It was a bright and sunny day yesterday. The students surrounded the field with glee as we watched the girls' soccer team compete in the finals of the sports day competition. There was cheering from both schools as they watched the girls race up and down the field. Nearing the end of the second half, our girls were holding their 1-0 lead. Then, suddenly the other team scored. Their students erupted into a loud burst of cheering. They stormed the field in excitement and ruckus. As our students looked on in angst, the other students began throwing rocks towards our students. I watched in slow motion as a big stone hit the head of one of my students.
She immediately fell to the ground. I quickly ran over to her. Blood was pooling all around her. She was wailing and screaming and crying. I've never heard crying as loud, as intense, as painful. I searched around for someone to help her. No one offered any help to her. Students and adults surrounded her as she lay in her own blood. I called to my students, "Go find so and so! Where's this person or that person?"
No one was there to help this girl. I quickly reached down and lifted her up, her blood covering my hands and clothes. I tried to console her. I said, "M, look at me. Take a deep breath. You're okay. You're okay. You're going to be okay." But she wasn't okay, blood gushed from her head. As tears were forming in my eyes, I fought to maintain my composure. I had to help this girl. I walked her into the shade as hundreds of onlookers offered no help. I pulled tissue out of my bag to try stop the bleeding. I cleaned her up as best as I could. Then, out of no where, it began to rain. Hard rain. I walked her slowly to shelter, getting drenched by the downpour. Then, just as suddenly as the rain came, it stopped 3 minutes later, just long enough to clean all the blood from the two of us. Finally, I found our student care coordinator, and she took M to the hospital. I choked back tears as I explained to her what happened and asked her where she was, bemoaning that no one was there to help M. To help me.
When I got home, I fell into a ball of tears. Lamenting and crying that no one was there to help this sweet little girl. She was all alone lying in her own tears, her own blood. No one was there for her. Then, in a small, quiet voice I heard, "but you were there. That's why I sent you"
It's no coincidence that M was on my dance team, and we practiced every day in the fall leading up to the to anniversary ceremony. It was no coincidence that M spent afternoons at my house playing and hanging out. It was no coincidence that I chose her to be on the basketball team though she's the smallest one, and we've spent three days a week training and playing together and praying together. It was no coincidence that M came to the library every day to work on her book report project with me for the past two weeks. It was because of those moments that when I looked M in the eyes and said you're going to be okay, she believed me. She trusted me. She knew I had been there for her then, and that I was for her in that moment too.
"That's why I sent you." Echoes in my heart as I reflect on my time here. The happy moments frolicking by the lake and the anguishing moments of tears. I am here. And I'm grateful.
For the past two months, I have been living in Mbita, Kenya, which is a very rural village situated on Lake Victoria. Most families make their living from fishing, running small shops, or small subsistence farming. Most houses don't have running water or electricity. Internet connectivity is virtually non-existent. The roads are dirt and the land is hot, dry, and rocky. Widows and orphans are many because of the extremely high rate of HIV/AIDS. On my first weekend there, I hiked one of the many hills in the area. It was the first time I noticed how parched and rocky the land was and how there wasn't much growing. I thought to myself, What can grow here? What could grow in such conditions? I soon discovered that love can spring up even in the most barren of places. Hope grows there. Joy grows there. Love grows there.
I had the pleasure of working at a school for the many orphans in the community. Within the brightly colored classrooms of the school, children facing the most stricken of circumstances were showered in love and care. Their joy was contagious and my heart melted.
Life in Mbita is challenging for sure. I longed for ice while under the hot afternoon sun. I longed for steady internet to FaceTime my family back home. I craved pizza and chocolate chip cookies. My heart ached for the familiar, while I was surrounded by the unknown and unfamiliar. But God has worked mightily as I stepped further and further out of my comfort zone. The more I released control, the more free I felt. God provided for me and showed His face in unexpected ways. I'd see it in the eyes of Anil, while she was helping me in the kitchen. I'd see it in the grin of Phina, while we discussed worshiping God through dance, I saw it in Sonelia, as her smile shined brightly during the end of year celebration. I'd see it in the glorious sunset over Lake Victoria each evening and in the night sky as millions of stars shined through the pitch black sky.
