Michael Leen, a returned Maryknoll lay missioner who worked in Tanzania, reflects on where we place our trust.
Consider, for a moment, if your sources of hope and trust shift between good times and bad. When things are going well, are you more likely to trust in yourself and depend on your own resources? When you are in a bind and find yourself in trouble, are you more likely to turn to God for strength and comfort?
The prophet Jeremiah gives a simple message in today’s first reading: Place your trust in the Lord – not in human beings – and you will be blessed. This proclamation is given without condition. It is a call to be faithful to God at all times. Those who seek “strength in flesh” are “like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season.” Conversely, those who “hope in the Lord” are “like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream.” It is a vivid contrast.
As a Maryknoll lay missioner in Tanzania, I confronted my ego pushing me to live like the barren bush. I discovered an inclination to trust my own strength and personal resources to tackle life’s challenges. However, this safety net was (largely) eradicated during my time in mission. Immersed in a foreign culture and language 8,500 miles from home, and aiming to live in solidarity with the poor, I had fewer places to turn for support. It was not long before I realized Jeremiah’s prophetic wisdom through the Tanzanians in my neighborhood and in my ministry.
“How are you?” I asked a neighbor. “God is helping me,” I heard back in Kiswahili.
“How are things at home?” I greeted a coworker. “God is with us,” my colleague responded.
The people on my street and in the business trainings I facilitated demonstrated a faithfulness to God no matter the circumstances. Their trust was in God persistently.
Nyafulu was a young woman who modeled this trust. After becoming pregnant in high school, she was required to drop out. As a single mother without a complete education, she was left with few options. The local nonprofit that I partnered with in my ministry, called Education for Better Living Organization (EBLI), offered Nyafulu a second chance in life. She was taught computer literacy, and I trained her in entrepreneurship and helped her and other young women form microfinance cooperatives. Nyafulu became the secretary of her microfinance group and used small loans to start businesses preparing cooked peanuts, bread, tea, and fish. It was Nyafulu’s dependence on God, however, that sustained her.
“I thank God for what he has given me.”
Despite the obstacles, Nyafulu made steps, little by little. After her businesses got off the ground, she earned a scholarship to study English for three months. Simultaneously, she volunteered as an assistant computer literacy teacher at EBLI, teaching other young women also expelled from school due to pregnancy. When the head teacher left, Nyafulu was hired as the lead instructor and given a monthly salary. After a year, she earned a scholarship to study for three years to become a Montessori-trained schoolteacher, a dream of hers. Nyafulu completed the program, went on from Mwanza to teach in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, and has since opened her own Montessori school.
Nyafulu credits her progress and achievements to her willful dependence on God. She is keenly aware of this reliance and of God’s intimate presence in life’s daily moments, and she helps others in her orbit to experience the same.
“Thanks to God I have been able to achieve my goals.”
Photo of a tree near Lake Tanganyika courtesy of Michael Leen.