Talk in Church

On July 30 2017, Reilly and I spoke in Church. I’ve decided to post my talk here for posterity.  And kicks. You’ll see that I spent the first third of the talk introducing us, since we are relatively new in our ward. I was pretty lighthearted and included some jokey inflections in my voice. Then I got a little more serious and decided to share more of myself, being just vague enough about my imperfections as well as admitting (vaguely) some of my struggles. If I spoke quickly enough, this talk would have been under 10 minutes, but I applied a nice cadence and switched up tempos throughout, so it ended up being closer to 15 minutes. Enjoy. Or not. 

Good morning. I am May Ryan. My handsome, smart, selfless, and sort of muscley and strong husband is Reilly Ryan. Reilly works at Diamond Fork Jr High in Spanish Fork, teaching 8th grade English. I work at a content and publishing company in Sugarhouse, maintaining a cancer diagnosis app. We’ve been married for five years and we have a 3yr old daughter named Z. We have been in the ward for 7.5 months, and we really love it here.

As more of an introduction, Reilly and I met in a Provo singles ward in August 2011. I was walking home from dinner at a friend’s house and happened upon ward prayer in my neighborhood cul-de-sac. I was new in the ward. Earlier that day at church someone had invited me over for a potluck, but I couldn’t remember where it was, and I wanted to check it out, even though I had just eaten.

While I’m not the most social person and I usually didn’t attend ward prayer, I needed to find out where this potluck was, but not because of the food. I was single, and because I was in a new ward, I had resolved to make myself try harder at getting to know people, even though large groups are intimidating.

I stepped into the crowd and asked a random person about the potluck. She said she didn’t know anything about it, but she pointed and said I could probably ask that bald guy over there. I didn’t see where she had pointed, so I approached the first bald guy I saw. That was Reilly.

We stood in the middle of that cul-de-sac, and I tuned everybody else out to focus on our conversation. I found out that we were both English majors. He graduated from the University of Utah, and I would be graduating that following April from BYU. We chatted about books and movies and music, and I was excited to talk with someone with whom I have so much in common.

Needless to say, Reilly Ryan thwarted my Sunday plans. During our chat, going to the potluck was the furthest thing from my mind. But it couldn’t have ended better.

We got married June 1, 2012. Our daughter Z was born in April 2014, when we were both in the middle of grad school. Our life together has been a marvelous journey so far.

Part of that journey includes speaking to you in church today. Time will tell if this experience ends up being marvelous or not. I’ll try to be optimistic.

In our remarks, Reilly and I will address the question, How will faith and obedience fortify me in today’s world? We will draw upon a talk by Elder L. Whitney Clayton from this past April’s General Conference called, “Whatsoever He Saith unto You, Do It.” This is a wonderful talk that has helped me focus my thoughts, and I pray that the Spirit will guide my words in their meaning and message.

Elder Clayton begins his talk with the story of the wedding at Cana in John chapter 2. Verses 1-11 read:

1 And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there:

2 And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage.

3 And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine.

4 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.

5 His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.

6 And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece.

7 Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim.

8 And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it.

9 When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom,

10 And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.

11 This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.

Elder Clayton points out that we recognize this story because it demonstrates Jesus’ power early on. It’s his first miracle. But as in most scripture stories, there can be multiple layers and lessons, and in this story, the lesson we focus on here regarding faith and obedience is in Mary’s instructions to the servants: “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.”

Mary’s confidence reminds us of who she is and how she came to give such straightforward direction. Mary is the mother of Jesus. As many parents with their children, Mary knows her son more than anyone. She knows his quirks, his tendencies. She knows that he is sinless, he is perfect. The Joseph Smith Translation of Matthew 25:3 states, “he spake not as other men, neither could he be taught; for he needed not that any man should teach him.”

When Mary says to the servants, “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it,” she’s saying she knows of the Savior’s divinity, his ability to save our souls. She’s saying that He is someone, the only one, we should have faith in.

