With all of my woes and teenage ups and downs, I entered the summer after high school graduation with a new lease on life. I was excited about going away to Baylor in the fall. I was committed to spending the summer doing things that gave me life and energy and courage. This included a stateside mission trip with my youth group, camps and trips with my sister and youth director, time at home with my immediate family and my graduation present from my parents, a trip to Jamaica.
This sounds like a Caribbean escape, right? I joined a team of adults from my church to travel for 10 days to do construction and host a VBS program in an impoverished hillside village. There was one other 18 year-old on the trip and he traveled with his dad. I felt invincible and courageous and bold and ready to travel outside of the USA for the first time. I should have known that the trip was going to be full of excitement when we landed at the airport and AK47s were on the shoulders of the men inspecting our luggage. This was certainly not Texas and apparently we talked funny.
There were many adults that I knew on the trip, but up until this point, I had always traveled with a sibling or parent or youth sponsor. I was officially a grown-up. I can remember thinking on the flight to Jamaica that I had arrived. If this was adult-ing, I had this thing covered.We were on the island for less than 48 hours when I experienced a night that I will never forget.
We stayed in houses in a high tourist area and had a night guard that patrolled the grounds. In my house, we had the father and son sleeping downstairs, and (3) two person teams in the bedrooms upstairs. My roommate and I had the room on the far end of the hall, and we had an air-conditioning shortage, so we left the door open for the fans to cool the room. At some point in the night, I woke up. It was rare for me to wake in the night, but I made my way to the bathroom in the dark and flipped on the light. When I did, I realized that something was off. In that moment, I had my first real encounter with trusting my intuition. I noticed that my pink sponge rollers were spread on the floor. I knew I did not leave them there, so I was immediately aware that something was not right. I walked back into the room, leaving the bathroom light on, and realized that my suitcase had been ransacked. Things were obviously missing and the alarm clock on my bedside table was gone. I don’t remember waking my roommate, but in no time, she was standing with me and we were terrified.
We quickly woke the other 4 that were sleeping on our floor. As we walked down the hall, I realized that my belongings were strewn down the stairs. One of the rooms upstairs was being shared by a middle age couple. He jumped into protector mode and quickly told us to stay behind. This was far from successful, as I can recall being steps behind him as we made our way to the bottom floor. Before we reached the room of our downstairs housemates, we passed the kitchen entrance. I could see my birth certificate on the floor with my empty money pouch and camera case. As my eyes came into focus and my brain began to register, I realized that the room was covered in blood. There was no sign of a victim, but someone was definitely hurt.
We quickly woke our housemates and by the time we assembled in the den, the lights were coming on outside and it was apparent that there was a problem. We came to learn that a gang of young men had come into our house. They had been inches away from my body and I never moved. A house of 8 people never stirred and no one startled awake as they trashed our house. There is not one argument or piece of evidence that can change my belief that God caused our sleep to be supernaturally deep. God protected our lives.
The blood in the kitchen belonged to the security officer. Our night guard, trying to trap the robbers for the police, reached his arm inside the slats of the shutters to lock them in our kitchen. We will discuss the merits of this plan another day, but the result of this action was that the men used their machetes to slash the guard’s arm and the evidence was the crime scene in the kitchen. When I let that sink in, I was even more convinced of the protective cloud that was over that house.
During the next 7 days, I had a crash course in the Jamaican court system. They captured two of the men (I’m quite sure one was 10-12 years old) with my belonging on their person. This meant that I had to go to the town police station and identify my belongings, by way of standing face to face with the ones that had them in their possession. I can remember standing on the dirt floor police station as they brought these “men” in front of me. They had beaten the bottoms of their feet so severely that they could hardly walk. I was devastated. The conclusion of the event was a trial that was held the day before we left to come home, whereby I testified in “court” against the gang.
To say that my first international trip and foreign mission experience was life changing is an understatement. I still check doors and windows nightly. 25 years later, I believe that when I am awakened in the night it is for a reason. Sometimes it is clear. Other times, it is just to be still. I do both with gratitude. But most of all, I am thankful for the gift of waking up. Until that moment, I did not appreciate our government or rights or justice. I had no concept that there were places in the world where safety was rare and there was nothing that approached secure. I had no appreciation for the privilege of my private school upbringing. I certainly didn’t appreciate the opportunities that were ahead of me in college.
In that 10 day trip, I woke up to a world with hatred and injustice and hopelessness. I had a new appreciation for poverty and scarcity and being willing to go to any lengths. On that trip, I learned many lessons, but the one that I am quick to recognize is that you can’t always run away. I’m sure my mom wanted me on the next flight back to Texas when she heard this story. And let’s be honest, there was a big part of me that wanted to run home to my parents. But there was also a part of me that knew that I needed this trip. I needed to know what being strong was like. I needed to face the unknown and uncertain with people that I was forced to depend on. I had no money. Many of my creature comforts were gone. This was a life defining moment that gave me insight into what it was like to stand on my own. This was a wakeup call that was a well timed gift from God.
How is this a Christmasy story? If Christmastide is about finding joy and receiving hope, this trip was a gift. Sometimes the hard and the unnerving and fear inducing moments are the very times that we can find joy and hope in a God that is bigger than our fear of the dark.