When I was fifteen I began to entertain thoughts of saving the world, so I sold cookies and washed a few cars one summer whith the help of some good friends in the small town where we lived. I bought a big backpack, the biggest one I ever owned in my life, it reminded me of the tourist muzungus (whites) that used to walk around Nairobi when I was a kid, smiling at everything in their surroundings. If there is anything in this world that will make you feel like you are about to accomplish something seriously epic, it’s probably carrying around a backpack about the size of your own body. I boarded a plane and after a one week detour in Dallas, Texas, where we were provided with the basics and essentials of how to save the world, I ended up eventually in an inner city community in South Central, Los Angeles.
The kids I travelled with giggled a lot, laughed a lot, cried a lot, talked a lot and took many pictures. But I spent that summer like most of my teen years mostly in silence. I was the only non-white member of the short-term mission trip team of young people. But I wasn’t particularly aware of that in those days seeing as most of my world back home, at church and at school was homogeneous. I would break my silence every once in a while to share a thought or force an attempt at a conversation after feeling that my silence was getting awkward. Almost all of the time what ended up coming out of my mouth would be unintentionally funny and soon I was dubbed the funny girl from Canada. It was a comfortable little nook for me to settle in for the rest of the trip, now that I was explained away I could fall back into silence with less awkwardness. It also meant that now during meals when some extroverted voice would notice my silence and single me out sweetly with a “Hey Fanis, why are you so quiet?”, another equally extroverted and eager voice would quickly chirp in “You should have heard what she said to so and so” and then the voice would go on to quote one of my random remarks that would induce the laughter of the whole group. And I would smile comically as if the humour was perfectly intended and feel relieved at having escaped once again the unimaginable task of making myself known.
I think at fourteen and for the rest of our lives, we all feel deeply the desire to be known, but also not quite knowing ourselves, we have to withdraw hastily from any chance of meeting the impossible challenge of making ourselves known.
One day we went to do some drama and give away free stuff, and share the Christian gospel to those who would listen. On that day there was a mad black woman with worn clothes in the park. I felt really struck by her presence. Her mind had given way to either years of drug use or mental illness. I didn’t know her story. But something happened when she came to the park, I felt almost uncomfortable. I felt almost protective of her and indignant for her. I cringed when my team mates talked about her no matter how harmless their words. Looking back I think I was experiencing a crisis of belonging. I didn’t quite belong in the world that she seemed to represent, a hint margin and suffering that was out of the reach of my young imagination. Yet I projected something onto her as she wondered around laughing aloud then mattering to herself: I allowed her to represent all the unknown parts of me that were quiet and withdrawn and did not allow me to quite fit in with my team mates. And for this reason I felt drawn to her. We made eye contact many times during the drama presentation. When she laughed out loud disrupting one of the scenes of the dramatic presentation, I wanted to laugh with her. Something at that moment was perfectly humorous and I felt the joke. But at the same time like everyone else, I was afraid of her. I wanted to contain her, heal her, and explain her… anything to stop the awful muttering and laughing.
Many of the black people I came across in South Central L.A are almost black like me. It’s unexpected because the Black Americans on T.V are usually light skinned and I did not expect to find people that looked like me. It’s kind of like the bodies that they showed littering the streets after Katrina in New Orleans, and the people on T.V that were seeking shelter. They were surprisingly black. The little girls in South Central L.A had their hair twisted in matutas (thick braids). When my team mates started to hug them and take pictures of them. I wanted to shout at them. I wanted the cameras to stop flashing. And in my head I was screaming: “Stop it! What are you doing? Who are you going to show those pictures? You don’t know them! You don’t know me! They are not what you think, they are not faces from your mission trip, they are people like me!” Instead I stood quietly in the background.
We went back to our sleeping accommodations. Before we left L.A one evening we had a prayer service, the charismatic kind that some decades ago were not unfamiliar to that part of the United States. I like charismatic prayer meetings because I always feel free and like myself. Even then I was somewhat aware of the hundred year old history of William Joseph Seymour, a black preacher man born of slaves who started the Azusa Street Revival in L.A that gave birth to the Pentecostal Christian tradition in which I was raised. Seymour had also used his voice through the Azusa Street Revival to engage issues of racial inequality. All these had taken place at the turn of the 19th century just a few blocks from where we then stood during our prayer service.
The leaders took turns praying for each team member and soon it was my turn. When I was a teenager, perhaps as a result of my eccentric/egocentric adolescent imagination or some overenthusiastic sensationalistic sermons at youth meetings, I had developed a strong inner desire to discover that I was destined to fulfill some great purpose that had something to do with saving the world. When it was my turn to be prayed for, I really appreciated the drama and ceremony of the whole ordeal. A group of leaders surrounded me and took turns praying and saying blessings over me. Finally one of the leaders expressed that he was sensing a vision. I was very excited.
To be continued...