James from Liberia –
Remember the day? Eight years ago on a Tuesday in June, you reluctantly hopped into a big red cargo van, driven by some random American girl who happened to be 21 with a license – the two qualifications Passport needed to entrust her with your safe travels.
Remember the day? No air conditioning. No radio. Just the wide open road, and another random girl playing guitar and sleeping in the way back. After lunch, you fell asleep only to wake up again as the big red van swerved off and back on the highway as the girl entrusted to drive you began to fall prey to her own exhaustion.
Remember the day? You sat in the passenger seat and responded to my list of ignorant questions about a country of which I knew nothing. Your grace and patience that day became the foundation of our friendship.
I know you remember. We still love to laugh about that day. Two American girls and a Liberian guy ride in a cargo van. We had to know there would be a joke in there somewhere.
What about the next day? You stood in a pool, fully clothed, as 20 college and seminary students waited and listened to figure out what in the world you were doing. Ever our guide, you invited us into the water. You opened your arms and implored us to immerse ourselves in your world. To soak ourselves in the richness of your culture. To bathe ourselves in the country you love.
Or the next day? You sat with me when I cried. I was scared. My comfort zone was stretched beyond imagination. I wanted so badly to fit in. I was exhausted. But, I was not alone, and you reminded me of that fact.
Remember when you told us about the war? About the days you spent lying on the floor, listening to your mother sing hymns as you prayed that the bullets flying around your neighborhood wouldn’t hit you? About the first day at Rick’s Institute when you and Olu Menjay walked around the campus in grass taller than your head, asking God, “what have you gotten me into?”
Remember how you told us about the kids who now have a school to go to? Children who will grow up knowing that they are loved. Children who can read and write, because the war is over and you and Dr. Menjay said, “Here I am. Send me.” Children who know they are not alone, because you remind them every day. (Actually – you probably don’t remember that, because you were always too humble to brag on yourself.)
Remember 60 days later when we sat in Ruby again? We had just made it back to Birmingham. You sat in the passenger seat once more, perhaps praying for your life again as I sobbed uncontrollably.
The summer was over. We both had to say goodbye to the family we built. And, in a matter of days, you would be headed back to Liberia. I sobbed and sobbed, inarticulately muttering that “I couldn’t believe it was all over.”
I didn’t want to say goodbye then and I don’t want to say goodbye now.
My friend – we have shared a lot of life since that first day in June 2008.
Over the past eight years, the cat came back twice, for three years each time. For four of those years, we lived within an hour and a half of each other. We’ve eaten and cooked Liberian food together more times than I can count (though still not enough). I got to be with you for many firsts, including your first roller coaster and first American hair cut. And, somehow, you managed to be a part of every major move I’ve made.
With grace and patience, you listened as I pontificated about cultural proficiency and all the other things I “knew” so much about. You instructed me with compassion when I made inaccurate presumptions about Liberia, ministry, or the “fun” McAfee dynamics.
Even so, we shared much laughter and joy. We bonded over a common passion for ministry to marginalized people, and a deep desire for justice. We commiserated over the situations we so desperately wanted to change, but in which we felt helpless.
James – you opened my eyes to a country and culture that would become a part of my family, as my dad married a woman raised in Liberia. You embraced her and her family as quickly as you did me, and helped me connect with my bonus family in a way I never would have dreamed possible.
Our friendship reminds me every day that the world is very small, and our God is so so big.
How else is it possible that I would meet you the same week that Dad and Ruth went on their first date?
How else is it possible that the day you invited us into the pool at Wingate, Ruth was also just beginning to teach Dad about her life in Liberia?
How else is it possible that I would meet Eddie Gibson at Southside Baptist and Jesse Togbadoya at First Baptist Decatur?
I don’t believe our friendship was an accident. And I’m struggling to find the words between the tears as, once again, I’m not ready to say goodbye.
I know I’m not the only one.
James – you are blessed beyond measure with grace. Patience. Joy. Reverence. Faithfulness. And Love.
You are critical of the status quo, but fiercely loyal to the people and places you serve. You challenge with compassion and lead with care. You have an innate ability to bring people alongside you and instruct when necessary.
The first day we rode together in Ruby, our journey took us 500 miles. Since then, we’ve traveled many more miles in presence and in spirit.
Today, you will cross an ocean with a one way ticket.
And though it feels like you are leaving us behind, you and I both know that all of us who have shared this journey with you also step on that plane before you, beside you, behind you, and in every crevice of your heart. Our prayers surround you. Our blessings are poured out upon you. Our hope is your companion as you prepare for take off.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, my friend, for all you have meant to me. I am sad to see you go, but I am confident that the God who brought you here in 2008 carries you home today.
May the flight be air conditioned, the movies plentiful, and the pilot more alert than that silly 21-year-old girl you got stuck in a cargo van with many days ago.