We Are Together. (My #1 lesson from serving as a missionary)
My family recently concluded our time as missionaries in West Africa. Having been a part of some amazing Church work in both Senegal and Ghana (along with several other countries), we have transitioned back to the United States as we enter a new chapter of our lives and ministry.
Our time in West Africa has left us with amazing friends, wonderful memories, and some incredible, God-filled ministry experiences. We were deeply blessed by our time in West Africa.
And we learned a lot.
A couple of those lessons included:
How to make a delicious cup of Nescafe coffee.
How to eat fufu.
The art of attaya.
How NOT to run a half-marathon in blistering heat.
The power of music to build relationships.
The beauty of our multi-lingual, multi-ethnic Church family.
How to engage in evangelism beyond the boundaries of literacy or extravagant funding.
The importance of deep mentoring relationships and authentic friendships.
How to live life at a healthy (i.e. slower) pace.
Seeing firsthand how Christian missions is moving into a new chapter of history with local and indigenous leadership guiding our way forward. (For more on this thought I would recommend reading: Canoeing the Mountains and Majority World Theologies.) Our family served on a leadership team consisting of individuals from Benin, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, and the USA (our family). It is a beautiful thing to see the mission of God moving out and decentralizing from the West into the entirety of God’s creation. The effective framework of missions that Zinzendorf initiated is ending, and it is birthing a reshaped approach to God’s mission that is global in scope AND global in participation. The Kingdom of God is now reaching all people groups through all people groups.
But perhaps the most important thing I learned during our time as missionaries was this simple three word sentence:
Nous sommes ensemble.
I heard this phrase for the first time a little over 14 months ago during a conversation along a dusty side road that weaved its way between a mosque and a corner store in downtown Dakar. My family had recently moved to the country of Senegal and we were learning to navigate the hustle and bustle of life that swarmed around our apartment building. And, like any missionary or cross-cultural experience, we failed every 6 times out of 7 as we stumbled our way through learning a new culture in a new city and new country.
Lucky for us, our family was blessed with several friends who helped guide us through our cultural (and linguistic) education.
One such person was the property manager for our apartment building. He is one of those people who does whatever he can to help others without expecting anything in return. He was truly a Godsend.
During one of the first days in our new apartment, I was presented with the problem of figuring out how to go purchase a laundry soap bar for our clothes. Embracing our education system of trial and error, along with the Google Translate app on my phone, I headed to the corner store a block away from our apartment to find some laundry bars.
I failed. Terribly.
After about 10 minutes of Google Translate fails, ad lib sign language, and the best attempts of the store workers to guess what I was pantomiming, I gave up and started to walk back home. That’s when I ran into our property manager and, in the course of our conversation, explained to him my laundry-based dilemma.
And he instantly insisted on returning to the shop with me. Once there, he requested the right item within seconds and then spent several minutes teaches me how to request it in French and where to find it in the shop the next time I might need it.
As we walked back to the apartment, I thanked him profusely for helping me out with such a frustrating yet trivial issue.
“It’s no problem my brother. Nous sommes ensemble. That means: we are together.”
The concept behind this phrase is that our stories and our lives are intertwined. We do not journey through life alone. What affects you, affects me. And so your victories are my victories, and my sorrows are your sorrows. And this man’s actions were an extension of his ingrained cultural belief that we go through the highs and lows of life together. You help me. I help you. We help others. It is not out of the ordinary. It is barely a choice. It is a habit. When you see everyone as family, you help them quickly and without regard to positive or negative consequences.
If I could translate this phrase into my own Midwestern USA English, it would be:
“I’ve got your back. You’re not alone.”
And that was not the last time I heard this phrase in Senegal because, simply, it was not the last time I needed a local guide to help me navigate life. Our friends, colleagues, and local church members shared that response a countless number of times while we lived in Senegal. Reminding us that we were not on this journey alone and that they were there to help us.
Fast forward about 8 months to an early Saturday morning. I was downtown in the city of Accra, Ghana, sweating in the humidity-saturated heat that was already at full blast by 7AM. But I wasn’t looking for a bar of soap this time.
I was looking for the finish line.
I was about 11 miles into a half-marathon race which traced its way throughout the downtown sector of Accra, past historic landmarks and through morning marketplaces. And I was STRUGGLING. I had not brought any money to buy water at roadside stands in the city and the last 3 water checkpoints for the race had been out of water by the time I arrived.
I was sweaty, overheating, and dehydrated - and debating internally about how I was going to finish the race.
Then another half-marathoner caught up to me. A fellow American, this lady kindly started asking about how I was doing with the race, and was incredulous when she found out I had not been smart enough to bring any money to run with. “This isn’t one of your American races darling,” she chided me. But then she offered to buy me a drink to help get through the final 2 miles of the race.
Before I could fully accept her offer, she stopped at a roadside shop and bought her and I both prime running beverages.
While I knew I was probably making a mistake, I finished off the whole bottle in one swig and continued running for another half mile with my new friend. After another brief conversation, she picked up her pace to complete the race and I never saw her again.
But if it wasn’t for her 7 minutes of journeying with me (and some soda), I don’t know if I would have been able to finish the race. Her camaraderie and support were vital in helping me getting through one of the most difficult physical challenges I’ve ever faced.
And it’s the same in life isn’t it?
We were not made to journey through life alone. In fact, we CANNOT make it through life alone. Isolation is debilitating and hinders us from living into the true joy we all seek.
When life hits us with difficulties and challenges, if we do not have people who have our back - our reserves of resiliency and stamina are quickly depleted.
You can probably think of a few examples that prove this concept true. Here are a few that come to my mind:
When you or a loved one goes through a health crisis, and the presence and support and donated meals from others help you through the difficult time.
When you face a challenge at work and your co-workers all rally together to achieve a victory (or at least lessen the blow of a failure).
When you lose a job and family helps you make ends meet while you get on our feet.
When a relationship ends, and your best friends take you out for Taco Bell and ice cream to salute the end of a chapter of love lost.
When a relationship is on the rocks, and your church small group rally together to help you both walk towards reconciliation and health.
In our post-modern Western societies, we can too easily drift into an individualism which isolates us from others - and from a deep relationship with Jesus Christ. Our faith as Christ-followers is a personal decision yes, but our journey is one that necessitates living life with others.
I’ve heard a pastor put it this way: “You can get to hell all by yourself, but you can’t get to heaven alone.”
If you are like me, I’ve been deeply impacted by a culture that says our religion, hurts, pains, victories, joys, and passions are all about me and all 100% dependent on me.
And that is a lie.
The best things in life are enjoyed together.
The worst tragedies in life are endured together.
We celebrate together.
We mourn together.
We heal together.
My time as a missionary helped me realize how empty individualism is, and the power of real community with others. I’ve learned the beauty of being completely dependent on others and the strength that can be derived by not journeying alone.
West Africa and my family’s time as missionaries taught me a lot. It deconstructed several errors in my worldview and opened my eyes to countless blind spots.
But, I think, most of all it taught me the importance of people having your back - and you having their backs too.
Nous sommes ensemble.
We are together.
p.s. - You can read some other posts from our time as missionaries here:
p.p.s. - I absolutely love the books I’ve cited in this post, and I’ve read each one of them before I decided to use Amazon affiliate links for them. If you use the links to get one of the books (or Amazon gift cards), you’re helping contribute to the viability of this blog - thanks!
p.p.p.s. - And, in case you were wondering, I never ended up regretted drinking that Coca-Cola during my half marathon. It was delicious.