Creative Director’s note: Despite the internet making the world smaller, there’s still no substitute for bursting the comfort bubbles surrounding U.S. Christians – and seeing God in a new light – than experiencing a foreign culture. Jennifer Vines and Allison Shirley did just that on their recent trip to Swaziland.
My friend Alli and I went to Africa for a week. My eyes were opened to the extreme contrast between our lives here in the Birmingham suburbs and these people living in the town of Manzini.
The majority live in simple one-room concrete block houses while others only have grass and mud huts with sticks or thatch for the roof. They rarely have access to water or electricity in their homes and walk everywhere with their herds of cows or goats – even beside main highways.
Many people subsist on one meal a day. That malnutrition, combined with the highest HIV rate in the world, reduces the average life expectancy to a mere 32 years of age. This shocking mortality rate means 1 in 5 people are orphans. So many young adults die from HIV that their children (usually also infected) are orphaned and left to fend for themselves. If they are fortunate, a “go-go” (grandmother-type figure) may look after them. This is difficult for even the most kind-hearted though, since they also live in extreme poverty.
Our friends work with a team that has established care points throughout the country. These are safe places where children come to receive physical nourishment and spiritual food. Swazi nationals are trained and serve as great examples to these young people. They also are the liaison between the children and the missionaries, helping to identify injured, ill or possibly abused children so that they can receive additional care or professional help if needed. Over and over, I was hugged and greeted warmly, thanked for coming to visit them. Inquiries about my own children back home, why I was there, would I come back, would I please take a photo ("Shoot me!") were common conversations. The children were so hungry for affection that we were constantly hugging, holding hands and linking arms for the short week we were there.
I saw self-sacrifice by missionaries, discipleship team members, older “go-gos,” and younger “makes” (mothers). I worshiped in their church and heard their strong voices praising God without instruments (which were not missed). There was joy on their faces and they seemed to glow while sharing testimonies. Such a beautiful people with a powerful sense of community led by the Holy Spirit – voluntarily raising orphaned children in their villages, serving in food preparation for hundreds of children daily, committing to support one another despite meager resources. They joyfully offered what they had – themselves.
On a Sunday afternoon, I visited with a Swazi woman who prepares food at a care point daily for 150-200 children. She shared about losing her young daughter nine years prior in a tragic accident, just six months after her husband died. She was left with three other children to raise and a very hard life for her family. I cried as she admitted she still dreams of her daughter every night.
I tearfully asked how she had made it, continuing to serve others even though she has lost so much. She said, "God. Without Him.... Without Him, I wouldn't have." If He can get this sweet woman through such tragedy, surely He’s there when we face unexpected bills, a stressful home life or loss of a job. His strength is available to all of His followers.
The root of the joy of the Swazi people is that those who know Christ are content and grateful for life.
They do not worry about what they do not have. They are not afraid of doing without. They pray daily, "Thank you, Lord, that we woke up today."
That perspective is foreign to me. I am rarely content or grateful for the gift of each day and have been challenged deeply by their examples. They live Matthew 6. They trust that Father cares for them as He does the lilies and sparrows, not worrying about tomorrow.
I also realized I have a typical American arrogance.
On one hand, I felt that we would be very encouraging in Swaziland because we did passionately love the people before we even met them and desired to share our hearts with them. These pure motives can become prideful if we forget that under our own power, our efforts are more likely to offend or become empty platitudes that fail to hold meaning or change lives.
Another side of that arrogance is that we viewed ourselves as rather delicate when faced with daunting real-life problems. Alli has likened this attitude to having a "porcelain teacup syndrome." This was evident when we initially visited the government-run hospital. We were absolutely overwhelmed with the condition of the child patients, the run-down and barely furnished building, and mothers who slept on the concrete floor beneath their children’s metal cribs. We were shocked into silence, feeling any words were completely inadequate. We haven’t lived in destitute circumstances or faced such hopelessness, so what could we possibly do to help or encourage these women? We had nothing to offer at that point and I was embarrassed at my inability to relate, to reach out, to offer any hope.
Thankfully, after many tears and praying for something we could use to bridge the gap on our next visit, God brought to mind packs of cartoon character stickers that someone had generously donated to us for the trip. We shared them with patients and mothers alike, gaining smiles, starting conversations and being His hands and feet by bringing a moment of joy simply placing stickers on hands and foreheads. We were able to say that we were praying for them and mean it.
That experience was a powerful lesson to me. The same God who allows these people we now love and know by name to live across the world without plumbing also put us in our middle-class world in Alabama. We are of equal value and equally able to be mightily used by God. The question is if we are willing to be content with our circumstances, trusting that His plan is sovereign and obediently subjecting our will to follow His leading.
We are beyond grateful for having our eyes opened, for the powerful way God loves us and will even take us across the world to help us grasp His sustaining, omniscient grace. If you ever join a mission trip to another country, please take advantage of it. Be ready to humble yourself and to let Him open your eyes and turn your life upside down.
“For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
- 2 Corinthians 4:5-7
Jennifer Vines and Allison Shirley are wives, homeschooling moms and are passionate about sharing Jesus' love with people. You can read more about how you can be a part of changing a child's future in Swaziland and their trip here: oneweekinafrica.blogspot.com.