Today is September 21, 2017. It marks the last day of summer 2017. Tomorrow officially marks the first day of fall. I can’t think of anything more fitting to write about now than the summer adventure I had in Kenya, Africa seven years ago. I found myself at a missions meeting at my local church in May of 2010. I felt a tugging on my heart strings when they spoke about the Africa trip. GO, the inner voice proclaimed as clear as day. It’s kind of like the “voice” from Field of Dreams, except you don’t actually hear it audibly. You hear it in your spirit. And that day I knew beyond a shadow of doubt, by the grace of God, I would be serving the good folks of Kenya later that summer.
May, June and July were crazy months indeed. We had a team of a dozen and we spent those three months in the States getting to know each other. After all, we were going to be stuck together for two weeks in close proximity 24/7. We sent out support letters to friends and family, hosted many fundraisers, got our necessary shots (big fun that was) and we prepared our hearts and minds for the exciting journey ahead. It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. Violence and protests broke out in Kenya a couple months prior to our arrival date. The US Embassy even urged us NOT to go during the dates we had targeted. That’s crazy now that I think back on it! We had a few members step down from the trip due to the warning and political unrest. It was a decision that each of us had to make on our own accord. I forged ahead and am so thankful I did.
Late July 2010. The day we boarded our flight was actually my 27th birthday. It also marked the first time I would be leaving the good ol’ US of A. Yup, Kenya was my first trip outside the US. I’m not much of a traveler as you can see, but I appreciated the love they gave me (champagne on the house).
I’ll never forget landing after a long 24 hour flight (including layovers). I was sitting next to a Kenyan and we had been talking the final half hour of the flight. He was visiting his family from his new home, Chicago. “You’re going to love Kenya,” he said. “The people here are very friendly and we love to just talk. It’s not like how it is in America, you know. In Kenya, people can sit and talk for the whole day. Try that in America and see how far you get!” We wished one another well as we exited the plane. I remember thinking to myself if everyone in Kenya is like this then what an awesome trip it’ll be. As we waited for our Kenyan hosts to pick us up, we converted our US dollars to the Kenyan currency (shillings). Then we waited outside in the cool of the night, at around roughly 11 PM, anticipating our hosts.
It wasn’t long before a big bus pulled up and a whole bunch of friendly Kenyans jumped out eager to shake our hands and embrace us with a big ole hug. They were our hosts. We climbed aboard and each team member sat next to a Kenyan. I sat next to Jeff who reminded me of a dear old college friend back in the States. You know how you instantly bond with certain people? That was the case for me and Jeff. As we passed by the busy roads, Jeff shared with me that we were going to pass by his ex girlfriend’s house coming up soon. “I was ready to propose to her,” he reminisced. “But I kid you not, the day before, she dumped me. It burned in my heart for a long time.” And then, there it was. In the dead calm still of the night, I spotted Jeff’s ex’s house. An idea flashed excitedly through my mind. “Hey Jeff tell you what. YOU. ME. A BAG OF EGGS. THAT HOUSE. 3 AM TONIGHT.” It was met with the greatest and loudest laugh I’d ever heard. James, sitting three rows back, yelled “PARTY UP IN STEVE’S ROW!”
A pastor that my church back home partners with hosted us in his lovely home. The goal of our trip? Work with the orphans of Kenya and spread the love of Christ through Bible stories and worship over the course of the next two weeks. We unloaded our things and met our host family. The pastor, his lovely wife and three children — two high school boys and a girl about to enter high school. We took bucket showers which was a major adjustment, but it wasn’t too bad once you got used to it. The guys slept in one room while the girls slept in another.
