Recently I had the privilege of going on a three week mission trip to the countries of Madagascar and Zambia, in Africa. As I have reflected back on my experiences there, I have come up with two main themes: beauty and gratitude. Beauty, because during this whole trip I was struck by the landscapes, the people, and the simple, God-glorifying way of life of these poor people, who seem to hold so much joy in their hearts. And Gratitude, because it is the key to happiness, and the poor people there seemed to have it in spades, while I, like so many people in America, struggle with comparison and entitlement.
During one of our last days on this trip, in an empty chapel at the Missionaries of Charity House in Lusaka, Zambia, we discussed as a group what we hoped would change for each of us when we returned to the USA. Many of us mentioned gratitude, being thankful for the many things we often take for granted, but which many of the people of Africa lacked; others mentioned developing a better prayer life, while others talked about trying to simplify their lives and find more opportunities of service in their local communities. Fr. Lombardi, the leader and spiritual guide for this trip, like to refer to the trip as a pilgrimage. He emphasized that the end this trip was not meant to be the end of our pilgrimage, but we were to continue the pilgrimage in our local communities, by taking time to recognize the good and the beautiful, and also finding time to serve those in need. Pam, the co-leader and planner for the trip, like to emphasize the joy of the impoverished people. We were to take that joy into our hearts, and bring it back with us to America.
There are so many stories to tell, but I’ll stick to one here. Many of those in our group like to tell this story of what happened to us at the very end of our trip. We were walking back to the Emmaus Spiritual Center (a Seminary where we stayed at while in Lusaka) after a great evening meal (generously paid for by Fr. Lombardi and Pam) celebrating the end of an amazing journey. It was our last night in Zambia, because the next morning we would be getting on a flight to Johannesburg, and then to the USA. It was pretty dark outside, and we were walking on the left side of a semi-busy road. We were trying to make the best of it, talking and joking around, using the flashlights on our Ipods to avoid tripping over rocks, when a new-looking pick-up truck pulled over in front of us and well-dressed middle-aged African woman stepped out to offer us a ride. She introduced herself as ‘Beauty.’ She said that she could tell we weren’t from around here and that the city of Lusaka could be a dangerous place; she wanted to make sure we got back safely. At first we were hesitant, but her warm smile and cheerful disposition made us change our minds soon and we all climbed into the truck; some of us in the front while the rest of us sat in the back. The chilly air rushed by us and the African night sky shown down on us. Beauty told us how she had been to America before, and that her husband had died of malaria some number of years ago. When we reached our destination (about 1-2 miles away), we got out and offered up a prayer of thankfulness and blessing for her. Then we sang her the song Amazing Grace (a routine we had developed over the course of the trip), which she chimed in on and even continued by herself with the second or third verse when we had finished. Before leaving she gave each of us a hug and said she felt like she had gained a family in one night. We marveled at the encounter later. After talking about it with some people a few days after returning, Fr. Jack and Pam sent an email to the group discussing this experience. They felt like Jesus had joined us that night, in this woman named Beauty, and on the way to the Emmaus Spiritual Center, nonetheless. It was a beautiful ending to a trip where we had encountered God’s beauty on so many different occasions, and with so many wonderful people.