How will faith and obedience fortify me in today’s world? The fourth Article of Faith says the first principle of the gospel is faith IN THE LORD JESUS CHRIST. Not just general faith. Faith in anything else will not sufficiently equip me to handle today’s seemingly numerous and relentless trials.

What is it about today’s world that makes life so difficult? What present challenges make faith and obedience especially crucial? We have many examples in the Bible and Book of Mormon of people struggling and exercising faith during those earlier dispensations. We have stories from early church history of saints facing different difficulties. We can gain inspiration from reading about all of these experiences. We can liken the principles taught to our lives. We know that we live in a unique time, and since the topic specifies today’s world, I have reflected on the years I have lived on the earth and some of the particular temptations that have tested my faith and obedience.

In the 80s, my dad introduced my mom to the church, and she was baptized when I was 6, and I got baptized when I was 8. I lived most of my childhood during the 80s in Florida, where I had a fascination with fire, and I remember taking books of matches from my house to the nearby playground and gathering kindling to start fires to watch them burn. These were always small fires that I extinguished pretty quickly, and this phase didn’t last very long. I’m not sure, but that was probably because I got caught and got in trouble. I conveniently don’t remember.

In the ’80s also emerged of MTV, which was really enticing with the adding of often spiritually toxic videos to already bad lyrics and a good beat and catchy melody. Media of all types had started to sneak their way into my mind.

The ’90s immersed my teenage and early adulthood years with increased intensity of what I was exposed to in the 80s. More tv, more music, more movies. Peer pressure invading my mind, I learned things I would have never seen or heard about in my home or from my family.

For the most part, I was a very faithful and obedient child and teenager. My parents and church family taught and supported me well. My friends were good and decent and wholesome people. I was a good student, graduating 2nd in my high school class, and I was accepted to BYU. I went to mutual. I went to early morning seminary. I earned my YW in Excellence Award. I kept going to church when my parents went inactive for a time.

It’s so weird to look back at the ‘80s and ‘90s and say these were simpler times, but the 2000s brought the seriousness of adulthood to my life. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college, much less as a career, so I took a detour and moved with friends to New York City. I spent almost 7 years there. The entire world in all its aspects unfolded itself to me in that one place. The accumulation and amplification of every temptation I had been exposed to growing up and more was there. Furthermore in the 2000s was the full unleashing of the internet and the myriad potential ways it could derail someone like me from living the gospel.

There were bad influences in NYC, but I remember most fondly all the goodness it offered, too. I made some of my best friends there. The church is strong there. Members there struggle and fight, probably a lot like members everywhere do. There were times I wavered in my faith, but I always knew the gospel was true, and that my life had purpose. After trying to attend a singles ward for several months, I decided my time would be better served and I would feel more comfortable in a family ward. I served in the nursery. I served as a ward missionary. I also taught early morning seminary for two years. When I was there, serving others kept me on the right path.

And so we come to this decade. We could probably discuss and make a list of ways the world has changed in the last 7-10 years. Elder Clayton, in his talk, tells a story of speaking to a young bishop that spent several hours a week counseling members of his ward. He said, “The problems that members of his ward faced … were those faced by Church members everywhere—issues such as how to establish a happy marriage; struggles with balancing work, family, and Church duties; challenges with the Word of Wisdom, with employment, or with pornography; or trouble gaining peace about a Church policy or historical question they didn’t understand.”

This bishop often advised his ward members to “get back to simple practices of faith, such as studying the Book of Mormon, paying tithing, and serving in the Church with devotion.” He said, “Frequently, however, the members’ response to their bishop was one of skepticism: They said, ‘I don’t agree with you, Bishop. We all know those are good things to do. We talk about those things all the time in the Church. But I’m not sure you’re understanding me. What does doing any of those things have to do with the issues I’m facing?’”

That could have been me a number of times in the last 10 years talking to that bishop. I have questions and issues that I wrestle with. Most of the time they are about people I love and their relationship with the Church. My spirituality ebbs and flows, and when I am in the lower moments, it can be hard to know or remember what to do.

