As a little girl, I used to eagerly scour the pages of any exotic National Geographic that contained pictures of villages in rural Africa. My eyes were captivated by proud women with garish head wraps and more arm bangles than my Barbie doll-by gaunt faces of children with resigned eyes that somehow seemed much older than my own. I couldn’t tear my gaze away from lean-to shacks fashioned out of abandoned construction materials and cardboard boxes standing precariously in the midst of a dusty, desert wasteland that stretched far beyond the brilliant orange and yellow sunset skyline.
Like a meteor shooting through my imagination, Africa captured my daydreams.
In high school, I got to step into the pages of the National Geographic when a starry July night found me on the outskirts of just such an African village, in Botswana. It was a place crushed by poverty, deadened by hopelessness. Squawking chickens and bleating goats competed with the distant sound of beating drums that together comprised the ebb and flow of a symphony unlike anything I had ever heard. The overwhelming stench of raw sewage and trash strewn haphazardly about tickled my nose as I sat wide eyed in the back of a rusty pick up truck.
My team and I were showing the Jesus Film in the village that night. I don’t know if you’ve seen it; but it’s a movie that depicts the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We set up a rickety screen in the middle of an open, dusty field, and a small projector provided the only light for miles. [In a place with no electricity, nightfall becomes an altogether different thing.] In the murky black of that night, one of my teammates stood in front of the gathered crowed just before the movie began, and explained that the man they were about to see in the film was the Son of God, and the answer to the sin that separated them from Him.
And then the grainy film flickered to life.
There’s a shot at the beginning of the crucifixion, when the camera shows a nail being pounded into Jesus’ hand. As the hammer dealt its first deadly blow that night, a sharp scream pierced the darkness.
I’d never heard anything like it before, nor have I since. Gut wrenching and agonizing-the scream seemed to come from everywhere at once. Echoing off of rocks and dead trees, all-consuming in its grief-it was only clear that someone, somewhere, was breaking.
It took several minutes to find the source-but finally, we stumbled across an inconsolable older woman doubled over, hopelessly rocking back and forth as desperate tears made rivers down her withered cheeks.
Through her broken sobs, we could only make out the heart-wrenching phrase “He’s dead! He’s dead! He’s dead.” Over and over, like hopeless waves of grief that threatened to lose her in their tide. Slowly, we came to understand that she’d never before heard about Jesus.
And with typical Western naiveté, we had presented a glimpse of the gospel before the film-but an incomplete one. We’d told the crowd that the man they were about to see was the Son of God, the answer to their problem of sin and the only way to know God-…and then we’d started the film. Something in that woman’s heart had resonated with the truth that she needed Jesus as enthralled, she’d watch Him be born, she’d watched Him live…but suddenly, she was watching Him die. And she thought that was the end of the story-that there was no hope.
I have no memory of not knowing who Jesus was, or what He’d done for me. Do you? Yet somehow, that sweet woman had gone sixty plus years without ever hearing His name.
She heard His name that night-His name, and the end of the story. And that was the night that she decided to follow Jesus.
That was also the night that I got angry. It was very simple in my mind-the fact that she had never heard the gospel before was inexcusable and unacceptable. And that was the night that I decided to change the way I prayed. Instead of “God, if you call me to go, I will”, I began instead to ask Him to allow me to go.
In a world where at least 1.6 billion people don’t have access to the gospel, those of us that claim to follow Christ needn’t ask God elementary questions about what He wants us to do about it. If we really believe that Jesus alone can save, it ought to drastically altar the way that we live our lives. We know what God wants for those people-the question is not whether or not we are called to reach them, but how. Those 1.6 billion people have arrested and engaged my heart in a way that nothing short of Jesus Himself ever has.
That woman is why I came back to Africa-where I’ve met countless Muslim women that share her story. Women like Aya, who after hearing the gospel told me, “You’re so lucky, because Jesus died for you.”-without the foggiest idea that Jesus had died for her too. Or Sophie, who just this week commented “Everything I know about Jesus-I learned from you and Christy.” Or Awa, who after holding and
reading a Bible for the first time in her life, looked at Michelle and I with wonder and said “This is good! Who wrote this?!” Or Khadi, who after finally understanding for the first time why Jesus had to die, wistfully commented “Vraiment, He must truly love us.”
Yes Khadi, vraiment He does.
And those women? They are why I hope that if you walk with Jesus, you will consider how He would have you reach those that do not yet.
[Spending some time here will forever change the way you look at the world, and help you better understand what I’m talking about. ]