Feature

Home Sweet Home

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As I stepped off the plane, I couldn’t help but think, Is this the land of my ancestors? Is this perhaps where my family roots first sprouted?

But these questions had tugged at my heart long before I actually arrived in Senegal, West Africa.

All the Family I Needed

As an infant, I was given up for adoption and placed with a Christian couple that loved me unconditionally, as if I were their naturally born child. Although I had a family to call my own, because my parents are Caucasian and I am African-American, I knew that I would always wonder about my “roots.”

As I grew older, I never yearned for my birth parents because I had all the family I had ever needed. But as I met new people and they took in my “ethnic” look, the inquiries began: “What is your family background?” “Where are you from?”

When I answered with the only truth I knew—“Texas”—it almost seemed as if the curious questioners didn’t believe me.

Missionary Mindset

In November 2009, at the age of 29, I had the amazing opportunity to visit Senegal on a trip put together by the C&MA Short Term Missions Office (STMO) and the C&MA Association of African-American Churches (AAAC).

Donna Baptiste, director of Bridge Senegal, told us that one purpose of this trip was to give African-Americans a positive experience as missionaries with the C&MA. “When God calls you to be a missionary,” she said, “ask questions, develop relationships and take it back to your churches to help them understand the importance of the Great Commission Fund. God has done a good work, and it’s time we start giving back.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. I understand the sacrifices that the career missionaries are making in Senegal. I understand because when I think about going, I think about all the things I would have to leave behind and then all of the work that would lie ahead of me. I understand because when I think about going, it scares me to death.

The Shocking Truth

During my time in Senegal, I learned about the African-American missionaries who were treated very unfairly during their time of service. Because of that injustice, much damage was done to African-Americans in the C&MA, making being a missionary with this organization very unappealing to them. Hearing the stories of people who felt called to spread the gospel but were denied the opportunity really shocked me. I had always wondered why there weren’t more African-American missionaries and now that question has been answered.

Through a touching reconciliation service with the leaders of the C&MA and the AAAC, apologies were given and forgiveness was received. The participants of this trip were then challenged to stop the “bad” cycle and move toward a future that will involve more African-Americans in global missions.

African Connection

While I was excited to be able to serve God in any way possible, I was also eager to go to a place where I would blend in with the people around me—part of the racial majority for the first time in my life. It was also an opportunity for me, being adopted, to possibly bond with the people of my ancestors.

That connection began sooner than I had imagined. I began to blend in with my surroundings as soon as I arrived at my departing gate in JFK airport, where I sat among many people returning to Senegal from the United States. When we boarded, I was seated next to a Senegalese woman who immediately started talking to me in a language that I later discovered was Wolof. I smiled politely and told her I spoke English. She laughed, apologized and said that I looked exactly like a Senegalese woman. Little did I know that this would be the theme for the next 11 days!

As Bridge Senegal split up into ministry teams and met the nationals, there was not one time that a Senegalese person didn’t at first mistake me for a fellow citizen. Even when they found out I was not from Senegal, most told me that judging from the tone of my skin and the shape of my face and body (I am thin and nearly six feet tall), there was no doubt that my ancestors were Senegalese. It became a running joke with my teammates that I needed to carry my passport at all times or the authorities would never let me go home!

But I saw an opportunity in looking Senegalese, and I began to use this to my advantage. I felt accepted by them (even after they found out I was American), and they were intrigued that I was in their country for only a short time. They wanted to know more about me, which led to many good conversations about my Christian faith.

Praise and Worship

I was on the music ministry team that sang at various locations around Dakar and Sali (another Senegalese city). One of our “gigs” was at the most popular jazz club in Dakar. Most nights, it was the place to be—a lot of college-age kids came to hang out. It’s a very secular scene, and our team opened for a hip-hop group. Senegal is 95 percent Muslim, and the majority of our songs were praise and worship. Needless to say, we were all very nervous about the crowd’s response. I could feel my heart thumping; my hands were sweaty and my stomach was uneasy. Would they boo us, throw things, clap along or just be silent?

As we started our first praise song, Better than Life, the smiling people actually started moving to the beat, and some even took pictures. It was such a relief to know that they were an accepting crowd, and my only prayer then was that they would really listen to the words of the songs. As we continued our set, I was blessed to see some people singing along and clearly enjoying the upbeat music praising our God. It was an indication of the openess of the hearts of the Senegalese people.

As I think back on that night, I remember what one of our team leaders, Rev. Terrence Nichols, told us at the beginning of our trip. He said that the prayer for Bridge Senegal should be Isaiah 43:18–21: “‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.’” My only hope was that, through this “unconventional” way of spreading God’s love, someone might hear the words we sang and see the pure joy in our faces and link the two together.

Yearn to Return

Throughout the trip, I was continually challenged and plagued by questions stirring deep within me. Why did God send me on this trip? What is my purpose? Am I to come back some day, and if so, for how long? We are only here for 11 days—what difference can I make in that short time? Then I remembered what Matt Peace, director of the C&MA’s STMO, said to our team: “You did not choose to be on this trip—God chose for you to be on this trip. He is going to do something much larger. A short-term mission is often the door that is opened for the church to get more involved with missions.”

I realized that I couldn’t figure everything out about the future right there in Senegal, but I do know that I was there for a reason. God would not have sent me to Africa and let me blend in so well, let me be accepted so much by this specific people group, let me be mistaken for a Senegalese woman every day and let me fall in love with the country and its people if He didn’t want me to go back. Something was planted inside me during that trip that makes me yearn to return. God gave me the gift of going to Africa, but most of all He gave me the opportunity to feel as if I had returned home to a place that felt eerily familiar, to a place where I could look into anyone’s face on the street and literally see my own, He gave me the opportunity through this short-term trip to step out of my comfort zone and let Him do something new in me.

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