“And then I realized that to be more alive I had to be less afraid, so I did it.
I lost my fear and gained my whole life.”
I remember exactly where I was standing when I told my husband that my 14-year-old daughter and I wanted to travel to a foreign continent. Scott reacted just as any protective spouse and father would; he was resistant to the idea.
I reminded myself this was a normal response because he loves us.
Laying down my defenses, I began my prepared statement which included detailed information about the host organization, African Road, with whom we would be traveling, and their partnership with local leaders doing life-changing work in their African communities.
But it was my final, completely off-script statement that caused an unforgettable softening on Scott’s face:
“Natalie has had it on her heart to go to Africa since she was little,” I reminded him. “She will go eventually; I am absolutely certain of that. Let me be the one to go with her. Together is better.”
That is when Scott saw me—this directionally challenged woman who rarely leaves a two-mile radius of her home—asking to do the unthinkable. In that moment, it was clear this was not just a learning trip—it was a living trip. And it was not about me… and it wasn’t about him.
“Let me know how I can support you and Natalie,” Scott said, taking my hand.
From that point, the African Road Learning Trip to Rwanda became real. It was happening. That is when fear showed up.
It is embarrassing to admit how superficial some of my fears were, but this piece of the story is important. Some of the most trivial things nearly stopped me from moving forward.
One, I feared something would happen to my cats while I was gone. Banjo had just had a serious health ailment, and I didn’t know if he would let my husband give him his pills. I also feared my cats might escape.
Two, I had fears around the paper work, the vaccinations, and the medications required for the trip. I didn’t know where to go to get the proper immunizations and a side effect of one of the medications concerned me.
Three, I had fears around food and clean water. Although I have done a great deal of healing, I still carry some body image issues around food, and I worried about regression while in Africa.
And then the greatest fear – the one that came as a recurring dream for several consecutive weeks:
Natalie and I being separated… indefinitely.
I imagined myself in this foreign land, always on guard, checking my surroundings, never leaving her side. It did not help that well-meaning people fueled this fear when I said I was taking Natalie to Africa. People who had never been there were quick to offer warnings and gross misconceptions.
But their input became irrelevant one memorable night, ninety-one days before the trip.
I’d awoken with a start. My eyes were wet, and my heart was pounding. I went and sat at my bedroom window where my cat Banjo keeps watch. Why was the street light so bright? I wondered.
I looked up. It was not the street light creating all that light. It was a full moon. Seeing that massive, silver jewel suspended in the sky, lifting shadows on the world, gave me great comfort.
“You are being held in loving hands,” I heard. “And that moon is the same moon you and Scott will be looking at, just from opposite sides of the world.”
I am being held in loving hands. I anchored myself to that divine assurance. My nightmares immediately stopped. I allowed myself to feel the excitement Natalie radiated whenever we’d take our Sunday afternoon walks and talk about the trip. I began learning everything I possibly could about the country of Rwanda, its history, its people, and how to behave in ways that do not harm or disrespect.
When our plane landed in Kigali, and we walked down the plane stairs into the refreshing night air, I couldn’t stop smiling. I saw families greeting each other. I saw welcoming smiles of government officials. I saw coffee shops and well-marked signs directing us and welcoming us.
In that moment, I saw my fear for exactly what it was: the unknown.
I had feared what I did not know.
And the opportunity I would have missed—in the name of fear—would have been a tragedy.
Three of the Changemakers in partnership with African Road, Steven, Penina, and Alice, were waiting for us. They embraced us like beloved family. We sat outside the coffee shop as they spoke to us, telling us about themselves, their dreams, their missions, and how glad they were to have us there. I hung on every word, making note of a beautiful statement I heard multiple times.
“Welcome. Welcome. We cannot say welcome enough. You came here because you love us.”
For the next ten days in Africa, I never once felt fearful.
Once you open yourself up to KNOWING… LEARNING… LISTENING… and TRUSTING, fear is pushed away.
Fear cannot thrive in the presence of love and understanding.
As I got closer to what I did not know, fear diminished.
The next day, our team went to the Togetherness Cooperative, a six-acre safe haven that serves as a gathering place and a launch pad for income producing activities. How did this cooperative come to be? This may be the most important story I have ever shared in this space.
The Togetherness Cooperative came as a response to the cries Steven Turikunkiko heard at age twenty-two from the children left parentless after the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.
Steven, who had experienced his own trauma of losing his parents and five siblings at an early age due to hunger, illness, and the Ugandan Bush War, went toward the cries. Once he discovered these children wandering the streets had no living relatives, he brought them home. At one point, Steven and his wife Providance were caring for 19 children in their two-room home. Steven’s response to caring for orphaned children expanded to the Togetherness Cooperative.
