Just got back from Africa. Went there with my son and some of his friends on a mission to support education in the villages of Cameroon. Delivered school supplies, medical supplies, and bonus pay to over 200 teachers. Fascinating encounter; an experience that changed the lives of all who participated. Cameroon is near the equator, a place of extreme humidity. Imagine, living and working in a hot and humid place with no air conditioning. Where basics like electricity and water service are entirely unreliable.
In our country, we don’t realize how good we have it compared to the rest of the world. We take for granted the many comforts we enjoy…like being able to take a hot shower on demand, the opportunity to live in climate controlled spaces, having bathrooms with toilet seats and toilet paper. I’m pretty that our boys will never take these comforts for granted again. For them, staying at an old Motel 6 will be like staying at a 5 star luxury hotel!
Before we left, the State Department issued a travel warning for Cameroon stating that US citizens should exercise extreme caution when traveling near the border of the Central African Republic due to an increase in violence, criminal activity and military operations that sometimes cross into Cameroon. Our mission took us right into that part of the country. Were the boys afraid? If they were, they denied it and didn’t show it. The parents we left behind might be another story.
But Holy Scripture tells us, over and over, not to be afraid, especially when doing the Lord’s work. In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives instructions to his apostles as he sends them out to proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand. In this passage, Jesus tells them to remain courageous even under persecution. “Fear no one,” he says. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” “Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father.” With this assurance, the boys were able to complete their mission, unafraid.
These young men, all still teenagers, could have spent their summer at the beach, or in the swimming pool, or playing X-Box. They could have been afraid to go halfway across the world to a place they had never been, to encounter a people they did not know, to communicate in a language they do not speak.
But fear of the unknown did not hold them back. We arrived Cameroon on the Sunday we celebrate Pentecost and were welcomed in the home of the Archbishop of Yaounde. The Archbishop, in broken English, spoke to the boys about the significance of Pentecost. He said, “At Pentecost, the Spirit of God came to the disciples and gave them the power to speak in a language all could understand, even though the people there were from different cultures and spoke different languages. On this day, you are our Pentecost…the Spirit of God has come upon you and given you the power to speak in a language we understand. You are here to speak the language of love and mercy and compassion. Like the disciples at Pentecost, you speak the language of God, a language we can understand.”
The boys spent all year preparing for the trip, raising money, making travel plans, coordinating visits. The country is very poor, especially the rural areas. The people of Cameroon do not enjoy the comforts and luxuries of everyday living that we take for granted. But they have something more important. They live simple lives, but they are happy. They are a strong and courageous people. Their faith in God is inspiring and their hearts are warm and welcoming. They don't have much, but they offered us all they had.
A funny thing happened on our trip. The boys went to Africa expecting to be the light of Christ for others. And they most certainly were. But what they did not expect, is that they themselves would encounter the light of Christ in the people we were there to help. Our boys went to give, but they received even more.
And this is one of the great mysteries of the Christian life. We find that the more we give, the more we receive. Some people are givers, others are takers. The takers want more, they take more, they crave more. Yet, no matter how much they take, they are never satisfied. The givers are those who help others, especially the less fortunate. Givers find that, in giving, they often receive more than they give, bringing them true joy and real satisfaction.
This is not to say that when we “find God” life is going to be a bed of roses. Or, just because we have God in our lives, we won’t have any troubles. Having God in my life means that, even in my struggles, in my conflicts and anxieties, I know there a power that is greater than all of my troubles. Through Jesus, we are connected to the very power of God. So that, no matter how much crazy our world may get, we know that we have a safe place to go, a refuge, resting in Jesus Christ.
Sometimes we are taunted and tested. Why is there so much suffering in your life when you go to church on Sundays and pray the Rosary everyday? Where is your God? He’s right here, hanging on the cross. He gave up his life so I can live. The naysayers do not understand the meaning of the cross or the power of God to always derive something good from what is bad.
Having God in our lives and being good to others does not improve the chances of winning the lottery, or of striking it rich, no matter what those prosperity gospel preachers say to seduce people into giving them more money for their extravagant lifestyles. But, with God in our lives, He gives us courage in the midst of our struggles. His grace gives us the strength we need to get through all the ugliness of life.
The irony is that we are far more likely to encounter Jesus in periods of darkness than when things seem to be perfect. When everything is going great, we tend to forget about God, don’t need Him, what for? But in times of darkness, when we are broken, we have an urgent need for God, and we turn our thought towards to Him. Maybe we get angry with God, maybe we question whether there is a God when something bad happens. But hey, at least we are thinking about God! At least we have turned our thoughts back to Him!
In His greatness, God could have made us perfect, but in His wisdom, He chose to make us imperfect because, precisely through our brokenness, the light of Christ is able to shine through and illuminate the darkness around us. So, do not be afraid…even of the darkness. For the darker it gets, the easier it is to find the light.