Plastic Bracelets and Pure Religion

I’m greeted today by a newsfeed full of status updates centering around the Oscars and it seems strange to believe that exactly a year ago, I was walking down Hollywood Blvd with Meghan after church at RealityLA and looking at the infamous Red Carpet. I am pleased to hear that Anne Hathaway won her first Oscar for Les Miserables. I’ve been reading the book and I also sing “I Dreamed a Dream” at least once a day as I anticipate seeing the glorious remake of one of my favorite films ever.

 I still maintain that I am not made for Hollywood, but I also maintain there’s no place like the city of Angels; a city full of baristas who are actually screenwriters, actors and directors. I’ve never been in a place where I felt like people tried harder to reach their dreams, despite the fact that many are constantly met with rejection and disappointment.

I certainly didn’t think I’d stay in LA after I graduated, but neither did I see myself trading in red carpet events for red dirt roads.

Life is odd like that sometimes.

—————– 

I haven’t updated much about the team in general, being that my blog is usually my personal feelings (read: confusions) about things I’ve encountered thus far and rants about my babies, but I wanted to share that the team is actually out and about and that God is clearly at work.

Hillary, Joseph and Jeremiah have been riding our bikes about an hour away to a village called Kilida, meeting the locals and holding bible studies on Wednesday evenings. Pam, Gabriel and Albert (our new translator) walk to Igalukilo (which is nearly part of Kansansa) doing similarly and Tori and I take the piki piki (motorcycle) about an hour into the valley, to a village called Ziwasungu, every Wednesday evening. Recently, we’ve decided on going Fridays as well with our entire team because there are so many people excited about meeting together and learning more about God together.

Ziwasungu means the girl by the lake, in old tribe language, and the town is named so after a young girl who, legends say, was devoured by demons. If that gives you any hint about anything about the way the valley is. Some of the members of our church in Kansansa live there, (there’s a small population of Rungwa), but it’s mostly Sukuma which excites me to no end.

I don’t (yet!) have pictures to share of the Sukuma people, but it’s seriously a life goal of mine to get some this week. They’re the most traditional looking of the four tribes (the others being Rungwa, Pimbwe and Fipa) that live in the valley. The women wear dresses with ruffled sleeves and unique to their style is the wearing of several brightly colored beads of red, deep blue and yellow around their necks. The men are by far my favorite to see, though. Starting as adolescents, they adopt huge galoshes, sports jerseys, traditional kitenge wraps, beanies, often earrings and necklaces and dozens of plastic bracelets, worn around the wrists, upper arms, shins, thighs, etc. These bracelets are bought from their witchdoctors and are never removed, as protection for their massive herds of cows. They live mostly on the outskirts of Kansansa and neighboring villages, due to needing more land for their herds. Sukuma are the wealthiest of the tribes, and the largest in stature, probably because they actually get enough protein with all the beef they eat. Often, their children don’t go to school, staying home and tend the cows instead; the other tribes, especially the Rungwa, belittle them sometimes because they are considered simple and uneducated. They’re so kind and so hospitable when we visit, though, and it warms my heart. I butcher the Sukuma tribal language that is throaty and jumbled, but they are pleased to see me try. I hope very much to become good friends with them and share who Jesus is with them. Pray with me that God will show Himself as He is: larger than any simple piece of plastic handed out by the witchdoctor.

At any rate, we’ve been meeting there in Ziwasungu Wednesdays nights and teaching, doing praise and worship and playing with the kids outside of a church members’ home…right next to the bar, where incoherent mzees (elders, usually men) shout things to us. The large tree in the center of the town near us is where the Sukuma men lurks about, leaning on each others shoulders or holding hands (very typical behavior here) listening to the strange wazungu teaching about God.

We went back on Friday to venture around more, meet neighbors and to play a soccer game with the young men in village. As Tori and Gabe played, I, with the help of Albert told the children the story of David and Goliath and about how God loves us so much that He came to earth to be one of us so we could be friends with Him. Sitting in the dirt, crowded by little ones, with curious adults gathering around the outside of the circle, I wondered about Jesus. I imagined Him sitting in the dirt with all the people; I imagine Him touching people and healing them and loving each and every dirty, mud-streaked face before Him despite the shoving, and pushing to get closer.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  
       – Matthew 9:36

 

Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out His hand and touched him. “I am willing,” He told him. “Be made clean.”
      – Mark 1:41

 

And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick.

     – Matthew 14:14

 I love that time after time, when scriptures mention Jesus in relation to people, they always speak first of His compassion. He didn’t heal, restore or interact with His people without first being moved to compassion for them. I love that Jesus enters our situations and doesn’t ever stand in judgment of us, the lowly, poor, downcast, rejected, but simply reaches out His hand in love and kindness. I love to know that this is who Jesus is. I love every second of contact I have with these beautiful people, despite momentary frustrations, because I feel so much closer to Jesus’s heart and who He is.

I am so privileged and humbled because I get to be Jesus to people who many never have heard of Him…or if they have, they’re so unaware of what love is that the phrase, “Jesus Loves You” means nothing to them. I’m not insinuating that I actually AM Jesus, obviously, because I could never be who He is or do what He does. But what I do mean is that I am His representative. What I do reflects Him. Every kiss I give to a dirty little cheek, every time I put another bandage on a tiny foot, every time I run and play frisbee with the children, every moment I am able to tickle them or dance with them or cut their hair…I am Jesus to these little children that God so ferociously adores. God forgive me all the moments I get caught up with logistics or confusion or small inconveniences instead of remembering that simple truth.

———— 

A final note about the goings on here in the village is one of immense gratitude to those supporting me financially at New Hope and beyond. There are so many needs here and there is so much good that comes from even the smallest gifts.

For the baby of the woman who died that I mentioned in my last blog, a little girl who is still unnamed, we’ve provided 9 weeks of formula and clean water for (and we will continue to), and helped pay funeral fees for the family.

For two pregnant women with complications during birth, we’ve rushed them to the clinics to help them deliver their babies safely.

For a woman with a mystery illness, a woman with a growth on her face, two men with paralysis of the legs beginning and a man who fell out of a tree onto his neck we’ve been able to provide with transport to the hospital, x-rays, medicines, AIDS tests, lodging and food during their stays at the hospital in Sumbawanga (some two hours away from Kansansa).

Finally, for a man whose bone has been sticking out of his shoulder since last June from a hunting accident (I both saw and smelled this wound and I cannot believe he’s been living with it nearly 9 months now) we provided everything mentioned above, as well as covered the cost of his surgery. Unfortunately, it may be that his arm will have to be amputated due to the gangrene, but praise God that it’s been stopped before it spreads to his entire body. This man and his family sold all their possessions to be able to afford a trip to the hospital in previous months, only to be turned away after waiting a month because there was no one equipped to help him.

All these individuals and their family members easily add up to over 50 people and we’ve been able to meet their immediate needs because of your generosity, friends. Doors are opened to their hearts so quickly as they see we really and truly care about them. They are closer to believing that Jesus could love them because they are able to see that people who represent Him love them, in way that endeavors to meet their physical, as well as spiritual needs.The gratitude of these precious people is so humbling to see and I tear up even now as I write about it. You are changing lives through your support and I cannot emphasize enough how blessed I pray you are for listening to God’s heart.

This is what it actually means to follow Jesus.

Religion [as it is expressed in outward acts] that is pure and unblemished in the sight of God the Father is this: to visit and help and care for the orphans and widows in their affliction and need, and to keep oneself unspotted and uncontaminated from the world.
     – James 1:27

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” 
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs”
    – John 21:15

© Stephanie Elwell and Keep Your Eyes Open, 2013.

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