Today, after a long day of organizing the storage room, I was resting in my room for a few minutes when I heard Meg’s voice outside. “Sarah! Isa!”
I emerged and gave her a questioning look. “What’s up?
Meg gave me one of her I-love-Africa-smiles. “Someone is asking for you outside.”
I grinned. I knew that on the dirt road in front of the orphanage I would find David and a whole collection of thirty village kids waiting to play. I also knew that there would be little ones who weren’t big enough to play with the ball, so I asked Meg if I should bring some books.
“Actually,” Meg informed me, “I think they need people to play soccer. But you have to take your shoes off.”
“I do?” I whined as she walked away.
“Village rules,” she called over her shoulder.
I grimaced. She was right; those are the rules. Not all of the village kids have shoes to wear, so shoes present an unfair and dangerous advantage, so everyone is expected to leave their shoes behind. Still, I didn’t want to. Wasn’t it enough that I was wearing my lousy fake Converses, held together with only purple duct tape and hopes? I was concerned about injuring my feet. I wear shoes all around the orphanage, and I don’t understand my crazy friends here who don’t. The grass is full of all sorts of dangers – animals, spiders, huge biting ants, dog waste, chicken bones, rat remains, sharp stones, and more. The last time we played soccer with the kids, Meg basically filleted her own foot and is still hobbling around wearing a bandage. I certainly didn’t want to end up the same way.
I found David outside with the usual group, plus a few more. The boys were involved in an intense game of soccer, but the girls – aging in range from 3 to 17 – stood quietly off the to the side, unwilling to join the wild game. Their faces brightened when they saw me and called my name. I jogged over and said hello. “Don’t you want to read today?” I asked hopefully.
“No, no!” They cried. “We want to play!”
I sighed. And then I glanced at Belinda’s dusty feet. I saw Eunice’s tattered dress, and Rosie’s swollen belly. I saw Mary’s bony wrists and Bonita’s dirty jacket. A few of them were wearing sandals. But not all of them.
I slipped my shoes and socks off and threw them to the side.
And I did – it hurt. I haven’t developed my usual summer calluses yet, and the rocks and thorny plants hurt. I was bit by an unidentifiable creature in the grass. And every moment of it was worth it because for twenty minutes – for twenty short, confusing minutes, we were the same. We were all dirty, and barefoot, and laughing.
If I want to be able to reach these children, these people, I need to join them, not separate myself from them. I need to eat their food, learn their language, play their games, wear their clothes, visit their homes, attend their churches. There are so many cultural barriers that I can’t afford to indulge any of my Western preferences.
This is their home. Not mine.
We are only here for the summer, and mission work really requires much more than three months to truly be able to minister effectively. My thoughts on short-term missions are very different than they were two years ago. But even though we are only here for a short time, I hope to still be able to make an impact in this community in any way I can – if only to show them that not all musungus are imperialistic, colonizing racists.
It will not be easy. It involves some pain, some sacrifice. It means getting my feet dirty.
But that’s okay. I have a Christ who knows a thing or two about washing dirty feet.