“What’s your interest in Africa?” my friend asked. I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer. As part of the Master of Arts in Social Justice program at Kilns College, I’m taking a course on the History of Africa Since Independence, so in telling my friend about my current classes, this question came up. It seems like a natural question, but I didn’t have a natural answer.
As I thought about it, I remembered the bucket list I made of things I wanted to do before I turned 30. I was 25, and I was afraid that I would wake up in 5 years and not be able to say anything about my life except that I had a good career. One of the things on that list was to go to Africa to do relief and development work.
I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference, something not about me, that stretched me outside of my comfort zone—but I really had no idea what I was talking about. If I’m honest, my picture of Africa was mostly genocide and HIV/AIDS, fueled largely by news reporting, celebrity involvement and the hot button issues. It was one-dimensional and incomplete.
It reminds me of a recent article on The Onion (a mock news website) about how a trip to Africa radically transformed a girl’s Facebook profile photo—not her life, but her online profile. The article deftly revealed that our motives can be shallow. Really, who doesn’t want a picture of themselves helping kids in third world countries? We look good and it feels good.
But looking good and feeling good aren’t enough. If we stop there we become triumphalistic, self-centered and arrogant in our pursuit of justice. We lose the focus of our real motivation and our true goal – it becomes about having cool pictures and elegant solutions rather than changed lives (others and our own) in pursuit of God and his kingdom as a result of his love for us.
The issues Africa and the rest of the world are facing demand vision beyond our preconceived mental pictures. At the heart of any cause are real people with real stories trapped in systems of injustices built over time. People deserve more than a catchy slogan or a tweet or a touching photograph; they deserve to be known. Awareness is the starting point, but we must go beyond that.
When we go deeper we see real faces and connect with people. We’re confronted with the complexities of a given situation and begin to glimpse the real truth of what is going on. We’re moved beyond individual causes to the roots of injustice.
On this journey we learn our need for each other; our need for community and support and our need to learn from each other. We see our inabilities and our weaknesses—both individually and collectively. We’re too weak to deal with what we experience, and our capacity to work toward any type of meaningful solution is insufficient.
In the midst of this, we have no choice but to turn to God. God opens our eyes to what he sees: We’re not perfect. We’re weak, and we can’t solve these problems on our own and, in fact, we are part of them. Then God reminds us that he never expected results and perfection from us in the first place. In The Kingdom Called Desire Rick McKinley recounts a conversation with a mentor who told him, “God didn’t call you to himself to use you, Rick. He called you to love you.” (p. 25)
God just wants to love us. He wants us to follow him. When we do that—when we pursue God for his own sake—God takes us into his heart for justice and his vision for justice can’t help but flow out of us.
God led me in a different direction than Africa—but I did everything else on my list. I still haven’t gone to Africa, even though my age 30 deadline has passed. My journey since 25 has been better than I could have imagined with any bucket list. I’ve learned about various causes and organizations, and I’ve met amazing people who are changing the world. More than all of that, God’s brought me deeper into his heart for justice and the real role people play.
It’s a long answer to my friend’s question, but I know the only reason I’m truly interested in Africa is because God is.