I am a Christian. I grew up in the church. At the age of 10, my parents left their high-paying jobs and our upper-middle-class lifestyle, to become missionaries in Cape Town, South Africa. Not knowing if we would have enough money for food the next week, we lived off of donations for the year that we lived there. When we moved back to the States, my dad became a pastor of a church in a new town in New Jersey, very different from the one I grew up in Maryland.
I have over 200 community service hours from serving in the church. I sang, I ran the sound system, I was a part of the dance ministry, I took on leadership positions, I taught Sunday school, I ran the screens, sometimes I ushered, and a couple of times a year I would preach on Sunday morning. I was a Christian. Whenever there was a gap to fill in the church, I would fill it immediately upon the request of the pastor, my dad. I have spent my 17 years of life in the church.
But I realize that I had some misconceptions of my role in the church. I dedicated much of my time to the church but I never really took the time to build a relationship with Christ. All my life I thought: if I know church rhetoric and I am active in the church then I am a Christian. As a result of not actually knowing who God was in my life, I search for validation in my achievements in church, as a daughter, and a student. And all that time, I wasn’t in my Word. My prayer life was non-existent. I was doing the things that church people are “supposed” to do, but I wasn’t doing the one thing that God truly called me to do. God’s first and greatest commandment: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” All my life I was only doing the things that came as a result of loving God, without actually taking the time to understand who God was in my life; how He had provided in my life. And even more so, as a result of not truly loving God, my Creator, who created me in His imagine and likeness, I didn’t love myself. As a black woman, society told me to assimilate, that my hair wasn’t naturally beautiful, that my skin should be lighter but that I should thank God I’m not dark-skinned, society told me: be lucky you have a white grandmother, that she was able to baptize your blackness and make it holy. I was stuck. I didn’t know God so that I couldn’t love God, and because I didn’t love God, I didn’t love myself, and because I didn’t love myself, I couldn’t honestly walk in purpose.
Society told me I needed to go to a good school, so I strived for the best schools. I spent four years of my life running towards this goal of success. While I don’t diminish my achievements, all of my validation came from them. After my acceptance into Princeton, I cried and cried at night- I had never felt emptier in my life. My teachers could tell something had changed in me, but everyone was so happy for me because I had “made it.” Because I didn’t know who I was, the struggle of self-love continued.
And then I came to Senegal. I believe that this seemingly unexpected turn in my “path to success” saved my life.
And I know, for anyone who for some reason is still reading is probably like, “Wow, this girl is a crazy Christian, and she is in Senegal during service, and she is supposed to be writing about all these new things and….” But Senegal has given me space to reflect. Space where I am all by myself. Space where I have been forced to confront the real me that I had still yet to discover. And all of my realizations about my faith, have changed who I am and thus the way I view the things I experience here in Senegal one of the major ones being served.
I believe that I had misconstrued views of service because I had misaligned opinions of myself and how I fit into various contexts outside of myself.
As I know to begin a journey of self-discovery, I simultaneously begin to understand my global context and the implications that have on service.
I don’t have all of the answers. In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize that I am not supposed to have all of the answers. Solutions to problems are ideas that emerge with people collaborating.
The better I develop an understanding of myself: how I love, how I hurt, who I am, the better I can understand these things in other people and connect with others. I believe it is this connection with others, where the most efficient, sustainable, and just solutions emerge.
We must learn to live in harmony with our contradications, before we can even begin to understand the complexity of others, nonetheless the vast complexity of larger systems.
In the words of Nikki Giovanni, “If you don’t understand yourself, you don’t understand anybody else.”