We walked through the tiny airport and out the doors, pushing past men in suits holding pieces of paper with names scrawled across them. We were greeted by a vast open grassland made up of rough tufts of dead brown grass and dotted here and there with acacia trees. This was Songwe, just outside of Mbeya. Suddenly, the prairie rose up and turned into dark green hills, rising up above the plains. It was a far cry from the hot, steamy, muddy city we had just been in an hour and a half before, which was in the middle of its heavy rains. We paused to take in the scene, and then hurried across the small parking lot to climb into the waiting bus that would take us into town.
Before we had climbed aboard the plane in Dar es Salaam I was filled with excitement over this new adventure that lay ahead of us, although now as I sat looking out at the passing landscape, I began to feel lonesome for all the things familiar we had left back in the city. Field after field of brown, dried, bent over corn stalks followed my gaze and was only occasionally broken up by strings of small houses built with red clay bricks and covered with corrugated tin. Once in awhile we passed by workers piling light yellow freshly husked corn into large piles, ready for the trucks to haul them away. The vehicles in front of us kicked up huge dust clouds that settled over the already rain parched ground. I began to miss the greenery of the Coast and started feeling a bit uncertain. Life in Dar had been coming at me so fast I hadn’t had time to process all the changes hovering over the horizon for our family. Now instead of sky scrapers and palm trees jutting up against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean there were large brown hills dotted here and there with a smudge of green forest. It stood out in contrast to the beautiful blue sky. The bus ascended and descended as it climbed hills and followed them down. I began to feel the sun cast its hot glow over our seats in the bus, and I became acutely aware that I was wearing a sweater, and peeled it off. I thought about Micah’s winter hat that lay in his bag and all of our friends that had told us it would be cold here, and now I couldn’t help but feel as if the hat in Micah’s bag, and my sweater, were mocking my ignorance.
After our driver pulled the bus to a stop, we got out, paid him, and walked to our room. Once the sun had passed below the horizon we began to feel the air change and we felt a strange sensation which we hadn’t felt in a very long time. My toes became cold and I wished for shoes, which I had none. Out came the sweaters, hats and stockings. For dinner, we asked the night guard, and he directed us to a small tucked away restaurant. Once we were seated we were served plates heaped with steaming hot rice, beans and meat cooked in mchuzi sauce. We drank hot chai in plastic red mugs which brought warmth to our shivering limbs. I decided that perhaps Mbeya wouldn’t be so bad after all, if all the food was as good as this. That night as I crawled under the thick blanket and settled into sleep my last thought was how strange it was that I couldn’t hear the distant call to prayer from the mosque that I had become so accustomed to hearing as it danced upon the night air and in through our windows. Now only a thick blanket of silence surrounded me and I fell asleep.
In the Morning we woke up and were surprised by how cold it was, probably made worse by the fact that the rising sun couldn’t reach into our little room. We dressed hurriedly under the blankets and once we were all ready, Neil in his coat, Rachelle in her wrap, and Micah in his hoodie and stocking cap, we all walked to breakfast. After some hot milk and coffee, eggs and toast, we headed out for church.
The service was held in a simple small rectangular structure that was covered with wooden boards, painted white but weathered with age. Once we entered and sat down I could see the bright morning sun casting its rays through the spaces between each worn board, its effect quite pleasant as it cast shafts of light across the front of the church where the leader was standing. The service encouraged me greatly. The speaker spoke carefully and with great conviction so that not only could I understand everything he was saying, I could also see his heart for his congregation and how he valued the truth being taught from the Word of God. He was teaching from Jeremiah about false prophets and how their words were nothing more than foolish lies, or stubble that would be blown away by the wind. But the words of the Lord are strong and true, unable to be broken or removed. In Jeremiah 23:29 God asks the question, “’Does not my word burn like fire?’ ‘is it not like a mighty hammer that smashes a rock to pieces?’” As my eyes read and re-read the verse my thoughts strayed to a rock wall so tall and unmoving it didn’t seem that anything could break it down. It was the wall so many people, dear to my heart both here and back home, had unconsciously built inside their hearts against the truth of the gospel. So many times I had felt so inadequate to break down the wall. Even taking a chip out of it has seemed impossible. The pastor admonished his congregation to stand firm during these end times full or false prophets and their prophecies. He gave another example of David when as a young shepherd boy, he went to Saul to tell him that he would slay the giant Goliath. Saul wanted David to wear his heavy amour, the helmet, breast plate, shield and sword. But David refused. Instead he went out armed with his faith in God. Before he slew the giant I imagine the watching army thought he was crazy to go against a foe as fearsome as Goliath so poorly equipped. Yet if they had known David’s leader, the one whose honor David went out to preserve, they would have understood. He was the God who had delivered David from the paw of the bear and from the teeth of the lion. Now, he would also deliver David from the giant Goliath. And so David went out against incredible odds, believing that his God would be enough, and he was. The pastor ended his sermon, urging us all to Simama imara katika imani, to stand firm in your faith!