I’ll never forget lying in bed that night alongside four other team members. Our flat single beds were on the ground next to each other in a cramped little room. It was 1 AM. Everyone was dead tired and had already crashed, but I was wide awake. And that’s when I heard it. A cacophony of various wild animals howling and hollering. Dogs barking, roosters crowing (Kenya roosters’ clocks are all messed up), cats screeching, maybe even wild coyotes. It sounded like bloody murder out there. And for the first time, it REALLY hit me… Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore! I closed my eyes and fell off into a deep sound sleep. Early the next morning, we woke up at the butt crack of dawn. One by one, we shuffled off into the restroom like zombies. We all had jet lag but there was a quiet sense of excitement in the air. We gathered at the breakfast table where the pastor spoke to us. On the agenda? Trek out to the local schools, introduce ourselves to the children, and advertise that we’d be working with them throughout the next two weeks.
The 12 of us, along with three Kenyan guides, walked to the first school. It was about two miles away from Pastor’s house. Instead of riding the bus, we wanted to take in the sights and sounds. It was a long dirt path. Along the way we saw Kenyans out and about, and everyone waved to us. I’ll never forget turning the corner and seeing all the children jumping and cheering for us on cue. They treated us like we were rock stars! They even sang a song to us in Swahili. They didn’t know us but they treated us like we were kings and queens. It was a timely reminder of how lucky I was. We introduced ourselves, advertised our program and performed musical skits for them. They watched on with great interest and clapped loudly whenever one of us spoke. It was pretty surreal. They treated us like we were movie stars!
It didn’t take long before the whole room was filled! More songs and musical skits ensued, much to the delight of the children. They were crammed in there like sardines. Yet they all seemed so joyful. It reminded me of the many things we sometimes complain about that aren’t really that big a deal.
The next school we visited was easily the most affluent of the lot. The little children were all dressed warmly and the school was the nicest looking one.
I loved the looks on their little faces as we performed our various musical skits advertising our program in the weeks to come.
The next school was much smaller. They wore lovely red uniforms, except for that one badass rebel there!
These kids stepped up one at a time to declare their future aspirations. Answers of doctors, teachers and nurses filled the air. The session ended with all of us dancing with the children. It was a great time! Then, my two team leaders were called to be at another school at the same time our 5th school visit was scheduled, so they needed a proxy. They appointed me. I was set to be the MC for the next school visit. Wow. I felt anxious and apprehensive, despite having a public speaking and theatrical background. One thing’s for sure… I will never forget that 5th school visit…
It’s been said that the Lord has a sense of humor. So of course the 5th school, the one I was responsible for MC’ing, had to be the rowdiest of the day!
From sheer chaos to a nice calm scene. We finally had room to exhale. Our day of work had concluded and it was back to Pastor’s house for dinner preparation and more planning for the following day. I took a moment to take in this scene before heading back to our team bus. To remember the madness that filled this area not five short minutes ago, and how peaceful it now was.
After heading back to Pastor’s house, we hung out in the living room. The two main facilitators were still out on business, so I led the debriefing session. It was a great, crazy day for all of us. Then some of us headed into the kitchen to help Joy, Pastor’s wife, with making the samosa. Man, I love me some samosa!
This was a typical meal during our stay. Joy is a mean cook, believe that! Although we craved American food, I can’t complain and we always got seconds!
PASTOR LEE: ENTER THE PIMP
After dinner, one of our dear Kenyan host friends, Pastor Lee, called all 12 of us over. It was a classic scene. He sat there in the middle of the living room, in this single person desk (rather random and a bit peculiar right off the bat). He briskly signaled for us to come over. We all thought he had something serious to share. Maybe something deeply spiritual. Maybe he just wanted to pump us up for tomorrow. We all waited for what seemed like forever as he just stared at each of us silently, caught in deep thought, his mouth agape. And then, the most unforgettable line came hurling out of his mouth… “How do you turn girls on?”
We all paused and looked at each other like, “Whoa, did he JUST say what I think he just said? No he dih-ent!”
“How do you turn girls on?” he asked once again, like a child asking for a cookie. In his little desk no less, which looked slightly too uncomfortable for a man of his size to be sitting in…
After the initial shock wore off, one of the girls fielded his inquiry. “We love a man with confidence. That, a sense of humor and poise is very big to us. It says a lot about the guy.”
“Pastor Lee, what do YOU think turns girls on?” one of the guys asked, playing along.
