the truth about Africa and all that went horribly wrong. and beautifully right.

I’ve tried to write this story down what feels like a hundred times. Each and every time I allow myself to go back to that fated March, this feeling comes over me, gut-wrenching and humbling, it bleeds and it aches. I don’t know how to make the words right but I have to try once more, with the hope that maybe somebody like me, who failed where it counted, somebody who saw a thing so personal go so terribly wrong, might find the courage to breathe easy in the art of writing the truth. Having said that, this post is not about the writing; it’s about heartbreak and the agony of a name shamed. This story is about a mission’s trip that tore me apart from the inside out. See, mission’s trips aren’t supposed to leave you sobbing tears of hope lost. Mine did, though. And I would wager to guess that I’m not the only one.

We were just a bunch of kids. Best friends. And this hype, this up, up, up feeling of flying across the world, to save the world (or so we thought) was a milestone of our Christian school education. I suppose I knew from the day she pulled me into her office that something wasn’t right. Tone it down, Olivia. Her words hit their mark like a red hot arrow. You’re too much. How often have I heard those impossible words? In kindness perhaps they were spoken, but vulnerably, brutally, they were received. This spot, this beginning, is always where I get stuck. I have tried, painstakingly, to justify the force with which I tackled the tension. Taught to speak my mind, to challenge, to question, I worked with what I had to give and met his exasperated face with exasperation of my own. I will never stop asking, never stop wanting perfection, and never stop challenging the way things are done. I learned for two years the value of boldness in a powerful, intimidating, crushing world. I will not be crushed. I am not content to leave things as they are. These things are true of me and yet, one more thing must also be said: humility is always more forgiving. I know this truth. There is no excuse other than to say that I’ve yet to meet a person who does this flawlessly. And it is so hard to be in Africa, at seventeen, and to feel their eyes boring holes into your back, begging you to disappear.

It’s risky business, this grouping together of people, set apart for a ministry that asks everything of you and more. Africa, or travel to anywhere, is a glorious mountain to climb and difficult enough in the most perfect of circumstances. I suppose we were just not well suited to each other. None of us, really. So much so that I lost sight of all the reasons our differences didn’t matter. We wanted one thing and they another. That’s the thing. I was never alone, I was just the only one who got ripped to pieces, strung out on a line and left to dry.

It’s been long enough that I can now tell you of the way I became un-leadable. I knew it then but like a horse with blinders strapped on so tight, I charged forward lest I linger too long and be stopped for good. I was scared. Scared to be loathed so. Maybe if I were older, maybe even if I could have gone back in time to tell that terrified woman-child what I know now, then I could have found a way to be who they wanted me to be. I’m not solely the victim here. I was a perpetrator. I know that full well. I couldn’t do it and that will haunt me forever. But you know what? That’s okay. I was seventeen, for God’s sake.  I forgive myself.

He should know, though, how hard it has been to forgive him. All of them. Every time I think I’ve managed to let it go, to let him go, he comes rushing back, like fire he burns under my skin. I want to let bygones be bygones, to let forgiveness flow divine, but every single March, I am taken back to that room. Those eyes. His voice in my head telling me none of it – none of the songs, the crafts, the bubbles and joy, the kids hanging on my legs with beaming white smiles, my voice and that guitar at the front of the church that very first morning – none of it was enough. It meant nothing. To them, to him, it was nothing. March brings me back to that hallway, eyes wide, tears burning holes in the back of my throat, my heart beat over the table with words so ugly. March. March to your room, Olivia. Gasping for air. Trying to choke the words out in the back of that van. Lean on me, she said, trying to make it go away. She wiped the sweat and the tears from my face and I thank God my best friend was there to love me that day.

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I paid my dues for my part in this mess. Listened to all of them tell me how to shut up and listen. I did. I listened, as the walls closed in on me and the round table discussion throbbed on and on. I said my I’m-sorry’s and even though I knew it wasn’t my fault, I meant every word. My heart was sorry and it still is. It wouldn’t end there for still I listened to them degrade my experience, our experience, to a mere fulfillment of hours. I walked through the school halls and through my home, listened to those dear to me speak in hushed tones, watched them turn away before my eyes. Away from me. A disappointment. She said she was disappointed. Her money, their money, all to waste. When I think of these conversations carried on in secret, accusatory and certain, so certain of the facts, the ‘truth’, I ache inside. No one ever asked me. My heart hurts. The tears fall. There is no worse a feeling than the assurance that those you love and admire took a secondhand story, a shameful story, at face value. A life-time of knowing someone and not a word. It’s been three long years and still no one has asked, as if it’s some untouchable, nonexistent truth. They go on, content to believe what they’ve been told.

Have you ever been told to bury a part of yourself? Has someone ever looked you in the eyes and said, “You, you are too much. Make who you are go away.” If you cannot make yourself small, your help is unwanted. I can’t. I would if I could but I can’t. I’ve tried. But I am learning to love these parts of myself that won’t sit down because these are the parts of me that have held me up in the ugliest of times. These are the parts of me that my baby sister wrote about in my birthday card – she said loved those parts of me. Admired them, even. Being obstinate, being all fire and little gentleness, is how I protect my own, how I do what no one else will, and how I love fiercely. I won’t stop being this person and it won’t be pretty like my sister’s grace is but it will be flashing, throbbing, fight to the end like my mother. Covered in grace that is beyond me. It is not perfect. I can’t be perfect and I am learning humility and learning to be gentle and I wish I had known enough back then and God, I was only a child. How could they all not see that?

He didn’t buy it when I said how Jesus redeemed that trip but He did. Grace Himself was in every day; the hallway, the little brick room, the sweaty van with its backseat tears and He worked beauty though we all got in the way. Joy ran free. Their smiles changed my life. I hope I changed theirs too. Even as I write those words I remember the crumpled piece of paper with wishful words scrawled hurriedly on it: “We love you, don’t go. You are beautiful and you are special.” It sits in my wooden box, speaking to the faithfulness of Jesus. He said He would work through us and I know as surely as the very hairs on my head that He did.

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It was not perfect. We did not love perfectly. It was ugly and it hurt and I hate that I made such a mess and two weeks is really too short a time to get it right anyway.

It’s okay. I’m okay.

I forgive him.

 

No one wants to talk about it because it’s supposed to be up, up, up, beautiful – miraculous. But this miracle looks differently than how they think it should and I think I’m finally realizing what to do about this simple truth: move the hell on. Be set free.

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