I swallowed all my fears

I swallowed all my fears

The last official moments of our leadership conference were over by 9 pm, but the distribution of everything from textbooks to soccer jerseys, receipt books to report cards went on until way past midnight. And then at 2:30 in the morning, the first bus pulled away from our college campus where we had held the conference to take people to town so they could start catching buses and trucks that would take everyone back to our schools scattered over the eight regions of this country. All day I've been receiving SMS messages on my phone, and tonight the first of those are actually getting home. Many more of them though will be sleeping along the way and won't be getting to their schools until tomorrow night. We'll call the conference "over" when everyone is safely back at their schools and ready for classes to start across the country on Monday.

This last week has been good -- very good -- but I haven't felt like I've had even a moment to catch my breath and there is now a wave of real relief and satisfaction as we get to the point of it all being over. I probably should already be focusing on what lies ahead -- the guys from Zambia arrive tonight and Justin and I will be locking ourselves up at the college with them for our own retreat and planning meetings. And then as soon as we put the five of them on the bus back to Zambia, Justin and I are taking off with Ntula and Baptista -- first to the Mbeya region in the west, and then far up north to the Manyara region. If everything goes well, we'll make it back just in the nick of time to receive our students and start the new semester at the college. But somehow thinking ahead to it all requires more energy than I can muster right now!

So I've been sitting here procrastinating and daydreaming about this past week. Everyone -- and really everyone -- is smiling because it truly was an excellent week. There was a great spirit that permeated the four days we met with the leaders of all of our schools. The plans that are now in place for this coming year are exciting, and they're exciting because even though they're ambitious and we know it's going to require a ton of work, everyone is convinced they're totally realistic and achievable. It was also beautiful to see the way everything worked out for the training workshop that Sara and Reagan put on for those who will teach Bible Knowledge in our schools this year. And it's so pleasing to see how happy everyone is not only about what they learned, not only about the great materials that they are all traveling back to their schools with, but how they feel really equipped to do good things with our students. On top of all of that, the amount of time that Godfrey, Emmanueli, Justin, Ntula and I were able to carve out to spend individually, or several of us together, with every single one of those who are leading our schools and with every single one of our wakalas (those who work with people in these villages to build the schools) was what made this conference better than all others in everyone's minds. And I really have to agree.

I even have to smile about the one thing that went wrong, disastrously wrong. A box loaded with reference books, report cards, joining forms, the Bible Knowledge materials, soccer jerseys -- all destined for our Ntumbe school in Rukwa -- fell off the bus and left the head of one of our schools with all of the wind knocked out of his sails. It was only when the bus had arrived in town that they discovered it had fallen off at some point on the 60 km journey! It just made everyone sick that the headmaster of Ntumbe was heading home to tell his students that he was empty-handed. No one here has ever watched The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, but somehow I felt like you're supposed to feel watching that. And then amazingly, and truly totally unexpectedly, 14 hours later we got word that the box had been returned. Some people called it a miracle. Not one on the order of the parting of the Red Sea, of course, but still enough to really lift everyone's spirits!

But as I've been sitting here in the nice comfortable chair in Susan's office daydreaming away, what I've come to see is that the really best thing that happened this last week wasn't in all of those "big picture" things. And it wasn't even in the losing and then not losing of the box of all of that stuff. What just makes me happy right now is the big thing -- the really big thing -- that happened that none of us had planned for. Every year for the past who knows how many years, when all of our school leaders gather together, they come with all of their computer problems (everything from hinges that have broken to cracked screens to viruses slowing things down), and it's always been Jonathan who has fixed them all. It's impossible to run well a huge school system with 32 schools and over 9700 kids, to account for all of the money involved, make sure the grades are all right, get all of the teachers paid the right amount, without computers and modems and the wonder of wireless internet that is a part of life now in our villages. But computers eventually always break down. And every year when we have our conference Jonathan used to spend 4 days working every day well into the night on fixing big problems and small problems and sending everyone off happy with their computer problems all solved.

