Differences, I have been learning a lot about differences. Following God’s calling as a missionary, you know you are signing up for something “different.” At the same time you really only begin to realize just how different these differences are when you are smack in the middle of them, like now as we transition to ministry in a village in rural Chad, Africa.
Some of the differences are just unique. It’s normal to see camels on the road, or to be told by someone they saw elephant tracks just a little way from our house. The overall grittiness is something that can’t be explained in enough detail. Dust and dirt are everywhere. My kids, while taking a bath, turn the water from a crystal clear to a dirty brown you can’t see six inches into. We’ve gained a whole new level of comprehension of the meaning of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. By midday my feet are filthy. Dirt is crammed into all the cracks that have developed due to the heat and dryness. It’s under the nails and polished into my skin. I don’t get sandal tan lines anymore because my feet are too dirty to allow it.
Some differences are great. It is extremely quiet where we live, and the people are very warm and friendly. You can’t go for a walk without someone wanting to talk to you or say hello. People have told us they are going to hold us by the hands, arms, elbows and shoulders to make sure we are taken care of.
But one difference that is probably the hardest to get used to is just how much closer to pain and suffering we live on a daily basis. People come often for help with sicknesses ranging from ear infections to severe tooth decay and everything in between. We help with what we can and pray over them—even though it’s in a language they can’t understand.
I was struck by the pervasive confrontation with a dying, decaying world the day before we left to come to N’Djamena for our annual conference. It was about five in the afternoon and my guard’s son (they also happen to be our neighbors) came to my door. From what I could gather, he was saying that his older sister had died in a village a few kilometers away. He seemed pretty shaken, so we jumped in the car to go to the village. On the way out the gate another neighbor jumped in the car. We arrived and met my guard, who took me to the mud hut where she lived and motioned for me to come in. My first reaction when I saw her eyes staring blankly into nowhere was that she was dead, but then I noticed she was breathing shallowly and rapidly, and she was twitching her fingers.
My guard asked me if we could take her to a hospital about 40 minutes away. I agreed, and backed the Land Cruiser up as close to the house as I could amidst a crowd of family, distraught over the situation. Instead of just carrying her to the vehicle, all her possessions were brought to the car: an old mattress, pillows, some pots and pans. Then the women carried her to the car. Five or six women jumped in the back along with the woman’s husband, her neighbor, and my guard. I was learning that at a hospital in Chad, it’s family that takes care of you, not the staff.
I drove as fast as I could on the bumpy bush road in the newly darkened night with everyone in the car. It was silent. My guard, who literally laughs when telling stories about killing cobras with a stick in his hand, was clearly shaken, wiping his eyes every few minutes. He had already lost one daughter only a few weeks before we moved to the village, and now it seemed to be happening again.
The hospital was situated almost like a strip mall, the patient room doors facing the outside, with us men waiting outside on a mat. We waited about 30 to 40 minutes for the one available staff person—a midwife—to prescribe some medicine to calm her. She told us the doctor would be in tomorrow to take a look at her. They would probably keep her there a few days and see if she got better. For them this was normal—the woman might have even gotten better care than most.
I sat on the mat outside in the dark next to these new neighbors of mine, while they performed their evening prayers. I contemplated what had happened in a few short hours. It’s hard to describe how I felt. Who was I, to be put here outside a small African hospital in the middle of nowhere with a people who don’t believe in Christ? I felt small and helpless wondering who we are that the Lord should care for us? This lady could die and we were helpless to stop it.
As I sat there and looked up at the night sky, the words of Psalm 8 came to mind. The writer asks the same question—“Who are we that God should think of us?”—but he asks in a totally different light. The psalmist asks the question in response to the glory of God’s creation, not in light of the brokenness of the world, and finds that while it is amazing what God has made, it’s even more amazing that we are crowned in glory above it.
There are certainly a lot of differences between Chad and where I come from. I experience a lot of the brokenness of the world in a very different way, but I also get the joy of proclaiming to my new neighbors the difference of a life in Christ! In spite of our broken world, in Christ we are crowned with glory and honor. This is a difference that they have never experienced.
As we minister to this unreached people we pray that God will show them the brokenness they live in and help bring them into the glory of the new creation that he has given us in light of Jesus Christ.
David N. and his wife Sonja serve the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as missionaries in Chad, Africa.