“So young to be the words of your own song
I know the rage in you is strong
Write a world where we can belong
To each other and sing it like no other.” -U2
“Tell me something bad that happened in the world today.”
That was the request my daughter Natalie made every night, starting at age four.
This child was persistent and inquisitive, quickly coining the term “Talk Time” for this sacred nighttime ritual of Question & Answer with me.
Although I was a first-time mother, I sensed the path of truth was the only one this girl would accept. I was quite certain that if I did not tell her about the world’s suffering, she would find the truth for herself. So each night, I’d take a deep breath, look into those big, brown eyes, and dole out bits of truth. I’d also mention it was our duty to find ways to ease suffering and create hope.
If at any time, I strayed from the tough topics, Natalie would steer me back by saying, “Tell me real stories about real people.I want to know.”
Over time, an avid interest in Africa developed. This lead Natalie to sponsor to a young girl named Priscilla living in a desolate situation in Ghana.
“I want to give her reason to smile,” Natalie said the day she chose the photo of stoic-faced Priscilla from an array of poverty-stricken children with cheerful smiles.
Over the next seven years, Natalie wrote to Priscilla faithfully. When a letter would arrive, Natalie would pour over the details Priscilla shared that had been translated to English.
Natalie wanted to know Pricilla – what she ate, what she played with, what music she listened to, what her family was like. She wanted to know Priscilla’s fears, hopes, dreams, and prayers. Most of all, she wanted to know what role she could serve in helping Priscilla overcome the extreme hardships she faced.
Deciding Priscilla might like to hear from her directly, Natalie taught herself some basic Swahili at age eleven so a translator would not be needed for parts of the letters.
Natalie dreamed of the day she would travel to Ghana and meet her friend. But last fall, those hopes were unexpectedly dashed. Natalie received a curt letter from the sponsoring organization saying Priscilla was no longer part of the program.
My child, who typically keeps here motions in check, looked devastated.
“I don’t understand,” Natalie said quietly. “I didn’t get to say goodbye. Priscilla was my friend.”
I wondered how this abrupt ending would impact Natalie’s future travel goals. But rather than deter her from her original dream of traveling to Africa, this unexpected heartbreak seemed to fuel it.
“I still want to go there,” Natalie said the following day with fierce determination.
That’s when I knew with certainty…
She will go – with me or without me – she will go.
So if she goes, let me go alongside her.
I nervously released that prayer into the atmosphere.
A few months later, I began saying my hope out loud when conversing with people in my professional and personal life. This public admission led to a conversation with anassistant director at the Portland Seminary about travels to Africa with her daughter. As we were about to hang up the phone, I asked, “Do you know of any grassroots-type organizations doing good works in Africa?”
“Yes,” she said. “I absolutely do.”
I immediately went to the website of African Road. Their mission was so aligned with my heart and life's work that tears filled my eyes:
African Road is a nonprofit organization working to lift entire communities out of extreme poverty. We do this by partnering with local changemakers through collaborative project development and strategic funding.
With nervous hands, I called the co-founder, Kelly Bean. For almost two hours we talked about the ways African Road empowers others while encouraging community-building for the sake of a better world. Kelly described the Learning Trip to East Africa happening in July and said they had a few open spots.
“Could my fourteen-year-old daughter apply for the Learning Trip?” I asked.
“If she is with you, yes,” Kelly said.
Her response sounded like my prayer. I rushed off to tell Natalie about the conversation.
Natalie’s reaction brought confirmation. I noticed she was blinking back tears. “Really? You would do this with me?”
Natalie knows her directionally challenged, anxiety-prone mother prefers familiar territories and best laid plans. Going to Africa would be far out of my comfort zone, but my heart felt like it was exactly where we needed to go.
“You are leading me to important places and people, Natalie. I will follow,” I said.
On Sunday afternoons throughoutthe winter months, Natalie asked me to take her to a park with a hiking trail. Throughout the four-mile loop, she’d talk about East Africa. She was learning the language, its history, its customs, its adversities, and its triumphs. She began reading extensively about Rwandan Genocide that happened in 1994.
In the spring, the topic of discussion on our hikes changed. Africa was only the subject for the first initial minutes, then it shifted to end-of-the-year testing, grades, and high school course scheduling for her upcoming freshman year.
One particular conversation stands out in my mind. My strong, self-assured daughter was unusual fragile that day. As we walked the trail, she expressed frustration with her wandering brain. Focusing has always been a challenge in the school setting, but recently the challenges were heightened due to more complex content and required memorization. Despite having support systems and seeking medical advice, uncertainty loomed. Coping mechanisms that had worked in the past were not working. All at once, she felt her future was in question.
What if I can’t stay on track in high school? What will become of me? She wondered.
I touched my daughter’s arm to slow down. We both stopped walking. I looked into those big, brown eyes that held so much promise and offered these words of assurance:
“You are Wanderer, and yes, this way of BEING creates challenges in certain settings and situations. The educational system will lead you to believe that being a Wanderer is bad – you’re not paying attention. You need to focus! Why can’t you remember this?
But when you were four years old you set your sights on the seeing the world and knowing its people. And now it is happening. Just think about what you have done to prepare for the trip to Africa. From your heart’s calling at age four that you have followed … to letters you wrote to Priscilla … and now this trip—the research, the application process, the recommendation letters, the immunizations. You did all of that!
Focusing can be hard for Wanderers, but this state of being comes with many gifts – the ability to dream big, see possibility, and move forward with fearlessness, courage, and optimism.
Despite what you have been led to believe, being a Wander is not something to be shunned… it is something to be cultivated, celebrated, and immulated. And right now, the world needs Wanderers to lead us.
You lead; I will follow.”
The sigh Natalie released was visible and seemed to contain the weight of the world.
