At fifteen, I was hungry. If it was from God, I wanted it. I wasn’t concerned with what it looked like or how crazy it seemed, I just wanted all God had for me. My passion: to finish all God had for me in my generation (something that was said of King David of the Bible, one of my all-time favorite heroes).
I just couldn’t get enough of God’s presence, though, the recognition that His presence dwelt within me had not come yet. So, to find His presence, I went to everything I thought He might be at. I was at prayer meetings, every church service, conferences, everything. One of the conferences I found myself at had breakouts that you could choose from. I chose to attend the world missions breakouts, not because I was really interested in missions, but because my youth pastor’s wife was convinced I was to be a missionary and I was curious. What was “missions” anyway? When I was young, I had wanted to be an archaeologist because I thought they got to travel all over the world and study cultures and I was passionate about both. Maybe this missions thing could be something like that.
Each session taught me a little more about missions in a way I had never heard. In one meeting, the emphasis was on the idea that missions was not about saving people from hell, but was about the glory of God and He receiving the praise He deserved. At the time, that definition burned within my heart. All I wanted was for my God to get the glory He was so worthy of. That is still a primary drive in my life, for my Love is so worthy of praise.
The last session of the entire conference was led by a man named Fred Markert. I’ve never forgotten his name, his tales of adventure and hilarity so captivated me that I didn’t move for the entire session. My eyes were glued on this man as he laughed and told of prison escapes and miracles and people seeing the hope of Jesus. Something within me came alive as he spoke. I didn’t know what it all meant, but I knew I wanted to have a life like his. I wanted to see God glorified in the nations and I knew I wanted to be the one of those who would go to those who had never heard. At the end, Mr. Markert called on any and all who felt they were called to full-time missions to stand so he could pray over them. I was on my feet before he finished the invitation. I had just found my life’s calling.
I went home with excitement bubbling out of me. There wasn’t a moment to lose, I needed to go as soon as I could. I knew of an organization that took teenagers all over the world for a couple months at a time (I got their magazines regularly), so I went straight to flipping through the pages. “Where do You want me to go?” I asked as I perused the each page carefully. My heart was set on two separate two-month trips that were to take place the next summer. One was to Brazil, the other to Botswana and South Africa. I was having trouble deciding which one to apply for. Both screamed adventure and promised I would meet people who had never heard the Gospel, things that were at the top of my priority list.
One evening, my family and I sat down to watch a movie and the plot of the movie took place in Sahara, Africa. There was a line in the movie in which a man said, “This is Africa! Nobody cares about Africa.” His words broke my heart. There I was, trying to hide the tears streaming down my face from my family as I thought “I care! God, I’ll go there.” That night, I applied to go on the Botswana/South Africa trip. Not long after applying, I was accepted to go to Botswana for one month and to South Africa for one month the following summer.
My greatest fear as I prepared to go to Africa was the funds. I had never before had to raise such a sum, $3,000. I felt it was an incredible amount that would take months to raise. I prayed constantly for the money, asking God to provide for this desire that was burning inside me like a fire. I had to get to Africa. I googled “fundraiser ideas” and chose my top ten that would get me started on the long journey of fundraising. My first choice: a pie auction.
I presented the trip to my church, and they were excited to be a part of helping me get there. I set a date for the pie auction and when the day arrived, I learned that almost everyone who had promised to bring something to sell had forgotten. My heart sank. “I knew this would be hard,” I thought, “but please, God, help me get to Africa.” I went to the youth room and remained after service to pray with my friend. I was on my knees asking God for His help when my mom came rushing into the room. “Chels! We’ve run out of room on the tables for all the stuff! You need to come help us!” I jumped to my feet and raced to the fellowship hall. The scene before me was hardly comprehensible in light of what I had been told that morning. All the walls were lined with tables filled with baked goods and jewelry people had made and donated. I had asked my youth pastor to be the auctioneer, but the room was so packed with people, we needed more help, so my friend jumped in to help with the bidding. Cheesecakes sold for over $500. Pies went for $50, $60, even $100! I delivered each product to the purchaser and watched as every item sold for outlandish amounts. After everyone had left, I sat down and tallied the amount raised. It was over $2,000, almost all I needed to be able to go. I stared at the number in disbelief. “I’M GOING TO AFRICA!” I screamed as I hugged anyone near me and jumped up and down with excitement. As I celebrated, one man came back into the church. “How much do you still need?” He asked. “About $1,000,” I replied. He smiled. “Ok,” he said and he turned and walked out the door. I turned and continued to celebrate as we cleaned up and prepared to leave. About five minutes later, that same man walked back into the church, handed me a check, and walked back out. I looked down at the check and couldn’t believe what I saw. He had written it for $1,000. I was going to Africa.