I am very grateful that The Lord saw fit to bring me there. My heart has never been more full. My life feels more complete because I've felt God's love in newer and bigger ways. I felt His presence in greater and truer ways. I have seen Him work in a place so remote, so barren, so dry, so rocky. But love grows there. God is raising up a new generation to bring His Kingdom to Kenya through these young lives. I'm grateful I can play a small role.
While I reflect on my time in Mbita, I'm overwhelmed with emotion. I'm excited to spend the holidays in Nairobi with modern conveniences and to have time to rest and reflect, but I know the Lord is calling me back to that small fishing village. He is not done with me yet.
With that, I am so excited to announce that beginning in January 2017, I will be relocating to Mbita, Kenya. I'm not sure how long I'll be there, but I'll stay for as long as The Lord sees fit. I know the challenges that lay ahead, but I also know the joys unspeakable that await. Please stay tuned on how you can pray and support my work there.
When I moved to Kenya over a year ago, I couldn't have expected the journey that I have had. The people that I have met. The places I've seen. But The Lord knew before I ever stepped foot in Kenya His plan for my time here. This week of Thanksgiving I'm thankful for a Lord that pursues without ceasing. I'm thankful for the opportunity to pour out His love, but to also receive His love. I'm thankful for my family and their support. I'm thankful for mentors and friends that listen to my struggles. I'm thankful for an aunt and uncle to spend Thanksgiving with. I'm thankful for a Savior that loves me in spite of my doubt and worries. I'm thankful for sunsets over Lake Victoria. I'm thankful for each and every child that I've had the pleasure of being with and the impression they have left on my heart.
And mostly I'm thankful that The Lord is not done with me yet. I'm heading back to a place that in spite of the challenges, in spite of the poverty, in spite of the strife, love grows there.
A few weeks ago, my dad retired from UPS. When everyone asks what he’ll be doing with all his free time, he laughs and says,”What free time?”
Thursday morning in a small office at Eldon Roark Tennis Center in Whitehaven, three of us crammed in making copies, punching holes, filling binders, and creating handouts. My dad, known by most as “Coach Kent”, in front of his computer making last minute changes for the training and meeting that afternoon. His phone ringing nonstop, finally he slams the phone on the desk and states he just can’t take anymore calls. I quickly take over as secretary. “Kent Smith’s phone,” I answer, as a myriad of calls asking about application fees, staff positions, start dates, equipment, and open slots come in. This is the madness before the magic begins on Monday.
This Monday, my dad along with a staff of about 40 coaches, will begin another summer of tennis camp throughout the city. For our family, it’s been a hallmark, a spiritual journey, a marking of each passing summer.
About 15 years ago, my dad tells me he is going to be working at a tennis camp and asks me if I’d like to help. At the time, I wasn’t sure how he was gonna run a tennis camp, and although I was a good junior tennis player, what did we know about a tennis camp? But there we were on a tennis court in North Memphis. At that time, there was no curriculum, no fancy training, no huge staff. It was me, my dad and a handful of kids. Each summer, the camp progressed and increased with size. We went from one site to a few more to finally every public tennis court in Memphis and even makeshift courts on community center basketball courts.
This summer the camp will run at 7 sites, hundreds of kids will pass through, dozens of staff members will be employed. And to each of them, my dad is simply “Coach Kent”.
The name echoes in my ears as 3 or 4 teenagers simultaneously call for his attention. They come rushing in his office sometimes for a legitimate question, sometimes just to steal fruit snacks from his closet. Some will just come and sit, as he says, “bugging him”. Over the years countless teenagers have gotten their first paychecks through this camp. My dad serving as more than just a boss, sometimes a mentor, sometimes a father figure.
His style is unique. At any given moment, he could erupt, with either laughter or barking out orders. But no one is alarmed, because at the end of the day we all know he is full of love for anyone that calls him dad or even “Coach Kent”.
