2009 was an important year for me. I knew it at the time, in some ways. But, the full extent of 2009’s impact – and what it would mean for my future – is still coming into vision.
In 2009 I graduated from Harvard University with a Master of Theology.
In 2009 I was invited to continue studies at Oxford, but wasn’t granted funding.
In 2009 I said goodbye to the small church I had pastored for two years in Watertown, MA.
In 2009 I moved from Boston back to Roanoke (that great city of Virginia) – thinking I would only stay for three months. (Add about five years to those three months, and you get closer to the actual amount of time I ended up living back in my hometown.)
In 2009 I realized that a Harvard degree doesn’t go as far as it used to, when I took my first job after graduating…cleaning toilets at a dental office.
In 2009 I was depressed, as I joined the salary.com statistic of “college degrees with the worst return on your investment.” (Religion does beat out Sociology, Fine Arts, and Education – so, I warn all of my old thespian friends not to laugh too hard).
But, far more importantly, in 2009 I stayed at home, while my Mom, Dad, and sister, Abby, went on a short-term mission trip to Nairobi.
You need to know my Mom and Dad to appreciate exactly how radical it was for them, in 2009, to consider a mission trip to anywhere, even Appalachia – and much less Africa. They are not mission trip kinds of people. They are practical, SJ-types with far more love for the familiar than the exotic. Please don’t get me wrong – Mom and Dad are lovely: The salt of the earth. But, that said, try spicing their food with anything except salt and you’re practically a highfalutin gourmet. (I can’t even get Dad to try a new restaurant in Roanoke that might use curry.) And yet, my Mom had been asked to speak at a women’s conference. And, Dad, ever the knight in shining armor, wasn’t about to let her travel halfway across the world alone. (Dad had seen “Taken” the year before, and he was no fool.) So, he went with her – and brought my sister in tow.
It was there – in Nairobi – that they first met a missionary couple from Greensboro, NC: Chris and Lindy Thompson. Chris and Lindy had moved to Kenya a few years prior to do evangelism, bible teaching, and discipleship. Chris taught in the local bible college. His heart was to see African men grow in the faith.
However, Chris’ heart was shaken by the plight of the Street Children. Their general suffering disturbed him. Street Children sleep under cars or in kiosks for shelter. They dig through trash for food. They sniff glue to numb their hunger-pangs, and also to make themselves high (really, trying to get “comfortably numb” to a host of other evils beyond mere hunger). In fact, to see their vacant faces almost gives meaning to the Pink Floyd lyrics: “Hello, is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home?” For many of them, it is true far too early in their lives that, “The child is grown, the dream is gone.”
However, it was one particular young boy who moved Chris to action. One day, as he was walking down the street, he saw a child who couldn’t be more than nine or ten years old. He watched as the boy stooped down to pick up a napkin with bits of soiled food in it. And he saw the boy then put the napkin into his mouth and eat it.
That night it rained. Chris laid in bed thinking about how he was secure inside, safe from the elements – while that nine or ten year old boy was trying to find shelter, God knows where. And he realized that he had to do something about it. He realized that his mission could no longer just be teaching other people about Jesus and the Bible. He had to actually get his hands dirty and care for those who needed the physical love of Jesus, not just the spiritual love He wanted to offer.
So, Chris – with his wife Lindy – started a small Vacation Bible School style ministry to Street Boys. About 15 of these boys came week by week. Chris rebranded them: Instead of calling them “Street Boys” he called them “Saint Boys.” Instead of belonging to the streets, their new identity was belonging to Jesus. Each week Chris would play a game with these Saint Boys, give them a meal, and tell them a Bible story.
When Mom and Dad were in Africa, Chris invited Mom to help with the meal for the Street Boys (Dad was off speaking at a men’s conference). And so, my mom went, peeled potatoes, and then helped serve the food. She says that what impressed her was how polite the boys were. She knew that they were hungry. And yet, she watched them line up respectfully, stand patiently, and wait their turn to be served.
What struck her the most though was one particular young boy. He had with him a single avocado. Just one. And he must have been hungry. And yet, he shared it with the other boys. Mom watched him and thought, “Why didn’t he just eat the avocado? Why did he share it? Why would he give something away that he so clearly needed?”
After the meal, Chris asked Mom if she would like to go and see where the Street Boys sleep. She said, “Yes.” And so he took her and showed her their lodging. He showed her the corrugated tin shacks – with holes throughout – where the more affluent boys stayed. These boys were better off than others; they actually had something to provide minimal shelter from the elements. She peered in, and saw the newspapers covering the floors. And, she realized that this was their bedding. These corrugated tin shacks were their homes, and the newspapers were their blankets.
Mom returned to Roanoke a changed woman. She was unable to forget the intense poverty that she had seen. She was unable to forget the polite young men who had waited patiently and respectfully to be served. And she was unable to forget the boy with the avocado – who would continue to inspire her for many years.
This boy – otherwise unknown and nameless - came into my life in 2009. He changed my mother. And, through that, he changed me. As a result of hearing his story I have asked myself: “What is the avocado that the Lord has given to me?” And “What does it look like to share it with others?”
-- Seth Johnson