“Well, I use this…” he fumbled around in his pocket and for a second there we all kind of gave each other a funny look like what shenanigans will this be. Lee isn’t a small guy and he barely fit in the desk. His face strained as he reached deep into his pocket. It was quite comical. Finally he pulled out a pen and held it high in the air with a grin plastered from ear to ear, like a knight in shining armor upholding his mighty sword after slaying the vicious dragon.
“That’s your great trick?!” everyone asked.
“Not a trick my friends but a deadly weapon indeed when wielded in the right hands… it is the mighty pen.”
I wish I could find the words to describe the following moments justice. It’s one of those “you just had to be there” scenarios. All of us were looking like “what the hell is happening right now?!” or as the cool kids supposedly say, “Is this real life?!” What a funny, strange man! His verbiage and mannerisms are classic. Add in his Kenyan accent and it’s like Night at the Comedy Club with Lee
“You see,” he continued. “When I have this, this pen I’m holding right here, yes, this one… when I have this, when I am wielding this pen you see here, it is not merely an ordinary pen. Suddenly… it becomes… something entirely more… than just… a regular pen… you see?”
He is what you would call a grade-A classic character. He shared his legendary pickup line: “Hi m’am. Do you have one second? I’d like to show you this cool new pen I have… or perhaps I could entertain you in letting you borrow it?”
He had us rolling in stitches! The girls tried to give him a few pointers in the right direction but Lee was adamant on keeping his pen routine. He claimed it yields him great success all throughout the land of Kenya. It was hard to tell whether this was part of his shtick, whether he was dead serious, or if he was just plain crazy. I guess that’s what makes Lee so special and endearing. You never knew what he’d say but whatever it was, you could be sure of one thing. You’ll be laughing. Sometimes with him, but most often, at him. And I think, that’s the whole point
The best part though was when Lee left and we asked Pastor a burning question…
“Pastor, is Lee a pastor?”
“Lee?! Oh no. Good grief, NO.”
“Oh? We’ve been calling him Pastor Lee all night, and he never once said anything…”
“Of course not. Lee just likes having that title, and he’ll take it from anyone who gives it to him.”
We all looked at each other like “MAN! Bamboozled, by THAT fool?! F*cking Lee!”
The trip was sure to be memorable before Lee. After meeting Lee, I knew I would surely never forget these next two weeks…
BACK TO SERVING
Early the next morning we headed to a local church to work with the children there. They looked up to us as though we were rock stars. It was very humbling.
Walking through these cramped bare hallways reminded me quickly of how good I have it back home. And the small stuff I sometimes find myself bitching about? It’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.
Our Kenyan helpers then took us to the rooftop where we saw the slums stretch out before our very eyes. It was a crazy sight! Later that day we visited the slums and sat in one to speak with one of the ladies. It was maybe 10×10 with no electricity. She lives with her five children all jammed up in there. Insane. The craziest part was when I spotted a baby crawling around in the mud on the road with no parent in sight. Being there in the slums really shifts your perspective. It just reminded me not to take things for granted and not to bitch over the small stuff too much as we humans sometimes have a proclivity to do.
I’ll never forget sitting in one of those slum shacks. We were squeezed in like sardines. I was only there for 15 minutes. I can’t imagine living there. It was a good reminder that the next time I feel like complaining about little inconveniences (i.e. lack of parking spots, light just turning red, etc.) I really should think twice and be GRATEFUL instead. You see this stuff on TV but it doesn’t hit you until you walk through it in your own two shoes.
While we were taking photos, some of the kids below spotted us and played to the camera!
They were so happy to see us. We were greeted and (in some cases) mobbed everywhere we went, like we were the Second Coming. It was nuts.
It wasn’t long before our room filled up with kids. Manning this station was me, Jeff and Theresa. Our station was the Bible story telling hour. The kids were so well behaved and eager to hear us talk. We shared Acts 12:1-19 with them and acted out the story. I played Peter, Theresa played the angel and Jeff, bless that Kenyan’s good heart, played Rhoda the female servant, complete with girly voice and all. Needless to say, it was a big hit with the kids!
