South Africa 2013
When I applied to go to South Africa on a study abroad trip for a class about social justice and apartheid I had no idea God would use this trip to reveal His plan for my life.
I have been extremely blessed over the years with opportunities to go on mission’s trips to Hungary, Serbia, China, Honduras, and El Salvador. Leading up to each of these trips I always tried to prepare myself to be open and willing if God called me to missions in that country. I love each of these countries and the experiences I've had in them but I never felt drawn to any particular country. Leading up to my class trip to South Africa missions was about the last thing on my mind. I was expecting this trip to be unlike any I had ever taken; it was, but not in the way I was expecting.
I absolutely love traveling but, when it came down to it, this trip was a requirement for timely graduation. A few months before the trip I started having some heart issues that not only threatened my trip to South Africa but also my semester. Having withdrawn from school the spring semester prior (that being the reason I needed to make up this class requirement) I was terrified I'd have to make that tough decision once again. After my heart was back under semi-control I presented my doctor with the idea of South Africa. He advised me to take this opportunity and so I began preparing all the necessities for my trip to South Africa. On December 31st/January 1st (depending on which time zone I was in at the time) I wrote, "Finally in the air! It's still hitting me that this is actually happening. Weird. I am so blessed."
We stayed in Johannesburg for a couple days and then headed north on a five hour ride to a small village called Mavhusa. I was stoked to be in South Africa but nervous about the village. On January 3rd I wrote, "I was nervous to come to the village. Maybe it was because I didn't know what to expect, I don't know." I couldn't figure out why I was having such anxiety. Maybe I could feel that my life was about to drastically change, maybe Satan was trying to discourage me, I don't know, but it didn't take long for me to fall in love with Mavhusa.
The first full day we were there we ate breakfast at 7:30 followed by quiet time, class, and a walk through the village. That morning for my quiet time I read Daniel 7. Here's just a bit of my response to that passage: "God, I admit that I'm not always in awe of what you've done, or continue to do...I love when you reveal your plans and your mighty power. I want to know you more, truly know you. God, reveal yourself to me." Hours later God began to answer my prayers. I had no specifics in mind when I wrote these words but how ironic is my God?! I sure am in awe of Him now.
In class we discussed the difference between being a tourist and a pilgrim. Tourists travel to "experience" other cultures but not to be a part of them. They view poverty and it affects them, to an extent, but it doesn't change them. Pilgrims travel in an anticipation of transformation of self. They gave of themselves (physically, financially, emotionally) to experience God in a new way. This distinction between tourist and pilgrim shaped our entire trip. We desperately wanted to be pilgrims.
Later that day as we walked down to the village, gazing on the gorgeous mountains God has created, I felt drawn to South Africa. Like I mentioned above, I've been to various countries comprised of various cultures and have never felt drawn to any of them like I did South Africa. This was the first thing to catch my attention. I knew God was doing something in my heart but I had no idea what that was. I didn't feel an instant calling to South Africa or missions in general, just a shift in my thinking. From that very first day God showed me the spiritual need these people had. That night I wrote, "They have such great needs here and I feel like I could be part of God's plan to fill those needs...I'm willing." I was scared but I knew that God's plans always turn out better than mine. After dinner that night we sat around and talked about what had struck us about our trip into the village. I shared with the group the pull I was feeling toward South Africa. That night in my journal I ended the day’s entry by saying, "I've got a lot to pray about."
That night I couldn't sleep. My mind was reeling and I couldn't make it stop, so I just let it go. I began thinking through different possibilities of moving to South Africa; what it would look like, where I'd live, what I'd do, etc. I got in a lot of prayer that night. The next morning during my quiet time I asked God to reveal His plans for my life. An image immediately came to mind of Him chuckling, shaking His head saying, "Not yet." Of course, I was a little let down at first (I really wanted to know!), but then a wave of awe come over me. He wasn't mad at me for asking. He didn't have to answer me at all, but He did. He chose to reveal Himself to me and give me a little piece of mind. "I'm not going to tell you now, but it'll be soon." That simple answer gave me peace and helped me stay calm over the following weeks when I'd ask and He wouldn't respond. I knew He had my life under control and I would find out what He wanted me to do soon enough.
Later that day, during a break between class, Git (the founder of JAM ministries) started to ask me about my love for writing, as the night before I had shared with the group the pull I was feeling toward South Africa. He found my love of writing Bible study material and my passion for the church particularly interesting. He began to share with me South Africa's extreme need for Bible study material. I was surprised. I figured they probably didn't have a lot of Bible resources but I'm also American (and we tend to think other countries are in need of absolutely everything and we have all the answers). He showed me a great need that God has given me the skills, knowledge, and passion to fill.
A couple years ago in a writing course I was taking, we had to write out our future career plans. It was an extremely daunting task (and funny to see how much has changed). Our professor told us to think about our skills and passions and discern where there is a great need. I can finally say that I have found where I am needed, and I wasn't even looking. All the times I stopped to think about what I was going to do with a degree in creative writing the possibility of writing abroad never once crossed my mind. I have always loved and admired missions but never felt called to it myself.
