My first few months in Namibia… were a little crazy.
I was working under the leadership of Swakopmund Baptist Church, a wonderful, loving congregation of believers eager to see a difference made for Christ in our seaside holiday town. Swakopmund was home to three large high schools, and many youth would come from their homes in the more rural parts of northen Namibia to get their educations, coming down without parents and living in youth hostels. It was a wonderful place to be, where teens sought truth and were eager to hear about the Gospel.
A month after I arrived, 9-11 happened. I was scheduled to speak at the German high school in town the morning after the attacks, and I remember getting more attention at the assembly that morning, gathered in front of the entire student body, than I normally would have, thanks to the intrigue surrounding what had happened across the Atlantic and my unmistakable accent. Doors began opening for ministry shortly after that, and in no time at all, I was immersed in the youth culture of Swakopmund. Our church youth group was growing, and it was AWESOME.
It occured to me a few weeks later, though, that I was in over my head. I had agreed to host a party at my tiny flat, and before the party officially even started, I had over fifty teenagers crammed in. (Oh, my German and Afrikaner neighbors must have LOVED me.) More hearts to pray over, I told myself as Mandoza CDs blared from all my open windows, large pieces of cake were passed around, and the press of teenagers threatened to overwhelm my sad, hand-me-down mission board furniture.
And pray I did, especially as a particularly rough looking group of boys came in, skulking over to a corner, glaring at the rest of the crowd.
“Shaaaaaaame,” one of the girls from the youth group told me, “those boys are naaaaaauuuughty.”
Having learned a little bit of the subtext behind these words in my brief time in Swakop, I concluded that this assessment meant that these young men weren’t straight A, glee club members… which I had already gathered from the way they were distancing themselves from the rest of the group, looking very surly and bored. Most of the churched kids kept clear of them, especially the leader of the group, who scowled at me from across the room.
Here’s the thing about being the weird foreigner. You have license to say and do things most people normally wouldn’t, because — glory! — you’re weird and foreign and you likely don’t know any better. So, I took up the privilege, walked over to them, and said, “Hey! How are y’all?”
They managed a few Afrikaans pleasantries, laughing to themselves (because, hello, strange white American woman) when I introduced myself to their leader. “I’m Jenn. What’s your name?”
“La La,” he said, as his friends burst into loud laughter, and he smiled at me.
“Like the purple Teletubbie?,” I asked, smiling right back. “Do y’all get that show here? Haven’t seen anything but Sesame Street here myself.”
And that? Pretty much baffled them completely. I pointed them towards the desserts and told them to make themselves at home, praying all the while that a gang fight wasn’t going to break out before the night was over. They were just that rough looking, y’all.
Much later, as all those teenagers left my flat, I literally spent some time on my face, praying over the ones whose faces I could still see so clearly, and my mind kept going back to La La. I prayed that God would grab him, would transform him, and would so invade and capture his heart that no one would recognize him.
A few weeks later, I was hanging out just outside the building we were now meeting in for youth Bible study on Friday nights. As teens began to make their way over to me and inside to listen to the music we had blaring, I did a double take when I saw that same kid — La La — walking towards the building.
“Is there a meeting here tonight?,” he asked. “Is someone sharing?”
“Sharing?,” I asked. “Ja, man, I’ve got a few words to say about Jesus.” Then, though it made no sense to me that I would feel led to ask this, “How about you? You got anything to share about Jesus?”
And his face? Lit up. And he began to tell me, about how things were bad, really bad, about how he was bad, really bad. About how he felt as though all the bad stuff in his life was like wearing blood on his shirt, for everyone to see his guilt and shame. About how Jesus, who had no bad stuff, had taken his shirt on Himself, bore his guilt and shame by His own blood. He had heard the Gospel, and he believed. He REALLY believed and, like Jeremiah, the truth was like a fire in his bones — he could not keep silent.
I’m pretty sure my mouth was hanging wide open as he concluded. “May I share this?,” he asked.
“Uh… yeah,” I managed. “That’s better than what I’ve got.”
And share he did. To the amazement of the youth there, who had feared him before, to the amazement of us all. And after Bible study, after I had shared with the rest of the group and watched as he sat on the edge of his seat, soaking up every Scripture I gave, he volunteered to pray, clasping his hands together as a little child would, closing his eyes, and pleading, so sincerely and so passionately, “Baie dankie, Vader…” And I couldn’t understand the rest of the words, but his pleading and his exclaiming needed no translation. The guy was CHANGED, y’all.
I was told in the weeks to come that things did not go well for La La in school. His friends didn’t understand the change in him, the church kids didn’t trust him, and persecution was his norm for a while. As he became involved in an Afrikaans church, I wondered at how he was managing to hold onto his faith in the face of such trials and challenges. From time to time, I would see him around town and encourage him in his faith, encouraged to hear that God was still at work in big ways in his life.
I would most profoundly see the fruit of what God was doing during my last week in Namibia, two years later. There was a farewell party being thrown for me by some amazing youth workers I had come to know well during my term, and youth from several different churches came to say goodbye, to share Scripture, to dance, and to celebrate what God was doing in my life, as I moved on to seminary.
And there was La La, who once again asked to speak to everyone. “Jenn,” he began, “we pray for you, that God would be with you. You are our sister. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter where we are in the world, because we are one in Him, eh?” Then, he turned to the rest of the group and shared this simple statement with them — “I was a dog. But God saved me. Jesus died for me. And made me new.”
And then, he sang, in his Afrikaans heart language. A song about grace, about the love of God, about all that He had been given, all that He had to live for in Christ. And I wiped away more than a few tears, marveling over how Jesus is the same yesterday, today, forever — here, there, everywhere in the world. He is the same. He is the SAME! HE IS THE SAME!
Sometimes, we get a front row seat to what God is doing, through no doing of our own. And we are blissfully allowed to watch as God adds another brother, another sister, to our family, to the oneness we share in Christ… and to be amazed as they minister to us and spur us along in our faith journey.
Praise Him for being the same, no matter where we find ourselves, no matter who we are…