Somewhere between age 4 and age 10, I realized that I was in love with Africa. I still am. I’ve just never been there. My parents are normal Christians who live in West Texas. We don’t have any African tribal artifacts hanging on our walls. We never spoke much about how God calls people to be missionaries. So, looking back, I guess I’m surprised at how the love happened in me, how the summer before fifth grade, I felt God ask me to go there. How, the summer before ninth grade, I felt God ask me to be like Rebekah in Genesis, who left everything and everyone when she was told that God had chosen her to be the wife of Isaac, even though she had no clue who the guy was, and no idea where she was going. Over a period of saying, “No God, please don’t make me like Rebekah,” I finally agreed, hoping that at least the call to missions would be an exciting adventure (and hoping that at least if I’m supposed to be like Rebekah, I’ll get a man out of the deal at some point).
Somewhere between the ages of 14 and now, I fell in love with literature. I started writing, journaling prayers to God about all my hopelessly dramatic crushes on all my brother’s friends and my dreams of being some fabulous musician or Olympic gymnast or actress. And the midst of those ridiculous prayers, I’ve learned about what it means to write my heart and make it look like something real. I guess I became a poet.
When I was 18, I saw a piece of the world that changed me and my arrogant idea of what missions means, what poetry means. I spent 10 days among the people along the Rio Negro in the Amazon River Valley, who live in villages only reached by boat, villages only large enough to hold fifteen families. These are places where the people sleep on hammocks, where 10 children live in a room the size of my bedroom, where the people bathe in the river, drink from the river, clean their cooking pots in the river, find their food in the river. Rio Negro, “black river,” is just that: black as coffee. And that black water is their source of life.
There is really no way for me to describe how seeing the people and their river changed me. And it seems so difficult to describe them to you, their dark brown hair, their bare skin, the way they would dance to the songs we led them in. How the children, the adults would all sit outside on the ground, coloring puppets out of brown paper sacks. When we walked off the boat, into the village, the school would shut down, the town would gather to see us, their first guests in three years: our white skin, blonde hair.
Maybe I’d do better to describe the river, how it would roll, not chop, not break in like the tide—I mean roll, like the bird, flying in a curve up, then down, a moving hill. It would do that in the afternoon; the black water would rise and fall, miles wide, stretching out.
I learned my life’s most significant lesson as I walked alone from the shore of the Rio Negro into the center of the village and four children approached me. They were talking, pointing at my water bottle. I stood there trying to smile at them, trying to understand what had made me so popular. As they spoke to each other, I realized they wanted a drink. I laughed at first, shook my head no. But they wouldn’t leave so I figured I’d try being a human water fountain. I motioned for the children to line up in front of me, one at a time. Each child stepped forward as I demonstrated opening my mouth, making the sound: aaahhh. They followed my example and I squirted it in. Mothers saw their children and joined them. They stepped into the line of 15 or 20 people waiting for their one chance to get a squirt of cool, clean, American water.
I stood there, squirting water into thirsty mouths, mouths that had been drinking the black river water that they bathed in, shared with alligators, piranhas and dolphins. And I learned something. It wasn’t how talented I was or how nice it had been of me to squirt water into the mouths of some thirsty people or how to more effectively share the plan of salvation. I didn’t lead anyone to Christ and I didn’t hear God’s voice confirming a great calling in my life to the mission field or to anything in particular—but I did hear His voice. And I’ll never forget how I looked over the miles of rolling water, and asked, “Lord, am I supposed to be a missionary or something completely different?”
He taught me at that moment that His calling in my life was to love more than I speak, to offer the people He loves the things they need most, like water, like food, like touching the cashier’s hand when I hand her cash for the burrito I just bought. He taught me that His love for all of us is like that river I was on, deep and rolling. How His desire is that we just be brave enough to enter it, let Him cover us, move us. How His will isn’t hard to find, how it isn’t some fancy puzzle we have to solve. All we have to do is just stay on the river, let Him take us. Just like I slept in a hammock on the deck, while the boat moved all night, just like I’d wake up and we’d be in a village. God taught me how sometimes my job is just to sleep in the hammock, letting Him move me. Sometimes my job is to get off the boat, enter a village. Sometimes it’s to leave the village I’ve been in for a while. But always it’s the same river, deep and thick. He shows us the next part when we get to it.
I went to college planning to study ministry or missions in the school of theology and I felt pretty good about myself for that. I’ve always been the arrogant Christian, you know, the one who longed to be seen as the best “good-Christian-girl” of her youth group. But although I tried, I didn’t really want to study ministry or missions. My desire was to study literature. I struggled with whether choosing literature over missions was leaving behind my calling, was disobeying God, but choosing it kept making sense and I couldn’t get past the fact I love to write.
In making a choice to study English, I worked in other ways to make myself into the missionary. I decided I could really just be a missionary anywhere in the world. So I tried not to romanticize Africa and I became in crush with a boy who was going to be a missionary in South America. I made plans in my head that I would learn Spanish, marry him and serve happily in Chile. I tried taking Spanish and I’ve never been as bad at anything in my life. I cried to my professor for a D and he gave me one out of the goodness of his heart. Plus, the missionary boy didn’t ask me to marry him. Figures.
And I still love Africa. I still want to live there. I still want to be the missionary with the great calling and the stories and slide shows that make every church congregation cry. I’ve learned, though, I can’t make myself into the perfect example of the missionary, or create opportunities for myself to go. I fail: I will never be good at languages. I will never be good at understanding theology. And I will never be brave.
I’m still not a missionary. And my struggle is about why I feel the need to go to Africa and why I feel the need to write. How can a poet be a missionary? Especially a poet who doesn’t write very well about God-stuff—one whose best poems are about fishing and breaking up with boyfriends? And how does writing bring the Gospel to people? And why is it that every time I tell God I’m ready for Him to send me onto the mission field, it seems like He throws in a new poetry opportunity? I graduated from college last May with a degree in English. And I’ve just been working at my college, staying around for a year to pray for some direction for my life. I got an application for a missions program, sat it in front of me, stared at it and couldn’t hear God’s voice at all. Instead my desire to study poetry writing grew. I applied to study creative writing at Syracuse University. I was accepted. I’m leaving in the fall for New York (a place I’ve never been). And when I think of it, it sometimes feels scarier than going to Kenya.
Sometimes Christians ask me what I’m going to do with a master’s degree in creative writing. I say, “I guess I’ll write.” Profound. So they say, “You mean, Christian stuff?” I shrug my shoulders because I don’t know how to write “Christian stuff.” And although it would be incredible, I highly doubt I’ll ever have the gift of writing about God like David did. So I guess I just write. I don’t get what I’m doing or how the poetry and the missions will come together in my life. But I guess I’m learning how there are things I might never get. One is why God moves us the way he does. One is why God chooses to even cover us with Himself in the first place. One is why I feel His presence on me when I think of an image that makes sense in a poem.
So maybe I’ll be poet. Maybe a missionary. Maybe both at the same time, in the same way. I have to believe God’s plan is so much greater than my ability to hear him, than my ability to figure it out—because it’s about love, it is love, and it moves. So for now, I’m choosing to study in graduate school, and wait in my hammock for the next village, praying that God would use poetry to make me a missionary. I am choosing to use the desires and gifts God has given me, choosing the thing that confuses me, that feels like God smiling on me, that tells me to get in, lean back, get wet.