the bitter and the sweet: reflections on life abroad

Doug and Mike just returned from a trip to Haiti, delivering tarps and other supplies to people still living in ramshackle tent communities over four months after the earthquake. Doug’s latest blog post about processing the trip, and the mixed emotions that follow, really brought me back to the way I’ve felt after my last few trips.


It was heartbreaking.

It was…something.

Even writing about it now, almost a year after our most recent trip to Africa, it’s still difficult to describe my feelings in any meaningful way.

Yes, it was fun. We had dance parties at Juvi. We played Hangman and Bata, Bata, Kuku (Duck, Duck, Chicken). The kids were brilliant and funny, and full of smiles. I got fist bumps from Rastafarians who loved my dreads. We sang the same Swahili songs over and over around the campfire and slept under gaze of Kilimanjaro. The people were generous and friendly, the country was warm and beautiful. It was one of the most amazing months that I have ever had and I wouldn’t trade it or change it for anything.

When people want to hear about my trips, these are the stories that I share. The giant trampoline that we assembled in an empty lot in the middle of Timisoara, Romania, and all of the kids that came to check it out. It was a regular neighborhood party. Or the camp we helped to run in Ethiopia; probably the craziest week of my life, and also one of the most memorable.

But there is always the other side.

Always there, in every memory, and in the fabric of every story.

The events that I need to process, the emotions that I need to let out.  I want to tell people that this was not a vacation. These were not just happy foreign children grateful for our awesome whiteness. How our presence, our time, our gifts, all seemed so very small in the face of so deep a hurt and so great a need.

I must also give words to the experiences that have left me shaken and profoundly changed.

Yes, Romania was amazing…but do you know what encountered us on the streets?

Yeah, Ethiopia was incredible. But have you ever been to an AIDs orphanage?

More than anything, I want people to know the people that I met, to hear their stories, to understand their lives.

Because all of this good and all of this bad was all mixed in there together. You can’t separate one from the other. When we were setting up that trampoline, we were also giving granola bars to kids who may not have eaten anything else that day. I played games with kids in the same place where, just a short time before, I had held a dying infant in my arms. I taught the most amazing kids at Juvi, all the while understanding that they were in Juvi, and not being sure if I could handle knowing what really went on when the volunteers weren’t there.

These nightmares about things you saw one afternoon when you were 18 – these are things that people live with. And when I talk about how warm and generous they are, it’s not just a front and it’s certainly not shallow. It’s the generosity that comes out of having lost everything. It’s the warmth that comes from believing that every person around you is your family. It is a truer and deeper thing than I know.

Because it’s more than just “good”. It’s deeper than that. It’s truer than that. It’s GOD.

God pouring out of every smile, every hug, every song. A God who loves the poor, and cares for the widows and orphans. A God who was there in that AIDs orphanage. Who was there in that bus in Romania. A God who, I know, is big enough to cover all of this.

And yet…

Usually, when I write, I come to some sort of conclusion that relieves the tension of the questions I’m asking. I have no such conclusion today. I don’t know that I ever will.

It still hurts. It’s still sad. It’s not right.

The only conclusion I have is this: I don’t get it. I just don’t. But I do trust God. I have faith and I have hope and I believe that one day I might understand. It just may not come this side of heaven.