Lessons from the Bathroom

“I’ve peed in a lot of weird places.” This was my statement as I came out from behind the tree on to the trail we were hiking. The bathrooms at the foot of the trail were closed due to Covid, and so I had no choice but to find my own privy. It got me thinking about all the places where I have “done my business,” so to speak. In a hole in the ground in Malawi, freshly dug specifically for the Mzungu but with only 3 walls that went as high as my chest and kids standing all around watching. (Talk about performance anxiety!) Underneath an Acacia tree while a silent giraffe snuck up on me and scared me half to death. In front of the Land Cruiser in the middle of the dirt road we were driving on because all around me there were “Caution- Land Mine” signs. On the side of the highway with a couple of interns standing around me keeping curious baboons away while we all laughed nonstop from the awkwardness of it all. One time in South Sudan I was using a stall (again with no door) in the dark. As I was squatting, trying to hold my skirt up and not touch anything (because GROSS) while still getting the job done I saw a man coming towards me quickly. He didn’t hear me speak and kept coming, and I was alone and nervous, so I stood up mid-stream, shined my phone flashlight at him, and yelled loudly. He was startled, I was a wet mess, and we both walked away embarrassed. When you are out and about in other countries you don’t always have public toilets -at least not ones you really want to use! But using the toilet is not something you can avoid for very long in your life, so you quickly learn to adapt to your surroundings.

Ask any missionary and they will tell you they talk about adapting – a lot. (And probably about their toilet trials as well, but I will end that subject now.) We learn that the majority of things around you in a new culture are not necessarily wrong, they are simply different. Learning to pivot, to adapt, to change our original plan (or the second plan, or the fifth plan…) is a way of life when you live in a culture that is not the one you grew up in. You ask a lot of questions, you pray, you train your mind and heart to see it differently and to make it work. It’s a really good trait, but not one that comes naturally to me and can be really hard work.

I grew up in the US but like many of you, I feel like I have been in a foreign culture this last year. We came back from Kenya different than when we left. Our wounds from the previous 5 years were closed and scabbed, but not all completely healed. We had a whirlwind time when we first got back with doctors appointments, job interviews, college graduations, moving, and trying to settle into a city that was brand new to all of us. Just when we started to feel like we were getting our feet under us, the whole world stopped. Transition takes a full two years to go through the cycle of uprooting, moving, starting to feel like you might have a clue, roots beginning to go down, then being firmly planted. Two years of celebrations, traditions, local customs being watched and enjoyed, relationships being formed and tried on. That is what it takes to be familiar and at home. But we were only barely out of the pulling up stage when pandemic hit.

Suddenly we were forced to adapt again. I felt like I was taken out of my nice clean, private house with 2.5 bathrooms and set in the middle of the land mine road again with baboons around and people staring as I tried to do my business. This wasn’t part of the plan.

I had it in my naive head that we might have a reprieve from that type of adapting when we came back “home” despite all the reading I did that told me otherwise. I felt like our first 6 months here were good and we were on track. Then suddenly we were figuring out how to continue to connect with people we didn’t yet know that well, we were navigating counseling sessions with people who were hurting but we didn’t have a “before” baseline for, and we were personally mourning the loss of the avenues that we had been just starting to use to form real friendships. Youth group was cancelled, in-person service was cancelled, no one wanted to chance getting near anyone else because we didn’t yet have any understanding of how this mystery virus worked so there were no big meals and game nights with other people.

Like all the other times I had to adapt, when I finally sat back and allowed the Spirit to work and reveal things to me, I could see some of the good. I could see that God was not caught off guard by this, and while I may still think his timing stinks, I know that the truth is he knows better than I do and his ways really are good. We have gotten to know our neighbors well from sitting out on the porch and talking over the fence because we were all home; we have spent time together as a family – all of us in one house; we’ve cooked together, done puzzles, hiked, gamed, watched tv, celebrated holidays, and laughed a lot. We have also cried a lot. As we slowed down we realized for all of us that we had some grieving to do over the loss of our very full lives in Kenya and South Sudan. We missed friendships, church, the weather, and the teammates. We had not had the time or margin to grieve these things, but all things must be named and acknowledged before they can be healed.

We will continue to adapt as we keep navigating not only this pandemic, but life after it. How do we learn to really listen and love well? How do we help others heal? How do we step away from our own fears and step into the hard stuff with our brothers and sisters? We pray, trust, and adapt our view as needed.

And we do a lot of laughing as we try to avoid the monkeys while peeing.

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