I can vividly recall the sensation of tears streaming down my face. I couldn’t catch my breath.
It had been a harrowing commute home from the Kenyan mental health facility where I was serving for 10 weeks in the summer of 2017 as a hospital chaplain.
Police officers had stopped me in the Nairobi city center and demanded money. I refused and threatened to go the US Embassy and report them for corruption. For a few very tense moments, I challenged their cold, unrelenting gaze with my own. The men backed off, and I, shaking, pressed into the crowd.
Seconds later, I felt hands grip me around my neck as someone attempted to steal my purse. I held tight to my bag, closed my eyes, and screamed a primal cry for help. Seconds felt like eternity. I opened my eyes. The would-be-thief had disappeared into the sea of people.
While the city bustled around me, I stood there numb. My feet were motionless, but the rest of me was trembling. I felt violated, terrified, and so incredibly alone. As I processed what had just happened, I resumed my walk home in a daze.
Far from home, I needed support.
I was just starting to make friends in Kenya, so I didn’t really have a support system yet. I needed to talk to someone who knew me. I longed for the support of my family and friends.
If this had happened to me at home, they would be there to empathize with me and reassure me that I was safe. But being so far away, would they be able to relate when they did not know the Kenyan culture or fully understand my new life and day-to-day experiences?
I reached out to them through texts and emails, and, while they were worried about my safety, they were there for me, and it helped. They kept me grounded. They validated that I had handled everything like a champion.
Modern communication channels bridged the distance.
I increased my email exchanges with people at home like my wisdom figure, Judy, a former campus minister at my college alma mater. She nourished my spirit and reminded me of the importance of my work.
When I told her about a burn patient I had grown to love in Kenya, Judy wrote to me, “I begin this day in prayer for the two-year-old you will be sitting with — a person who has faced more than anyone should have to endure. May she see comfort in those who care.…Please know that you have a friend back here who cares deeply about the work you are doing.”
When I emailed my close friend, Jane, about the struggles I faced while witnessing poverty and pain there, she said, “I will walk this path by your side even though I have little idea what horror you’ve truly experienced.”
Blogging became another way to express my emotions and share moments with those at home. As I reflected on and wrote about my day-to-day experiences, I felt gratitude for those people who support me and love me, who continually urge me to follow the deepest desires of my heart.
Thanks to the immediacy of modern communication technology, those dear to me 8,000 miles away shared in my joys and agonies through constant communication and pictures. I traveled alone, but never in isolation. Distance did not prevent my core network of people from being part of my story.
Creating a support system abroad is important, too.
I’ve been to Africa for immersion experiences three times since I graduated from college. Each opportunity allowed me to encounter humanity far from my home and grow to love the people I met.
At the mental health hospital and the burn ward in Kenya, I ministered to and got to know patients, sharing in their sorrows and joys as they struggled to heal.
Meanwhile, in Ghana I witnessed the work of the Sisters of the Holy Cross at Our Lady of Holy Cross School. The sisters’ congregation had also founded the college I attended in Indiana. The connection I felt to the students and the sisters not only straddled the globe, but nearly two centuries.
The people I met in my ministry work and those I lived with became my support system and I became theirs. Our stories became one story and our cultures were bridged by our common experience. As Henri Nouwen, my favorite theologian, said,
“The more you have loved and have allowed yourself to suffer because of your love, the more you will be able to let your heart grow wider and deeper. When your love is truly giving and receiving, those whom you love will not leave your heart even when they depart from you. They will become part of yourself and thus gradually build community within you. Those you have deeply loved become part of you.”
My advice to those participating in immersion and/or service programs overseas abroad or in the US is this: Reach back to those at home when you need grounding, but also encounter others with an eager heart. In doing so, you will find your support system broaden and your love for others deepen. It’s just what Jesus intended when He said, “Love one another.”