As I sit at my desk attempting to put into words my experience as a mission nurse in Liberia and Guinea I have in front of me two photos that I took during a service at the Christian Revival Church in Monrovia. I’m trying to understand why these two are my favorites, despite all the sweet ones I took of the many children who surrounded us everywhere we went.
I’m not a particularly religious person, although I do consider myself quite spiritual. It’s impossible not to be, after twenty years of being a hospice nurse caring for souls and hearts as well as bodies. I do pray a lot, for peace, for understanding, for a deep and caring connection with my fellow humans. One of my favorite writers, Annie Lamott says that the only prayers we need are “help” and “thank you.” I agree.
I’ve never been much of a churchgoer. The catholic rituals of my 1950’s childhood pretty much terrified it out of me. I’ve always found my transcendent experiences in art, nature and music, which can all easily move me to tears. And yet this particular service in a simple brick church in one of the world’s poorest countries moved me just as much.
I want to say it was fun, but that’s putting it mildly. People sang at the top of their lungs, beat the drums, danced and prayed with total abandon. They let themselves go with the pure joy of their spirits and welcomed me as a friend. I found myself tearing up a few times because such expressions of spirit are rare for me to witness. I found myself praying “thank you, thank you, thank you” because my heart was singing with the joy of knowing I was in exactly the right place at exactly the right moment.
These two photos are of two beautiful Liberian women singing and smiling radiantly into the camera. They are dressed to the nines in their best church clothes, absolutely glowing with the joy of the moment. I can’t help grinning when I look at these remembering how, moments later I was pulled into the dance myself. I found that all I needed to do in Liberia was put my hands out, to be immediately seized by the hand of a smiling Liberian with a warm and friendly touch.
And yes, all of us teammates needed to put our hands out many times during this trip. Starting with the delayed arrival of one of the team, going on to the 14 hour truck ride to a remote village on the Liberian border with Guinea over potholes and through mud, to the ultimate abandoning of the truck to the mud, and taking ourselves and all of our medical supplies the 7 miles to Guinea by motorcycle, we put our hands out to the Liberians and prayed, “help, help, help.” And we were always heard and there were always hands ready to hold us and pull us through.
The experience was far from purely spiritual. I have a sense of humor and so does God. I had been praying to be more grounded, but I didn’t expect to be squishing through mud up to my ankles, or having the mud cushion my fall when flying off a motorcycle. It was pretty hilarious putting my esoteric holistic nursing knowledge of proper bowel care to the test while squatting in a latrine. And though I do enjoy nature, being awakened at 3 am by roosters, goats and a spider the size of my hand crawling across my pillow is an entirely different matter. I can’t wait to do it again!
So, on this snowy afternoon with the wind howling outside my window, I sit at my desk and look fondly at the two beautiful faces smiling at me. I think of putting my hand out as we were saying good bye to the villagers before leaving for Monrovia. And I think of how many dozens of hands reached for mine and held it, and the beautiful faces attached to those hands. And I say, “thank you, thank you, thank you.”