I have this distinct memory of myself when I was a teenager, probably fifteen or sixteen years old. I was sitting on the green couch at my grandmother’s house, flipping through an issue of National Geographic Magazine. My grandma always had stacks and stacks of Nat Geo’s sitting in little towers around her house.
That particular issue had a feature about neighborhoods from around the world: slums, suburbs, village huts, skyscraper apartments. The photos were stunning and colorful in the way that they have to be for Nat Geo, and the juxtaposition of shots was fascinating.
As I flipped through the pages, I came across a two-page spread of a photo from a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. The photo, I remember, was taken from the middle of a dirt alleyway so that on either side of the pages, there were rows and rows of one-room houses. Made of tin and cardboard and sheets of plastic, the houses were squashed together in a jagged, uneven line. In the muddy walkways in front of them there ran a putrid looking trickle of water and sewage. Even with just a glance, one could clearly note the unsanitary and unstable environment of that neighborhood.
Fifteen-year-old me looked on with fascination, my hand stroking the picture as if touching the paper would transport me there. And I remember, very vividly, thinking: God, someday I would like to live in a place like that.
I turned the page and saw that the next two-page spread was one of an aerial view of the suburbs outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. The contrast was not lost on me. Ugh, I thought with distaste as I scanned the rows and rows of identical, beige colored houses. Freshly manicured lawns, smooth streets, all of it symmetrical and square. The tidiness of the scene was almost nauseating. Everything was in order though – clean, controlled, organized, expected.
And then, before I could think about it, before I could remember what I had JUST prayed, before I realized what I was evening thinking, I prayed, God, please don’t ever make me live in a place like that.
It may seem like a falsified story, but I swear to you that all these years later, I still remember that afternoon. I can still see those photos in my mind’s eye. I can still hear the words of those prayers echoing somewhere down in the caverns of my soul. And as I think about that, I realize that I started to become who I am today a long time ago.
Before I’d ever left America, before I’d ever been in a slum, before I had really any clue about what I wanted for my life, the Spirit was leading me to prayers like the ones I said on that afternoon. The Spirit was, without me knowing, shaping my heart and giving me passions.
From my seat on the green couch at my grandma’s house, I could not have imagined that one day I would in fact live and work in slums all over the world. I couldn’t have dreamed that seven years later, I would walk down the alleyways of slums in Nairobi even! I also could not have predicted that at some point, the Lord would lead me back from the slums to work in the suburbs. I certainly couldn’t have guessed that the suburbs would end up being exponentially more challenging to me that the slums ever were.
But that’s how things have gone. That’s how they’re still going.
And if it’s true that I started to become who I am a long time ago, then I suppose I’m probably still on my way. I am still becoming.