We are home, and I have a confession... For a few weeks before our departure date, Scott and I would have these conversations wondering if I would feel like others who have made this trip, and want to go back? Or, because leaving my family behind was so difficult, would I be happy to check the mission trip block and never look to go back again? Almost the entire last week before leaving I told Scott, "This is ridiculous. I don't want to leave home. What was I thinking!" Nothing would ever be worth having to say goodbye to my kids for seventeen days amid their tears and sadness, or Grams breaking voice telling me how much she'll miss me, or Scott's hold on my body that says I love you and support you, but wish you weren't leaving. I told him I had to go at this point, but would not sign up for this foolishness again.
It was only a matter of days before I realized how wrong I was. I know, going into this blog post, that there is no way to ever convey the depth of emotion or experience, but I want to try. I want to give more than the standard, It was amazing, response to a trip that changed my life.
Even though I've already blogged on this whole process, I think the best place to start is the beginning. In January we had our first interest meeting. We had just a short time to decide if we were going to go or not. A week later I went to the meeting with the intent to back out, but ended up committing. It was a roller coaster of emotions for quite a while of excitement and regret. I would reach a place where I felt strongly that God wanted me to go, then had emotional setbacks where I almost convinced myself to back out. I would be moments from calling to tap out, then have this breakdown and tell Scott, I don't know why, but I just know I'm supposed to go. I know God wants me there. It was a battle within me to stick it out, as much as I hate to admit it.
As I previously said, the final week before leaving was rough. I could not believe the time had finally come that I would actually board a plane and voluntarily leave my family for seventeen days! That's just not the kind of thing I do, and those who know me best probably had a side bet going that I would bail. Emotions were raw that last night, Elijah had cried for months every time I brought it up, but on this night, the night of the last hug before I left, he fell asleep before I finished tucking in all three boys and I never got that last hug. Timothy, who had been quite big about it all along, finally felt the weight and the flood gates opened. Mason, my quietest love, whispered nose to nose with me, that he didn't want me to go. My heart still hurts to think of that soft, sadness in his voice. My baby girl, she held my face and told me how much she would miss mommy....if only she could fully comprehend how much that would be reciprocated. I pressed her hands into my face hoping for an imprint that I could feel each night for the next 17 days. I tuck my Gram in every night and had dreaded this night for weeks. She held my hand like she always does but this night said she just didn't want to let go. I didn't rush it. Few words were spoken between Scott and I...they weren't needed. He watched with loving eyes as I flitted about checking my bags one last time then called me to bed. He has been away on occasion for up to a week for work or a mission trip, but I have never gone. It was hard to even comprehend.
3:00am came way to early. With heavy hearts we had a coffee together as Scott spoke words of encouragement to me, his unwavering support gave me the courage and strength to see it through. I slipped into the kids bedrooms and down to Grams one last time, leaving each of them a stuffed animal and a note that all my snuggles were staying behind with the lions and elephant, so they would remember I was never far from them, no matter how far away I was. I paused just a moment to listen to their breath and memorize their precious faces before Scott and I headed to the church where we would meet the rest of the team and those praying us off, and head to the airport. Seeing the team gave me a sense of excitement and an eagerness to go....if I'm being honest, mostly so I could start the countdown to get home. The final goodbye was short and sweet as we loaded to leave.
Prayers were answered for smooth, safe travels and connections, but as the first flight left the runway, the floodgates opened for myself and Charlotte, another newbie, who struggled to leave her kids behind as well. I think somewhere deep in each of our hearts, until the wheels left the runway, there was a chance we could still go back home and call the whole thing off. But once those wheels left the ground, we knew..... we're going to Africa. Holy cow. It was just a momentary emotional setback as reality set it. We steadied as the plane did and settled in for the long trip ahead.
I had been warned to prepare for the arrival in Africa...the heat, the smells, the difference in cultural norms....so that transition wasn't bad, but I'm referring to my journal some as I write this blog and this is what I said of our first drive from the airport in Tamale to the Seed Ministry compound:
What sights, what sounds! The people are beautiful! The dresses, bare feet, kids on mopeds--four of them, no older (but some younger) than my own kids! What they carry on their heads! Holy cow! Bags of concrete, tubs of soda bottles, wash tubs of clothes or full of water. The miles long walk to get water, or to take their clothes to the water (sometimes a pond, sometimes runoff from the rain) to wash. It's so much to take in. So different from our own ways.
