Liz Styron, Duke Divinity School student and 2015 Umoja Project intern
When I informed my mentor that I had been selected to intern with the Umoja project in Kenya he gave me some advice on what to pack. He said, “These three things kept me alive and I highly suggest that you not leave the country without them: candy, Texas Pete hot sauce, and an open mind.” I laughed then but as I sit on my twin x-l bed, slowly chewing on Babe Ruth candy bar so as to cherish every calorie, every piece of sugar, and every crunch of salty peanut, I think to myself that was probably the best piece of advice I had received regarding this trip, however, yesterday I made one more addition to the list.
I’d like to tell you about a young 14-year-old named Eric who is supported bythe Umoja Project. When I was first introduced to Eric at his primary school, I immediately noticed his smile. It instantly reminded me of the smile I used to awkwardly plaster on my Mr. Potato Head doll back in my preschool days. Eric had the type of smile that never seemed to falter and it stretched from ear to ear revealing the prettiest set of teeth I think I’ve ever seen. Initially, I thought that this kid was just overly excited to meet “the Americans” but as I observed him throughout the three hours we spent together, I realized that Eric just loves to smile. His smile was infectious and I knew that by the end of the day, I would want to bottle it up, put it in my backpack, and carry it with me wherever I went.
As we left the school and begin our “journey of a thousand mile” walk to visit the homes of Eric and Karen, I occasionally glanced over my shoulder at him and found him smiling right back at me. We met with Karen and her grandmother first and I found it extremely hard to focus because from the corner of my eye, I could sense a warm glow radiating from the doorway of the dimly lit hut. At first thought, one might think that it was the sun’s rays but as I turned my eyes to look, there sat Eric and his smile. He sat quietly on an upside down bucket near the entrance of theclay hut, never saying a word as he stared at the make shift, rusty tin door. He just smiled. It was like he was in his own little happy world, totally unbothered by the flies that danced around his head, and unaware of the sweltering heat that hadturned the small hut into a sauna. There was such an inescapable gravity to it that seemed to just pull me in and relentlessly tempted me to walk over to where he was, flip over a bucket, sit, and stare at the door with him. Whatever he was thinking about, I wanted to think about it too. Whatever he was focused on, I wanted to focus on too. Because he was smiling, I wanted to smile too.
About an hour later I found myself sitting in Eric’s one room hut. I learned that Eric is the 2nd eldest of 5 siblings, his father passed away, and his mother is employed as a house girl when she can find work. Eric eats one meal a day, sometimes two if his mother is able to pay the 25 shillings (about 25 cents) for him to participate in the school lunch program. Eric and his family drink and cook with water that is not treated. Eric doesn’t have a mat or a mattress but simply sleeps on a net on the dusty floor of his grandmother’s hut. Outside of his tattered school uniform, Eric owns one shirt. He is unable to attend any of the Umoja project’s pscyho-social events because they are too far away from home and his mother cannot afford to send him. After a full day of school and chores, Eric manages to study from 8pm-11pm. He hopes to one day become a doctor. Eric said that his challenges included lack of food, lack of clothes, and lack of school fees. Eric told us all of this with a smile.
After listening to Eric talk about the challenges he faces daily, I had to askhim one last simple question. I asked him why he smiled so much. I wanted to know how he could smile in the midst of the challenges he faces every day. Eric looked down at the floor for a few seconds as he pondered the question, looked outside and said, “I smile according to the environment.” I didn’t understand so he clarified his answer for me by saying, “it is a beautiful day today so I smile.” That was it. It was so simple. For the past few hours, I had been racking my brain to come up with a reason for Eric’s persistent smile and to my surprise; the reason had been surrounding me all day. Eric was simply happy to be alive and behold the day the Lord had made. For some reason, in that moment, I couldn’t accept his answer. It was way too simple, almost as if it was unrealistic or illogical. We all sat quietly for a few seconds trying to wrap our minds around Eric’s words. Another one of the interns asked, “Well, you seem like such a wonderful boy, do you think that God has been fair to you and your family considering some of the struggles you face?” Eric confidently replied, “Yes, of course God is fair. He is fair because I believe he will provide anything I need. I know the Lord will always be with me. I trust God and I do not fault Him for anything. Some days may be better than others but I will always trust God.” Eric told us all of this with a smile.
