The past two weeks have been a whirlwind experience. After traveling below the equator, struggling to learn a new language that has no linguistic ties to any other language I’ve studied, and attempting to adapt to an entirely unique culture, I was ready to escape the school compound.
Banging our way along broken and nonexistent pavement, Brother Raphael and I found ourselves on the edge of Nabuyole Falls. Trekking our way up crooked paths, upon railroad tracks, and following alongside a dowry herd, we made it to one of three tributaries of the Nzoia river that form the falls. Surrounded by lush crops of sugar cane, corn, and millet, we hurdled over rocks and attempted to find a potential spot to take a dip. However, the daily thunderstorms from the rainy season had churned to waters into turbulent rapids, and swimming became out of the question. Drenched by the conversation and scenic views, we elected to finish our hike for the afternoon. After returning from lunch and some brief errands, I drove back to Saint Xavier, where some other Brothers greeted me with plans for the evening.
Coronavirus was not kind to the world’s education systems. Each school faced unique challenges and difficult decisions. Here in Bungoma, schools are still wading through the tides of COVID and working through truncated terms that make no exceptions for the curriculum. Teachers trudge through quickened chapters as schools anticipate the hopeful return to a typical schedule next academic year. With the mounting pressure of National Exams that made little exceptions to their standards given the reality of the curriculum, the Brothers were eager to go for a night out of town to escape the reality of the situation.
With music blaring at decibels I’ve never heard before (I mean that. I’ve literally stood next to music festival speakers that weren’t as loud!), and lights flashing at epileptic speeds, we sat in a club filled with tables and chairs, arranged more for dining than for dancing. Arriving early for dinner, bottles appeared quickly and disappeared just as quickly as we shared spicy chicken, roasted beef, traditional ugali, and fried potatoes. As our plates cleared, the club filled with patrons whose necks turned and fingers pointed to the corner booth with the mzungu (Swahili for white person). Having worked in high schools and colleges, being gawked at while at bars was not new territory. The awkward flash from a distant camera every time I sipped a drink, the joking gestures as I gyrate my hips, and the blank-faced bemusement at my mere presence in this space is something I’ve commonly experienced from Louisville, to Philly, to South Bend. Here, however, there was something different about my presence. As I attempted to make a trip to the restroom solo, one Brother stopped me and insisted on going with me, saying, “You’re not as safe here alone as you think.” As we confidently weaved through tables, bumped along bodies, and squeezed through the crowd, the Brother’s warning became a reality as hands groped at my body and attempted to dart towards my pockets, eyes glared unwontedly at my proximity, and mouths murmured unwelcoming words. In a space where everyone was trying to imbibe in a brief escape from the trappings of life, perhaps my whiteness reminded them of the realities of a world that has systematically left the African diaspora desperate for better treatment.
Around the world, drugs and alcohol have always been means of escape. As liquid courage strengthens our will, we imbibe in moments that would otherwise have been impossible. As smoke feels our lungs, we reach new heights far above our earthly struggles. As we sniff, swallow, and shoot up, we dream of hallucinogenic possibilities and other worldly ecstasies. The intoxicating allure draws us away from others and into an isolated doldrum.
Given the realities of the world, who can blame us? The world we inhabit is challenging, exhausting, and merciless. In Kenya, people wage with the reality of living on pennies a day. In America, people fight for living wages. Around the world, people rage against the endless realities of social injustices.
We have all faced sobering moments of reality amid our drunken daze. A mzungu enters your presence. A headline – another school shooting – flashes across our screen. A text message alerts us to our obligations. A sip of water to quench a dry throat, a taste of fresh air to cool some sweat-soaked skin, a bite of food to quiet hungry desires.
In those moments of clarity, we have an opportunity to respond. Do we gather some insight from our blissful escape and return enlightened to our daily reality? Do we take another hit to numb the pain and hold off tomorrow for another day? Do we give in to the pain and enslave ourselves in a delusional prison far worse than what exists on Earth?
On Trinity Sunday, we have the opportunity to embrace and respond to multiple realities.
Each day the Xaverian Brothers volunteer on the streets to feed people, most of whom have some drug addiction, inadequate access to education and employment, and a laundry list of psychosocial disorders brought on by familial neglect, poverty, and trauma. Their reality is painful and often hopeless, giving rhyme and reason to their seemingly excusable addiction. How could anyone manage to live in their reality without some need to escape? Nonetheless, day after day, the brothers return with meals, opportunities to clean, and access to basic health and wellness treatment, knowing full well that they will never be able to fully support the hundreds of children who show up every day.
At St. Xavier, the teachers work nights and weekends to mitigate lost time from the truncated terms. Day after day, they show up knowing full well that their efforts are a small drop in a boundless bucket. Each morning the students wake up before 5 AM, after only finishing studies the previous night around 10 PM, working tirelessly against a standardized test that will categorically fail at assessing the school’s genuine efforts. It’s a wonder that this infant school doesn’t give up and escape the real troubles that stand against this humble place.
The Trinity is a trifold relationship that splits off into various tributaries, each with their respective roles and responsibilities flowing down immaculate waterfalls that return to one grace-filled whole. Flowing from a sustaining current of love, the existence of the Trinity is unearthed from delusional reality that makes little sense and suspends logic. Independent and united to one another, each part relies on the relationship of the other. The triune truth of perseverance, character, and hope (Paul Letter to Rom 5:1-5) moves us towards creative relationships that bridge impossible boundaries.
As living embodiments of God, we are called to escape into the reality of life and continually dare to do the impossible. Rather than repelling and rebelling from the world, we are called to move fully into the persevering hope of reality and build upon the character of God’s creation.
For myself, being in Kenya has been an unsanctioned tension of being called and being rejected. Something profound and unexplainable beckoned me to spend my summer in Kenya. Yet, around every corner, I experience unexpected rejection, nervous opposition, and illogical confusion that signal a response saying, “Do not go further; your presence is unwelcome here.”
I imagine that countless more have felt something similar. Theodore James Ryken, in his desire to found the Xaverian Brothers faced opposition from the institutional Church. Paul Van Gerwen, in his founding of the first Xaverian School in America – Saint Xavier High School in Louisville – after being left behind because he was considered the least qualified and not worth the expense of calling him back to Brugge. Missionary Brothers who arrived in Kenya decades ago. The Kenyan Brothers in Bungoma, in their founding of St. X, against all odds of financial, material, and broad institutional support. Christ, in his hometown, was rejected after years of ministry and miracles.
In each instance, we have a moment to exit and escape from the challenge or escape into the reality of limitless possibilities and unknown potential. The choice is right and good in both directions and informed by personal decisions and infinite possibilities. However, if we choose to escape freely into reality, we are afforded freedom in untold potential. For if we fail, we only prove the opposition correct and therefore lose nothing. But if we prove the opposition wrong, we endure with hopeful grace and demonstrate that nothing is impossible and that even the smallest things can grow into harmonious wonders.
May God bless us all with the courage to continue to do the things which others tell us cannot be done. May we be protected and sustained by a wellspring of love. May we be inspired by a mission of escaping into the unexpected. May we discover the intoxicating reality of life. May we continue diving into life’s intoxicating reality and emerge with enriching relationships.