But this year, working with Jonathan wasn't on the agenda -- he's off to college in America now. I braced myself for what I knew was going to be a problem. I sure don't know how to fix these things! Before Jonathan went off to college, he worked with our students at our college, took out all of the broken laptops and showed them how to take them apart, replace hard drives, fix a mouse, put in RAM, replace broken keyboards. Our college students are all on a month-long Christmas vacation right now, but two of our students decided to stay here. Eliudi had no place to go, so Emmanueli and his family took him in. And Fraison came to see us the day after everyone else left on vacation, recounted in detail the whole long history of his life and said he never dreamed he'd ever get to go to college and just wanted to show his thankfulness by staying here for the month and helping out with anything that needed to be done.

When someone first suggested letting Eliudi and Fraison look at the computers, I must admit it was more than a bit frightening to me the idea of turning the two of them loose to fix computers. It's like looking at a mob of people who are hungry and seeing you have five loaves of bread and two little fish. I jokingly muttered under my breath that they were our two little fish. But I didn't have a better idea.

And so it was that the Fraison and Eliudi went out that morning to the college. And I swallowed all of my fears and tried to act like letting them open up those laptops was just the most natural thing in the world. I rationalized that it was best to be encouraging rather than let anyone know how frightening I found the whole thing. And over the next four days, they proceeded to dazzle everyone by fixing problems, large and small, using the graveyard of computers in Jonathan's bedroom to cannibalize this and that and to fix everything that was wrong with 13 laptops. We hadn't chosen Eliudi and Fraison because they were Jonathan's best students -- in fact I'm going to venture to guess that they were probably just "average" -- but they were the ones who were available and they were the ones who were willing. And so they were the ones who got to do it!

It was that realization that gave me my opening for my speech to the headmasters. I used that old thing my grandfather taught me when he showed me how to prepare for my very first sermon way back when I was just a young kid in Congo. I started with that "event" and with my "realization", and then I told the 80+ leaders assembled in that lecture hall, that in all we are doing with our schools we must never forget that the special calling that God has given us in Village Schools is to give the kids on the bottom a chance. We'll let everyone else run the schools for the rich, for those who can excel on their entrance exams, for those who "have what it takes". We'll keep on being the schools for all the kids no one else wants. We'll keep on providing an excellent education to all the kids who weren't even expecting to ever get to go to school at all.

And in addition to all that we have been doing for the past ten years, I told that we now needed to make it our mission to also find the kids out in these villages who would otherwise never get to go to college, visit them in their homes, talk with their families. Let us tell them we have a great secret that Village Schools has a college that costs so little that anyone can afford it, that there is a special 75% scholarship for girls, that this college is not like other colleges where you have to have all the money up front, that you just need to come and you can pay slowly. Let's get out there and find the kids who might have special physical needs. Let's find the kids who have lost a parent -- or lost both. Let's find the kids who've never had a break in life -- and take the good news to them. Our next academic year starts on May 27th. Over the next four and a half months, let's look for the kids who are the neediest, let's visit them, encourage them, do whatever it takes to get them to come to our college.

The government will chose the best and the brightest. The private colleges will choose from among the wealthy, those who also have brains. Our huge team is going to be out in these villages looking instead for the neediest of the needy. They'll come hungry to learn, they'll have a work ethic that comes from having had a hard life, and with the right training and the right inspiration, they'll excel not only at the college, but they'll be the ones ready to be used by God to help others on the bottom as well.

I remember back when I was a kid that in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Christmas every year it seemed something special would happen that would make me feel like Christmas had come -- the magical moment when something happened inside of me, and I felt something and I'd get a lump in my throat. One year I remember it happening for me in a shopping mall when I saw a kid dump a jar of coins into a Salvation Army red kettle. Another year I remember Christmas coming for me thanks to a story my grandmother read from the Guideposts Christmas Treasury. This year Christmas came for me a little late. It happened for me this year when I got to pour my heart out to all of our Village Schools leaders and ask them to get out there and find the neediest kids they know and share with them the incredibly good news that there's a college that will take them.

We've been praying for years for open doors into more and more villages so we can get kids into school and so we can have the opportunity to share the Gospel. Now it's time -- for everyone who wants to -- to also pray for a different kind of open door. An open door into the homes and into the hearts of those who have little or no hope. An open door so that we can somehow help them to believe that it's really true that if they make the long trip from their villages all the way to our little village of Igoda that we will not turn them away. And they will indeed get to go to college.