Throughout my discernment of mission work, there was one gospel passage that I kept getting drawn back to: the story of the rich man who walks away from Jesus sad. This story can be found in Matthew 19, Mark 10, and Luke 18, and if you’re unfamiliar with this passage, it basically goes like this: a rich man approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus lists off the commandments and tells the man that he must follow the commandments. The man says he has kept the commandments since his childhood, but Jesus tells him that there is one thing he still lacks, that he should sell all he has, give to the poor, and follow him. The man leaves, filled with sorrow because he has many possessions.
Now I am by no means a rich man, so I spent a good bit of time trying to figure out why I was being drawn to this passage in particular before concluding that the rich man in the passage and I were in very similar situations. We both had an opportunity to leave behind everything we knew to follow Jesus more closely, or remain in the world we were already comfortable in. What I lacked in material possessions I certainly made up for in relationships that I wanted to develop further; friends who have had a profound impact on my faith and the man that I am today. People that I want to share life with for years to come. I receive a great deal of joy from these relationships, and it is in this matter that I consider myself to be a very wealthy man. I feared losing contact with them, missing out on big events in their lives, and not being able to recover from the literal and figurative distance between us. Through it all though, I felt a steady voice assuring me that things will be fine and asking “Do you trust me?” It wasn’t easy, but I said yes.
I share this story because this passage and this message came up again a few times over this past month. The reality of being two months apart from people I’ve either lived with or seen several times a week over the past few years started to sink in and take its toll. Some of those fears that had been quiet for a while started whispering again, slowly getting louder as sudden schedule changes, unreliable internet, and being five hours ahead of everyone made it difficult to contact people, even amongst those I contact more regularly. But that same steady voice returned too, adding, “They were mine before you came to know them. You were mine before they came to know you. Do you trust me?” It both reassured me and gave me a little more clarity about that passage, affirming me in some of the things I had experienced this past month by doing so.
As hard as it has been to be away from home, one thing has felt constant since I arrived here: this is where I belong. This is where I need to be right now. I love teaching these kids and playing with them in our spare time, I love the liveliness of the parish, and I feel incredibly supported by my fellow teachers, the other members of this community, and the townspeople. I can’t imagine that I would be feeling this fulfilled if I was doing anything else, which is exactly what Jesus wants to offer us, and it’s the same thing that he offered to the rich young man: fulfillment.
There is a hole in each of our hearts that we can try to fill with a great many things, be it money, power, fame, relationships, success, whatever. There is only one thing that can fill that hole: pursuing the one who created us; pursuing a relationship with Christ Jesus, and putting that before all else. The rich man approached Christ with a yearning for more in his life, yearning for fulfillment, but he walked away sad because he couldn’t place his possessions and his desires second to what would actually fulfill him: being with the one he belongs to.
I do find it humorous and a little ironic that I have felt such strong feelings of belonging here. I walk down the street and am greeted with cries of “apoto,” or “white man,” everywhere I go, reminding me that I’m different – that I am a strange and unusual sight to see for the people of Sierra Leone. But that difference is embraced, and I’m honestly not sure whether my language is more figurative or literal when I say that, and I think that’s something we could all learn from and adapt.
This is where I belong, and I couldn’t be happier for it.