The day I graduated from a small international school in Niamey, Niger was potentially one of the saddest days of my life. But after that, I fully embraced just living in Niger, a country I care about immensely. However, four short months later, I had to leave West Africa, the place of my childhood since the age of two and the closest thing to a home I had ever had. I felt like I was being ripped away from a place I deeply loved, not knowing when I would ever return. I had to go to a country I vaguely knew—seemingly filled with only difficult memories and no real place or thing to go to. I had to fight hard against the threatening bitterness and hold tight to God. After all, he knew what he was doing, and I knew what I really needed was him. Nearly a year after arriving in the US, I somehow ended up at OneLife.
Being at OneLife was hard sometimes, but it was also so good. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
It was tough at first, trying to find my place there. I didn’t want to be defined by where I’d been, but it’s not like I could hide it – Niger is such a part of who I am, so sometimes it would just come spilling out of me. My classmates quickly got used to my nervously confused responses when speakers would ask where we were from! I struggled to know how much to talk about life in Niger. I hesitated to open up because I was afraid of setting myself apart as being different, of intimidating or overwhelming people, or of being too self-focused. I didn’t want to just be the cool “African kid” that everyone was kind to. I wanted so badly to just be one of them.
But, I did notice fairly quickly how my classmates seemed to sincerely love Jesus and take very seriously their desire to grow as we followed him together. That was something I could share with them. And they truly gave me the love of Jesus. I remember once, later on, looking around the room at breakfast and realizing how each and every one of these special people had been there for me at some point when I needed it. I think you inevitably become close in the OneLife program, with the amount of time you spend together, and all the things you go through together. (This coming from someone who knows the tight bond of a missionary community and an international school!) After doing emotionally exhausting heart-idol presentations in December, it felt like we went from being friends to being family. As I became comfortable with the other OneLifers and we gained more shared experiences, the question of how to be known by them got easier. By the end, I was confident of the steady love they had shown me, but found I needed it less, being more firmly rooted in my acceptance and identity in Jesus. Hence, I became more free to be myself.
Part of that was learning to share my thoughts more, for the benefit of other people. I tend to be pretty timid when it comes to speaking up, but people kept encouraging me, telling me I had unique perspective to give, especially having grown up in another place. The first time I let loose a piece of West Africa (and some thoughts on the broader world ) to the whole group was in a planned worship night. I was terrified but then blown away by the showers of encouragement and love and genuine appreciation my friends showed in response. OneLife became a place where everyone knew me so well that when I was unfamiliar with some aspect of American life, they automatically understood why, and it was perfectly okay. They were always beside me to explain things and help! I belonged with the 43, and I can say that it is possible to find a place here in America.
That’s not to say there weren’t insanely rough times. The littlest things would send me back to a world I’d lost—a gagging feeling would hit my stomach and there would be no one to share it with. Other times I would get ridiculously excited over some insignificant experience that reminded me Niger and my friends would patiently try to be happy with me. When we returned from Israel and they longed for familiar things (American things, in their case), I felt like screaming that that was how I felt all the time, except for me, the familiar never came. Sometimes I would just cry, and although my friends couldn’t quite understand why, they would just hug me.
OneLife talks a lot about putting your own story into God’s grander story. It certainly helped me understand more clearly my experiences in light of Jesus’. Jesus was lonely, with no one who understood, before I was ever misunderstood. Christmastime made me painfully homesick for West Africa – more than usual. But I realized how Christmas is actually the commemoration of Jesus leaving his home so we could have one. I’m able to see on an even deeper level how the endless, restless ache for something like home points to being created for a better world. I think OneLife gave me better tools for processing grief and loss, belonging and acceptance – all the standard TCK stuff. I also have a firmer grasp on the permanent goodness of the God who never ever leaves.