and clean. He is generally surrounded by his family or his football team. He is almost always surrounded by white people and he has the background of a safe, secure homestead. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with the way he was raised. The Lord has blessed his family immensely. Yet I could not help look at the stark contrast between our childhoods – and I did not want to be reminded of it on my wedding day. My childhood photos consist of me wedged in a group of girls my age, we’re all wearing my sister’s hand-me-downs. My photos consist of me barefoot, blindingly white next to everyone else, with dirty hair and happy eyes. When I look at these photographs I recall the smells, sounds, and tastes of Angola. I also remember every belligerent, insensitive question about growing up in Angola.

“You grew up in Africa? Were you not terrified every day?? How awful – how could your parents take you there?” Terrified? Only when there were gun fights in my street. Oh I don’t know – how could they say no to God? “How many churches did your dad plant in Angola? Was it really worth him going there?” Are numbers the only way to convey worth? What about the friendships he built, the men he trained, the families we met with and share our lives with… what about the love of Christ seen and shared? “You grew up in Angola…. Where is that? Asia? If you grew up there – how do you speak English?” My parents were missionaries, not silent monks…. 

It’s an overwhelming smattering of memories to face the day before your wedding. It was a reminder of how much I had changed to fit into Jackson, TN – and how different I was from my husband. It was a reminder of how little he knew of my life, and how little he would ever experience of my hometown. It was also a deep source of guilt. As I looked at the faces of neighborhood girls I had grown up with I was ashamed knowing my parents were paying for a beautiful wedding, while these girls were on their third or fourth child, some of them already dead. Guilt had an unhealthy hold on my heart. I wish I had been forthcoming in the moment about those photos; it’s given me a lot to think about since. Mostly, I find myself realizing how much I have adapted to my husband’s world and how little he knows of mine.

One Easter, in university, I spent at a friends’ home in Clarksville, TN. She took me on her old running trails, old eateries, and local hangouts. I so desperately wanted to return the hospitality. I wanted to take her to Kenya – where I learned to love running with the Great Rift Valley under my shoes. I wanted to show her the dukas, eat chapatis, drink overly sweet chai at ten in the morning, watch the flying ants drizzle down after a heavy rain. The impossibility of showing any of my American friends my home weighed on me heavily. When my husband and I got married I was nearly obsessed with the reality that he would not see Angola any time soon – he would certainly not see the Angola I grew up in. So while we drove to Mississippi every other month and I experienced more and more of his home and family I realized this was becoming a one-sided adaptation – as it had been for all my relationships in America. I was morphing to their surroundings, their norms, their differences without ever having to express mine. This was highlighted for me at Christmas this past year. It was my first Christmas with my in-laws and it was truly lovely, yet any holiday filled with someone else’s traditions can be particularly lonely. Of course, it would be absurd to ask people to change the way they celebrate, or the way they live or vote or communicate with one another to fit your needs. If I had had a ‘familiar’ Christmas we would all have been sitting in Laurel, opening presents by candle light, waiting for a gingerbread house to melt with humidity, and watching films on a tiny battery-operated DVD player – again, it would have been absurd!

However, it does make one think about all the different experiences found in a large family and how one should respect them, show interest in them, even appreciate them. I have been convicted by that thought in regards to how I relate to my husbands’ family and my own. I also think I’ve failed my friends in many ways because I have been inhospitable in not allowing them to see more of my past.

Perhaps now is a good time, in such a climate, for me to speak about some countries I have called home. Countries I believe are good places, created by the same God who created the United States and filled with people made in the image of that God.

ANGOLA

A sub Saharan country with a land mass twice the size of Texas. Population 24.3 million, major religion Christianity, currency Kwanza, major languages Portuguese, Umbundu, Kimbundu, Kikongo, life expectancy is 50-53 years. It is second to the top for the highest mortality rate of children under five. Angola’s wealth is isolated in the highest government officials’ pockets. The money comes from oil – lots of oil. Many western countries have oil companies with bases in Luanda. There was a 30 year civil war after the Portuguese colonists left the country with no standing government. Cubans and South Africans fought in the war on opposing sides. Human rights have certainly been compromised in its history. All these facts can be found on Wikipedia. I would encourage you to educate yourself – whether you are European or American you glean oil from this country, maybe you should know a little bit about it.

Let me tell some about my corner of Angola – Graffanil, a slum right outside the capital, Luanda. That term President Trump so eloquently used to describe African nations? Well, my neighborhood would have been the literal definition of that term. Sewer ran along the street. Muddy paths eroded into deep pot holes with each rain. Concrete walls stained with urine, burning rubbish, and anti-government graffiti surrounded me. Every morning I woke up to a stale, lifeless ceiling fan – it was useless due to the lack of electricity but it certainly made for nice decor. We ate overly imported breakfast cereal with UHT milk (ultra pasteurized) and started our days in the sweltering tropic heat. Mum and I would walk to the prasa to support local vendors. Wafts of burning charcoal, salted fish, grilled corn all mingled in the dusky air. Some days we went to the Isla – meetings with oil workers, church planters, other missionaries, whatever the occasion it was a chance to see the ocean and breathe fresh air. We would sit on the seaside, salty warm wind caressing our sun burnt faces. On incredibly special days we would eat at one of the local, overpriced restaurants (usually if an oil company worker was present). On such blessed days I would order a prego no pão – French bread stuffed with marinated steak and a side of potato wedges. How delightful, how decadent I felt chewing mouthfuls of simple meat and bread while watching the sun dip dramatically over the Atlantic. I wish I had known in those moments to reel it all in, capture every second, every breath in a slide I could play back in my bleak dorm room. Everyone in Jackson raved about their sunsets – orange skies over grey horizons while I couldn’t help but pine for the magnificent sub Saharan tropical expanses.

