Life in Africa

bring the rain

Alece-Ronzino-Bring-the-Rain The list of roles I played in my former life that I no longer play in this after life is staggering. Wife. Founder. Leader. Missionary. Pastor. Ministry Director. Daughter-in-law. Aunt.

And though not the largest, nor the least, of the losses I faced through my divorce, I no longer fit among certain groups of people. Like pastors' wives, or ministry leaders, or ex-pats, or even just people who only spend time with other married couples. I lost a lot of relationships. And a lot of opportunities.

It feels at times like my history has been erased.

So when my friends at A Life Overseas asked me to share with their online community, I was blown away. Shocked, actually. Though I no longer direct a nonprofit overseas, their invitation told me they still value my voice and experience in that arena. And I can't even begin to tell you what that did for my heart.

All that to say, I'm really humbled and grateful to be sharing over there today. Come join us...

Bring the Rain »»

gratitude and grief

I checked two bags at the airport, both bursting at the seams, and boarded a flight with a heart that was just as full. My soul was brimming with eager expectancy and apprehension. There were equal parts passion and fear, joy and sadness, excitement and hesitation. Like most people following God’s promptings in their lives, I faced a whole continent of unknowns.

I was moving to Africa.

I was 19.

In high school, I’d spent every summer traveling overseas on mission trips. First it was Central and South America, experiences which made my heart come alive as I discovered and embraced other cultures for the first time. But nothing compared to the way my life changed when I set foot on African soil.

The summer I turned 16, I spent two full months in rural Botswana, a landlocked country in Southern Africa. I was this city girl from Long Island who preferred to pass a gorgeous day indoors, reading or watching TV. I had never been camping, and, quite honestly, I avoided the outdoors as much as possible. But there I was, spending eight weeks living in a tent, cooking over a campfire, and dealing with unimaginable amounts of dirt and insects—and I loved it.

Basotho Home

I remember sitting on the dirt floor of a hut constructed with mud, dung, and thatch, having a conversation with a beautiful Motswana woman. The lines on her weathered face and hands told stories of a long and hard life. Her clothes were tattered, her shoes peppered with holes, and her simple home bare except for a few essentials: a pile of neatly folded blankets, a tea kettle, some metal camping mugs, a broom. She had welcomed us in warmly and apologized for not having chairs to offer us. After she served us hot tea, I watched her make her own using one of our already-used tea bags.

She joined us on the floor and, with the aid of a translator, we talked about the Bible, following Christ, and what faith means to each of us. As she spoke, her smile lit up her dark, windowless home. Her face radiated joy and hope from a source deep within her, far below the surface of her outward circumstances.

This beautiful Motswana woman’s steadfast faith challenged and inspired me.

I wanted my life to be marked with that same kind of unswerving trust. I had gone to Africa with the hope of making a difference, and yet God was using Africa to make a difference in me.

Mosotho Woman

Later that week, people from the village gathered in the open square to visit with our team. I watched a young girl approach, holding the arm of her elderly grandmother, guiding her over from a nearby hut. The woman’s body was frail and bent, and she walked slowly but deliberately straight toward me.

“Mma?” She called me with the respectful Setswana word for addressing a woman, and looked up at me with milky, cataract-veiled eyes. Through my translator she explained, “I cannot see anymore. Everything is cloudy. But I know Jesus heals. Pray for me, Mma?”

With my mustard-seed teenage faith and a firm belief in a God who heals, I placed my hands on her eyes and prayed. My heart ached for this woman and her incredible faith, and I begged God for a miracle.

The woman began crying and I wiped her tears gently as I prayed. At my “Amen,” she lifted her calloused fingers to her face and rubbed her eyes. She wiped her hands on her dust-stained green sweater and reached into her pocket for a handkerchief. She blinked repeatedly and continued rubbing her eyes, wiping away a thick, filmy substance. A smile spread wide across her face and she began speaking excitedly in Setswana.

My interpreter translated for me. “I can see! I can see!”

