*Originally Published August 6, 2008*
The singing started off soft and melodic, but slowly began to build. I looked around the concrete room in a bit of awe, unable to comprehend how this group of girls had gone from reserved and scared to now boisterously singing and dancing carelessly. Their new found courage was on display, their faith out in the open. They were free and happy, their world of pain left at the door as they allowed themselves to become lost in a sea of song.
Standing in the midst of their singing, I questioned how I had reached this place, a concrete building in the middle of the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Not exactly the destination of a typical grad student on summer break. Somehow I had felt drawn to this seemingly mysterious continent, thousand of miles from the comforts of my small town life. It was my second summer in Kenya and I already been there for two months. My original purpose for being so far from home was to work with teenage girls living alone on the streets of this city. I was following up on a program I had helped establish the previous summer and was also gathering data for my graduate thesis.
Nairobi, a city with a population of 3 million, is estimated to have over 100,000 children living on its streets. The life expectancy of these children is 25 years old. Some are orphans of the AIDS epidemic, others turned out of their homes due to poverty, and others came from the villages in hope of a better life. Although all children have it rough on the streets, the girls live in much worse conditions than the boys. In a culture based on male dominance, girls are the lowest of the low on the streets. They are often "owned" by a street boy and are given out to other boys in exchange for food, money, or drugs. R*pe is an everyday occurrence in the life of a street girl. Beatings occurred regularly. Their food is the leftover of whatever was not eaten by the males. Drug use (mainly sniffing of glue) is rampant as an escape from the harsh reality of life on the streets. Pregnancies are feared and back alley ab*rtions are common.
On that particular July day, I stood in a mass of girls who lived on the street, whose everyday existence was a battle, who didn't know if they would make it through the night to see the next morning. Yet they surrounded me, lifting their voices strong and loud to a Lord they believed would save them. It had been a long process of reaching out to them, building their trust, and attempting to show them there was indeed a future away from life on the streets. I had spent hundreds and hundreds of hours with these girls, learning their language and culture, attempting to lead them away from the only life they knew (one of survival and fear) towards a life of promise. The program I helped establish (and my mother and countless of her friends helped fund), provided them a place to live, an education, and a hope for tomorrow. Many of the girls were ready to take the plunge and to enter the program.
As they continued to sing, I felt my heart grow heavy. I had struggled all summer with the task set before me. My goal was to convince these girls that the Lord had a plan for them, that they could take charge of their lives, that they could indeed leave the streets. My message was simple: It is going to be okay because God is good. The problem was I didn't believe a word of that. I questioned every single night about God's faithfulness to these children as I snuggled down in my sleeping bag while the girls I had spent the day with studying and crafting silly little things were on the streets that night trying to survive another day. God was good to me in my comfy American life, but what about these children...this continent...that he seemingly forgot? It was a spiritual battle that I would wage the entire time (and for some time to come) I was in Kenya.
Three days before I was set to leave at the end of the summer, the missionary's wife with whom I had been working with approached me about having a luncheon to celebrate the end of our girls summer (their winter) program. Being all about hosting a party, I was more than excited. My excitement waned quite a bit when the missionary's wife told me I would have to lead one last devotional with these girls. This was to be no standard devotional, but one where I was to tell the girls that they have to get off the streets, have to turnaround a life of sin, give their lives to the Lord, and establish a life based on Him.
That was one big order, especially since I didn't believe in the message I was to deliver. However, this missionary was quite persuasive and never took "no" for an answer. I threw myself into party planning mode, attempting to create something quite special for these girls. I travelled (with local friends/escorts...and found myself a victim in an attempted mugging in the process) all over town in search of festive items, flowers, and small gifts. I sought out American food to serve (KitKat bars in Japanese...who knows how old those were) and purchased enough chai to feed a small army. Yet, I continued to put off writing down any thoughts to share at that devotional.
The night before the big party I laid in my sleeping bag, attempting to think of what to say to these girls. My bible laid open in front of me, illuminated by the soft yellow glow of my trusty lantern (electricity...and running water...were rare). I had fought all summer long with myself over what I truly believed would happen to these girls. Would they be able to turn from their only known life of living on the streets and trust in God...and man...that there was a better way? Did I believe this was even possible?
I fleshed out some main points for my devotional the next day, wrote down a few scriptures, and called it a night...a long night of tossing and turning. The next morning I arrived at the building where we would be holding the celebration. We attempted to transform the bleak yellow concrete walls and dirt floors into some magical by spreading out dozens of roses (incredibly cheap in Kenya, my friend. Incredibly cheap.) and taping up various colors of streamers. Then the girls began to arrive. Group after group poured through the front gates. The final count was over one hundred, much more than had ever attended anything all summer.
Like most good devotionals, we began with singing. The songs started off muted and quiet, but after a few rounds the girls were singing with all of their might. Song after song poured from their hearts and they soon became sweaty and fatigued from all the emotion and commotion. It then came time for me to speak. We gathered in a large circle (my favorite way to teach) and I opened with a prayer, in hopes of stalling because the words for my devotional still were not there.
And then I opened my mouth to speak...but the words were not mine. I could hear my voice, the Southern lit of my accent, yet I knew that the thoughts and directives flowing from my lips were not from any note I had prepared the night before. The Holy Spirit was speaking through me. Despite my lack of faith, despite my cowardliness, He still used me. Later that afternoon four girls were baptized. Four other girls decided to join the program, turning away from their life on the street. Today the girls program is running strong, with various outreach ministries.
Later that evening, I wrote these words in my journal:
"If I don't trust that God has this under control, then I must be prepared to live a life of brokenness. If I believe that God cannot handle something than there is no need to believe in Him at all. I don't know the reasons behind such absolute brokenness here in Africa, but I know there is a God. And he is powerful. And he never changes. I know he says he has a plan for EVERYONE...including the street children of Nairobi. If God says he has a plan, then he has a plan. It is not for me to question, it is for me to trust in. God used me to convey hope despite my lack of faith. I get to board a plane in less than 48 hours and return to a life free of fear and want. These girls will never know such freedom. However, they will get to...and some have come...to understand a much greater freedom found only in Christ. It is through this I find my peace."
God spoke to me. God spoke through me. Despite my unbelief and doubt, His hand remained steady and His focus set. Just as Moses encountered God through a bush burning with fire but was not being consumed while he was in the desert, I encountered Him while in a personal spiritual desert.