My sisters and I know that from mid-may to the beginning of August, our dad is on loan to the camp. We know at any moment he will give us the whole rundown of his to-do lists. We can either get out of the way or get onboard. We’ve chosen the latter. I have been involved with this camp since the beginning. Some summers as an official staff member. Some summers from afar as I was out of town or even out of the country. Some summers I “volunteered” when I’d sneak in on my lunch break from another job just in time for a water balloon fight or pizza party. And some summers I’d crawl back to my father needing the job because my big fancy plans didn’t work out and I “had” to work at a “lowly tennis camp.” But whatever the case, this camp has been apart of me for more than half my life. Some of the staff are more family than friends.
As we stood before the staff ready to launch this new season of camp, my heart swelled with pride. I watched my dad lead the two day training. As most of the staff were veterans, we joked and laughed throughout the two days. My dad laughing among us. And although, I will only be here for three weeks, I’m grateful I get to be part of this camp again. I’m excited for the hot days, the complaining kids, but also the joy of a kid mastering a new stroke, the thrill of a cold water balloon on a hot day, the wonder of blowing bubbles with little kids, and the camaraderie of being with my friends.
To loan my dad out for the summer is a great joy. For him, it is one of his greatest joys. The kids and coaches will undoubtedly decorate the courts and try to surprise him for his birthday, which falls during the camp every year. Their plans will be thwarted, because somehow he always knows. He will drive from site to site, jumping out on the court and joining the campers in whatever game they're playing. He will take picture after picture of magic moments from the camp, and bug all of us 50 times for any picture we have taken. He will challenge any of the coaches and campers to a match even if they are 5 or 18. He will laugh a lot. He will work hard. And when the camp concludes at the final jamboree in July, I’m sure he will look back at another job well done as “Coach Kent.”
I learned “almost” everything I know from him about teaching tennis and running camps. This past year, I’ve ran several mini camps in Kenya. From the shores of Lake Victoria to the slum of Kibera, I became “Coach Kristen.” And I can only hope that I'll have half as much impact as he has had on hundreds of young lives every summer.
#Shamelessplug: You can find out more information about the camp and sign up here. The camp runs from June 6-July 22 at 7 sites throughout Memphis.
Yesterday, it was a beautiful day. We were sitting in an outdoor cafe at a newly constructed mall in Nairobi. The sun was brightly shining, and there was a cool breeze blowing throughout the veranda. All around the remarkable green and vibrant flowery surrounded us. It was a beautiful day. I was having lunch with my new Kenyan family. The conversation was easy and pleasant. It was a beautiful day.
I looked up from our table at the neighboring table and that’s when I saw him. The doppelgänger. I immediately thought of how much he looked like my uncle. My Uncle Paul. My favorite uncle. A smile graced my face as I thought of how much he'd enjoy this place, with the lake view and the live jazz music playing in the background. I felt sad for a minute to be so far from my family, but looking across at this man who was a dead ringer for my uncle, I felt comforted with thoughts of my favorite uncle.
We all have that family member who makes everyone laugh with their stories and jokes…that’s my Uncle Paul. From his huge sense of humor to his uncanny ability to draw everyone around him into his world, my uncle exudes joy. As my mother's favorite brother, he naturally became our favorite uncle. Our third parent. His daughters, our sisters. Every summer, we vacation together, from the waterfalls of Jamaica to the pyramids in Mexico, we have the best memories with our Uncle Paul and his family. If there is one thing my uncle loves as much as his family is Alabama football. His pride swelled when his “Bama" won the national championship. Sending my dad texts with every touchdown. From tennis matches to basketball games, he always comes and supports my sisters and I. When I needed a place to stay in Nashville, he didn't hesitate to open his home to me. And when I moved to Kenya, he was there to send me off, to wish me well, and of course to joke that I'd find my Kenyan warrior husband.
Looking at this man, who resembled my uncle, I was filled with joy to have such a great uncle. How blessed indeed. It was a beautiful day.
I woke up very early Sunday morning Kenyan time. I glanced at my phone and noticed numerous missed texts from my sister.
"Something bad has happened.”
"Call me when you wake up.”
I put the phone down and prayed for the Lord's comfort and peace regardless of the news. I called my sister and listened as she stumbled over her words. But didn't I already know? Had God not already shown me the day before? I didn't need my sister to confirm that my favorite uncle was gone.