As the pastor sat down and an elder stood up to give the morning announcements my thoughts strayed to the Sunday before and the events that had happened on that day. Our church and our organization here had partnered together to put on an early going away service for us. Although we knew the event was being planned they had kept many details a secret from us. On the day of the event we went to church as usual and found many of the mamas had come together to help prepare a meal after the service for everyone. After the morning class was over more and more people began showing up for the service to say goodbye to us as our time in Dar was winding down. After a short time, our family was asked to stand up and go outside of the church while everyone inside stayed seated and continued on with the service. We walked outside and were ushered into the church office, where these African clothes were lying on a desk. We put them on, and then walked back outside and around the front of the church. We walked down the middle of the aisle, awkwardly dancing to the beat of the music as we moved to the front of the church. Once we walked up to the front we were told to turn around, face the congregation and sit in three chairs which were there waiting there for us. We sat down and the service continued. From where I was sitting I could easily see all those who had come. The church was packed full of people. I began to pick out the faces of our neighbors. I was expecting some of our co-workers to be there along with the folks from our church, but I wasn’t expecting to see so many of our neighbors there. As I looked outside I saw others making there way in. Later, I learned that they had all been invited them to the service. I saw the beautiful face of Mama Elena. The woman I had spent many a lazy afternoon with, sitting on her colorfully woven mkeka talking about life here and enjoying how honest and frank she always was with me. I saw another face, a teenage girl who was always smiling. One day she was sitting at a shop by our house and she had a jump rope. I joined her and we laughed and laughed as we tried to jump rope in skirts. And another, Bibi, who had tried her best to explain the meaning of Swahili proverbs to me and share her natural plant cures. So many others were there. I knew that even though they had been invited, they by no means had felt obligated. I knew they were there because they were my friends. During the service the leadership from our organization came up and thanked the church for helping our family through the crazy transitions of getting accustomed to a new language and culture. Our co-workers gave us gifts and later we were surrounded as our brothers and sisters in Christ laid their hands on us and prayed for us, entrusting us into the hands of God. Later, a few of the church leaders stood up and gave us advice for moving forward. After, we were given a chance to stand and give words of appreciation to everyone present. Then, the service was over and everyone got up and began to mingle together in morning greetings and conversation. I walked over and began greeting my neighbors, still amazed they had come. They wore their rosaries plainly visible; others wore their head coverings and brightly colored gowns. They were all full of smiles, hugs, hand shakes and greetings. They gave us gifts, and we took a lot of pictures. My heart was bursting because I felt God had shown me a miracle of his faithfulness.
When we made the move to that community it had been a hard decision. The house wasn’t anything like what we had envisioned, tucked away in between several other houses, with no grass or trees or open space. I made the decision to move there based on some verses from 2 Chronicles. I saw the community that we were preparing to move into as an impenetrable wall, as a dark valley full of challenges. But a few days before we were to give the landlord our answer as to whether or not we would take the house God gave me 2 Chronicles 20. Through that passage he told me a few things. First that he would fight for us. Second he acknowledged that there would be a valley, but in the end the valley would end up to be a valley of blessing. Third he promised that he rewards faith. And so we went and we jumped in. On the really hot miserable days when our Swahili was terrible and our energy at its lowest God pulled us up off the tile floor and pushed us out the door to sit with whoever was nice enough to listen to our broken speech. But they listened, or at least pretended too, and they accepted us in to their community.
