Ten years ago, as a 22 year-old, I returned home from one month in Kenya and South Africa. That month I studied African cultures and religions, Liberation Theology, and generally got my mind blown by a Baptist theologian in Nairobi who looked like Yoda.
Dr Waruta spoke things to me that I’m still processing. He planted the seeds in my heart that have led to almost every theological shift I’ve embraced in the past ten years. The depth of his wisdom allowed me to realize that even though I felt alone in my doubts, there were real Christians in every part of the world working through the same questions I was asking.
I returned home from witnessing the depth of suffering in the slums of Nairobi, the broken destruction of the tens of thousands of street children in that same city, high on glue to keep their hunger at bay, begging me for bread, then ripping it from each other’s hands after I’d offered it. They were the victims of AIDS: the children left alone after the wicked disease had taken every adult in their lives. I had seen the terrible damage done by colonialism, become aware, for the first time, of my white privilege. And I witnessed in South Africa the darkness of racism, how Apartheid broke the future of an entire race of people, how God was using the brave to redeem all that brokenness.
So, when I returned to my apartment in Abilene, Texas and sat with my roommate/dearest friend at our kitchen table, unwrapping my burrito from Taco Bueno, Molly looked into my eyes and said: “You seem sadder, older.”
It was true and I knew there was no going back. In Nairobi at a stoplight a woman my age had tapped on the window. When I met her gaze, her eyes fixed on mine. She had a baby, maybe nine or ten months old strapped to her back. She held her hand out to me. Her baby held his out as well. Ten months old. He didn’t speak but he knew how to beg.
And isn’t that the brokenness of this world? If a mother is hungry, so is her child. If a mother is dying of AIDS, her child is losing his life as well: whether that’s the literal contraction of the same disease or the loss of parents, the loss of a home, of food, of caretakers, of order, of safety.
Maybe that’s what changed me the most deeply 10 years ago, something I now only understand as a mother. There was nothing safe for those children who tore the bread from my hand. No cozy blankets to hold when afraid. No place to lay their heads. No protection from the weather. No protection from the dangers of the world. Parents protect. Mama kangaroos stick their babies in their pouches. When a disease rips the adults from the children, their vulnerability is too difficult to watch.
So you cry and you pray and you say, “Lord, let me never forget.” And then you return to your home country and meet a boy and marry him and live in a house and have babies and every once in a while something in your 8 month old’s face reminds you of that baby holding out his hand, begging you for something you both can barely understand. And that baby would be ten years old now. You wonder, is his mother alive? Is he? Is he alone or in a pack of hungry boys, sniffing glue in old water bottles?
And you stare at your baby and he smiles. And you remember that it’s Advent and you’re waiting for Jesus. That same Jesus whose mother strapped him at 10 months onto her back and traveled, hungry and fearful, with her husband to Egypt. Travelers and beggars. Jesus with his palm open.
Today is World AIDS Day.
AIDS is a heartless thief. And children are its victims. And nowhere is there more suffering than in Sub-Saharan Africa, where two-thirds of the 33 million people in the world infected with HIV reside*. We can all read this and sigh and say, “Isn’t it a shame?” Or we can do something. Today.
Will you join me and “Turn it Red”? Wear red today in support of the people, the mothers, the children of the Nairobi streets where I walked? Will you join Blood:Water Mission in the work they are doing to educate, treat, and support those who suffer from the disease? Will you click on the links to read Kabale’s, Peter’s, and Leah’s stories? And will you pray and give during this season when we eagerly await the coming of our Savior, the one who came to rescue the world, the helpless baby strapped to his mama’s back…
*Information taken from blood:water mission’s website.