Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Memories of Nigeria, as a New Team Sets Off

In 2011, I traveled to Lagos and Benin City, Nigeria with my friend Andrew Lovedale and a team representing his nonprofit foundation Access to Success. Access to Success (A2S for short) is designed to nurture youth and children in underprivileged countries through educational, athletic and spiritual programs.

For Andrew, a Benin City native, this has always been a very personal calling. For all who have joined him and flown across the Atlantic over the last four years, not quite knowing what to expect that first time, it has become personal.

Ten days is enough to do it. The people who take care of us and treat us with such kindness and hospitality do it. The smiles and embraces of the children do it. Songs, prayers, relationships, meals, worship services, hours spent in a van rolling through the dusty bustling streets, nightly devotionals, all of this does it, uncertainty and certainty all at once, joy and heartbreak and  vulnerability and gratitude. It's a lot to process while you're within it. I'm not gonna lie: two years later, I'm still processing it all. 

 The 2013 Access to Success team leaves today. Some team members have been many times now; others are just beginning the journey. I can't wait to read their blog posts, see their photos, and hear their stories. I can't wait to see what new opportunities for growth and meaning, for reaching more children, they will discover. I know the hope this team will bring, and my thoughts and prayers and excitement go with them over thousands of miles. 

Here's an excerpt from a blog post I wrote when I returned from Nigeria:
Nigeria has been easier to talk about than to write about. I barely wrote anything while we were there, partially because we were busy and partially because I didn’t know where to begin or what to say. It took nearly the entire trip for me to begin to reconcile my human surroundings – some of the kindest, most genuine and wonderful people I’ve ever met – with my physical ones. I had never seen poverty like this, rundown and ramshackle and EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE and so many thousands of people existing within this life all at once. I was amused and confused by the strange shadows of home that appeared, shadows that I hardly feel connected to when I’m here, like the Kardashians (who?) and MTV music videos and fast food and white televangelists. I wasn’t always sure how to respond to the immense displays of hospitality and welcome, and the attention that came with my whiteness. Being the only one on the trip who had never been to a third-world country, I sometimes felt a little disconnected from the others as I stared out the van window and simply stared while everyone else chatted. All I could do, most of the time, was simply take it in.
On and off I would find myself consciously thinking: "I’m. In. AFRICA."
The people who made our time there so wonderful are such a deep blessing to the world, and I wish that everyone could know them. From Ehiz, Igie, Mike, Moses, IY, Uche, Pastor Ben, and the congregation at Gospel Ministries Church to the many children and teenagers that we encountered in the schools and sports camps, every single person gave me more love than I sometimes felt I deserved. Simply because I had come all this way to be in fellowship with them, they welcomed me and treated me as family. I cannot express what that feels like, and I think I’m still processing exactly what it should mean in my life back home. I’m still processing a lot of things.
I will never forget the images of poverty. Families of five or more, squeezed into one room to live their lives. An orphanage run by a 91-year-old woman, where children cling to your legs and burst into joyous smiles, but then you have to leave. Mud and trash and car exhaust.
I will never forget the stories. Precious, a beautiful teenage girl who loves studying math, and who held my hand on our entire walk through the neighborhood near the church. Theodore, 14-years-old, who gave me a keychain with all of the different Nigerian currency (Naira) in plastic. Hope, the beautiful little girl who tripped around the basketball courts every day when we were there and snuggled next to me with her radiant smile. Ken, a young private school principal who wants his students to be the best they can be. All of the stories that we shared as a team of Nigerians and Americans, brought together for a common purpose: to serve God and one another and to rejoice in that even when the going gets tough.
Nigeria has been easier to talk about than to write about. When I talk, my mouth can follow my mind and jump from topic to topic. I have so many thoughts and emotions wrapped up in those 10 days spent on a continent 5,000 miles away, and this piece of writing hardly captures one-fourth of them. I don’t know if I will ever be able to write eloquently about this trip, which really bothers me, because that is what I do. Words-on-paper is how I am used to seeing the world. But I had never seen this world.
Nigeria was a roller coaster and a tongue-twister and a word-scatter-er. Nigeria got me crying and scared and uncertain. Nigeria got me beaming and singing, “How Great Thou Art.” Nigeria shocked me and made me sad. Nigeria smiled at me and filled me with hope. Nigeria took me far from home, and Nigeria brought me back to spread the word.
Nigeria has been easier to talk about than to write about. So let’s talk.

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