Living in Kenya is a blessing for sure, but at that moment all I wanted was to be home to give my mother the biggest hug. To be there with my family. With my cousin. With my aunt. Hadn’t my uncle always been there for me? Even as I type this, my heart is heavy. My grief is overflowing. The hardest part being the miles separating me from the ones I love. Our pastor spoke about God’s sovereignty this morning. I trust His plan and don't question His sovereignty, but it’s days like this that I feel the cost of being away. What a high price indeed.
But God. My refuge and my strength.
And oh, how sweet for Him to send my favorite uncle all the way to Kenya, so I could see him one last time. It was a beautiful day.
It was mid-September 2015 when I first stepped into the market. I was looking for some beaded bracelets to send home for my sisters and younger cousin. That’s when I first met her, a smile beaming across her face, she ran up and greeted me with jovial enthusiasm. “My friend” she called me and helped me pick out a few bracelets, and I promised her I’d come back in December to buy Christmas presents for my family. Over the next few months, I’d stop by her stall just to say hi or buy a pair of earrings so she'd have bus fare home. She'd always greet me as “my friend” and give me a huge embrace. We’d become casual friends during that time, but little did I know there was such a story behind that bright grin.
In December, I came by as promised and bought a lot of my christmas presents from her little shop. She thanked me sincerely and gave me a huge hug. And I realized in all the time that I’d known her, I’d never asked her for her name. “Neema,” she told me. I returned to the U.S. for about 6 weeks, but I told her I’d be back and would be sure to come see her.
Monday, I dragged myself out of my sleep-induced stupor. I was still dealing with jet lag and adjusting to not only the 9 hour time difference but also the climate and altitude change. I knew I needed to go to the supermarket and stock my new kitchen. After the supermarket, I remembered Neema, so I walked over to the little kiosks set up as a makeshift market. When I first glanced at her stall, she wasn’t there, disappointment hit me like a ton of bricks. Where had my friend gone? Then, I saw her smiling face at another shop, she ran up and gave me the biggest hug. We talked briefly, but I had to rush off quickly because my taxi was waiting.
Two days later, I returned to her shop. I took a seat next to her and we talked for hours. I wanted to get to know this girl that had been calling me friend for the past 6 months. I wanted to know the story behind the smile. Eager to have someone to talk to, she trusted me with her story.
Neema is 21 years old, and originally from Tanzania. She is the second youngest of five siblings. Her older sister is married with two kids, and her two older brothers are working but not supporting her parents. Her parents have a small farm, but not a decent source of income. At 21, Neema is the sole provider for her family, She moved to Nairobi alone to work at this kiosk in a local market. She gets a small percentage of the profits. Her principal in Tanzania connected her with the shop owner, and at 20 she moved by herself to a new country to make a living for herself and her family. She works the shop 7 days a week from 8am to 6pm. She lives by herself in a not so safe area of town. She said she can only communicate with her family rarely because it is so expensive. She’s only been home once in 15 months. When I asked her if she’d wanted to go to college, she pressed her head into my shoulder and started crying. She was quiet for a few minutes as the tears ran down her face. She looked up at me, “It’s…” her voice breaking.
“Too expensive,” I finished her sentence for her. She told me she didn’t have any friends and often felt lonely and sad. Her neighbors keep to themselves. Her fellow shopkeepers compete for business. She said her customers become her friends. I thought back to the first day we met, and how she quickly called me her friend. I wonder then if she imagined a friendship with me, even played dialogue through her head. I told her a little of my story, about how I too moved alone to a foreign country far from my family. Of course I can’t imagine the burden of being financially responsible for my family or not being able to communicate regularly. We talked some more about being single and waiting for God for marriage. And how Jesus is the nearest and best friend a person can have.
When I got up to leave, I gave her a big hug and told her she was not alone anymore. She had a friend. I would be her friend. After discovering that she loved to read, she told me her favorite storybook was about animals, but she didn’t have any books. I told her next time I came I’d bring her my favorite book, The Lion ,the Witch and the Wardrobe, and she could read it and we could talk about it. We exchanged numbers and one final hug. And as I was walking away, feeling heavy from the conversation and sad for my new friend, I called over my shoulder, “What does your name mean?”
“Grace,” she said as her electric smile returned.
Grace, I thought as I walked away, how fitting. Then, it was I who was wiping the tears from my own eyes.