When I was 19 years old, I spent the summer living as a stranger in a foreign land.
It was the summer after my freshman year in college, and I decided to go to Africa to visit and work with a missionary friend of mine. I grew up working on a farm, and I was pretty confident in my ability to grow things, so I went to Africa with the intent of telling people about Jesus, learning from the missionary, and helping people to grow more crops and feed their village.
So, as a 19-year old kid, I set off across the world on my grand adventure. When the plane touched down on a small landing strip in Niger, I met up with my missionary friend and we eventually began our trek across the bottom part of the Sahara to get to his village. We spent 3 days bouncing across the sand dunes of Niger, the 2nd poorest country in the word. The temperatures soared well over 100 degrees, and I was unable to answer nature’s call for about 3 days. It was miserable. But I was determined. After all, I had something to give these people.
I was the rich American Bible college student; the hero coming to bestow my wisdom on this tiny, ignorant African village. These people needed me. I was the great white well-drilling, seed-planting savior from the west, here to save the day and bestow the blessing of my green thumb on these poor desperate people. Or so I thought. God had other ideas.
Upon arriving at the little mud house where we’d be living, I met a man who would come to be a dear friend of mine over the course of the next couple months. His name is Lagri. Lagri is, like the other members of his people group, a Muslim. And Lagri is deaf. We had no official sign language over there, so we did our best to improvise, making it up as we went along.
I learned pretty quickly that my new friend Lagri was a sneaky fellow. Of course, there were no street lights in the village, so at night it got pitch black. Lagri is a very dark-skinned man himself. So, Lagri enjoyed coming up behind me at night and tapping me on the shoulder. And every time he’d come up silently behind me in the dark I would nearly jump out of my skin because I couldn’t hear him or see him coming. We also learned very quickly that communicating in our made-up sign language became very difficult after dark when I had trouble seeing him.
Well, to make a long story short, a drought killed all of our crops that summer. Agriculturally, I failed. To make matters worse, Lagri loved poking fun at me. For not being able to speak, he sure knew how to put me in my place. Needless to say, I was humbled that summer. I wondered if my trip had been a waste.
Then, late one evening, Lagri came over to the house like he often did. That night, I watched as Lagri sat on the floor of the hut enthralled as my missionary friend went through a picture Bible with him. Story after story, Lagri drank it up. Lagri grew more and more animated as he saw Jesus. He signed the stories back to us, absolutely spellbound with the stories of Jesus’ life.
And then it hit me.
What Africa needs most isn’t wells or rice or air-conditioning or cars. Those things are nice. But what Africa needs most is Jesus, just like I do.
On my last morning in Niger, as I prepared to depart for the United States, Lagri came and met me right before I left. We stood there in the sand with the sun beating down on us. He looked at me, and in our makeshift sign language he said, “You. Me. Brothers.”
Anybody looking in on that scene would’ve thought it was crazy. Here we were, two people who couldn’t be more different, and yet Lagri was saying that really, we were more alike than different. We had something in common, and I finally learned what it was: We were both made in the image of God, and we both desperately needed Jesus.
I miss my friend Lagri.
Sometimes, I still find that arrogant spirit creeping up inside me. Even if I never say it, I can still think that I’m better than the people around me. I can still think that they need me more than I need them, that I’ve got it all figured out. But then God gently reminds me that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. There is something that I have in common with all the people I tend to look down on: God made us, Jesus died for us, and we are all desperately in need of His grace.
Maybe I’ll remember that the next time I get too big for my britches.