There were things that happened on the World Race that we just didn’t understand at the time. Or, they were too embarrassing, too vulnerable, too complex for us to know how to convey them. So, now with the clarity of hindsight, I want to open up some old memory boxes.
Today’s particular episode was in Lodwar, Kenya — a place so poor, desolate, and remote that it makes west Texas look charming. It was month 3 of the Race — the early breaking point, when we were far enough from home for things to start to hurt, but still with many more months to go. And it was really, really hot.
Two teams, about 13 Racers, were posted in Lodwar for the month. On this day, we were doing our usual, taking turns pulling out cash from the town’s one ATM machine, which was situated near the edge of Lodwar’s “town center” [sic]. This was a common place to find people walking in from the outlying hamlets.
Behind us was a giant sandy expanse that in Lodwar they call a “road”, populated sparsely with intermittent vehicles, small pockets of kids walking to school, single people headed to work, etc. I could also dimly see through the van window a lanky Kenyan man trying to get the attention of a young woman.
As the minutes wore on and we continued with the ATM, that lattermost scene gradually drew more of our attention. The young man was staggering around, and in time he was recognized as one of the village’s chronic drunks, who was presumably homeless. “Fred”, we’ll call him. Fred had made a cat-call or some kind of brusque come-on to this young woman, who appeared to be dressed for work. They were now standing feet from each other, with Fred saying something loud and indistinct in the Turkana dialect, and the woman responding crisply and angrily in turn.
From 50 yards away, this all looked pretty routine. My priority was to expend a minimum of energy on this short trip, and then get home and out of the heat for lunch. My interest in this scene was casual and passing.
But, when I turned my head to look again, I was surprised to see Fred bleeding from the mouth, and sitting back in the dirt. Had the woman hit him? Thrown a rock? It’s not clear. Turkana women are tough, and this one appeared altogether defiant, fearless, and clearly uninterested. Fred was now dazed, furious, and drooling red. The woman yelled some kind of final parting shot in the Turkana language and walked off.
We all kept staring for a moment. Then, Fred’s eyes turned to the group of us, and we realized that we were caught — a group of clean-cut white folks, clearly from out of town, leering accidentally at his injured pride. And he looked angry. He got up, mumbled something indecipherable and menace-y, and began to saunter toward us. A switch was flipped inside us, and our hearts quickened alarmingly. I felt like a hunter who has just shot a bear at close range, but failed to kill it.
Someone muttered forcefully that we’d better finish up and get in the van. So we started to pile in. I ended up in the shotgun seat. The last couple of people finished at the ATM and hurried over to jump in. Fred was now within 15 yards of the van. Crowded and jammed into our seats, a panicked humidity filled the inside of the vehicle, and we gazed out the windows to wonder at Fred’s intent. He looked enraged, with yellowed eyes, drooling a disconcerting string of blood from his mouth, and carrying a confused scowl on his face. In our fearful state, he appeared to us as a man demon-possessed and hostile.
Our panic rose over seconds, and Fred drew very close, within a few feet. The sliding door was slammed shut, and someone started the ignition. All kinds of hysterical questions ran through our minds — would he jump on top, or try to force a door open? Throw a rock or reach through a gap in the windows? Then someone screamed into the tiny enclosed airspace that we needed to go, now!
And at that moment, with my pulse pounding in my head, I managed to zoom out for just a few seconds.
I wondered: what if I just opened my door, and said hi? I weighed the sudden thought that a grown man who is drunk enough to be knocked down by a 100lb woman is likely nobody to fear. For a span of at least 3 seconds, I was ready to pull my door level, walking directly over to Fred with a smile, and greet him brightly in the Turkana dialect.
What would have happened? Would the situation have been diffused immediately? Would he have reciprocated the greeting? Would he have been surprised at this sudden warmth, and smiled, and laughed? And then, could we have even been able to pray for Fred, for this weatherbeaten outcast, and show him something of Jesus … of a love that cuts through fear, through misunderstanding, through language barriers and misfortune … ?
How could Fred’s life have been changed that day?
We shall never know.
I did not muster that courage, and neither did anyone else.
We shifted into drive, the wheels spit dust, and we were away. As we retreated, Fred picked up a rock the size of an apple, drew back for an angry throw, and … managed to cast it forward about 4 feet. As the rock hit the ground, everyone breathed a final sigh of relief. Some laughed out loud at this anticlimax. And I thought quietly that our sense of collective alarm (or simply mine) had been nothing but a wasteful hysteria.
These words are only the best recollection I can muster. I can’t claim perfect recall, and I don’t know truly how my other teammates saw, what they felt, or what they remember. I have never spoken to any of them about this, and I don’t think we lost much sleep over it.
But, based on what I know and what I can recall, I think our short time with Fred was an instance where we were simply mastered by our flesh. Or, perhaps bested by the deceit of the enemy. We were made to view Fred as a wounded animal, not a man. A threat to our safety, instead of a recognizable heartbeat, thirsty for life. Instead of care for him, we had fear.
Jesus was different. He was not afraid of the drunks, the outcasts, those condemned by the rest of society, nor even by those who were openly hostile. He did not fear, because he trusted his father. And, he knew that his own power rested not in fear or shrewdness — but in his love.
Gradually, throughout the journey of the Race, we too learned to live that way. In bits and spurts, we learned to seek instead of recoil, to reach out instead of flinch. But, as I have occasionally remembered that day in Lodwar, I have wondered what became of Fred, and what might have been.
What about you?
Was there a time, long gone, when you wished you could have loved instead of feared?