“Go over there,” she told me, pointing to the tin snack shop about 10 feet away. I walked over. “I can still see you. Go farther!” I continued taking steps back until I was unnervingly far from the rest of my group, about 50 yards away. The translator shouted to echo the old woman’s excited voice, “I can still see you!”

I will never forget that woman’s smile and the sight of her walking home without the guiding arm of her granddaughter. And I will never forget the growing seed of faith that burrowed deeper into my heart that day.

Jamesy

It was these sorts of experiences that captivated my heart for Africa and her people, who overflowed with joy and faith from a well than ran deep, even in a dry and desperate land.

Africa changed me far more than I ever changed her.

So I kept going back, sensing even as a shy teenager that God was calling me to live in Africa. Not because I thought I had something to offer, or even that I wanted to do something courageous, but simply because I was convinced it was where I belonged. It felt like home.

And so, while friends were buying used books for college and adjusting their class schedules, I was saying my goodbyes and boarding a 17-hour flight to South Africa. 15 years ago today, I arrived in a country that quickly became home, that captivated my heart in every possible way, that became the source of my greatest loves and deepest losses.

I haven't ever felt as sure about anything as I did that day—so long ago and yet seemingly just yesterday. Part of me hopes that I'll someday feel that same confident "knowing" again and the other part of me doubts I ever will... and is absolutely okay with that. That I had one life-changing assurance, experience, and journey is enough—it's actually more than I could have hoped for or imagined.

NY in Africa

Regardless of where I am in the world—or in life—this will always remain my Africaversary. My heart is tender, vacillating wildly between gratitude and grief, joy and sorrow.

But mostly—mostly—I am acutely aware of the once-in-a-lifetime story I've lived, born from the seed of faith planted deep in my heart one dusty summer in Botswana.

Originally posted on A Deeper Story. Read the comments there >

the best gift

I thought nothing could be more incredible than meeting the kids I sponsor through Food for the Hungry. In July, I had the incredible privilege of traveling to Ethiopia with FH to see firsthand the work they are doing there. The whole trip was amazing and insightful — truly mind-blowing to see the depth and breadth of the transformative work FH is engaged in.

And the icing on the cake was getting to meet my kidlets.

Chaltu was so shy. I think the barrage of "whiteys" intimidated her a bit — understandably.

But she warmed up when se opened the small gifts I brought her. Nothing like Lip Smackers and pink sunglasses to get a girl to open up.

Chaltu's mom was overjoyed by the visit, and continually expressed how thankful she is for the support of Food for the Hungry.

Nathinael was playing in the street when I met him. After quick, tight hugs, he led me inside his home. He showed me which bed mat was his and which was his grandma's.

Nathinael was vibrant and engaging — he has such a sweet and joyful disposition, which stood in stark contrast to the drab one-room mud hut he calls home. Our visit went by far too quickly. I could've talked with that kid for ages.

And then there was Akliku.

I had chosen to sponsor him because of his cautious smile and inquisitive eyes — and also because of his age. At 16, I figured he was typically overlooked for younger, "cuter" kids. He had already been waiting for sponsorship for almost 2 years.

Because of his education level, Akliku's English allowed us to fully engage in conversation in a way I hadn't been able to with my younger kids. He told me about his love of soccer, his favorite subject at school (math), and about the impact FH is having in his life. It was my favorite visit simply because of how easily, naturally, and comfortably we were able to interact.

Fast forward 5 months.

I got Christmas cards from each of my sponsored kids. And when I read Akliku's, my breath caught in my throat.

20130206-172322.jpg

Did you catch that? "I learned about Jesus in Bible."

My heart was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude, and I was more humbled and proud than ever to support the work of Food for the Hungry.

They gave me the best gift I could imagine by sharing Jesus with my sweet Ethiopian kidlets... And Aklilu got to hear the Good News before he aged out of sponsorship eligibility. My heart is full!

Join me in sponsoring a child >>

What's the best gift you've received lately?