Elder Clayton says faith and obedience go hand in hand, that obedience is an act of faith. He says that those who obey in “seemingly little ways are blessed with faith and strength that go far beyond the actual acts of obedience themselves and, in fact, may seem totally unrelated to them. It may seem hard to draw a connection between the basic daily acts of obedience and solutions to the big, complicated problems we face. But they are related.”

Obedience is an act of faith in Christ, and the more we obey, the more we are blessed with faith. The more faith we have, the stronger we are to obey, even in the face of today’s barrage of mega-challenges. Christ can do that for us. He can fortify us. He can save us.

Reflecting upon the story of the wedding of Cana, perhaps the answer to the question, How will faith and obedience fortify me in today’s world? is another question: How do I come to know Christ the way Mary does? To answer that question, I wish I had something deeper than the little things, the “primary answers,” but it’s the little things that are truly profound and lead to growth. They set the foundation for progressing toward keeping higher covenants. Being diligent in my obedience as a child prepared me for many difficulties I faced growing up. Being faithful and obedient now motivate me to keep going to church, remind me to count my blessings, and reassure me the Lord knows my concerns and will provide the answers I need in his time.

“Whatsoever he saith, do it.” To apply that bishop’s counsel of studying the Book of Mormon, paying tithing, and serving in the Church with devotion is a lot like pouring water in those stone vessels, not really understanding how that will result in the best wine. That’s where I am right now. If I do these things, I don’t understand how that will resolve my personal struggles. But I do know that these acts of obedience are an exercise of faith in my Savior. These acts will enable me to know him better.

And I believe that the better I know Jesus Christ, the stronger my desire will be to obey his teachings. This is what I was taught as a child; and because we are uncertain and nervous about the world our daughter will grow up in, this is what Reilly and I will continue to teach our family. No matter our struggles, if we can establish little habits of faith, if we can fill the pots with water to the brim, the Lord will somehow touch our lives, perform a true miracle and fortify our souls, and bring out the best in us.

Heartfelt Concern

This past month has found so many of you in the hospital.

I have a friend who gave birth at the beginning of the month to a baby boy with HLHS. He recently underwent surgery and seems to be doing well. If he’s as determined and courageous and faithful as his mom, he’ll do just fine. You can follow their journey here.

A couple weeks ago, one of my best friends from high school was feeling some odd sensations in her chest and went to the ER to have it checked out, just in case. She found out that she had a heart attack and would be staying in the hospital to have a coronary spontaneous dissection monitored. She’s home now and seems to be doing much better.

Then some of you have checked into the hospital with chest pain or fevers or respiratory issues or brain surgery. Some time ago one of you went in for spine surgery. Someone I know is undergoing chemotherapy and may have had her kidney removed. Some of you have been in accidents and are going through rehab.

Some of you still need a flu shot.

My dad has a weak heart and dementia and won’t take his medicine, though from what I hear, he likes where he’s staying right now.

Mom and my brother seem especially susceptible to pneumonia and bronchitis, respectively. And mom’s husband still seems to be recovering from knee surgery he had a while back.

And there are lots of friends who have delivered babies or are due within the next few months. Some of them have experienced post-partum depression. Some of them work really hard to meet the needs of their families. Some of them are struggling a lot with motherhood in general.

There are some whose afflictions I don’t know anything about at all.

But I think about you. I’m here if you need a listening ear.

And I pray for all of you.

The Culture of Heart Muscle Memory

I recently read a Facebook discussion thread about a sensitive topic. It seemed that someone disagreed with the majority opinion in that conversation. Then many people in the majority zeroed in on the lone dissenter and poked holes in his argument, very … pokedly. There were accusations and assumptions and underlying hostility all around. The thread’s originator even asked the others to back off, but no one really did. The dissenter didn’t respond. By the end of the thread–some 20 comments later–someone observed that he simply took his comments and left the discussion.

I do not know a few things about this discussion:

1. How the dissenter presented his disagreement

Well, I guess that’s the only thing. I’m probably ignoring other things, which shouldn’t matter, because if people were really willing to have a conversation with two perspectives, I would have been able to read the actual opposing opinion.

