A Year After Africa

“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory…”

~ Ephesians 3:20-21 ~

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I got a notification this morning reminding me that I started “God Gazing” exactly a year ago today. On November 8, 2013, I began this blog hoping to keep friends and family updated about my trip to Liberia. One year, 80 posts, and 123 followers later, this blog has grown into more than I imagined. It has become a way to process life, think intentionally, and challenge myself.

But on the one-year anniversary of my blog, I want to think back to where I was a year ago… I was a senior in high school, falling in love with my church again, stressing about college applications, and preparing to go to Africa. The theme of the past twelve months has been God’s faithfulness. In moments of weakness and fear, He carried me on His shoulders and led me to places I couldn’t have reached on my own.

Going to Liberia was probably one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve had so far. But I came back home feeling so discouraged. When we reached JFK airport, many on the team wanted to jump right back on a plane and go back to Liberia, but I was so thankful to be back at home. I couldn’t wait to see my family and share stories. My mind was already back on hearing from the colleges I had applied to. And deep down inside, I didn’t want to go back to Africa.

In the initial weeks after returning, I faced severe depression. After nearly a year of mentally and physical preparing myself to go to Liberia, I felt purposeless. One night, I wrote these words in my journal…

I don’t know what I want. I thought I had everything figured out, and now I’m lost. The ‘good girl’ inside me wants to pack my bags, fly to Africa, and live there. Isn’t that the ultimate calling of a Christian? But what if I want to go to college, get two degrees, and work on Capital Hill? Those dreams seem stupid and shallow now. I feel guilty thinking about dorm rooms, eating yummy food, discussing politics, and loving fashion. My brain is so confused. I don’t know what to think anymore.

Analyzing it now, I think that I struggled because Liberia was not what I expected. I had expected to be confronted with poverty and pain, not my own brokenness. I had expected to work hard and minister to people, but not struggle to have a good attitude. In my naivety, I expected my trip to be like the good parts of everyones’ mission trips. I didn’t expect there to be so much spiritual warfare. Most of all, I had expected to fall in love and find my calling. I hadn’t expected to come back realizing that God wasn’t calling me to do long term mission work.

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The months after I returned were mentally draining. Four days after leaving Liberia, I was accepted into William & Mary. That moment was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life, but at the same time, I felt immense guilt and confusion realizing that I was spending money for my personal education that could be used to feed thousands of hungry children.

As soon as we returned to the States, the Christmas season was upon us. In the midst of joyous celebration, I felt overwhelming sadness each time I set foot in the mall. I could not emotionally handle shopping for Christmas gifts after witnessing children without shoes or clothing.

The unhealed remnants of my trip resulted in frequent emotional breakdowns. The feelings would wash over me at odd times, such as in the middle of the mall while shopping for a prom dress or at the local dry-cleaner’s getting a dress tailored. The remnants still come to the surface of my emotions, often caused by the prices and attitudes of our Western world.

In a way, I never felt like there was any conclusion to my trip to Africa. I was thrown back into America without the opportunity to process or heal. And sometimes it’s so hard experiencing things that no one else understands. But slowly, slowly I’ve begun healing.

I was able to use my experiences in Africa to inspire a vision for my senior dance project, “There’s No Place Like Home”. The relationships that I formed in Liberia have given me opportunities to pray in faith and learn from another culture. And I’ve realized that God has set a desire in my heart for communication and advocacy.

This semester I’m taking a freshman seminar about hip-hop in Africa. During the course, we not only explore hip-hop music but we also explore the culture and current events in Africa. The class has unearthed a lot of the emotions of my trip to Liberia. I’ve struggled with seeing the poverty and pain displayed so clearly again. At the same time, the class has been incredibly healing. I’ve had the opportunity to be an “ambassador” for Liberia and focus my learning around the country. And then one day, while working on a research paper in the library, it hit me: I’m ready to go back to Africa. The thought was so strange and unexpected that it was almost beautiful.

I don’t know when, how, or where, but I’ll go back. Africa may not be my lifetime calling, but traveling there was a dream God set in my heart at the age of three.

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Every day I still struggle with living a comfortable American life when I remember the reality of poverty. I have found comfort in talking to my professor, who has been to Africa several times. I’ve realized that although it’s not healthy, the guilt is natural. I felt so wrong feeling confused and conflicted, and I simply needed to validate my feelings. My professor said she continues to live with the heartache each day and told me that it never goes away.

Yet she also said that the biggest way to heal is by continuing to stay in contact and by doing what you can to help. Often I feel frustrated at how little I can do. Each act seems too small to make a difference in the hugeness of poverty. But in those moments I have to remember that providing refreshment for one person is worth it. More significantly, Jesus is worth it. Despite the pain and brokenness of the world, love is still a worthy cause. We love because He first loved us. Love is our purpose here.

Sometimes I wonder why I am so blessed when others experience such pain. Sometimes I wonder why God calls others to serve long term missions, while I’m going to class and taking exams. As I’ve processed, I’ve realized that God asks each person to serve Him right where they are. He has opened the doors for me to go to college, and somehow He’s going to use that. I’ve also realized that each experience is not in vain.

Something changes inside of you, when poverty becomes personal. I saw children wearing ill-fitting shoes and the same dirty clothes. I watched helpless as a toddler cried from hunger. I heard a precious girl ask me for a sip of water. But, I also felt the hugs of those same children who had nothing. I watched them care for their younger siblings with selflessness. I saw their faces light up with joy as they danced in worship.

I do not hate what I have been given. God has placed me in this country for a reason. However, I can use what I have learned in Liberia to serve others. I can choose to live on less, make sacrifices, be thankful, not complain, and love my family. And I can choose to live each day with joy and worship Jesus with abandon just as my Liberian friends.

(From “Letters from The Mission Field: Adventure in Africa”, guest post on Tirzah Mag – January 15, 2014)

So, a year after Africa, I’ve done a lot of a growing and a lot of thinking. I still have questions and doubts. I still live with the pain of the brokenness I experienced. I’m still not sure exactly where or how God wants me to serve Him in the future. But I’m okay with that. Because He knows. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since Africa, it’s that I can trust God.

– – Phebe

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