For the next fifteen days, every time we left the compound, these sights amazed me. I never grew used to seeing such long, dirt roads with groups of women doing chores in this manner.
The actual day to day mission is not so much what I wish to write about, but in attempt to share what we did, here it is, in a nut shell... The first week we painted a church that donations from our home church had helped to build, we went hut to hut in different villages inviting women to a special Women's Day we were doing the end of that week, we prayed with and encouraged hundred's of men, women and children through our testimonies and teaching through Roman's Road, we had Women's Day with about three hundred women, Bible Club leader training for about 80 local teachers who came from villages near and far, and on Sunday, had church and a dedication of the new building. The second week was more village ministry, a visit to the Nutrition Center where women can go to stay with their malnourished babies up to three months for nutritional help, a special service at a school for midwives and nurses where the women shared our testimonies and we all shared songs of worship, and lots of school visits where we broke off into classrooms alone or with a partner to talk about Jesus and love on the kids. Everything we did was amazing and every day was different in how God moved in, around and through us.
During our team devotional time at the end of each day, we'd talk about high's and low's of the day, or answer team building questions. One day, toward the end, Machelle, our team leader asked, "What is one highlight from the trip?" My response was that this was an unfair question. No way I can choose just one! These are the things I'd like to share, or try to. These are the things it's so easy to just say how awesome it all is, that you just need to go for your self to experience it (which is true!) but writing is how I process, so this is my attempt to find the words that give an ounce of justice to my experience, and time in Africa. So, in no real order of events or importance:
The first village ministry. Normally, the men, women and children separate into groups with our men, women's team and children's team, but for some reason, this time, everyone stayed together. There was somewhere around 8-10 men, 12-15 women and about 50 kids! The men moved quickly to clear a massive mound of corn husks, by shoveling them back with their hands from under the shade tree where they had obviously been working their crops for quite a while. The children dispersed to gather neighbors and find benches for us to sit on. They came back through the corn fields with five foot wooden benches on their heads and scads of people.....where did they come from? How far did they carry those benches on their heads?! The hospitality! Man! It may truly be unmatched. So, finally, they all sat as we began to share. Machelle led the children's team each day, so we moved forward with that even though men and women were all present. My part was Romans 6:23, the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus, and was illustrated by the telling of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. (look it up if you are unfamiliar!). This was the first time I would share it, of many, over the next two weeks and although I had practiced here with my own kids, I saw quickly that with the language barrier and use of translators, reading what I had written was not going to work. Typically, this would have caused me an anxiety attack that would have prevented me from not only speaking, but even standing due to the shaking and knocking of my knees. But, instead, I could not wait! I wanted to get to my turn, I wanted to share what I knew of the choice to follow Jesus, or not. I was giddy with excitement, which was the first time I realized, God did want me here. I have His truth tucked in my heart and I have the ability to share it with about seventy people who may otherwise never have known. What a responsibility, but at the same time, what an honor.
The 'summer hut'. This was a new addition to the compound that is so wonderful, I don't know how previous teams survived without it. This is where we had morning coffee, meals, and late afternoon chats and quiet time. But in the early hours, before the sun came up, when it was just three or four of us, sitting quietly by lantern or flashlight, each sipping our coffee, journaling and digging into scripture, soaking in the cool breeze before the heat of the day set in....it was refreshing. Worth waking up an hour earlier for. And one of my favorite times of the day.
Women's Day. We had gone out to villages within walking distance of the church, and others that were about a 30 minute drive for us to get there, inviting women to join us on this special day so we could love on them, share testimonies, and sing and dance with them. I noticed, during our time out inviting these women, that no one ever wrote down a day or time, no one had a phone they pulled out to plug in the information with an alarm to remind them, but so many of them said thank you and they would be there. I was skeptical. I half suspected we'd have about twenty five to thirty women from the nearest village, if that many remembered or wanted to come. On the morning of, we drove out of the compound about 9:30 to head to the church. On our way we passed a few groups of women walking, babies strapped to their backs, dressed to the nines, assuming...hoping....they were heading to the church. Again I wondered, how far have they come? What time did they have to leave home in order to walk that distance? It was humbling. The women poured in. We started with about 150 women signed in, but within a couple hours, the numbers had nearly doubled. We sang, shared stories with and loved on nearly 300 women that day. My heart could have burst!
