This fall marks the 8-year anniversary of an adventure that redefined me. Eight years ago, I packed a few changes of clothes, sunscreen, and notebooks and boarded the first of several planes that would bring me to Tanzania, the first stop in a two-country study abroad experience. It was my first time travelling on a plane without my family, my first time leaving the country, and the first step in a new direction for my life.
I spent the fall semester of 2012 in Tanzania and Kenya (very distinct countries from one another, though I’ll describe my experiences with the broader term East Africa) with a group of 29 other students studying wildlife management, ecology, the Kiswahili language, and the interactions of humans and the environment. Witnessing elephants and lions in their natural habitats, being immersed in new culture, and being away from my comfort zone profoundly moved me. Until this point in my life, I floated confidently through college classes with a close-knit group of friends around me and a faith in God that had not been put through any difficult tests. I thought I would graduate college and go onto a graduate degree in wildlife management to find a job in the National Park Service. Upon returning from studying abroad, I found my life upended.
Eight years down the road, I’m reflecting back on the ways my life was impacted by my semester abroad. I’ll be reflecting on faith, my worldview, my relationship with environmental issues, and general life direction in this four-part series. This is Part 1: Faith.
Growing up, I was steeped in Christianity. I was fortunate to have adults in my life who encouraged me to ask challenging questions about God and who would search for the answers with me. As such, I never was never given pat answers to questions like “can women be in ministry” or “what is prayer” or “how do we even know God exists”. I was taught to dig into faith and that God could stand up to my questions. But my faith was relatively easy; living in a middle-class, privileged family and attending a faith-based college where most had similar upbringings kept me comfortable.
I realized my semester abroad was going to be out of my comfort zone when I met up with my other twenty-nine other classmates in Heathrow airport in London. We had a twelve-hour layover until we would fly to Nairobi (and then on to Tanzania), so we camped out by some chairs and idly chatted. I remember thinking “These people are not like my classmates at Bethel”. Many of them dabbled in what my upbringing would consider “worldly things” like partying, drinking, drugs, etc. At first all these “worldly pursuits” stood out like like a stain. A side effect of a Christian upbringing is a tendency towards judgment and a legalist attitude about things outside the church. The initial meeting distressed me and my judgment initially closed me off to my classmates. I remained closed to my classmates until a week or two into our time in Tanzania when we went on a safari at a nearby national park. We were split into jeeps with four or five other students and I had a blast with the people in my jeep, a realization that surprised me at first.
As I stood, watching the savanna rumble by, I realized it was ridiculous to judge my classmates by standards I had defined. I heard a whisper saying “The Lord does not judge by outward appearances but looks inward at the heart”. I was convicted. If I believed God was the ultimate creator, God had created my classmates with the same love and compassion with which I was created. I learned that the standards were instead a mask of judgment. While I judged people for partying, I was being judged by God for harboring resentment or fake righteousness against others. Cracking the façade of false holiness allowed me to open myself up and understand my classmates as loved and cherished creations of God. During the semester I came to know my classmates and was moved by their hearts, character, and passion.
The other development of my faith wasn’t fully realized until I came home. Being immersed in East Africa meant learning about a new culture, a new vision of the world. This worldview extended to a different vision of faith. Sometimes in western culture, Jesus is relegated to a holy wish granter or someone who protects us from the hard facts of life. He is pictured in the classic church paintings as a white man with long brown hair and a beard. In many churches his teachings are also watered down and sanitized. But in Tanzania, I saw a vision of Jesus as a black shepherd among the Maasai herdsmen, wearing red plaid cloths called shukas and keeping watch out for the lions. If the Holy Trinity created humankind in their image, then God was a nomad, a herdsman, a shepherd, a warrior like the people I met.
After I returned home, I went back to a church I had been attending in the Twin Cities. The pastor gave a sermon instructing the congregation of the necessity of finding good mentors to help people improve in their personal lives or businesses. I remember the only connection to Christ was one random verse plucked from the Bible to back up his words. As I sat there, I was disheartened and frustrated. If faith in Jesus was only good for shoring up our financial interests or making our personal lives more productive, I didn’t see the point.
I stopped going to church. I had met Jesus who walked among his creation and people while in East Africa. He commanded his followers to clothe, care for, teach, and feed those who orphaned, HIV-infected, hungry, or oppressed. But I wasn’t seeing that Jesus clearly in the U.S. I kept seeing churches focused on money, politics, or reputation. Looking back, I count myself among the apathetic church crowd. As a broken person, I care more about myself and my desires than loving and caring for others. But a year after I first boarded the plane for Tanzania, I took a class called the Theology of Mission where a thoughtful professor walked us through the Bible and showed how the entire Bible spoke to a central theme: God’s people were given knowledge, favor, and privilege not to enrich themselves but to cast it off for the sake of serving others in the name of Christ. Suddenly the Bible spoke to me again. It propelled me to consider my brothers and sisters and act as Jesus’ hands and feet.
God has not been handed down to the western churches to dole out as we see fit. Jesus came down as a poor, Middle Eastern human to unleash his kingdom to the entire world. Faith is action. It requires us to push from our comfort zone, to join the brokenhearted and oppressed. Faith propels us to be unattached to our physical goods and be attached to the intangible – mercy, compassion, grace, and love. In Kenya and Tanzania, I found God cannot be confined. God cares for all nations and tribes. God speaks every language. God is Mungu.
Baba yetu uliye mbinguni, jina lako litukuzwe; ufalme wako ufike, utakalo lifanyike duniani kama mbignuni.
(Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven).