My grandfather surely would have loved Justin.

My grandfather surely would have loved Justin.

We had walked down the hill around the corner and we were standing in the middle of a meadow on the college campus, surrounded by these beautiful towering pines, on the place where we’re going to build the chapel one day.

It was just me, and Justin, and this young man we were talking to about the possibility of coming to teach with us at the college. This was not your typical job interview, and not just because it was happening outdoors. Justin, Godfrey, Emmanueli and I had had our eyes on this guy for months now and we were pretty sure we wanted him to join us, so much so that we sent him the money for the bus fare to travel 500 kilometers and we arranged for Justin to pick him up and bring him the last 60 kilometers in the car. But we had to make sure that he knew just how really different we are from the norm, and that he truly understood what he would be getting himself into if he were to choose to join us. Justin wove in so many of the important details of the history of Village Schools, and while none of it was new to me because I had lived it all, it was still captivating there under those huge pine trees to listen to Justin tell all those stories.

And then Justin started talking about the two students who were sitting in the back seat of the car when Justin had driven the guy to the college. I was fascinated by the way he told him – and me -- the story. I remembered how when the car drove up to the college that four people got out instead of the two I expected, and how Justin told the two who got out of the back seat – a young man and a young woman -- to drop off their small suitcases in the library and to go straight into class with the other students. The two of them had come to Bukimau to ask for jobs. Any jobs. His parents were both dead. Her father had died. Her mother really had nothing, but that woman had taken the young man in anyway when he was just a boy and treated him as if he were her own. And now she had sent the two of them to Justin to beg that he somehow give them both jobs. Justin told us when he said to them that there simply were no jobs of any kind right now that he thought that the girl was going to cry. I have no job to give you, but why don’t you both come to the college and study, the fees are low, you can pay slowly. They have nothing Mzee, you saw them, you know that. Justin looked our prospective professor right in the eye, and paused. This is exactly why we have created this college. This college isn’t about teaching great lessons – even though we will teach the best lessons imaginable. This isn’t about being one day the best college in all of Tanzania – although I do dream, and I know Mzee dreams, that one day it will be, even if that’s not our goal. This isn’t about selecting the best students who apply, weeding out the weakest candidates, making sure we have the brightest minds possible – this college is about finding the neediest kids out there, the ones who have no hope, those, like Baraka and Deborah, who would never even dream of getting to go to college – finding them, and then bringing them in. If you join us, you have to understand that our job here is more than teaching -- together we will be seeking out those on the bottom, and finding them, and bringing them in.

The three of us stood there in silence. I looked up into the trees that surrounded that meadow we were standing in.

And then Justin was telling the story of his life, how he was once one of those kinds of kids, how when he was in primary school all he could dream of was that one day he would go to secondary school, but how he knew in his heart that there was no way that it would ever happen for him. And how it was me who God used to pluck him out from the direction of going no where and got him into school, and how eventually he went off to the university, and now is a professor at this college. I had to look up at those towering pines because I think if Justin had seen my eyes, that I would have lost it.

The guy who had travelled half way across the country to interview with us was enthralled hearing the story of Justin’s life. My mind was racing, thinking of the kids at our college today. The young man Emmanueli found and brought to the college, “because, Mzee, I know doing it is just the right thing to do.” The young woman whose father won’t help her for reasons unknown, who has been working for us for two years now as a registrar at one of our schools, who Godfrey told to just take the chance that we would figure out how to make it work and sent her the money for bus fare. The kid who Msafiri spent two weeks on the phone back to his home village convincing his relatives that together they could make it happen, that they just needed to take a chance and to believe. They came in dribbles, one this day, two the next, each having been somehow implausibly chosen by someone in Village Schools who cared enough to seek them out. And it was suddenly so wonderful listening to Justin tell that the beauty of our college lies in the fact that this is the college for all the people who always dreamed of going to college but who knew in their hearts that it simply was never going to happen for them.

I remember the guy in the government office asking me last year what our admission examination would look like – and just smiling when I said we didn’t intend to have one. And, how, tell me, will you go about choosing the best students so that you can build the reputation of your college? He told me with a smile that he knew that was how colleges did it in America, and if I didn’t know, he would tell me. They were very selective in their admissions and they even offered money to the really good students to get them to choose their college and then they could win and build their reputation for being great. Was that what we were going to do? I remember not finding the words to tell him the truth that we weren’t looking for having a great reputation. I remember just telling him that the mark of a great professor was not being able to get the best and the brightest to get A’s -- it was taking the kids who really were just used to getting C’s and D’s and somehow against all odds causing them to understand enough to get B’s and, yes, even A’s.

Justin put into words under the pine trees what I had failed to blurt out to that government official. What’s important to us is not that we attain a reputation that would make this college somehow better than other colleges, even if I have to admit that secretly I dream of that happening. We are here, as Justin put it so well, to seek out and find the people who have no hope of ever getting to go to the college and giving them that chance. Some of them, a few of them, maybe a lot of them, will think about what we have done and what their lives were going to end up being – and they just might choose to allow God to use their lives to serve others and to give some people at the bottom a chance.

I can see the day when on this spot our big and beautiful chapel will be built. And I will love to get to deliver sermons to my students from the pulpit in what I dream will be a very special building. But right now I have the feeling that Justin’s sermon out in the open under the towering pines to a congregation of two will be the one I’ll remember. The promise of old that when the Messiah came that good news would be preached to the poor. The idea of leaving behind the 99 sheep to seek the one that is lost. The wonder that it is that the one called the Son of Man would come to seek and to save that which was lost. I think of the sermons I heard come out of my grandfather’s mouth around the fires at night when I traveled with him to villages back in my Congo days, the sermons that I’ve retold over the years in different forms to Justin as he and I have driven miles and miles around this country of Tanzania, the sermons that now rebound back to me under the towering pines here at the college. My grandfather surely would have loved Justin.

I know I do.