Insomnia is a delightful souvenir I never expected to bring back from Kenya.
It visited me again last week. As I wrestled with gritty eyes and a bad attitude at 1:30 a.m. one night, I scrolled through my Twitter feed.
News had filtered out over the past couple of days of an aid worker killed in Mabaan County of South Sudan’s Upper Nile State — the area where I spent a month and a half writing about SIM ministries in 2012. Rumors swirled of more workers killed. While parts of South Sudan, including Upper Nile, have been very unstable since December 2013, that corner had remained relatively calm.
I messaged a friend who serves in South Sudan to check in.
As we shared a quick update, I thought about the incongruity of the moment.
There I was, in the middle of the night, chatting about tribal tensions in obscure little outposts in far northwestern South Sudan.
Perspective. Several years ago, I never would have thought that such places would be heavy on my heart. That I would have to reconcile the beauty of the South Sudanese people I met and the country they live in with tribal violence that will never really make sense to the Western world.
A friend I met while training for my first SIM term just got back from Nigeria. She spent a few days visiting Bozeman, and we talked, for hours. Except for a few email exchanges, it was the first time I’d had a chance to catch up with her.
Her experience was life-changing and amazing in a lot of ways. But it was hard, very hard — and it reminded me that the struggles I may have had in Kenya didn’t compare with what other people face in other places. Think about it. Nigeria in the past two years, versus Kenya? No comparison.
Look at it this way
The reaction from a Kenyan to the Westgate Mall attack surprised me. It almost went into my story on a Bozeman man’s experience with the medical response — but it didn’t make the cut.
This is something you expect to see in faraway places, the Kenyan told him. You expect it to happen in America, she said, pointing to school shootings, the Boston Marathon bombing and the Navy Yard shooting as examples.
Sure, your car can get stolen, you can get mugged, but large, well-planned executions? You don’t see that in East Africa, she told him.
You expect it to happen in America.
Think about it.
In many ways, people in other countries think it’s dangerous here. Unpredictable. Unsafe.
How often do we share those sentiments, only in reverse?
I’ve been asked how Ebola affects my upcoming assignment in East Africa. My response? It doesn’t.
I’ve been asked how close the outbreak is to Kenya. My response? You would have to drive the distance from Florida to Alaska twice over to get from the Ebola-stricken area of West Africa to Kenya.
I’m not trying to be cavalier, but our perspective can be skewed, and we don’t even realize it. Sure, anything can happen to affect my assignment — in fact, see the next section. Air travel is easier throughout Africa — Kenya is not immune, by any means.
I just want to steer clear of the impression that Ebola is just one more thing to add to the never-ending list of reasons why the entire continent deserves a giant DO NOT ENTER sign.
Because for some, the phenomenon of children bringing guns to school and shooting each other is a pretty big reason to be fearful of the U.S.
Out of my control
In just a few days, this, “Ebola outbreak: When the illusion of safety meets reality,” was read by thousands. The blog stat maps showed a colorful quilt of countries all over the globe.
This never happens, people. Never ever.
I kept checking the words to figure out what got so many readers interested. I’ve turned it over and over in my mind.
It seemed to strike a chord. I marveled at the timing.
Here’s the thing. Hours before I posted that blog entry, I learned I could not return to Kenya until January or February, at the earliest. No, Ebola has nothing to do with the delay. It’s a thoroughly mundane matter of scheduling around home assignments and other staffing issues.
Reading through the email containing the news, I realized something. For months, I’ve had the goal of September in my mind (realistic or otherwise, considering I haven’t raised enough support). I still keenly remember the frustration I felt a couple of weeks ago when I hashed out a finance update.
I wasn’t in that place again. Yes, I was disappointed — but I didn’t feel despair.
Why? I’d just read day after day after day of intense updates on Nancy Writebol and Dr. Kent Brantly’s fight with Ebola and the steps SIM has had to take in West Africa to fight the disease. In light of that, finding out about the delay — well, it is what it is.
It’s out of my control.
Yet, God is at work
Writebol and Brantly still battle the disease in Atlanta. A number of SIM personnel have been quarantined in Charlotte, N.C. It’s surreal to see the campus where I trained, the people I’ve gotten to know over the years and the organization I greatly admire and respect front and center of media reports from regional, national and international outlets.
I mean, guys, they’re even calling it “S-I-M” instead of “sim”, like a phone sim card — which, believe me, is a major accomplishment.
As exhausted as I feel right now with the never-ending fundraising and the delays, I couldn’t be prouder to be sent by SIM. I am weary of the transitions — by the end of August, I will have lived in eight different places — and I’m about to make another move.
My life doesn’t make sense. Nevertheless — and I’m not sure how to explain it — but the resolve to see this through is stronger than ever.
Neither Kent or Nancy, nor anyone working in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea or Nigeria, planned or wanted to become the center of an internationally known tragedy. But they did.
In this, God is at work.
I can think of people I trained with and worked with at SIM and the trials they and those around them have gone through — in South Sudan, Tanzania, Nigeria, Mali and elsewhere.
In this, God is at work.
I think of at least a few months more on U.S. soil, months I thought I’d spend immersed in Swahili language training.
Even in this, God is at work.
What ships are for
On Friday night, as my Nigeria missionary friend and I wrapped up our visit, I read Brantly’s statement posted online.
Life pressed in on me in that moment, and I wept.
I could only imagine how much it pressed in on him, in those days he waited, alone, for the results, and in the quiet moments since when he may have been alone with his thoughts.
And yet, he wrote this (bold added):
… Following God often leads us to unexpected places … I held the hands of countless individuals as this terrible disease took their lives away from them. I witnessed the horror firsthand, and I can still remember every face and name.
When I started feeling ill on that Wednesday morning, I immediately isolated myself until the test confirmed my diagnosis three days later. When the result was positive, I remember a deep sense of peace that was beyond all understanding. God was reminding me of what He had taught me years ago, that He will give me everything I need to be faithful to Him.
I remember feeling my breath hitch when I read his words: After days of waiting, the result was positive. Then, a deep peace that was beyond all understanding — and a reminder: He will give me everything I need to be faithful to Him.
How often do we look at our circumstances and chafe? How often do I look at what needs to happen to return to Kenya and allow my pessimism to take over?
As you continue to pray for Nancy and me, yes, please pray for our recovery. More importantly, pray that we would be faithful to God’s call on our lives in these new circumstances.
I am humbled by Brantly’s conclusion. I am humbled by the steadfast testimony Writebol and her family have maintained.
Faithful to God’s call, even in what many would see as the worst-case scenario?
He will give me everything I need to be faithful to Him.
I find myself deeply convicted as I mull over 2 Corinthians 4:8-18.
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
… So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
A professor of Brantly wrote about his former student in the Indianapolis Star not long after the news broke of his infection. This stood out:
A ship may be safest in harbor, but that is not what ships are for. Kent is one of those remarkable people who sees clearly his life’s real purpose – serving others – and has the courage to follow it.
As I seek patience in waiting, I hope I can be just a little like Brantly and Writebol.
Faithful in any circumstance, wherever I am.