After church, as I got into the car and waved goodbye to our neighbors, co-workers, and friends a flood of emotion washed over me and I wondered, had our church family and community seen how much we loved them? Had they seen the love of Christ? As we passed through the church gates and headed out onto the narrow street the rain began to fall. At the same time the road became flooded with people coming from a different kind of celebration, a wedding. The bride and groom were coming our way and everyone was fighting for a chance to catch a glimpse of them. We sat comfortably in the car with the rain drops accumulating on the windshield, waiting for a way to clear through the heavy crowd. The brightly colored madiras, or gowns, which the women wore, the walls of the houses worn dark with age and the tall silhouettes of palm trees against the steel grey sky made for a vivid memory I won’t soon forget. As I sat and watched the excitement of the crowd I realized I had been in a crowd just like this one, at this exact location only two months before. I had been there peeling onions, pounding garlic, and slicing tomatoes. Later, after the bride had arrived I had swayed to the music of the drums as the bride and groom were given gifts. I watched my son, Micah sit on the mat with the rest of the little boys eating rice pilau with his hand. I spotted my husband, Neil, across the yard talking to some of the men. In that moment I caught a glimpse of the valley of blessing God had brought us through. We came to Tanzania 2 ½ years ago with no Swahili or understanding of life in this context. He put us in a location where I would have never dreamt of living. But God, in all his inconceivably infinite knowledge must have known it was what we needed. We mourned with our neighbors and friends as we experienced grief over lives taken too early. During many funerals I saw a quiet strength in the women who surrounded me, something within their beautiful dark eyes that seemed all too familiar with the pain of loss, yet still so resilient, unwilling to be taken down by pain of loss. Many times we rejoiced too with them during wedding celebrations and when babies were born. I loved watching the women dance at weddings. Their hair either braided in intricate fashion, or covered, wrapped beautifully with a scarf which matched their gowns exactly, their faces alight with joy and their skin glowing with the fragrant oil. Our brightly colored gowns swayed back and forth, back and forth as we danced to the rhythm of the music. Although I was always watching them, trying to figure out just how to dance. Now I know what it is like to have my heart be two places at once. My heart will always be with my family and friends on American soil where I was raised and became the person I am today. But now, my heart is also there in that little community tucked in behind the Azania bus stop. That tiny little dirt trek in a vast maze of twisted alleyways that make up Dar-es-Salaam. It is my valley of blessing.
Now as I found myself sitting in the simple little church building on the other side of Tanzania, hours away from that little community in Dar-es-Salaam, I thought about the challenges ahead. We are beginning to gain a better knowledge of the people group we might end up working with and the second language we possibly could end up learning. The challenges that loomed as dark silhouettes hovering in the distance are now beginning to take on form as we move closer to reality; challenges such as isolation, loneliness, and frustrations over our own inadequacy. Are we ready for the huge job ahead of us?
Will the things we have learned be enough to bring us through the fire when we use up all of our physical and mental resources? Or will they be blown away like chaff in the wind leaving us with nothing but exhaustion and frustration?
Once the service was over we greeted the pastor and made some new acquaintances. Our time in Mbeya stretched into days. We spent hours walking around the city, exploring different neighborhoods and learning the layout of the streets. We met with some dalalis (in English the closest thing might be a realtor) and were shown many houses ranging from huge sprawling structures to three simple rooms with the toilet and kitchen outside. I began to wonder if what we wanted actually existed, and if it did, how in the world would we find it being new to the area. Micah began to miss all things familiar and the cold weather was causing sore throats and sniffles. We actually started to miss the warm, humid air of Dar es Salaam. One night, while Micah was feeling homesick and Neil and I were both very tired, I closed my eyes trying to find refuge from my doubts but I found no reprieve when my thoughts sent darts of fear into my heart. Then, with strength not my own I reached out and took my Bible and it fell open to Isaiah 49:4 where Isaiah wrote, “but my work seems so useless! I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose, yet I leave it all in the Lord’s hand; I will trust God for my reward.” Then I continued reading and came across Isaiah 50: 10 where God says, “If you are walking in darkness without a ray of light, trust in the Lord and rely on your God.” When my eyes fell upon that verse my heart skipped a beat. That verse encapsulated the very feeling within me. It was as if God was shaking me by my shoulders shouting, “Don’t forget all that I have accomplished for your family! How easily you forget everything I have done for you over the last couple years. How I love it when my children rely upon me.” In that moment I experienced how the word of God is truly like a strong hammer that breaks down fear, guilt, and shame. Everything the enemy wants us to build up against God. That night the question I asked myself at church earlier that week was answered. Only time will tell if we’re ready for the task ahead, but one thing I know. It is the same thing David knew as he entered into King Saul’s royal tent to announce he was willing to fight the giant Goliath. Our enabler is God. We are the vessels through which he chooses to show His glory and strength and when we feel weak, he remains strong. His Word is like an all consuming fire, like a strong hammer that brings to nothing that which it hits. He will be glorified. So even when nothing makes sense and the future is so unknown we walk step by step, hand in hand with our Leader as he guides us along the path he has stretched out for us.