When the day finally arrived for me to go to Africa, I was so full of excitement, I couldn’t sleep for a week. My parents dropped me off in Texas with a backpack filled with a few sets of clothes and some toiletries and I headed off to save the world.
Stepping onto African soil was like coming home. This was a land I had never seen before, I knew next to nothing about, but I had never felt I belonged somewhere like I did that day. The next two months were filled with adventure and excitement, with heartbreak and fear, but every moment had something unique: purpose. I knew why I was there and I was going to live it to the fullest. I met people who had never heard the name of Jesus, had never had a white person step into their home, had joy unexplainable in the midst of the worst of circumstances, and love that I could not understand. I saw poverty unlike anything I had ever experienced before as we walked through squatter camps filled with shanty houses made with tarps and sewage running through the streets. I prayed for a three year old child who had AIDS and his life expectancy didn’t extend beyond his tenth birthday. I held hands with a woman kneeling and weeping because she had just been beaten by her husband. I played with children from dawn until dusk. I used a machete for the first time. I learned songs in Setswana and Sotho. I danced at every church service we attended and laughed until I couldn’t any longer.
I returned home with the sands of Africa a part of my DNA. I soon became the “Africa girl,” who talked way too much about her love for that land. The following summer, I returned to South Africa as an intern with one of the ministries I had spent time with the summer prior. While there, I heard the Lord speak to me more clearly than I had heard Him before. “You will come back here when you are 19.” I still remember dancing with my friend Josh as we celebrated this word I had received.
The January after I graduated, eight days after I turned 19, I moved to South Africa to intern with the same ministry I had met three years before. I would live there for one year and love every moment of it, no matter how great or difficult the circumstance. My time that year was filled with discipleship, writing, teaching, planning, growing, yelling, crying, laughing, loneliness, and an overwhelming feeling of belonging. As the saying goes, I had “all the feels.”
It was when God told me I would be returning to America that I began to struggle. “You’ve finally brought me to the land of my dreams, why are You taking it from me?” I would ask. One night, I laid on the floor and told God, “I’m not leaving this place until I hear from You. I need to know why You’re taking me back.” As I laid there, I had three visions, back to back to back. Each spoke of God’s unrelenting faithfulness to His Word to me, of His love for me. He revealed to me a heart condition I had developed that He wanted to heal and free me from. I wouldn’t fully comprehend these visions and their meanings until several years later, but what I did receive from them would carry me through some of the darkest years of my life. He promised He would give it all back and it would be better than before.
Upon returning home, I floundered. I felt as if I was drowning in an ocean and just couldn’t seem to get my head above the water. I prayed. I went to church. I started going to college and working nights, but I felt I had been swallowed by darkness. I was angry at God for taking something so precious away from me. I felt alone in my struggle as those in my community tried to help but had no reference for what I was going through.
It was in this time of struggle and depression that my friend decided to take me out of town for a day. He said maybe if we got away and just had some time to have fun, it would help. So we climbed in his car and drove several hours to Colorado Springs. As we approached the city, he looked at me and said, “You need to get your tattoo.”
“What?” I replied.
“You’ve been talking about getting Africa tattooed on you for awhile now, because you love it so much, and I think you should get it.”
Tears welled up in my eyes. I knew he was right. It was time to remember God’s faithfulness to His promise that I would not forever be separated from what I loved.
“Ok,” I said. So we drove to the nearest tattoo shop (a clean one of good repertoire) and a man called Hollywood put Africa on my arm. As he was finishing up the tattoo he asked if I wanted anything in the actual Africa part. “I don’t think so,” I said. “What did you have in mind?”
“Well,” he said, “I have some red, do you want me to put a heart in there for you? I can free-hand it.” I told him that would be perfect and he put a heart right in the center of the continent.
I look at that tattoo and remember the place I love so deeply, but I also remember the great faithfulness of my God. See, Africa had become more than just a place I loved, but it had become my identity. I didn’t know who I was without it and I lost my way. I have a good Father who longs to be the One who gives me my identity, but sometimes things must be taken away for us to come into the fullness of God’s best for us. Even good things. However, those good things are always replaced with greater things. I have an incredible life that keeps getting better. It’s beyond anything I could have imagined, and I have a really good imagination. But God has a way of surprising us. He shows up in ways we don’t expect, both in the good times and in the painful. He would continue doing that for me as He gently restored me to my identity as His daughter.