When I left for Togo last year, it was shortly after the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and many people asked me, “Is it safe?”
I usually answered, “I don’t know for sure that it’s safe, but I do know for sure that I’m supposed to go there.”
When I left for Kenya last week, several people asked me the same question. “Is it safe?”
Kenya borders South Sudan and Somalia, which have both had violence and unrest and Nairobi, the capitol of Kenya, has experienced several terrorist attacks. In addition, it’s rainy season here, which means lots of mosquitoes, which means the risk of contracting malaria is 10x what it is in the drier seasons.
But still, my answer was the same. “I don’t know for sure if it’s safe, but I do know for sure that I’m supposed to go there.”
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not taking unnecessary risks. I’m not going to dangerous neighborhoods or walking in the dark by myself. I’m not taking a bus to Mogadishu or off-roading in a Land Rover in South Sudan. I sleep under a mosquito net every night, take anti-malaria medicine and spray myself with insect repellent at least twice a day.
But beyond that….the rest is in God’s hands.
I am in God’s hands.
Sometimes it’s easy to confuse what is “safe” for what is “right,” but those two ideals are not necessarily synonymous. Sometimes what is “right” is taking a big financial, physical, emotional, academic, career or spiritual risk. Sometimes it means losing rather than gaining. Giving away rather than accumulating. Being vulnerable instead of being protected.
But this is the paradox that Jesus called us to.
Deny yourself and take up your cross.
Lay down your life in order to find it.
Forsake all you have and receive 100-fold more in this world and the world to come.
Give yourself over to death in order to experience the resurrection.
I’ve thought about this paradox a lot as I’ve walked the dusty (or, if it rained the night before, extremely muddy) roads of rural Kenya. As I’ve considered the risks of traveling alone, living at a rustic homestead without indoor plumbing or electricity, killing mosquitoes lurking on the cinderblock walls of my bedroom at night.
Two days ago I was walking down a back road, trying to find a shortcut home, when I came across a commotion in the center of a circle of 5 mud huts with thatched roofs.
A tall, sinewy young man was abusing a young woman. I watched as he slapped her across the face several times, then took her shoulders and threw her to the ground. She lay there crying and didn’t get up.
A crowd of children gathered. Plus, there was one man in his 40’s who looked like he could’ve been a linebacker who stood there with the crowd of children, arms crossed in front of him, watching the scene unfold.
I’ll be honest. At first, I kept walking. I didn’t want to get involved. I was in a foreign country. I don’t know the phone # for police here, and my phone doesn’t work in Kenya anyway. It would take hours to get to the hospital if I was injured in a confrontation.
These are all the reasons (justifications? excuses?) I made as I continued walking. But I couldn’t ignore the sick feeling in my stomach — and the anger of the injustice I had seen. And I couldn’t let those children watch domestic abuse happening in their neighborhood. God forbid they would come to believe that this was normal, or expected, or allowed.
So I stopped in my tracks, breathed a prayer for help, turned around, and, with all the authority in me, stomped into the yard.
The young man had pulled the sobbing woman to her feet and was slapping her across the face again.
I didn’t put myself between the man and woman because that seemed not only unsafe but unwise. Instead, I stood 10 feet away and yelled, “Hey! Let her go!”
The young man was startled, and suddenly let go of her shoulders and stalked away. The woman sank to the ground with her face in her hands.
I looked at the linebacker who was standing close by, watching. “What’s gong on?” I asked him.
“It is nothing, frau,” he said in English, for some reason assuming I was German. “Everything is okay. It is a simple marital dispute.”
“Everything is NOT okay!” I yelled. “Look at her!” I pointed to the weeping woman.
I knelt down next to her and put my arm around her.
“Do NOT let him hit her again, do you understand me?”
The linebacker looked startled, too, at the feistiness coming from a small white woman.
“You PROTECT her,” I insisted. “Do you understand?”
“Yes, frau, yes,” he said.
“If he does this again, you call the police, okay?” I said to her, and to him.
The girl wiped her tears and nodded. The linebacker nodded, too.
When the drama was over, the children began to disperse. I got up and left — only I realized that the road I’d taken was a dead-end, so I turned around to retrace my steps back to the main road.
And that’s when I saw him. The abusive man was standing at the corner, looking the opposite direction. I had to walk past him to get to the main road.
I was fully prepared for him to suddenly turn around and land a round kick on my face. I prayed a short prayer again, “Jesus, help!” And walked past him as quickly as possible. Once I was a dozen yards down the road, I turned to make sure he wasn’t following me. He had disappeared.
A mile later, I sat down in the shade of a large tree, realizing how much adrenaline had been coursing through me as I engaged in the situation. I drank some water and debriefed with myself, asking if that was really a wise choice I had made.
My heart gave a resounding YES.
Yes, it was right to speak up for a battered woman.
Yes, it was right to yell in order to get her abuser to leave her alone.
Yes, it was right to set a better example for the children who were watching.
Yes, it was right to get the linebacker to use his large frame to defend a defenseless woman.
Was it safe? Umm…….no.
But I’m convinced in my soul, it was right. And if in the future I encounter a situation where what is “right” and what is “safe” are opposing options, I pray for the courage and grace to pick “right” over “safe” every time.