{All photos by David Molnar}

commitment precedes clarity

One of the biggest myths of our generation is that we need clarity in order to commit. Before we pull the trigger, we first want answers to all our questions. We want a complete road map. We want to read the fine print before we sign our lives away. We want confident periods not uncertain question marks. We want to fully know what we're getting ourselves into. We want surety before we take a step. And until we get all that, we wait...

We blame our lack of commitment on a lack of clarity.

But it's a myth that knowing more would make it easier to say yes. It's a lie we tell ourselves so that we feel better about doing nothing.

If I knew when I boarded the plane for Africa at 19, all that awaited me there, I never would have gone. If I could've seen the roadmap of hills and deep, dark valleys, I would have stayed Stateside. If I could have imagined all the heartaches and challenges that I would have to endure in order to embrace the victories and successes, I would have cowered in the corner crying.

Details paralyze more than uncertainty does.

If we wait until we have it all spelled out, that's no longer faith-driven commitment -- that's just executing a plan. Commitment must be laced with doubt and hesitation and mystery.

Commitment, in its truest form, requires ambiguity.

Think of Abraham. "Leave your country, your family, and your father's home," God said, "for a land that I will show you."

Without even knowing where he was going or how he would get there, Abraham left. Courageous commitment lined every footstep he left in the rugged soil, stepping away from the known into the land of the unknown.

What's that thing scratching on the corner of your heart? What is that quiet nudge you continue to feel? What's the passion that keeps rising to the surface? Whatever it is... Stop waiting for all the answers, for certainty, for assurances.

Commitment precedes clarity every single time.

So pull the trigger. Say yes. Jump off the cliff. Send that email. Start the conversation. Take the step.

The courage lies in doing it afraid.

{Photo source.}

beautiful feet

"How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" As a missionary, I heard that verse often. People spoke it to me, wrote it in cards, sent it in framed pictures. It was a promise, to me, of beauty in messy places.

My feet walked the dusty dirt roads of Qwa Qwa, South Africa.

They stepped into dirt-floor homes, made of one room and filled with families of 12. Or more. My feet sat me down, cross-legged, to hold precious HIV-infected little ones, too weak to lift their heads, too numb to smile. My feet carried me to my desk (because, you see, I was {mostly} an office missionary), up the hill to my class (to teach a room filled with young beautiful feet), to the shops in my tiny town (where people knew me as that "Yankee girl").

My feet held me as our property raged with a wildfire, as a twister ripped the roof off my house, as the floods broke through the dam wall and filled the landscape. My feet held me as I held others, going through storms of their own, mostly of the invisible kind. My feet took me to Africa, and my feet took me back to the States.

And here I sit, nestled comfortably on the couch, and I wonder where the beauty has gone...

I wonder if an ex-missionary's feet are only beautiful in past tense, or if there could be some glimmer of redemptive beauty that still remains.

What do beautiful feet look like after failure, after shattered dreams, after hope dried up? What does it mean to bring good news in my everyday ordinary life when there are no babies to rock, classes to teach, people asking about Jesus?

I throw back the last sip of my now-lukewarm coffee, and the dam wall breaks...

Maybe the good news is simply a kind word, a generous smile, a lingering hug. Maybe the good news is an honest conversation about my struggles and the grace that clings to me even when I can't cling to it. Maybe the good news is offering the gift of going second, letting others know they aren't alone. Maybe the good news is found in "I don't know"s rather than fabricated answers, in "You are loved"s because it just needs to be said, in humble "I'm sorry, please forgive me"s from a sincere broken heart, in honestly grateful "Thank you"s that honor the gift and the giver. 

Maybe the good news that He sees, cares, and loves is really found in someone feeling seen, cared for, and loved... by me.

And maybe, just maybe, beautiful feet are whatever vehicle used to deliver that good news. A spoken word. A thumbed-out text. A hand-hold. An understanding tear. A joyful laugh. A handwritten letter. A blog post. A not-letting-go hug.

Perhaps this ex-missionary still brings good news, and perhaps my feet are found by Him to be beautiful still.

And maybe that verse still stands as a promise of beauty in messy places.