I like the idea of learning new languages but have always struggled with speaking them. Partly because I'm scared I'll say it wrong, but also because it has been really difficult for me to 1) remember languages and 2) put that knowledge into practice. The first night we were in Mavhusa, they started to teach us a basic greeting for our trip into the village the following day. I loved the way it sounded and was surprised as the ease in which I was able to pick it up and speak. I've never had a great desire to learn another language but I soon found myself dying to communicate with the kids that hung on us every chance they got. I was careful not to immediately assume that God wanted me in South Africa just because I enjoyed learning and speaking the language but it was one of the many little things that kept me wondering if God's plan for me was South Africa.
We stayed in Mavhusa for five incredible days. I knew leaving would be hard and I tried not to think about it. I absolutely hate crying in public and have consequently learned to distance myself from whatever situation is causing me to be emotional. This has become an art for me; a way for me to survive. I can tell you about my grandma funeral, my struggle with my health, without batting an eye. It's almost as if, in my mind, what I'm saying never actually happened to me. This is normal for me, this is who I am. As the kids hugged us goodbye, on our final day, I began to get emotional (not uncommon). I immediately put up my defenses and stuffed my feelings away from sight. But as I watched them leave it became harder and harder to keep my emotions in check. I thought about escaping to the hut but hiding to cry is almost as bad as crying in public.
It soon became apparent that I was losing all control of my emotions and tears were inevitable. At that point I chose to go hide in the hut. Before I even walked through the door I began to lose it. Sitting on my mattress I just kept thinking, "I don't want to leave." I was shocked by my own intense emotions and knew right away that this was another one of God's "little things" that He was using to show me He had already placed my heart in South Africa.
I fell in love with Cape Town immediately. It was absolutely stunning; I couldn't keep my eyes off the mountains. On January 13th I wrote, "I don't feel as much of a pull to Cape Town as I do to Mavhusa but it's still there. It would make sense to live here and visit Mavhusa, but God's plan doesn't always have to make sense. It may not even be South Africa, I don't know, but He is changing me and I think He's shifting my view of my future as well." Almost two weeks into the trip and I still had no real idea what God was preparing me to do.
The following day we visited Robben Island, where Mandela (among many others) were imprisoned during apartheid. On the boat ride over I had the opportunity to talk to Lisa (an American missionary working for JAM ministries) about JAM, writing, life in South Africa, the media aspect of the ministry, and how to deal with my final year and a half of school. It was such a blessing to be able to discuss all of this with her. Our situations were rather similar so it was helpful to hear her story and how she managed everything. And, of course, I got to hear from yet another team member how great the need is for media personal, going a step further by showing me the incredible need for staff in general.
She was so encouraging, but what continues to strike me the most about the JAM staff is that they all continually directed my focus to God. They know they need people and resources but they were more concerned that I was following God's plan and not my own. They also constantly encouraged us to "be present where we are at", that we shouldn't focus solely on the future but, instead, focus on the tasks God has placed in front of us in the meantime. This encouragement and the prayer that has coupled it have already played a huge role in my outlook of the remaining year and a half of my college career.
"Social Justice is the practice of the gospel." I love that quote from our class on the 16th. Later that day we were given the opportunity to put that thought into practice when we traveled to one of the Townships near Cape Town. As we drove past township after township my heart sank. These townships were extremely underdeveloped and impoverished. Their living conditions literally took my breath away. We had a long car ride which gave me plenty of time to think and process what I was seeing. I kept trying to think of ways to help these people who have been stripped of their rights. I felt helpless as I realized I have no skills to help these people fight for their God given right to healthy and safe living conditions.
I was having a really hard time dealing with what God had placed in front of my eyes and barely spoke. Once we arrived at the township the missionaries have connections in, we began to walk through the township and gather all the kids for games and a skit. From one of the very first metal sheeted houses came a timid little girl of about three years of age. She had wild hair and a stare that split my heart in two. She took my hand and we talked through the township together. She wore no shoes and made no discernible attempt to avoid trash and glass that lined the streets. She never spoke but I found out later that her name was Sani. I absolutely fell in love with this girl. Once it was time to take her back to her house I found myself tearing up inside. How was I supposed to leave this little girl in such dire conditions? Would she be okay? I knew my heart was being drawn to South Africa but at that moment it was ripped out and buried beneath the vibrant red dirt.
On January 18th, 2013 God answered my prayers. Fifteen minutes into our flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg I began to read Micah four. Verse two made my heart skip a few beats. It reads, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord." Seems like a pretty normal verse, right? What stopped me from continuing to read this passage was the phrase, "the mountain." JAM ministries is based on the side of a giant mountain, to which they refer to it as "the mountain." So, of course, my mind went right to South Africa. I have a tendency to get excited about a particular project or possibility and chase after it head on without stopping to make certain that it is God's plan.
This time I wasn't taking any chances. I took a deep breath and timidly asked God if He was trying to tell me I was going to return to the mountain. I instantly received an image of Him smiling and nodding. My heart almost leaped out of my chest. As I tried to suppress my excitement I asked Him more specifically. "Are you calling me to South Africa?" Same response. I was filled with more excitement and peace than I have ever experienced. I wanted to scream and tell everyone, but I was on a plane; pinned in by two guys who were off in their own musical worlds. In that moment the view I possessed of my future shifted.
I finally knew where God was leading me and how every quirk, interest, skill, and passion of mine fit together. God revealed His plan for me and defined His purpose for my life in a way, place, and time I would have never imagined. I am elated, overwhelmed and ready for the work that is to come. I can't wait to return to South Africa and see how God will use me through my love of writing.