In January of 2003 I was in Lomé, Togo, a small country in West Africa, sandwiched between Ghana and Benin on the Gulf of Guinea. I’d been to South Africa a couple years earlier but the experiences on this trip were very different.
We were in a large church our first Sunday there and I was surprised to walk in and find the women and men were seated separately, on opposite sides of the room, divided by the center aisle. I was there with my dad, but he was on stage, as he was going to be speaking, so I took a seat on the front row. By myself. I exchanged tentative smiles with the people around me as we shyly studied each other while trying not to be obvious about it.
Having spent some time in that part of the world, I can always tell (now) when someone is from there. The clothes, you guys. They were the most vibrant, colorful, beautiful swaths of material you’ve ever seen. The brightly-colored and vividly-patterned dresses were long and adorned and gold-flecked. And those headdresses. Seriously, it was hard not to stare. I’d never seen so much beauty in one place.
People were visiting with one another, like people do when they’re gathered and waiting for something to start, but I didn’t speak any of the languages so I sat there, in a row all by myself, feeling the most different I’d ever felt in all my life.
I began to hear something in the distance. Well, not so much hear it as feel it. The sound – and feeling – began to intensify; the talking and visiting died down and a hush fell over the room. From deep in the recesses of the building, I began to make out the beating of drums. And then voices followed. The people around me began to join in the singing as the choir and drummers and percussionists made their way up from the recesses of the building and began to dance – and I mean dance – down the center aisle and onto the stage. The line of singers, drummers and dancers, all dressed in colorful, vibrant, traditional Togolese dress, seemed to go on forever. I had never seen or felt anything like it. It was like being in a real life kaleidoscope. The sights, sounds and physical feeling of the music were unlike anything I have ever experienced – before or since.
After the choir made its way on stage, the worship service began and the whole church joined in. Only, I didn’t know how. I didn’t know the language they were singing in, didn’t know the rhythm of the music and couldn’t even find the right beat to just stand there and clap along.
This beautiful woman – and I mean b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l – came over and put her arm around my waist and gently pulled me to where she and her friends were sitting. For the rest of the worship service she held her arm around my waist and leaned into me, swaying with the music, and singing in English. When it was time for the offering – where the people, not the choir, danced through the aisles and placed anything they had – and not just money – into the offering urns, she took my hand and danced with me up the aisle, explaining what was going on with a glint in her eye. I told her I had no money for the offering and, with smiling eyes, she said, “then just dance and give an offering of thanksgiving and praise.” Even now, I can see her smile, gentle and sure, the face of pure and unadulterated compassion and kindness. For the next couple hours, she lovingly, patiently, kindly and joyfully brought me in and made me feel like a sister, not a stranger.
I haven’t thought of that story in a long time, but tonight, as I watched and tried to sort through the sights and sounds to make sense of what in the world is happening around us, I was reminded of her kindness, her compassion, her loving, sweet smile, and her desire to bring me in.
I have friends, literally, from all corners of this globe. Friends of all colors, ethnicities, languages and cultures. I have family and friends in law enforcement. And I absolutely refuse to believe that I live in a world where I have to pick sides.
I saw this picture the other day and it broke me.
We do not enter this world with the capacity to hate. Do not be the one that teaches it to others. Be the one to cross the aisle, wrap your arm around someone’s waist and be the “but, then…” in their life.
You will never, ever regret loving more.