The dissenter could have been a bona fide jerk. But his withdrawal doesn’t quite indicate that.

It could be that the dissenter’s argument was particularly specious and he felt embarrassed and removed his comments, but since I only have the remaining less kind comments to use as evidence, what other conclusion am I supposed to draw other than “we will marginalize your differing opinions”?

I mean, the prevailing views in this conversation are held by people who already feel marginalized; they are in a distinct minority. They have felt op-/suppressed and question many things about the culture and traditions that helped form their character. They feel vulnerable and scared and insecure. And I guess this particular conversation felt like a safe place for them. And when they felt threatened–maybe by someone who felt just as insecure and vulnerable–instead of reaching for understanding, they pushed away.

What has changed? To oversimplify the idea, what really has changed from feeling that “If you don’t agree with the Church you can just leave” to “If you disagree with my opinion there’s no room for you in this conversation”?

Can someone help me understand?

Neighborhood Sad

This past Sunday at church, the bishop announced from the pulpit that the son of a family in the ward was playing soccer last week and suddenly collapsed. The boy’s family took him to the hospital. The bishop said if anyone spoke Spanish in the ward, the family would appreciate a visit.

Wednesday nights, I go out with the Relief Society presidency to visit women who have recently moved into the ward. We introduce ourselves to these ladies, and we welcome them to the ward and reassure them of our desire to be their friends.

Tonight, while we were getting into the Relief Society president’s car to make some visits, the second counselor reminded me of the bishop’s announcement and said she received an email saying that the boy had passed away. She also said that because the family had spent so much time at the hospital looking after their son, both of the parents lost their jobs. It’s bad enough to have bills you can’t pay for, but for that to add another layer to a pile of grief and sorrow just breaks my heart.

The boy was 11 years old. It’s so much harder to get through sadness without answers or explanation. But I guess that the family isn’t really thinking about getting through it right now so much as feeling it. Feeling helpless, alone, crushed. Feeling angry, lost, numb.

I want to do something for the family, and going to the funeral doesn’t even seem an earnest effort at anything. Donate for the funeral or to a fund until parents can find work? Make them dinner? I want to show support. There has to be something more, something demonstrative, something that really matters. I’ll have to pray and ask for inspiration, an outlet for compassion or a way stretch out a hand; I need to see how One knows exactly what this family is feeling right now would do.

Future Names

Sometimes Reilly and I like to think of names for our future children. Sometimes they’re not serious names. Sometimes we do this during church, and it’s not very reverent.

We’ve already decided to name two future dogs Albus and Chad.

Just to keep track of names we think of, I’ll list possible names of future children here. These are in no particular order. And again, some of these are not serious. We merely asked what if we had children with these names? You can also tell by the Puritan-sounding names that at least we were halfheartedly paying attention during church.

Acer
Dubious (Doobie)
Goodly
Prudence
Bliss
Padme
Mirth
Sobriety
Constance
Dalliance
Gumption
Compass
Ignominious (Minnie)
Ignoramus (Ramos)
Edifice (Oedipus)
Hosanna
Awe
Humble
Treat
Seeus Lewis
Shamus/Seamus (Shame)
Igneous (Iggy)
Fiery
Simplicity
Middleburg
Lapsy
Contemplation (Template)
Dionysus (Nice)
Twins: Sentiment and Sediment

Our church has so many children, and I wonder if I can learn all their names. But this weekend I have seen the tired eyes of  parents and wondered if they have had to answer the big questions that have come out of Friday’s elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. I am so sad and angry, and my heart is heavy.

So many lost lives, so many grieving parents. How our hearts suffer.

I feel guilty sometimes at my anger. It has to be so hard to lose a child, someone so young with her whole life ahead of her. Someone whose curiosity and compassion were starting to unfold. I know parents miss their little ones; I know they are sorrowful. And this is by no means any consolation, but those 20 were spared. They don’t have to worry anymore about losing their lives to nature or someone’s bad decisions or other circumstances. Their families remain to suffer. The rest of us are left to deal with the conflict and the debate about mental health awareness and treatment as well as the conversation about gun control/regulation. We’re left to wonder why and struggle with our faith in God and humanity. We wail and cry ourselves to a shallow sleep, but those kids don’t have to struggle anymore.

