COLUMBIA, S.C. (BP) -- I sat stunned for what felt like hours when I read the first email from Bamako, the capital of Mali, from one of our Southern Baptist friends. Something I had known might happen -- but prayed wouldn't -- had indeed occurred. In that frozen moment of time the morning of March 22, hundreds of memories raced through my head: the people I had encountered, the places I had been, the smells, the sounds, hundreds of memories.
When I was in Mali in February, I told the believers in our village the day may come when we could not get to them. Either the economy, or more likely political unrest in their country, may prevent us from being able to get to their village. I challenged them to continue to assume responsibility for sharing the Word of God with their family, other villagers and neighboring villages. Now I sat wondering, "Was that my last trip?"
I have since spoken with one of the Malians who has been a translator and become a dear friend -- he is doing fine but staying inside. I also received emails from two Southern Baptist workers with whom we have worked, who report the same. They tell me a church team from the United States remained in the bush country in a small village and continued sharing stories. A college student with them declared it "the best spring break ever."
It is difficult to put into words the range of emotions I feel. Many world events surprise me and cause concern. But few touch me at the core of my being because I don't really know the people and haven't been there. But I have made many trips to Mali over the past five years and lived among the people. So I have cried and prayed and laughed and thanked God for the opportunities He provided to me.
This unrest began to surface when I was in Bamako in late January and early February. When our church team returned from seven nights in a village in the bush, we discovered an inconvenience: We couldn't go downtown and shop in the tourist market because families of soldiers were protesting what they considered the inappropriate response by their president to a rebellion in northern Mali.
But this is more than an inconvenience. It is more than complicated. It is personal.
What will this mean in the days to come for our friends in Mali? Will our church be able to travel again into the village that has been our home among the Bambara people?
As Westerners, we are too often insensitive and grow hardened to the plight of the world as we are constantly bombarded with news. This is not out of sight, out of mind, anymore. I remember the last night of my first trip to Mali in 2007. A friend there asked me, "Are you all right?"
"How can anyone see what I have seen and be all right?" I responded.
The hunger, the poverty, the fear, the lostness, so many things that rip at your heart. So when I heard the news on March 22, I could not help but weep. Weep and pray. I have too many friends there. I have seen so many beautiful children and people. I have enjoyed their smiles and their hospitality, even when they had so little to share.
My most vivid memory is from the summer of 2009. We had watched the harvest decrease and food become scarcer each year. That summer, however, one of the Christian workers called me and said, "They are eating grass." Our church partnered with Baptist Global Response, a global Southern Baptist relief and development organization, to feed approximately 32,000 people from 60 different villages.
The villagers' appreciation for the food was obvious. The same warmth in their smiles was contagious. Sometimes it was the village imam who spoke. Sometimes it was the chief or one of the elders, but over and over I heard the same thing: "We have never heard this name Jesus before."
Could that really be true? In these villages where I see T-shirts emblazoned with American college names and Coca-Cola, and where there is cell phone service in places without electricity or running water -- could it really be?
It is true.
As I read that first email from Mali the other day, I wanted to walk out the front door of my mud hut in the village and be greeted by the warm smiles and the hot sun one more time. I wanted to smell the pungent odor of the shay nuts cooking. I wanted to watch the children kicking the soccer ball in the rock-strewn field. I wanted to drink tea with the men sitting around the charcoal fires and tell stories. I wanted to hear the Bambara men tell me that I am bigger than a donkey and laugh that I would ask to ride in one of their donkey carts.
The villagers tell me their home is my home, so my heart is heavy. Not only do I have Malian friends there but American ones as well. I will weep for them. I will pray diligently for them. I will long to see them.
Brad Bessent is senior pastor of Church Unleashed @ Beulah in Columbia, S.C. His blog can be found at bradunleashed.wordpress.com.
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