The story tells us that Peter was in prison. Back home his people were praying for his safe return. When he actually did, Rhoda answered the door and was so excited that she ran back to let everyone know of Peter’s miraculous return. They told her she was out of her mind. You have to love the irony…
TAKE A CHILL PILL
On the car ride home I sat in the back of the bus with one of our Kenyan friends. I love this dude. We called him E and he’s got the greatest laugh — well alright, it’s tied with Jeff. I just love how Kenyans have this fire and zest for life and laughing. So, E and I were just chilling in the back of the bus. We ended up sharing our testimonies to each other on the ride back to Pastor’s house. The topic moved to girls and E was sharing his angst (at age 20) to get a girlfriend.
“Yeah Steve, I can’t help it man. It’s been on my mind 24/7. I just want a girlfriend. Right now!”
“Man, just chill. You be alright. I tell ya, what I wouldn’t give to be 20 again. You got your whole life ahead of you… you’ll be just fine. In the meantime, trust me, take a chill pill on the ladies.”
“Good points there. I like you Steve. I like you a whole LOTS! *laughs his big laugh* Say, by chance do you have a chill pill?”
I pretended to dump a chill pill in his outstretched hand. “Need some water?” I added.
Right on cue, James, who sat one row ahead of us, offered E his water bottle without looking back. Amazing comedic timing! E and I burst out in laughter and one of the leaders up front said, “Sounds like they’re having a PARTY back there!” Good times.
SWITCHING IT UP
Later that night our team split up and slept in different places. We were working with different churches the next morning so pockets of us left to different locales that evening. It was just me, James, E and Isaiah who stayed at this other pastor’s house. It was a rainy night. This new house was much smaller and unlike the previous Pastor’s house we stayed at, this one was void of any electricity. We had to use flashlights to navigate our way around the house after dark. I really felt homesick that night. Nearly all of my team members were somewhere else and I had gotten used to the first Pastor’s house. This new place felt like we had stepped back into the Dark Ages. Before we headed off to bed, all six of us sat in the pastor’s living room area. We were cloaked predominantly in darkness outside the flickering of a few candles. Heavy rain whipped outside. It set quite the mood! I sat across from Isaiah and he started to share his testimony with all of us. I’ll never forget this. Isaiah is one of those guys who has a booming, commanding voice. He’s a big guy, too. The type that people naturally stop and listen to whenever he talks. I couldn’t see his face in the dark, but his booming voice reached out to all of us as we sat in that small dark living room.
“About three years back, I was hanging out with the wrong crowd. I was doing things I shouldn’t have done. Smoking things I shouldn’t have smoked. Taking things I shouldn’t have taken. One day my friends and I got into a fight with a rival group. Before I knew it, the silver glint of a 9mm gun blinded my eyes. Then I found my legs carrying me. I heard shots being fired off. They zipped right past my ear. I heard my friends crying out and the sickening THUD of their bodies hitting the floor. But there was nothing I could do. Nothing except run. I don’t know how I managed to escape with my life that day, except by the grace of God. At that moment, I knew God kept me alive because He still has plans for me to carry out. I gave my life over to Christ and made it my mission to work with the youth, help show them the right way from the wrong way. I know that’s the calling God has placed on my life and I’ve been happily living it out these past three years.”
Wow. Quite a powerful story. The heavy rain lashing against the windows, darkness all around us, it all enhanced the atmosphere. I could only just hear his booming voice. We’re so bombarded with visuals and technology. It was actually nice to just sit in the darkness and hear Isaiah share his story. It felt like I had stepped into a time machine as it did not feel like 2010. I no longer felt homesick after hearing his moving story. It’s amazing how a little light can brighten up even the darkest of rooms…
The very next morning proved to be damp and moist thanks to the heavy rain throughout the night. It felt surreal just standing in the middle of the road, in this country, so far away from the comforts of home. On today’s agenda: we’ll be heading over to the local church to help hand craft some items for the kids to take home with them. We made thousands of them.