Sharing my testimony. This was such a cause for nerves leading up to this trip. I'm not a fan of talking in front of people so doing so while sharing such intimate details of my life was one of my greatest fears. In hind sight, that's a little silly, since there is no right or wrong, it's just the story of how God has worked in my life. The women's day was the first time I shared it and to be honest with you, I struggle to even remember it. But two days later, during the church service to dedicate the new building, I was to share my testimony again. It was recorded this time but I have yet to watch it. It's difficult to share. I'm so critical...my voice sounds funny to me, it's long, I stammer, but it's the story God has given me. He gave me a boldness to share in Africa that I hope I can maintain in America where judgy pants are a more common attire than the far reaches of Ghana. Life is messy and imperfect, just like my testimony, but what good is a new song in our hearts if we don't sing?
The schools and children. I loved the days we went to the schools. The classrooms, with the same math I'm teaching my third grader written across chalkboards, dirt floors, tiny wooden benches that held up to four kids, the absence of electricity, the heat, tiny rooms with forty to fifty kids, some of whom had their baby siblings strapped to their back to care for during their school day. The gentleness with which these older siblings cared for their baby brother or sister...wow! One day I saw a girl, maybe seven or eight, stand bent over for almost an hour so her baby brother could nap laying across her back. I will never forget that sight.
There was one village stop, three different women... Mercy, even now, my words fail me. I know I could never explain what happened, and frankly, I'm not sure it's not just best left in Africa between God, those women and the four of us on the team that day. But in those three interactions, I saw God work and move in such a way, I could never question or deny His presence. It was powerful and intense and intimate. I don't want to speak for anyone else, but I am certain, these interactions changed and affected each of us. You don't see and feel God in such a powerful way and walk away unchanged.
Sometimes it was the very little things, and sometimes the very big things that moved me. The smiles. The big, beautiful, joy-filled smiles on the faces of everyone we met in villages, kids at schools, or people we would pass on the road. I will never forget those smiles. The women carrying huge loads on their heads, for miles, with babies strapped to their backs and children playing around their feet. The dancing! The music! The sights and sounds that brought a National Geographic image to life. Feeling the heat, walking the dirt roads, holding their hands and their babies. Their beauty and strength. It's not just a pretty picture anymore. It's an amazing life and I'm so glad to have had the chance to witness and share in it! Not only did I discover it's worth it, I left a piece of my heart there, and long for the chance to go back.
How God met me, over and over. Through scripture, through courage to share, through testimony, through the team, the children, the people, their stories... He breathed life back into me and restored joy to my soul. I told Scott all this on one of our face time calls about day twelve, when he noted how happy I looked. Three nights after I got back, when the kids were in bed and we had a quiet minute to ourselves, Scott asked me when did I feel like life was breathed back into me, and how? I told him it wasn't a single moment, but instead a journey God took me on each day though the people and circumstances He was placing in my path. Upon saying those words, I was reminded of the foot scriptures we were to choose back in May and spend a month meditating on, (mine was PS 94:18-19, if I say "my foot slips" your love holds me up. In the multitude of my anxieties, your comforts delight my soul.) so I flipped back to those pages of my journal and would like to share something very personal God laid on my heart nearly five months before the trip. Words I had forgotten about until this night, three days after we returned.
"Come with me on a walk Julia. See what I see. Hear what I hear." But what if I get scared Lord? "I will hold you up." But what if I fall? What if I fail? What if something happens to Gram? What if my kids need me? "Come on a walk with me Julia. Let me comfort you. Let me renew your life."
Tears streamed down my face as I read these words to Scott. I knew all along that God wanted me to take this trip, but seeing how He put these words in my heart five months before working it out in my life was such beautiful confirmation of His love of me, and His will for my life.
I had this idea that going was a sacrifice. That giving up time with my family, time at my home, my routine, our bed, coffee time, dinner out, shopping, showers, my shows, the money to go, would scarcely be worth it.... perspective hits when you realize it's not a sacrifice to step outside of your self, your life, your comfort zone, when you get to witness God move in so many lives and in the process, change your own.
Disclaimer: this is my experience. I don't for a second claim to know how God met each person, or what each person experienced, although I am sure each was met right in the middle of their mess, just as I was.
Thank you for taking the time to follow this journey with me.