It’s Christmas time, and instead of migrating to a colder clime or mastering the ski slopes of Aspen or the Alps, my family is driving 12 hours back on a crowded two lane road to our home. Home is a town that doesn’t see rain half the year or daily highs under 90 degrees. Home is a city where no one speaks our native language very well. Home is a medium sized town in the heart of Africa. Dust collects in every crack, crevice, and makes itself known on every surface. It’s so dusty at times your skin starts to collect a film of it like when the sand sticks to you at a beach. It just won’t wash off!
We’ve found Home to be difficult, but also it is what it is, and after 2.5 years of making it our base camp it’s just that to us now—-our place to rest, work and live. With a place becoming home, I’ve learned something has to happen for it to be that. One of the most important things is going through some tough life experiences. You get through it, then come out thankful, and then—and only then—does the place where you learned to endure attain this magical quality. It feels right & good, and it becomes home.
In order to get to that point of calling Home “home”, I went through two of the most challenging things I’ve ever faced in my life (even over childbirth!). For today, I’ll share the first.
August 2013, just a little over a year ago I went on a hike. It was a climb many foreigners had done before, though the edges are laced with cactii, the path is decent and easy to follow. Along the path, it’s common as a foreigner, to collect a posse of begging children. Most of these children aren’t really in need. They have a roof over their head, families, and food on the table, though I wouldn’t say their life is comfortable or plush. Though they are asking for money, usually there isn’t an expectation that you would give.
Up the mountain I went with my American friend visiting from India. We only brought a water bottle, my phone, and I had a 50 birr bill (2 US Dollars) in my skirt that would cover our bajaj (auto-rickshaw) ride home. The afternoon was beautiful as far as we could see and as we hiked past mud huts, old rock stone formations, we quickly neared the top where the mountain had a flat surface like a football field you could see across.
The call to prayer, coming from speakers below in the town, “Allah Ak bahr…” echoed in my ears and more faintly in my mind. The crowd around us went from a crowd of girls and boys ages 2-10 years old, to a predominantly male crowd ages 10-15. The latter looking just as small, naive and childish as the former. So I thought nothing of it. After inhaling the sights from the look-out point, we smiled at the kids around us, and started to turn around to make our way home. They urged us to walk further. “No, no, this way, there is a fort you must see. It’s not far.” They spoke in broken English, since their native tongue was a language I didn’t know or understand.
We agreed, since it seemed just about another 100 yards ahead. As we made it to the fort, my friend grabbed my arm, and whispered in my ear “they keep trying to touch me inappropriately.” As I turned around I noticed every once in a while, like a game, they would try to slip a feel. I got angry and told them to stop. As soon as I started feeling uncomfortable I really took my surroundings seriously. Here’s what I gathered: Friday, call to prayer, no adults within ear shot (as they’ve all made their way to the mosque), not a single girl stood on the mountain top except us. What was a small group of boys was now a larger group scattered all around and higher up on the peaks.
Another boy asked me for my phone, I refused and he began to try to take it while another boy attempted to take off my clothes. I took a step back screaming for them to stop, and realized they really didn’t want my phone in the first place. I scrambled to find my 50 birr bill in my long dress’ pocket, only to find it had probably already been taken. What would the locals do in my situation, I thought, and I picked up a rock to let them know I was serious. As soon as they saw I had picked up a rock, the gang of boys above us hurled rocks. We began to run, without any hope of escaping. They had us in their arms, unable to move, and break free.
I looked past the mountain we were on, and into the distance a group of dark storm clouds were forming above the valley between the peaks. My heart sunk. It felt like my spirits of hope, love, courage, and grace—and the expectation of God delivering—-sunk like an anchor from a boat to the sea causing my body to lie paralyzed unable to move. I’m going to die. Or I’m going to get raped. I don’t know which I would prefer. And all I could think about was how I wished so badly I was back home holding my fourth month old son in my arms, with my 2 year old bouncing at my feet. Anywhere but here. I looked back, and saw through the grabbing and struggle, my friend and I were separated.
I was screaming in the other foreign language I knew (that they probably knew some of), “HELP ME!” They mocked me and began repeating all my attempts to get them to stop.
What felt like years, was minutes, and finally my friend hit a boy hard enough and broke free, startling my captors, enough for me to escape their grip. She screamed, “RUN!” We ran as fast as we could, not caring that we were getting marred by cactus needles. We struggled down the mountain at times scraping our hands on the rocks to out pace the teenage boys following closely behind.
Screaming, crying, and making a spectacle so that someone would hear us, we made our way into a hut in hopes to stop the pursuit behind us. It didn’t. The women in the huts had less control of their village children, than we did.
Finally after making our way down the mountain, not sure if we were in the clear, we found an adult man, and I insisted in tears he take us down the mountain. He repeated “stop crying, no, no, you don’t need me.” We insisted, as I held his arm tightly and my friends hand, we finally made it to the street at the bottom of the cliff and found an auto rickashaw to take us home.
I’ve never felt more relief and more sadness as I did riding in that auto rickashaw home. I was startled by what had happened, in pure disbelief that the quaint little town I was raising my children in, could harbor the most disgusting evil, cruelty, and filth as I’d ever seen.
Where was God? Never had I felt so strongly I might die. Why would a good, gracious, loving God, put me through that? Yes, He delivered me (and now a year later, I see how apparent His hand was), but in that moment I felt so strongly, like never before, my God has abandoned me?
Have you ever felt like you were about to die, literally?
Have you ever felt like God had completely abandoned you? As if you were in the depths of Hell itself, with evil around you?
Processing my experience, I was quickly led to Psalm 23:
“though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.”
Never had I known what this scripture truly meant, until that day. It was the darkest moment, and even as I was in it I saw an actual valley with dark clouds above it. My heart and environment felt the same. But, here’s the most important part—-but, He was with me. I could fear no evil, for He was there. He didn’t abandon me; He provided a miracle, and we did escape. Though our bodies were touched in ways deplorable, our hearts, minds, and spirits were unscathed. And hope came to us, and we made it out alive and better for it.
Jesus didn’t promise the men who followed him that they wouldn’t experience tragedy, pain or that they would be untouched by evil. He merely, but so powerfully said “I will be with you always.” And this is the hope the Psalmist had, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me.”
When I think of my awful experience that day, and the city it happened in, I’m okay with calling it home. It is where I’ve encountered the worst, and survived. It’s where two of my children (and probably my newest daughter will) have learned to take their first steps, say their first words. It’s where I’ve welcomed three anniversaries and celebrated three of my birthdays. It’s where my son turned 1, 2, and 3, and where I learned to speak a foreign language I thought I’d never learn.
Home is where Jesus has felt so near, as I often have been curled up on the bathroom floor from giardia, food poisoning or morning sickness. Home is where I knew what true community meant, and what a grace it was to see it. It’s where my husband cradled our kids in the middle of the night, when I was too tired to hold them. It’s where I’ve felt extreme joy and extreme sadness.
Home is where Jesus is, quite frankly, and He’s everywhere. So I’m always (even in the midst of despair) in a good place, because He’s there. I’m Home.