.In May, Natalie and I participated in a Skype call with the twelve-member Learning Trip team who are coming from different regions of the country. It is a multi-generational group with Natalie being the youngest.
After we introduced ourselves, Kelly reiterated the mission of this experience:
“African Road Learning Trips are not DOING trips, they are BEING trips. We will be invited into the living rooms of Changemakers. These are my friends, and I love introducing friends to friends. We are going to be present with friends – remarkable people who can teach us something. Keep in mind that things won’t go as planned; we will adapt and flex. In Swahili, the words “Pole Pole” mean slowly, slowly. And this is what we believe—good things come by going slowly–not by our agenda or expectations but through willingness to be open, courageous, and present.
It’s the coming alongside that matters,” Kelly said.
With tear-filled eyes, I looked over at my girl.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look of peace on her face. What Kelly described was Natalie’s way of BEING, and unlike the educational setting, this wandering way would be celebrated and useful in East Africa.
It was then that Natalie reached over and wrote something in my notebook: “Muraho. Nitwa Rachel.” (Hello, my name is Rachel) in Kinyarwanda.
I have been practicing what Natalie taught me. Now I can say hello to my new friends.
If she goes, let me go alongside her.
The timing of this experience seems providential.
I’ve been watching my Wanderer carefully over the past few days. As heartbreaking atrocities occur on our border, I watch as my Wanderer stays informed and discusses actions she can do now and when she is older to create positive change.
I, on the other hand, have been stuck in the place of despair. Even the calls and donations I am making feel futile.
But yesterday I noticed something about my Wanderer’s way that is key. She takes in the reality of the world through reputable news sources and then she stops to refuel. Yesterday her refueling process involved sitting with hope and goodness in the form of letters and pictures.
These messages began arriving two weeks ago in response to an invitation Natalie mailed to 100 friends and family. A portion of her letter read:
“I am about to have the learning experience of a lifetime by being welcomed into the lives and homes of friends and Changemakers in East Africa. African Road believes transformation happens through friendship, presence, and empowerment. In less than a month, I will be going to do what I have dreamed of doing since I was little: offer my friendship, presence, and belief to young Rwandan people who were the survivors of unimaginable tragedy in the horrific Rwandan Genocide.”
Natalie goes on to invite people to virtually join her on this trip to Africa by sending her a photo or a loving message she can use to introduce her new friends to them. She will return to America with stories of how the small donations of friends and family was pooled to lift and empower an entire community.
The co-founder of African Road has been astounded by the response to Natalie’s invitation. Natalie’s collection for the “goodness fund” thus far is unprecedented. Kelly said people were able to feel Natalie’s heart through her words.
I agree, but in light of recent events in our country, I believe there is more to this outpouring…
I believe Natalie’s wanderer way is showing people how to travel through the place of despair —
To not become stuck in territories of fear and hopelessness
To not become sidetracked by other people’s narrow mindedness, callousness, ignorance, and greed
To face the reality of the world, yet see what could be and take steps to get there—even if it means going outside your comfort zone, shifting inhibiting beliefs, learning, and unlearning.
What is it about Natalie’s invitation that created such an outpouring?
I believe it is this:
Natalie is leading us on a path toward hope and healing through curiosity, compassion, and movement.
As fear rises and animosity surges, Natalie shows us a way through.
Let me learn your language.
Come, sit at my table. There is room for you.
I don’t have all the answers. Teach me.
Tell me your story.
In a defining moment in our nation’s history, Natalie reminds us not to be paralyzed by the world’s suffering but instead:
Go beyond the horizon
Step outside your comfort zone
Walk towards healing
But as you do, don’t forget to walk in someone else’s shoes.
This is direction.
This is movement.
This is progress.
The Wanderers of the World release fear and carry compassion, so they can travel through the place of despair and reach hope, even when the journey seems futile.
My friends, this is what you can do today—rouse your inner Wanderer and keeping walking.
Don’t let the weight of the world harden you, numb you, or derail you.
And if the baggage you carry is heavy, set it down. You don’t need it where we’re going.
My friends, this is your invitation.
If you choose to accept, the world is about to become smaller and strangers are about to become friends.
Come as you are, dear ones. Come as you are with us…
Natalie and I are going to be present and learn from our Rwandan sisters and brothers who we shall come to know and love like family.
We will go with hearts, hands, and eyes wide open.
And we will leave much goodness behind.
Be a part of that goodness wherever you are today.
Calling All Warriors for Children: Like so many of you, I am gravely concerned about the wellbeing and future of the children at the border who have been separated from the only security they have—their parent. As a special education teacher for ten years, I saw the tragic results of disruptive separation from a caregiver. Removing children from their parent and keeping them apart devastates the most basic human relationship and causes irreversible and lifelong damage.But it is not too late to help thousands of children avoid this fate. Although an executive order was signed yesterday to maintain family unity at the border, it does not help the children who are currently locked up and whom authorities have said may never be reunited with their parents. The incredible nonprofit organization, Together Rising, has been working for our world’s children on this devastating situation before it was even in the headlines. Yesterday they announced that they will not rest “until the children who have been separated are back with their loving parent.” Like African Road, Together Rising links arms with those who are already helping on the front line and supports their efforts. There is much work to be done, but Together Rising has already done so much good in little time. You can read that update here and make a donation that will bring hope and help to a precious child. We will not be stuck in despair. We will keep walking together towards hope.
If you and your family would like to virtually go alongside Natalie and me to East Africa, you can send messages, photos, and small donations (completely optional) to African Road. Information can be found here. Please be sure to put Natalie’s name in memo so we can reach out to you upon our return.
Thank you for being part of the Hands Free Revolution. You create ripples of hope and love each day. What a difference you make.