When I heard about the need for medical volunteers in Togo, I quickly volunteered to go. It was only after I made the 3-month commitment that I began reading more about the country. I learned that Togo is a country of close to 8 million people, located in West Africa, bordering Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso. I also learned that in 2013, the United Nations studied 170 countries, and Togo ranked dead last, making it the Least Happy Country in the World.
When I arrived in Togo, I discovered why. The president of Togo had taken over through suspicious circumstances, there were dozens of different tribal groups who often had conflicts with each other, the GDP per person was around $1,000 per year (in the U.S., it’s $54,000 per person each year). There’s no health insurance and no pediatric immunizations. The infrastructure is poor (many roads are unpaved, and supplies of food, electricity and water are precarious), and the average life expectancy is low.
There are two seasons in Togo: the rainy season and the dry season. In the dry season, people have to contend with drought, malnutrition, heat exhaustion and starvation. The rainy season is a blessing in many ways, because rivers fill up again and crops sprout up, but the mosquito population swells — so while the rain is good for the crops and animals, 10-times more children die of malaria in the rainy season than the dry season.
And there are ten kinds of poisonous snakes.
In WELL, I write about arriving in Togo and experiencing these dynamics in person, which left me to wonder,
“Is it possible for a place to be God-forsaken? Because if so, then surely Togo was that place.”
We’re tempted to think that sometimes, right?
The part of town we don’t drive through at night, the school district we’d never want our kids to be in, the city with high rates of violent crime, the countries where religious freedom is not tolerated, the crumbling house where only ghosts would dare to live, the communities plagued by unemployment and drug abuse.
I’ve heard Christians talk about Fortune 500 companies, other faith communities, public schools and Ivy League universities with the same headshakes and trepidation. In fact, when I got accepted to Yale for grad school, people pulled my parents aside and told them not to let me go, because the “secular” and “elite” Ivy League environment was a death trap for a follower of Jesus. (Much to my parents’ credit, they knew better and fully supported me.)
“Is it possible for a place to be God-forsaken?” we ask ourselves.
We shrug…and then concede that if it IS possible, then surely *that* is the place — we say as we point our finger at the place that scares us most.
Rumi said, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
As I cared for patients in Togo, I began to see Light show up in subtle, beautiful ways. The simplest medical tasks became holy.
Baptizing wounds with clean water.
Anointing feverish foreheads with cool cloths.
Administering Morphine and Valium as sacraments to the dying, in lieu of bread and wine.
Here’s the truth we often miss in the midst of our skepticism, fear and doubt.
A person ceases to be unlovable when they’re embraced in Divine Love’s arms. A place ceases to be uninhabitable when Love-with-skin-on moves in. The most daunting darkness is dispelled when the smallest candle finds the courage to flicker.
My friends, there’s no place on earth that’s God-forsaken – and no place on earth where we, who are Love’s hands and heart and feet, aren’t called to go.
So today, find the courage to shine Light into a dark corner of your neighborhood, your office, your community, your state, your country, your world.
No person is unlovable if YOU love them. No place is off-limits if YOU go there. Nothing is impossible if YOU do it.
What I came to see in Togo, and what I try to remind myself every day, is that there’s no place on earth that’s God-forsaken if people who experience and express the love of Jesus are willing to go there.