We weave through a maze of debris, shops and homes on non-existent roads. I’m in Kibera, Kenya, in the front seat of a car with 9-year-old James.
As we bounce over piles of trash and splash through rivers of raw sewage, I hold James’ hand. I tell myself the gesture is to cheer him. Later I will realize I needed his hand to steel me and keep me brave.
I feel suffocated in this despicable, prison-like slum. The stench of burning trash, feces, and far too many people in far-too-little spaces threatens to overwhelm me.
Colleagues had cautioned me that it would be difficult to go into one of Africa’s largest slums. But no one could have prepared me for this.
Leaving the car, I step tentatively over mounds of trash. A bucket of sewage is splashed onto the street in front of me, the same street where barefooted children run by me.
We arrive at James’ humble home. Two of his lively brothers and his sweet young mother meet me at the door. His mother smiles and we embrace — not as strangers, but as if we are long-lost sisters.
In the tiny home I sit across from James, our knees nearly touching. I ask him if he’s received letters from his sponsor. After translation, he nods his head. Yes. He’s been sponsored for only eight months but he’s received three letters.
I ask James to tell me about his sponsor.
He looks confused, as if I’d asked a silly question. He points across the room, right at me. My translator, a Compassion worker in Kenya, chuckles. James is mistaken. He thinks I am his sponsor.
Of course! How many other white people have stepped inside his home and showered him with hugs and forehead kisses?
Later, back in the comfort of the ministry headquarters, I tell this story to a friend. She points at me, smiles, and says,
“In that moment, you were his sponsor. You were the hands and feet of Jesus, bringing comfort.”
I flinch at the thought. In the stark beauty of that humble Kibera home, I had not felt worthy to even tie the sandals of James’ brave mother, let alone “be Jesus” to her and her children.
How could I explain to my friend that I hated Kibera? I love Africa but I hated this slum. I had never felt so much righteous and unrighteous anger bubble up inside of me over a place.
I wish I could say I was brave. Brave like our child development center workers who thump back the gates of hell and Kibera and bring comfort to its children each day.
I may not be brave like them. But I remember the moments in the car, waiting to go into the bowels of Kibera, holding James’ hand. When I return to that place, as I certainly plan to do, I will go clutching the strong hand of Jesus.