At the same time, we realize in the substance of our struggles that those kids were also very much robbed of their lives, the opportunity to learn hard things, do fun things, and discover who they are. Their families were robbed of the chance to watch them grow up and find an added measure of joy through these young lives. I wish they were still here so they could be here to smile wit their families. They could have offered this world so much more innocence and purity and inspiration and love.

Of course we wouldn’t name our children Ignominious or Ignoramus or nickname them Shame. It’s a wonder that we even discuss the possibility of children on the very weekend of that dreadful, heartbreaking tragedy. I attribute that to hope. We talk about future names, but what is the name of our future? There is so much to look forward to and live for in this world. With sacred hope, we pray our children can experience those things. We hope for answers, happiness, and peace. With deep reverence, we hope our lives will heal from heartache. It keeps us alive. Without knowing what tomorrow may bring, it’s the best we can do.

Senegal Sundays

Whenever I hear the song of a bird
or look at the blue, blue sky
Whenever I feel the rain on my face
or the wind as it rushes by
Whenever I touch a velvet rose
or walk by a lilac tree
I’m glad that I live in the beautiful world
Heavenly Father created for me.

He gave me my eyes that I might see
the color of butterfly wings
He gave me my ears that I might hear
the magical sound of things
He gave me my life, my mind, my heart
I thank him reverently
for all his creations of which I’m a part
Yes, I know Heavenly Father loves me.

Someone played this song on the piano during church yesterday. I cried.

I can’t stop thinking about Senegal. Not that I would want to.

Sundays were special, because that’s when we held church. We were the only group of our kind holding the kind of service our church holds. It was us and a lone family who lives in Dakar, the Smylies. When we’re not there, it’s just the Smylies, in their home. We were glad to spend two Sundays together with them.

The first Sunday was our arrival in Dakar. We agreed to have church in the conference room of the hotel at 2pm, after getting some rest. It was also the first Sunday of the month, which means testimony meeting.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a church meeting so small. We sang hymns in French, we prayed in French; we passed the sacrament around the conference table.

Church in French when one doesn’t know the language well takes extra concentration. The rest of the meeting was spent bearing testimonies. I listened hard. People got emotional, and perhaps the more intentional focus helped me to feel the Spirit. I wrote in my journal at the time that the Spirit is stronger in French. I know if I put as much mental and emotional effort into an English church meeting, I could have the same experience. As classmates bore their testimonies, I couldn’t contain my tears. I knew the next five weeks would change me.

We toured Dakar after church. Madame Thompson led us down city streets and past markets and various restaurants. We took pictures and wandered for two hours, dodging occasional vendors and walking through neighborhoods. A little boy gave me a tap cinq.

We ended up in a restaurant where the program paid for the meal. It was a strange meal with strangely plated foods with beef or fish and brown sauce with either rice or millet. It tasted fine, but other people were a little bit squeamish about the meal. I shared some of my rice with Sarah, because the millet with its strange sauce tasted like strangeness. The tv broadcasted lutte, which is a type of wrestling and the most popular sport in Senegal.

Then, the power went out.

The second Sunday was Mother’s Day. The Smylies invited us to their home for church and brunch. They have a piano and we sang hymns with accompaniment. There was a special musical number by Melanie and Stephanie. Stephanie and Spencer gave excellent talks. Brunch was amazing with quiche and scones and fresh fruit and cake and delicious juices. I had been looking forward to it all week. People gathered around the piano and sang hymns. I played with the Smylies’ toddler. Their home was beautiful and clean and they were gracious. I got to speak to them about a common NYC friend, Ned. They love Ned, as everyone does.

This would be last time we’d see the Smylies on our trip. After an hour or so, we shook hands and gave thanks and boarded our trusty white school bus.

We went to an orphanage.

It was Mother’s Day.

We waved and smiled at the kids, and they smiled as us. Sometimes they were shy. We walked through buildings where they slept. Sometimes kids peeked around corners and I waved. I tried to imagine my life without parents, and my heart became heavy.