I will never forget Steven telling us how he went door to door with his Bible offering to minister to widows who had lost their husbands or who had been raped, mutilated, and/or infected by HIV during the genocide. Because the church played a role in the massacre of around 800,000 people, a man of faith was not trusted.
But Steven did not give up. He kept showing up at their door.
Eventually, Steven’s sincerity won the hearts of several women who trusted him with their stories of trauma and hopelessness.
Steven said to us, “As I listened to these women’s horrific accounts, I realized her story was much like her story… and her story was much like her story. What if I bring them together?”
That is what he did.
Today, the cooperative is a one-of-a-kind community of young people working together to lift themselves from very difficult circumstances. Everything they do is done with open-arms that invites surrounding villagers to share in the blessings.
I cannot help but think about the fear twenty-two-year-old Steven must have felt in this horrific time in Rwanda. Managing his own trauma and livelihood were challenging enough, yet
he approached the widow’s door,
he approached the crying child,
he approached the pain and once he got closer, fear was overcome by purpose. He saw he could make life better for other people.
Life still holds great challenges for the community of Togetherness, but now there is family; no one walks alone in his or her despair. Together is better.
A few weeks after Natalie and I returned from Rwanda, my sister Rebecca came for a visit. One morning, she told me that our mom had been terrified about the trip. Rebecca said she encouraged her to go to the government site that lists travel advisories. If there was cause for concern, they agreed they would talk to me.
That is when Natalie spoke up. “I was so scared to go,” my brave and emotionally reserved daughter blurted out.
I was baffled. I had observed nothing but excitement and curiosity.
“How long were you scared?” I asked, expecting she would say a week or two before the trip.
“For months,” she admitted. “But I knew if I told you, it would make you scared and then we may not go.”
“How did you manage your fear?” I asked in astonishment.
Natalie ran upstairs. She came back with her journal—the one she toted around Africa each day, writing in it whenever we were riding from place to place.
Natalie flipped to the front pages. There must have been fifty inspiring quotes about leaving your comfort zone in order to find your purpose and to experience life.
As Natalie flipped through the quotes she said, “I knew if I faced this fear and made this trip, there would be nothing I couldn’t do.”
And then she said something quite astounding. “And you know what? Nothing I feared happened. Everything I feared was in my head. Not only was it the best ten days of my life, but I it’s when I really started to live. I feel like there’s something important I am supposed to do now. I want to keep walking beside my Rwandan friends.”
I took the journal into my hands, red dirt residue still around the edges. The last quote on page three gave me great pause.
“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” ― Mary Anne Radmacher
Between Steven and Natalie, there is a beautiful thread that spans 7,000 miles across a vast ocean to offer a critical message we could all use desperately right now. It is my honor to be the messenger:
Out of love
Through research and education
By thoughtful introspection and honest discussion
But don’t make choices out of fear.
Fear results in missed opportunities and tragedies.
Respond to pain,
Out of compassion
By intentionally listening and connecting
But don’t respond out of fear.
Fear results in further pain and anguish.
Out of hope
Through loving partnership
By side by side effort and open doors
But don’t build out of fear.
Fear results in mistrust, chaos, and dysfunction.
What is built based on fear is weak, corrosive, and will not stand.
What is built based on love, compassion, and understanding can withstand the test of time and endure the most traumatic events.
Thank you, Rwanda, for showing us the way.
Right now, each of us has the opportunity to choose what we will build our lives, our communities, our world, and our children’s future world upon.
Let us choose love, for it is the only force that can truly shelter us all.
And should we awake from a terrible dream, let us look up to the sky for divine comfort. The majestic moon we see from our window is the same one seen by our neighbor across the street, our neighbor across the country, and our neighbor across the ocean.
It is miraculous from where we stand, but it is even more miraculous if we see it from where our neighbor stands.
Let's hold each other in loving hands,
Fear cannot penetrate our oneness.
Together is better.
Dear friends of the Hands Free Revolution, If you would like to know more about Steven’s extraordinary life and mission, he has written an enlightening and healing book: The Pain of Challenges. Thank you, Katie Garner on behalf of African Road, for three of the exquisite photos used in this piece: the sunset captured on a drive back from Goma to Kigali, Kigali, Rwanda at night, and Steven at Togetherness. Thank you, African Road, for making this connection possible.
My dear friends, Natalie is writing in this space next week. She would be so grateful if you would come to read her first-ever blog post. If you don’t want to miss it, you can go to my blog and there is a box to enter your email address so you can receive blog posts directly to your inbox.
Next week, on the evening of November 14, I will be speaking in Natick, MA as part of the SPARK KINDNESS fall speaker series. This FREE event is almost sold out, so please register here soon! I can’t wait to see you! Thank you for your love and support. I cherish you.