Joy. In our churches and Christmas carols, we hear that word pretty often in December. But how often do we truly see it? How often do we truly demonstrate it? And how often do we mistake happiness for joy? For me, I’ve encountered joy in the faces, the tears, the laughter, and the hearts of some of the women and children I’ve observed in the last month—not because of the parties they attended (there weren’t any parties) or the presents they were going to give or get (there weren’t any presents) or the feasts in which they partook (there were no feasts—for most, hardly any food at all). Their joy comes from a different source, and with all the other stuff the rest of us are surrounded with and trying to do, I think most of us miss it most of the time. I know I do. Thankfully God decided to let me witness one display of joy that I couldn’t miss if I tried.
Let me try to give the background story. In late fall of each year, a committee at my school in Nairobi, Rosslyn Academy, accepts applications for organizations to help through our annual Christmas Project—where we collect money and/or other items to help with a need the organization has. Of course I wanted to submit the organization my aunt helps with, Village Project Africa (VPA), but being a new staff member and not really sure how the whole thing worked, I decided I’d hang back on that this year. A couple weeks after the first request for applicants was made, we received another email informing us that we hardly had any applicants and that often the selected organizations were nominated by Rosslyn staff members, so if we knew of any “worthy” organizations, then we were requested to submit them. So I did. I didn’t want to get my hopes up—like I said, I was a new staff member, the organization was pretty far away, etc., etc. Wellll….lo and behold, the selection committed overwhelming chose VPA along with another organization here in Nairobi, New Dawn Education Center. Yeah, I was pretty floored.
There is a lot more amazingness (yes, maybe I just made that word up) to this Christmas Project story—about the cow project and multi-storey gardens and how they’re going to help so many people, about the students who designed their own crazy ways of earning money to give to the project, about how proud I am of my own class for how they alone raised over $2000, about how much money was actually raised in total—but most of those stories have been told through VPA’s facebook site, and they’re secondary to my point in this post, so if you want to find out about them, check them out for yourself!
What matters for this story is that the students from Heritage Academy, VPA’s school, were invited to come to Nairobi to participate in our Christmas Project chapel—a time when the entire Rosslyn community gathers for a time of worship and to present the gifts to the organizations. This quickly became THE news in the village, from what I hear. You see, most of the children from Makutano have never left the village. Ever. That means they’ve never seen a paved road, tall buildings, swarms of people, concrete. For the 30 children who got to come, this was seriously the opportunity of a lifetime.
They arrived here at Rosslyn on the afternoon of December 15. The children walked across campus in two straight lines and hardly made a peep. I can’t imagine what was going on in their heads, but when I’m around, they’re pretty stoic, so it’s awfully hard to tell when they’re excited. They played on the playgrounds and on the soccer field (aka “football pitch”) before dinner. We fed them, some carolers came to visit, and then they went to bed. Friday morning they got breakfast, met a bunch of Rosslyn students, visited some classrooms, and performed on a stage in front of 600 people! (Pictures and video of all of that appear on VPA’s facebook page as well.)
Through all of this, there are a few shy smiles, but mostly straight faces, whispered answers, and hushed “thank yous.” But after lunch, it was all about to change and turn into the most beautiful display of innocent, childlike joy I’ve ever witnessed. After lunch, we took them swimming.
I wish I could recount the details of how it was all possible anyway—these kids didn’t have swimsuits, towels, anything for a pool. But through some “God-math” and some families who answered our pleas for donations, it was made possible, perfectly. I missed seeing the first few kids in the water because I was in the girls’ dressing room helping the last few get changed. But then I heard it, and I had to see it. Thirty kids in a baby pool, squealing and splashing like I’ve never heard. It almost seemed like time stood still for a few minutes while those kids had their first encounter with “swimming.” All of the restraint they’d held in erupted in that pool, and I am SO very glad it did! It was honestly one of the best things I’ve ever witnessed. Sheer joy. I got some of it on video, but it really doesn’t even begin to capture the moment.
As the kids splashed around over the next two hours, there were a few times when they burst into song. (These kids LOVE to sing! Davis said one of the vans of kids sang the whole six hours to Nairobi!) In the pool, first it was the Hokey-Pokey, then another silly song. But then what I heard, what struck me, is what I’m trying to write about. Those kids, who’d never seen a city, who struggle to have shoes and food to eat, who’ve lost parents and grandparents to disease and death and drinking and divorce, who’ve suffered and hurt more than we can imagine, they began to sing:
“I’m trading my sorrows, I’m trading my shame, I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord.”
And they have, too.
It just took a swimming pool to turn it loose!
In Habakkuk chapter 3, Habakkuk tells of things that will happen—loss of food, loss of crops, loss of cattle, basically total devastation for Judah. But then in verse 18 he says, “YET will I rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” And that’s what I saw in those kids in the baby pool at Rosslyn Academy on December 16. They rejoice in God their Savior because for most of them, it’s pretty much all they have.
There’s more to this story, because to know where these kids are coming from, you should meet some of the women in their lives—all widows, all living in teeny-tiny houses with mud walls and mud floors, most struggling to survive day-to-day. Irene, Florence, Zipporah, Beatrice, Jane, and Mama Mombasa, just to name a few. But their stories are for another time.
For now, simply take time to give your life some perspective. What do you allow to get in the way of joy? Circumstances? People? Sin? Your job? Finances? Leaf blowers? (That one was for me.) This isn’t a new problem, by the way. Thousands of years ago, King David was missing out on some joy too. His prayer?
“Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” ~Psalm 51:12
If you’re looking for some joy, I’d say that’s a pretty good place to start.
(To see and hear the kids during their pool time, click here.)