This is a guest post by my dear friend, Jake Etheridge. For more articles by Jake, check out his website here.
I’ve always heard “comedians” make jokes about airline food and how it’s horrible, but never understood it. Mainly because I had only been on one plane trip and that was when I was 8 for 45 minutes to see my grandparents in Arkansas. But that all changed about a week and a half ago. I went to Africa.
Now I know you are probably thinking, “Here’s some dumb kid who took one trip to Africa and now he is gonna tell us about how America is all wrong and I should give away all my money because money = bad.” No, and you should probably stop being so cynical. I did go to Africa and it did change my life.
As I got over the crummy airplane food and stretched my legs out after 40+ hours of travel, I landed in Durban, South Africa. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Beaches. Towering buildings. Amazing food. Neighborhoods. Concrete walls. Slums. Poverty. There can be a gradual decline in living very quickly around Durban. It can actually be very shocking at first, one moment seeing a beautiful skyline and the next looking at a small sheet metal shack that is someone’s home.
I was there for a missions trip, so I was ready to go in and help radically change the land of South Africa in a week! In my mind, I was every member of The Avengers rolled into a semi-slender, 180 pound, 20 something that couldn’t be stopped (Kidding and you shouldn’t think that way, either). Anyway, our first full day we went to a creche (preschool). This creche was located in the “Valley of a Thousand Hills” and it was gorgeous. What wasn’t so gorgeous was the fact that 1 in 3 people, including children, in the township had AIDS or HIV.
We hiked to the creche and fed these kids and taught them your basic church songs and prayer. We played, had fun, and shared many moments of laughter with these kiddos. I connected with two little boys very quickly who were brothers, both around 8 years old. We hung out, talked about PowerPuff girls, learned greeting customs from each other and took selfies. It was the best.
As I was leaving, I went to say goodbye to one of the brothers and he grabbed both my hands as I went to high five him. He looked me in the eyes and said, “You. I. Love. You.”
That moment hurt. In a good way. I could feel the sincerity in his voice and see it in his eyes. No one told him to say this, no one forced him to be kind, but he was. He expressed love to me and it wasn’t weird, wasn’t awkward, but it made me feel connected and valued. His words expressed his heart in that moment.
I choked up a little, taken a back from the bluntness of his comment and said, “I love you too.” Then I said goodbye and left the creche with my team.
That boy’s face and words stay with me. This boy had it “rough” by my American standard, but he was happy and full of joy. He wasn’t afraid to tell others what they meant to him and to enjoy our company. Sometimes we learn our biggest lessons in the smallest moments.
Because of this boy, I will better cherish those around me. I will tell people I love them and mean it. I will be happy despite what my living situation and circumstances look like. I won’t keep a phone screen in front of me and miss the chance to connect with someone, even if they are so different from me. Connection between two people comes through effort and I will put more effort into those around me.
Because of a little South African boy, I will love people more.
How will you make an effort to love people more, today?