Okay. Seriously. In a few days, I’m leaving for my first missions trip. Did I start small? Of course, not *insert eyeroll. * First one in my life. Africa, Kenya, Nairobi. Essentially four days of travel for a seven-day trip. Every facet of my spirit is jumping up and down in exuberant cheers and anticipation. This is an opportunity I’ve only dreamed of, and that dream has been growing since the first grade. Granted, I’m terrified and full of trepidation as well, but I’ll get back to that.
First off, I need you to understand a snapshot of who I am. I am by no means Mother Teresa, although I long to have an ounce of her spirit. I fail often. I miss church, I cuss, I drink alcohol, I can be a little bit of a hot head at times…thankfully my husband has affectionately labeled that “Scottish Fire.” Ultimately though, I strive to be a good person. I strive to be a better person this year than I was last year. I do seek to understand others, yet I usually have an internal hissy fit prior to a calm loving response. I attempt to be kind and give where I can, to be a friend to all whom I encounter. I fall short often. Prime example, I need my mouth washed out with soap often for the comments I make while driving.
In short, I like to believe I have a good and kind heart. I’m relatively passive and do not like confrontation. My friends tease me incessantly because I’m not very good at coming across unapproachable and it’s gotten me into some predicaments. By default, especially as a child, I was one hundred percent driven by the motivation to please people.
Taking all of this into account, it might come as a shock to find out that in the first grade I landed in some seriously hot water for being the class bully. There’s a story though, and I still feel it deep in my heart every time I, or my mother, decides to share my “dark” past. The jist of the story is that my best friend at the time Madeline and I were in mega trouble for ‘stealing’ other kids’ lunch money. We decided to form a club. Innocent enough, but if our friends wanted to be a part of said club, they had to pay dues. They used their lunch money, then went home hungry, and eventually it became an issue. Parents started raising concern to our teacher and our parents were called in for a parent teacher conference. I’ll be honest with you, I vaguely recall any of the ordeal that resulted from our club. I honestly don’t remember getting in trouble. Although, I’m positive I did.
What I do remember though, is the moment that started it all weeks prior. I was at the gas station just a few short blocks from my home with my mother. There was a big plastic ‘jar’ on the counter, probably a washed-out cheese puff container. On the front of the jar, there was a picture of a small, emaciated African child with haunting eyes and nothing more than a scrap of fabric covering their personal area. The jar was to collect money to feed this kid who was probably about my age and world away.
No one had to tell me that I had more than this child. No one had to tell me to feel a moral responsibility to want to care for this child. My soul longed to save them. That longing has never left, I feel it just as strongly today as I did thirty-one years ago. I was embarrassed to express it though.
This happened at a time in the U.S. when there was a lot in the news about famine in Ethiopia. I remember the song, “We Are The World,” drew an A-List class of musicians to raise money for the starving people in Africa. A few years later I began hearing about the AIDs epidemic spreading through Africa and my heart continued to ache for people in a foreign land whom I’d never met. A dream was born and planted in my heart from then on. The ‘dues’ we collected for our club were for me to take to the gas station to contribute. I needed to do something. And in my six or seven-year-old naivety, I just knew that the gas station attendant would move heaven and earth to make sure that little child with the haunting eyes would receive every cent I contributed. I also knew I didn’t have enough of my own to help, so I recruited what resources were available!
I’m finally getting ready to pursue the dream of playing an active helping role, so many years later. We’ll be visiting a ministry focused on education, empowerment, restoration, and redemption. I was told years ago as I was pursing my degree that education is one of the few things in life that no one can take from you. Now I have the opportunity to connect with a group who instills that same value and provides guidance in life skills to equip a new generation. An organization who provides a way to help save and improve lives through through education that these families may not otherwise receive.
Now, at this point my first grade story has become nothing more than an affectionate joke within my family. ‘Remember that time naive little Jennifer stole kids’ lunch money?’ But the reality is, I don’t need to defend that little girl anymore. She is a vibrant thread woven into the tapestry of who I am today. A desire was ignited in her heart, to do more, to be more. To use her position in life to pour love, healing, and survival into someone else. I love that kid. I’m tremendously proud of her and glad she’s still seeking to make a difference.