…all the way from Africa
What do you want for Christmas? I hear this phrase a lot this time of year. People’s lists run the gamut from practical and altruistic to unrealistic and opulent.
In our family, as we discuss the multitude of packages that might appear under the tree, we often think of the young boy on the other side of the world who has become a special part of our lives. His Christmas list puts ours into perspective.
Adam Robert was born with a unique genetic condition known as albinism. Persons with albinism (PWAs) are born with a lack of pigmentation in their hair, skin, and eyes, making them vulnerable to sun exposure and bright light. In Canada, Adam’s life would be challenging enough due to low vision and social misunderstanding. But in East Africa, it can be deadly.
I first met Adam last year in northwest Tanzania. (I was on a service trip with Under the Same Sun, a Canadian Christian charity improving the lives of PWA). Adam told me he was savagely attacked in October 2011 by a man wielding a machete, simply because he was a person with albinism.
Much of Tanzanian society believes that the body parts of people with albinism contain special powers and, therefore, they’re sought after for rituals. This leaves people like Adam living in a state of fear for their own safety.
The attacker intended to hack off all Adam’s limbs to sell to a witchdoctor. Adam survived only because he fought so hard that the neighbours came running. In the end, he lost two fingers and a thumb.
Sadly, Adam’s own father and stepmother were complicit in the attack. They watched the entire thing from just a few feet away and did nothing to stop it.
Hope and a future
Unable to return to his home or family, Adam was approached by caring friends who asked: “What do you want?” The courage and simplicity of his response struck me immediately. All he wanted in life was to go to school. But because of the attack, he couldn’t write with either hand.
To give Adam a full chance at a vibrant life, Under the Same Sun arranged for him to have a life-changing operation here in Vancouver. A team of surgeons donated their time to rebuild Adam’s right hand through a toe-to-thumb transplant. In Adam’s two brief medical visits to Canada, his hand has been restored. He’s learning English, and his emotional trauma is healing. In short, his entire life has changed!
It’s intriguing to read through the Gospel accounts and note how often Jesus asks the question “What do you want?” (Matthew 20:32; John 1:38). Jesus doesn’t assume he knows what the individuals need. He also doesn’t assume they rightly perceive their own needs. But it never stops him from asking the simple and striking question.
Wisdom is going and doing likewise. I can’t rush in with prefabricated solutions or programmatic “fixes” to challenges in the lives of those around me, nor to the great needs that exist in our city or across the world. Asking “What do you want?” often leads me down a different path than I first imagine. The most readily apparent needs often aren’t the deepest.
What do you want for your family?
Meeting Adam changed our lives. During his time in Vancouver, I was overjoyed to see how warmly our son and daughter responded to Adam. Our whole family took him to physiotherapy appointments, celebrated his birthday, and played with and prayed for him. We all care deeply for this young man who is inquisitive, smart, playful, kind, and courageous.
As a pastor, I also want to provide opportunities for people in my church family to experience what God is doing in the world. Supporting Adam through his journey of healing was one way Jericho Ridge Community Church, Langley, B.C., could grapple with the struggle of life in Tanzania in a practical way. Our congregation made meals for Adam and invited him into their homes. The kids collected sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats to send to other children with albinism in Tanzania.
A bigger step
As our Jericho Ridge family got to know Adam, we decided to take the next step in our journey.
Titus 3:14 reminds us that “people must learn to do good by meeting the urgent needs of others; then they will not be unproductive” (NLT). If people must learn to do good, we must not only teach them the biblical underpinnings of compassion and justice, we must also provide concrete and high-challenge opportunities to engage.
Under The Same Sun cares for more than 300 students like Adam – kids who are bright and courageous, but who are innocent victims of discrimination and attack. As we thought about what these kids might want, the idea of running a summer camp similar to what we do in Canada came to mind.
So for two weeks this past July, my wife, children, and I led a team of 21 volunteers to Tanzania to bring joy, laughter, and fun to 150 kids with albinism. Through music, drama, art, English education, sports, and tangible expressions of how much God loves them, we were able to provide hope to these children – with a vision for their future.
We worked in partnership with a local church in Mwanza to catalyze ongoing care and support for these orphans. We even introduced hockey to East Africa!
As a dad and pastor, I want my family to experience the joy that comes from service. This is something that can’t be learned from a distance or in a classroom setting. It has to be modelled. It has to be experienced.
And when it’s experienced, it spills over into everyday life. I see my kids growing in their capacity to search out those on the margins and working hard to understand those who are different from them. I hear them asking bigger questions about the character of God and what it means to live out his mission in the world.
In many ways, these are the greatest gifts I could give them. But they first had to be invited into a place where they were willing to receive instruction as opposed to just information.
What does God want for Christmas?
For me, the hardest part of this journey has been the sometimes tepid response of others. When something touches your heart but those around you don’t resonate with it, there’s a profound sense of dissonance and internal angst you learn to live with.
God has chosen to give our family a heart for people with albinism on the other side of the world. It’s a mission we don’t fully understand but are learning to appreciate in all its complexity. We pray daily for peace and security for our friends, and we regularly think about ways to advocate for them.
Adam’s unfolding story reminds me that it doesn’t matter if I get what’s on my wish list this Christmas. The incarnation brings us back to things of ultimate and eternal importance – God’s wish list, in a manner of speaking: “This is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NLT).
During the Advent season, we think of Jesus – a little boy – who came to change the world. In our family, we’re also thinking of another little boy who came into our lives and hearts, and who forever changed what we want for Christmas.
—Brad Sumner is a pigmented part of the pastoral personnel at Jericho Ridge Community Church, Langley, B.C., and a volunteer with UTSS. To learn more about ministry with persons with albinism, see www.UnderTheSameSun.com.