EVERY TRIP NEEDS A LITTLE DRAMA…
During our two week trip we had one day off for pure sightseeing. We went to the museum, the zoo and we even did some shopping for family and friends back home. This was another crazy day because later that night during our daily share time before bed, one of the girls voiced her displeasure that we “wasted” a day where we should have been working with the kids to “make a difference.” I guess no trip is complete without a little drama and internal strife. It was dead silence in Pastor’s living room that night after she shared. After the initial shock of the raw comment wore off, we all shared our thoughts and it was actually quite the breakthrough. We were one week into our trip at that point, with one week left to go, and that night proved to be the catalyst for us bonding like a real team should. Something happened that night. And we realized we really needed to band together as a team to finish what we’d started.
Later that night, in the privacy of guys’ room, James, the male team leader and I stayed up til 3 AM talking about it. The other guys had already passed out. James, T and I just laid there on our beds talking in the dark. James and I encouraged our leader, who was under extreme duress. The next morning an amazing thing happened. Around the breakfast table we were all laughing and talking excitedly about the day ahead. Not once was a word mentioned of the previous night. It was an unspoken catalyst that drew our team closer together. After all, if you can’t be honest with the folks in your fox hole, then who the hell can you be honest with?
FINISHING OUR MISSION STRONG
Our trip ended with a bang. One of my favorite memories was our last day working with the kids. In this story telling hour we reenacted Acts 3:1-10 where Peter heals a lame beggar in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. It was awesome because we had one of the boys volunteer to be the beggar. He sat there shaking and begging. But the best part of it all? The kids began coming up to him to offer whatever they had. That was NOT in the script! It showed the abundance of compassion these kids possess and how truly big their hearts are. Gotta love the little boy there looking on with a concerned look ready to lend a helping hand. I’m not ashamed to admit that witnessing this gave me goosebumps!
Our last day in Kenya was a bittersweet day. At the end we just played with the kids, did Red Rover and danced. I felt like I was 10 years old all over again. Before we piled into the team bus, they all tried to prolong the day. Some even asked if they could come back to the States with us. I’ll never forget their joyful faces and unabashed spirits. It’s an image that’s stuck with me ever since.
The night before we left Kenya we made envelopes for each other and taped them to the wall. Here we could write little notes of appreciation to one another. I felt like a six year old kid on Christmas Eve. That night we all sat around in Pastor’s living room, our last night together, writing our appreciation notes to one another. The only rule was you couldn’t read them until you were on the airplane. One of the girls drew this up for me, because well, I developed a certain reputation on the team. One day I was playing soccer with the Kenyan kids and I scored the winning goal with a mid-air karate kick. Didn’t mean to! I saw the ball flying in the air and I instinctively leaped, karate kicking the ball into the opposing net for the victory. Everyone was cracking up and the soccer karate kick stuck. Hey, I can think of worst things!
The missions trip to Kenya back in the summer of 2010 was one of the best adventures of my lifetime, bar none. I was amazed by the sense of tight knit community the Kenyans have over there. They don’t have much technology but what they DO have is a tremendous amount of unwavering faith and love for one another. I was also insanely humbled by their hospitality and affection. They were so good to us and I like to think they taught us more than we taught them.
This picture in some ways captures the essence of Kenya to me. They love God and each other so much. Their faith is inspirational. Take this little boy for example. He’s jotting down notes about a Bible lesson and he’s taking it all in. I was blown away. If you’ve never been on a mission trip before but have always considered it, or maybe you’ve been on the fence, then I hope this story inspires you to push through. And even if you don’t have any interest to go on one, I hope this story touched you in some way. I’m a big believer of paying it forward. Acts of random kindness makes this world such a better place for all involved. Be blessed, stay blessed and bless others! Cheers.
This song was all the rage at the time of our Kenya trip. It’s stuck in my head to this day and whenever I hear it still, I can’t help but think back to my times in Kenya over seven summers ago…