In 2008 I had an opportunity to make a difference but I missed the chance. I have a passion for empowering Maasai women by seeking to get them scholarships or money to start small businesses. The Amboseli in Kenya is my childhood homeland and over the years, during my seminary studies and now as a professor, I have returned many times. Almost three years ago an American church partnered with myself and the tribe to build a high school at the base of Kilimanjaro so that any girl rescued from undergoing female circumcision (female genital mutilation) or from an early marriage would have a safe place to go to school. On this particular trip, I woke up in the morning and went for a walk as I did when I was little boy growing up near Amboseli National Park. My grandfather, a spiritual leader of the Maasai, used to bring me along at sunrise to greet the morning in prayer, and survey places for our cattle to roam.
As I walked down the road past the village I could hear the cries of a young female voice screaming "they will come!" I knew what it meant: the cries came from a young woman whose family had agreed to early marriage and circumcision. We have an agreement with the village elders that any girl for whom we can pay the $150 a year for school will not have to go through female genital mutilation. If we can pay, she will go to school. That morning I wanted to meditate and remember the good old days. I thought to myself, "I will be back after watching the sunrise and doing quiet time, then I will go to the village and help the girl." I was on a mission to do my religious thing.
When I went back to the village the girl was gone and her mother was crying. The girl was sixteen and at the top of her academic class, but her family was poor. If she would go through female genital mutilation and be married off, they could sell the cattle received for her dowry. Then, her brother could afford to go to school. I lost a chance to make a difference because I waited for too long to make my life count. Every time I travel to the village I wonder what happened to her.
Do not wait to make your life count.
In 1977 someone decided my life counted. I entered school the third year the Kenyan government required that all children, including Maasai children from our nomadic tribe, had to go to school. My father was deeply opposed because he wasn't wealthy and needed the potential income I could earn as a herder to meet our immediate family needs. When I first began my studies, I hated my boarding school. They took away all my Masaai clothing, like our loose cloth suka and beaded necklaces and made me dress in a school uniform of stiff blue khaki pants and orange shirts. But after a while, I began to love school because of very dedicated teachers. One, named Lois, patiently tried to teach me English. She had me repeat over and over in English, "My name is Moses." She kept encouraging me saying "Moses, you can do this." Because of her, when I finally succeeded and recognized I could learn, it totally changed my view of education. I loved learning and I thrived!"
After compulsory school finished, I returned to the village. Here the story of my education, and my current ability to return and advocate for needs within my Masaai homeland, could have ended. Instead, a few months later, a man on a motorcycle visited and invited our village into World Vision sponsorship. He explained, "we want to make life better for you" and that included the opportunity for me to go to secondary school. Because it was located about nine miles away, I needed to get up each morning at 3 a.m. to help milk the cows, then at 5:30 a.m. start the long walk to school; at 3 p.m. I finished and then ran home to work for two or three more hours. In these early years, there was a strong bias in Kenya that Masaai children wouldn't succeed in formal schooling. But my determination to learn later led me to the United States to attend Whitworth University, and eventually to earn my doctorate at Fuller Seminary. Along the way, at each major transition, I have often benefited from someone choosing to make a specific difference in my life.
Do not wait to make your life count.
Since moving to the United States I have noticed what big bridge builders Americans are. This became particularly poignant when I moved to Southern California to attend Fuller Seminary. Never have I seen so many bridges. If there is a problem, whether it is a congested freeway interchange or a social problem, Americans are at work building a bridge from one side to the other.
In Kenya, I saw another way to cross boundaries. When I was a little boy, I would go with my father in the early morning on long walks across the grassland. He always strode ahead of me, walking stick in hand. When we came upon the Kimana River, there was no bridge for miles and we needed to cross to the other side. My father always walked along the river's edge, silently surveying the water, up and down, from bank to bank, The river can be a dangerous place, drawing wildebeest and zebras, and their predators, lions and crocodiles. After careful study of the river's topography he chose a spot and, using his walking stick, would begin to wade into the muck and mud and feel his way out into the water. There, just below the swirling surface, he'd eventually find stable rocks. He utilized his walking stick to feel his way out into the river, carefully testing depth and stability, discovering his way across. With patience, he ultimately crossed the bridge that was already there.
We live in a world that is both interconnected and deeply divided. Cell phones connect rural farmers in Africa to urban markets yet tribal, religious, or even healthcare divisions appear as wide as the Rift Valley. Since living in the U.S. I have observed the significant emphasis on the concept of bridge building to facilitate crossing these great divides. As global volunteers, perhaps it should be more like how it is when Maasai come to the Kimana River. We should look for the bridges that already exist but may not be so evident on the surface. Crossing them is messy, sometimes dangerous work; however we do not have to wait for new bridges to be built. Our world needs bridge crossers who find the bridges that already exist and cross them. Look for these as you serve.
When we engage different cultures and worldviews, we should always seek these bridges. When we serve those in need we serve Jesus and our hearts are broken by the things which break the heart of God. The call to serve the poor and make a difference in the world is at the core of service. David Uhl, a Krista Colleague who volunteered in New Orleans after Katrina, later reflected on his role as Development and Outreach Associate for L'Arche (an organization that provides lifelong homes to people with intellectual disabilities). He describes service best when he writes, "We are called to love and act for those whom society may deem unimportant, undesired or without value. We are called to love the homeless, the disabled, the sick, the immigrant and the uneducated. Solutions to problems of society may not be obvious, but our call to love is clear. It is hard and we make mistakes, but God calls us to be with the weak, the powerless and vulnerable. We are called to be a people for others."