We stood outside, and a group of children stood facing us, and they taught us a version of “If you’re happy and you know it.” Their rendition uses joy in one’s heart and then shouting “Merci, Dieu” on the last verse. Those children were happy, and they knew they didn’t have to be unhappy, and I wanted for them to have even more happiness. I prayed it for them as I whispered through a tight throat, “Merci, Dieu.”

The following Sunday, the 15th, was our first in Saint-Louis, an old town in northern Senegal. I said the opening prayer for sacrament meeting that day. Don’t ask if I wrote it down and memorized it, because I won’t answer you.

I wrote this in my journal that day, in actual English:

“I’m thinking about capitalism and governments and organizations that promote and educate and encourage. I wonder if any of these institutions wil ever synchronize. I saw a news headline that said that Mitt Romney thinks ‘Obamacare’ will result in a complete government takeover of healthcare. This is such a huge issue in the United States, and elsewhere in the world people struggle with clean water and good schools.

“Schools! Why aren’t all the kids in school and not off the streets? This is a problem everywhere, but when little beggar boys wander around at night asking me for money and/or food, it’s very disheartening.

“How is this trip strengthening my faith? How is it touching my heart? It certainly enrages me in several ways.

“Dinner was lovely. Conversation was fun, though we got gently chided for talking in English.

“I think I’m gaining weight, which is totally lame.

“Another week is over. That’s so hard to believe. Yet, in some ways, I can’t wait to go home.”

Then, in French:

“Where is my heart? What do I love? How do I understand people? How do I devote my life to God?

“I don’t know how to read more quickly. Continue. Persevere. My brain is broken. Please, help me to fix it.”

We spent another Sunday in Saint-Louis, the 22nd. Those in the loop know this date is my birthday. Before sacrament, Madame Thompson announced there would be a “surprise” after church. Professor Lee’s birthday was on the 2nd, and Andrew’s birthday was on the 20th, and there was talk about having a combined birthday party for the May birthdays.

After church we met downstairs in the lobby of the hotel, and Madame Thompson led us into the restaurant, where tables were decorated with confetti and stars and little angel figurines. There were delicious drinks that I know the names of but I do not know how to spell. And then, there was cake. And three candles. And “Joyeux Anniversaire” piped in frosting and Professor Lee, Andrew and I blowing out the candles.

And then the cake was something like tiramisu. I don’t want to say for certain.

After cake, everyone who bought a boubou posed for pictures.

Then we strolled the town for our last Sunday in Saint-Louis.

Also, there was studying for an Anthropology midterm, but we can gloss over that.

Sunday the 29th, we rode a fancy, air-conditioned charter bus from a nice hotel in the middle of nowhere to another nice hotel in Saly, Senegal. (I will tell you another time about the hell-hole hotel in the middle of nowhere prior to the nice hotel in the milieu de nulle part. It was so many types of awesome.)

I took a nap on the bus and woke up with the worst headache ever. I drank some water, and I tried going back to sleep. It hurt so bad I turned my head toward the window and away from my dear friend, Kylie, and cried. Probably for a solid twenty minutes. Then I calmed down and Kylie shared cartoons on her iPod with me.

We arrived at the nicest hotel I have ever, ever, ever, ever stayed. Church was going to be at 6pm, and since it was our last Sunday together, it was also going to be a testimony meeting, in addition to Andrew speaking. Since it was a testimony meeting, and since it was the last one, the culmination of all our experiences in the past month, and since I already had a headache, and since classmates were saying beautiful and touching things and men were crying and I knew them so much better than I did just a month before – their spirits and their hearts – I sobbed the entire meeting.

This did not make my head feel better. At all. However, I was sitting next to Andrew’s wife Rebecca, and I told her I had a headache. That was when she placed her fingers at the base of my skull and applied a moderate, massaging pressure, and I felt instant relief. I had given shoulder rubs to eight or so people on the trip (because that’s how I make friends), and thought nothing of being touched in return, because I know not everyone is touchy, but this was what I needed. Also, Excedrin.

