I picked up the phone and said “Hello?”
“So what do you do if you have three breasts—three chicken breasts—and they’re all stuck together?”
Under normal circumstances, I might have quickly discerned the identity of the caller and the nature of the call, but I had been awakened mighty early this morning by yet another call—a former student who had clearly forgotten that we haven’t switched to summer time yet. The before-light wakeup hadn’t done much for my intellectual acuity, and that was messing with my ability to name the chicken-caller! She went on to explain how she’d taken a package of three chicken pieces from the freezer and couldn’t seem to separate them. I finally interrupted the rundown of her adventures with a pointed, “Uh, who are you?!”
Yesterday, Erin was in Rwanda. This afternoon, she sat in my living room with a handful of my beloved-Beloveds and told her tale of amazing discoveries. The wonders of modern travel. The closest I’ve ever come to Africa is through Nuru, a beautiful five-year old who lives in Tanzania, whom I’ve loved and supported through Compassion International. Aside from her, all I know of the continent is that it’s unbearably hot and riddled with malaria-carrying flying and crawling Icky Things. That’s a gross generalization, I know, but I’ve seen enough National Geographic specials to ascertain that the floor of a mud hut is not my optimum thriving zone!
Erin talked about her adventures with the kind of enthusiasm and wide-eyed fervor that proved the eye-opening benefits of her weeklong journey. I felt a strong vicarious attachment to some of the orphans she described, particularly a 10-month old boy who came to life with the words she used to explain him. I suspect I might have been unbearably tempted by single-parent adoption had I met the precious little guy…
When I asked Erin how others had responded to the trip, she mentioned that a couple of the BFA students might have been a little disappointed to not have been able to do something concrete to change the situations they witnessed or improve the quality of life of the people they met. It made me wonder: can life experience without concrete contribution be a valid thing? Can merely accumulating first-hand knowledge be beneficial to anyone outside of ourselves?
You know how we go through school sitting in endless irrelevant classes and asking pertinent questions like “When in this lifetime will I ever use the equation to determine the square ant-content of an inverted seknarial phlybercostic pyramid”?? The answer to that particular question is a resounding never, but that’s not always the case. The beauty of experiential knowledge, with or without practical involvement and formal contribution, is personal testimony. Because we’ve seen and lived something, we can testify to it. That goes for the good and the bad elements of our lives. Because I’ve known and loved homosexuals, I can speak of their hearts and needs. Because I’ve felt the horror of powerlessness at the hands of people who wanted to harm me, I can lend personal insights to a discussion about abuse. Because I’ve seen the devastation of missionary extremism in the lives of MKs, I can address that topic with intimate understanding. I haven’t necessarily been able to help my homosexual friends with their struggles or to save myself from harm or to prevent the scarring of religious zeal gone awry, and there are times when that impotence has caused a physical ache in me. But still… I’ve seen it–I’ve been there. And God will not let that kind of experience be wasted.
Here’s what I’m getting at: helping others isn’t always about digging a well or adopting a dozen orphans or eradicating Third World hunger. Sometimes, the best and most impactful role we can play is that of a passionate storyteller, of a galvanizing inspirer. The experiences we live don’t have to be immediately transformative in order to be valuable to others. If what we live can just give us the stories and images and marrow-deep concern it takes to be a contagious speaker of truth, a motivational bearer of reality, then those experiences are not in vain. If our own dawning awareness can be passed on to others in a dynamic way and perhaps cause them to consider the practical role they can play in coming to the rescue of those who need rescuing (whether the needy are in Manhattan’s skyscrapers or Darfur’s refugee camps), then our firsthand experiences can serve an eternal and invaluable purpose.
And that, Erin and other members of missions trips, is what I am trying to tell you with regard to feeling that your work might not have been meaningful enough. If you have returned bearing first-hand sights and sounds and feelings that you can use to light a fire in others, to somehow transfer your zeal to others, then you have been GIFTED beyond belief by your experience—because you hold within you the spark that can ignite the kind of practical change (through yourself and others) that really will touch the world in a healing and building way. How BLESSED you are to have seen and tasted and touched the reality of Rwandan life, and how responsible you now are to pass it on to all who will hear before it fades and dissipates. Erin, I’m so, so proud of your faithfulness to head to a place that was well outside your comfort zone and of your openness to feel all it had to offer. May we all learn and agree that sometimes the most powerful influence we can have is through the passionate retelling of life-altering experiences. I can’t wait to hear the next chapters of yours…