Engaging in service is not easy, and there are many reasons not to serve, especially when one is right out of college: a relationship, the lure of making money right away, the need to start paying back student loans, the fear of going to a different place where ultimately you will be lonely or put your life at risk. Sometimes family and friends want us to do what a "responsible person" would do. Go to grad school or get a job, the belief that we can always serve after taking care of oneself lingers in our minds. Essentially some people's advice is, "you can wait to make your life count. In fact, you must wait!"
I am grateful that other people throughout my life have recognized that service deals with specific situations, people, and communities. In doing service we are challenged to believe in ourselves, others, and ultimately in God. Service makes us realize that we cannot change the whole world at once but rather one life and sometimes one community at a time if we are lucky. It is easier to believe in the grand and the very distant, and much harder to believe in the immediate and specific. It is easy to believe that one day someone will discover the cure for cancer, and much harder to believe doctors and modern medicine will keep my friend and mentor Linda Hunt from ever experiencing the pain of breast cancer again. It is hard to think we can do something about the here and now, the specific things that we know need to get done. Maybe we are afraid to believe because we do not want to be disappointed. The individual lives of specific people and situations are hardest for us to believe that we can turn around. But every once in a while, we see someone do what many of us hope will happen when we engage the world we live in: we see someone's life change.
Do not wait to make your life count.
But...Do not mistake your own motivations for engaging in service.
Some students I talk with want to go into service because it serves them well. In this competitive world, service may look good on a resumé for a job or boost one's chances of getting into graduate school. A student stopped by my office recently and asked if I would write him a letter of recommendation for AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and the Presbyterian Young Adult Volunteer program. He expressed his desire to serve with an organization that would let him postpone repaying his student loans or one that would impress a graduate school down the road. My response? "So you want to serve in order to serve yourself." He looked puzzled and asked "what do you mean? It does not matter what I get from it as long as I help a bunch of poor people. I am giving them my time and energy and they better appreciate it." I was speechless. I told him to serve in a local soup kitchen first and then gave him two copies of The Global Citizen. At graduation, he stopped me and said, "After reading the journal I know that serving is hard but I am going to try and do something like the people in the magazines you gave me."
Often, we assume that a life of "service" must occur on the other side of the globe. Yet at home in the United States, as well as in my home village of Amboseli I've been faced with daily challenges to serve my neighbor.
When I lived in Southern California, I faced a new kind of challenge. Every week as I drove home from my job teaching as a professor at a university, I was stopped by the same policeman. I began to engage him in conversation, asking him what exactly he was looking for every week? I continue to share this story to illustrate that racism in America, like female genital mutilation in Africa, is alive and well. It is deeply rooted in the traditions of a particular place and people group. Through my actions and my attitude, I can be an advocate for change and a model for grace under discrimination whether acting in an official "service" capacity or whether confronted by injustice on my very door step.
In Amboseli, I walked away from a young woman in need because I hesitated too long. Yet I carry her story with me so that I do not lose sight of the need to serve someone greater than myself. To my utter joy, while recently visiting her village, I discovered that even though she is now a young mother, her own mother-in-law recognized her talents as a student and encouraged her to complete her junior high education. She is now even considering if it is feasible to attend secondary school.
Clearly we do not have to go to the furthest ends of the world in order to make a difference. We can serve right where we live. The culture of service makes the world a better place. We are able to ask ourselves the question, "how can I make a difference today?" It might be shoveling snow for our neighbors or watching their kids for an evening. Sometimes it is just listening. Other times, it means directing a well-meaning student to the nearest soup kitchen, or recognizing the pride and hypocrisy in your own life that prevents you from recognizing your own genuine need for someone else.
Wherever you find yourself, whatever you face: Do not wait to make your life count.
1. Pulei describes his work in his home village of Amboseli empowering Maasai women by securing scholarships or small business loans that enable them to avoid female genital mutilation and marriage at an early age. He describes one missed opportunity to help someone that still haunts him. How do you think this experience has shaped his belief that we must not wait to make our lives "count"? Have you experienced a similar "missed chance" to serve? What makes it so memorable? Has your approach to service or outlook on life changed as a result? If so, how?
2. Pulei has experienced injustice in his native Africa and in his current home in the United States when he routinely became a victim of racial profiling. Where do you experience or witness injustice in your hometown? State? Nation? Is it easier or more difficult to confront injustice in your neighborhood rather than in a foreign context?Dr. Moses Pulei grew up in the Maasai tribe in Kenya where World Vision supported his early education. He recently completed his Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary and now teaches theology at Whitworth University where he helped create an African Initiative with Kenya and Tanzania. A dynamic speaker, he frequently speaks at international and national events and organizes symposiums for scholars and non-profit organizations involved in global concerns. He serves as a founding Board Member of the Krista Foundation and Krista Colleagues value his insights as a speaker and mentor.