Then Sunday, June 5, I didn’t go to church because I was too busy being on a plane over the Atlantic Ocean. So yesterday was my first Sunday at church back in the United States. I thought about the part of the world I’ve been blessed to see and experience in Senegal. I reflected on its beauty and richness of culture. I brought my French scriptures to church yesterday, and I thought especially of the children and how much God loves them. How they seem to know. I want to keep a deeper, more meaningful focus, and the eyes of the children are my lens. Their innocence, not just in French, not just in Africa. They are the difference I will never forget, happiness unrestrained and nondiscriminating. I spent five Sundays all over Senegal to realize, to see with utmost clarity, that God truly loves us all.

Merci, Dieu.

Starting Off

Late Wednesday night/Early Thursday morning I was standing in a checkout line at a major supercenter chain. In Orem, Utah. Just off Exit 269 on I-15. Across from UVU. I was on my way back to my apartment and picked up a few groceries so I wouldn’t starve in the morning. I had arrived from Senegal Sunday afternoon and spent a few days in New York City before returning to Provo.

The cashier greeted me and started scanning my things. Now, she might have had a super long day, and it was close to 1am, but she was complaining about her job.

Everyone has bad days at work, and maybe the timing wasn’t ideal for this particular interaction between the cashier and me, because I had just come from Senegal, where 50% of the population is unemployed, and this young lady has a job in AMERICA during a RECESSION.

I wanted to tell her to get a little perspective.

Instead, I reassured her she had only 10 minutes left on her shift and wished her a good night.

We landed at 0550 on Sunday, May 1. The humidity immediately surrounded us, but I was eager to get off the plane. In great haste, I descended the metal roller staircase then walked toward the shuttle before I realized I forgot my duffel bag. I turned around and let a guy wearing an airport vest know that I forgot my bag.

-J’ai oublié mon sac.
-Quel siège? Quel côté?
-Le droit. Trente-sept.

So, I followed him back onto the plane,  retrieved my bag and jumped on a shuttle bus from the tarmac to the gate. I kept close to some people I recognized as my classmates. The terminal felt crowded that morning. The full flight dispensed a swarm of people – some happy to be home, others respectfully curious – into a hot, dark,  old airport that was named after the first president of Sénégal, Léopold Senghor.

We picked up our luggage from the lone, sluggish carousel. Chatter surrounded us. French and not French. We passed through the border. Customs was a little too easy.

We waited outside. I wasn’t sure for what, or whom. I wore my backpack and held my duffel bag and suitcase tightly. I had noticed that random men were taking people’s luggage, and that didn’t seem right.

Not all of us were on this flight. Others in the class were coming from the East coast or Europe. They would be arriving at other times. We wondered aloud about the girl who had arrived the night before and was told in our prep class two weeks earlier to find her own way to the hotel. That didn’t seem right.

After a while, our group started walking toward somewhere. Our uncertain chemin  seemed to lead toward an old, white Blue Bird school bus. We loaded our luggage and boarded the bus. The engine started and a consistent, high-pitched beep pierced our ears. We soon learned that it would never stop. The bus driver wore a scarf. And then there was another guy. Madame Thompson introduced him as a son of Aminata Sow Fall, and he is probably one of the most attractive guys I have ever met.

Along the way, we were passed 1.5-liter bottles of water. I didn’t really talk. I thought about how I’d brush my teeth and getting along with my roommate and the food and my ability to sleep. I wondered about the culture and the lectures and my anxiety about speaking a language I struggled with. All I knew was that I was with a group of fellow students in a foreign and fascinating country full of people I was a little scared of and with a culture I was eager to discover. We were on a beeping school bus with a surprisingly trusty engine, and our eyes followed much of the passing scenery. We observed old buildings and walking women balancing things on their heads. We noticed the coast hosting the early exercisers who raced the rising sun. We were an obvious displacement, and I felt like an anachronism. But we were headed into the belly of a city of a country of a continent of a world begging to be more fully understood, asking for proper perspective.

We were going to school.