Our church was as vibrant as the scenery. Praises, songs, proclamations of truth – for good news is to be truly proclaimed not simply announced, no? Dancing in the aisles, wailing during the grace offering, testimonies of remarkable experiences during the war and God’s sovereignty throughout every life. I cringe when I remember all the Sundays I didn’t want to go – because it was hot, the sermons were long, and I was the only white person in the service. If I could travel back in time I would tell myself to linger every Sunday, cherishing the swell of each note as angelic voices raised their accolades to the heavens.

That is my Angola. That is my childhood. It is a third world country. It’s government is corrupt, its infrastructure is pitiful and its people need prayer. Yet, broken as it is, I would board a plane bound for Luanda before heading to the first world country I’m supposed to call home.

KENYA 

Located on the eastern coast of Africa, Kenya holds part of the Great Rift Valley. Population 48.5 million, major languages include Swahili and English, Major religion Christianity, life expectancy 63-69 years, currency Kenya shilling. This country is NOT the birth place of former president Barack Obama. I only lived in Kenya for four years while I was attending high school so I cannot speak to its intricate political history or current climate with accuracy. I do know in 2009 there was a massive food shortage related to wide-spread drought. There was a camp for internally displaced people who had been relocated due to resources and safety. The high school I attended would arrange trips for us to minister to families living in tents in the valley. In 2011, when Al-Shabab began encroaching on the Somali/Kenyan border my boarding school tightened security and held frequent lock down drills to prepare for any political unrest that might affect us. This terrorist group led an attack in 2013 – targeting shoppers at Westgate shopping centre where many students spent their weekends.

These events are the reality of Kenya – they are not just headlines. And yet, Kenya is much, much more.

I know I’ve written plenty about the aggravations faced in high school – I can blame Kenya for none of those. It is an ideal country. The loping hills are adorned with graceful tea leaves barely seen in the morning due to rising mists. It’s mysterious and welcoming, even-tempered and still passionate.  From our boarding school my friends and I could run along old railroads, past tropical water falls, with mountains on one side and expansive valley on the other. For one of my interim trips I chose to go on a six-day cycle ride. We cycled through plains alongside zebra and giraffe. The most exciting creatures I cycle past in Cambridge are groups of Freshmen gaping at their calendars. During those six days we spent one night in a Massaii village. We experienced a hospitality I have never felt in the South, a genuine welcoming, happiness beyond compare. We spent our nights gazing into the never-ending sky of stars, drinking in every moment of the quiet wildlife around us. This is the Kenya everyone should experience. The Kenya I know includes warm beaches, cool mountain evenings, spectacular sunrises over far off ridges. It involves eating ughali on Thursdays, buying warm, greasy chapatis from the dukas on the weekends and washing them down with spicy, bitter Stoney. The Kenya I know means visiting IDP camps, playing with indescribably hopeful children on Sunday, eating smoky corn, and taking three-minute showers because of the drought. No, it was not always an easy country to live in – but it is the most beautiful.

I encourage you to look up your own country, learn about it, find pride in it, and appreciate it. These are only two out of the seven countries I’ve lived in but they were most impactful. If you’re from the United States may I suggest you read If You Can Keep It by Eric Metaxas. It’s a helpful look at the States’ history and the values its citizens need to uphold. If you want to know more about African nations’ attitudes read this article shared by my own father: https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/the-story-of-optimistic-happy-africans-is-more-complex-than-we-think/ar-BBI9dXM?li=AA4Zpp&ocid=spartanntp

I cannot convince you that any of these countries are first-rate. I cannot tell you that you should move your family there immediately. All I can say is this: there is not an inch on this planet not created by God. There is no tribe, sect, family, or bloodline not created in His image. There is not a single one of us who is superior to judge the others. Not. A. Single. One.

We are all created equal for we have all been made in His image. So meet them – all the others made in that same image! Meet your neighbor, meet someone from a different background, a different religion, a different country. Appreciate their life, all they’ve been through, and where they’re going. Hold an honest, compassionate conversation with them – don’t we all deserve to be honest and compassionate with one another? Share your life with them. Display the photographs I was so afraid to share with wedding guests. I was so afraid of being honest about my life with my friends, my family, and my husband’s family. Don’t miss an opportunity to be understanding towards someone who is different from you.

We gain nothing by demeaning people we have never met. Perhaps it is time for us, believers, to put to rest the inflammatory language and pick up words of love, compassion, and hospitality. How much more would we further the kingdom of God by opening our doors to people of all nations instead of standing behind people who wish to lock them out? I am not going to pretend I understand the economics of certain policies – but I do try to understand people. I understand that people want to be loved, they want to belong, they want to feel secure. I understand that as a Christian I am called to love people, all people, and I am called to let them enter my home as Christ has let me enter His. I don’t need any more convincing than that. Do you?

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6 thoughts on “On Some of Those Countries

  1. Wow, Iona! I just came across your blog, and I have been so refreshed by reading through these pieces! I love every word. As I read, I was trying to figure out who the writer could possibly be, and I am so happy to see now that it is you! How beautiful. Thank you for putting all these deep thoughts into words. ❤ It strikes all the feelings within me and they resonate so loudly. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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