So, there we sat astonished, amazed, and in awe. Here we had come to minister to Eric, yet, Eric had ministered to all of us. Eric’s words were powerful but his smile was even more powerful because it was a silent witness to the character of the God that we serve. We ended that home visit with a song and a prayer. The lyrics to the song were: Jehovah has the final say. He turns my life around. He makes a way where there is no way. Jehovah has the final say. We asked Eric if there was any way we could pray for him. Eric’s sole prayer request was that God would bless him in school and help him to score a 400 on his next term test. In the Kenyan education system if a child in class 8 receives a score of 400 or above (out of a total of 500 points), they would be admitted to one of the best secondary schools in the county and would be supported by the government. We prayed, sang, and started the walk back to the school with smiles on our faces.
When we arrived back at the school, we said goodbye to the two students and headed to the administrative room to take our lunch. As I ate, I sat back in my chair reading the various inspirational quotes that were taped to the paint chipped walls and reflected on all that had occurred during the home visits. My eyes continued to scan the wall and had almost closed for a brief nap when they landed on several pieces of paper taped to the bottom corner of the wall that read “Class 8 Term Scores.” Suddenly, I was fully awake and I raced to the wall for a closer look, intensely scanning the list for Eric’s name. I didn’t have to look far. You see, despite Eric’s challenges and struggles, he had humbly informed us during our visit that he scored an “unpleasant” total of 393 on his last term exams. I use the word “humbly” because with a score of 393, Eric was ranked number 2 out of 64 class 8 students. That ranking was according to the scores that were released in May. Taped next tothose scores, were the scores that were released on June 6, 2015. Eric had scored a 98 out of 100 in mathematics, a total of 419 points, and was now ranked number 1 in his class. I smiled, I cried, and then I smiled again.
In that moment, I was reminded of Psalm 19:1-6 which talks about the silent witnesses of God’s creation. Verse 3 says, “There is no speech; there are no words; their voice is not heard. Their message has gone out to all the earth…” I thought once more about Eric and the ministry of his smile. Eric didn’t really say much throughout the day, but his smile spoke boldly and if you ask him about the source of his smile, he’ll simply tell you about the goodness of God. That smile was a silent witness to me and a constant reminder that we serve a God who loves us, a God who will provide our every need, a God who will never fail us, a God who will never leave or forsake us, and a God who is worthy to be praised at all times. Before we departed from the school, I requested to see Eric one last time. I took his hand in mine, stared into his eyes, and took a mental snap shot of his smile. I told him just how proud of him I was. I asked him to promise me that he would never stop chasing his dream of becoming a doctor because I believed he would be the best doctor I’ve ever seen. I honestly believe his smile alone could be a cure in and of itself. I encouraged him to never stop believing in how much God loves him, how much God cares for him, and how awesome the plans God has for him are. I thanked him for always smiling and I asked him to promise me one more thing: to never stop smiling. I said earlier in my writing that I wanted to pack his smile in my backpack, but in that moment, I realized that I couldn’t take his smile with me because he’ll need it to minister to others.
More importantly, I realized that God had given me my own smile too; I just hadn’t been a good steward of it! You see, I only tend to smile in the good, happy,and joyful times but what about the challenging, difficult, sad times? Eric’s smile preached a 5-point sermon to me that day from Philippians 4:4-13 and taught me so much. It caused me to stand amazed and ashamed, to repent and to rejoice all at the same time. Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable- if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise- dwell on these things. Do what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
That is why I’ve made one more addition to my daily packing list, thanks to Eric: a smile. I’ll never leave home with out it again and if I do, I’ll be reminded to just look around, to witness the overwhelmingly loud silence of God’s creation, to reflect on God’s goodness, and then I’ll think of Eric and smile.