I wrote this piece during a recent visit to Cape Coast, Ghana as part of an observational experience with the Global Health Initiative at the University of Illinois.
It’s a 10 hour flight between Washington D.C. and Accra, Ghana, giving me ample time to notice the group of twenty on the plane in front of me wearing matching t-shirts. The group displayed alternating colors of light blue and lime green and a logo that read “Kingdom Expansion” across their left breast.
They were from somewhere in West Virginia. And they got me thinking.
My first reaction was cynical. I was about to embark on an academic journey relevant to my graduate research, medical training, and interest in global health. As such, I initially felt some sort of self-righteous superiority, thinking back to my own “matching t-shirt” experience (ours were bright blue) —a “Go & Serve” mission trip to Jamaica when I was a freshman in high school—and feeling as though the current context of my travel was more sophisticated this time around.
To be honest, I assumed this “Kingdom Expansion” group was out to convert the people of Ghana to Christianity. And though that’s not something I believe to be a bad thing, the way in which I imagined them implementing their evangelism strategy left me feeling a combination of embarrassment and anxiety.
Keep in mind: this is all going on in my head. Perhaps I was jumping to conclusions.
So what was this group of brightly-clothed Christians who, for some reason, I didn’t trust to communicate the gospel effectively and respectfully, really out do to? Many of them were rough, middle-aged guys who had donned work boots and jeans with their uniform t-shirts for the 10 hours of backache-producing absence of legroom. So in reality, all clues pointed to a crew ready to build a house or fix a school – not the insensitive street-corner evangelicals I was afraid of, always ready to talk but never willing to listen.
Several days later I’m flipping through my pocket-sized Bible by the light of the single light bulb in my hotel room, the West Virginia group on my mind. I asked myself: Why was I so bitter about a group of Christians set out to “expand the kingdom?” And, more importantly, what does expanding the kingdom really mean?
First I’ll address the bitterness, which comes with a confession. I struggle sometimes to trust other Christians with communicating the gospel because of the prevalence of poorly-directed messages about sin and repentance which present Christ-followers as judgmental, self-righteous, and hypocritical instead of compassionate, humble and authentic. But I realize that I lacked any real knowledge about their intentions, and had based everything only on their matching t-shirts and rugged footwear. Needless to say, I realized that my concerns were irrational.
Meditating on the reality of that irrationality brought me quickly to reflection on the kingdom.
You see, I’m convinced that God calls me to a career in academia. The university best positions me with my strengths and gifts to serve the least of these and to work for the expansion of the kingdom of God. But it’s not an infrequent temptation to accept the irrational sense that other callings are less significant or Christ-centered than my own. And while my passion for God’s calling has me convinced that God’s plan for me is the most incredible thing in the world, I’ve come to the obvious conclusion that the central concept defining kingdom-expansion is broader than my own past, present, or future experience. In short, it’s bigger than me.
So somewhere in the process of thumbing through New Testament parables and puzzling over their meaning, I realized that the understanding for which I had been searching was hiding in plain sight.
But the answer is not about where you look; it’s about how you look at it. I learned that the answer can be seen in Ghana on the shack-lined dirt roads through which open sewers run, and in the clinics where medical supplies are scarce and good doctors even scarcer. And it can be seen in the eyes of children – some malnourished, sick or barely clothed – who respond with a mix of curiosity and excitement to the appearance of a foreign face.
In Ghana, there are so many opportunities to love. It’s a concept so plain that it could fit in a text message:
“Love one another,” he said. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34).
Interfaith work has taught me that loving others involves getting to know people personally – learning each person’s story and the philosophy that has both driven that story and been formed by it.
I think I was afraid that my fellow passengers from West Virginia weren’t aware of that lesson, and that their efforts at expanding the kingdom would suffer as a result. But something has reminded me that I shouldn’t assume they haven’t realized that Jesus valued relationships.
Maybe I’ll get lucky and the West Virginia crew will be on my flight home as well. Then I can ask them what they were doing to expand the kingdom in Ghana, and I’ll be careful this time not to make assumptions. Because although we’re provided with a rather ubiquitous model for love in the character of Christ, implementing that concept probably looks different for a second-year MD/PhD student from Illinois than it does for rugged guy from West Virginia.