Sister Michelle is my colleague and friend here in Melbourne. She grew up in a family of 8, the daughter of missionaries, in Kenya. Today, she landed in Nairobi along with Kamy Jesse, who, though not yet 21, is on her second major church mission trip since graduation. Together, they are going to help establish a school for very young children in Juba, South Sudan. They will be gone three weeks.
Kamy and Sister Michelle are both tall, with hipster glasses, awesome hair, and dimples when they smile. If they were planning to travel under the radar, I’m pretty sure they will fail.
Having Sister Michelle in my life is like having access to a culture and country I could otherwise only imagine–on-demand, via an IV drip into my veins. Whenever I want, I can press the button and she will thrill me with a story of how she broke coconuts on the ground and drank the juice in Kenya, or what it was like to attend boarding school from the 3rd grade until she graduated.
She tells me words in Swahili and she posts photos on Instagram of exotic foods like Chapati that she is making for dinner.
She shows me how, in Africa, it is customary to wave at people with the back of your hands…the same motion we use to shoo people away from our presence, when they are sending greetings. It is hard to do this without smiling, making a shooing motion at someone vigorously as a means of sending greetings. She told the children at Advent that when she returns she will do this same motion to them, meaning the folks in Juba send their greetings here.
Sister Michelle is beautiful and eloquent and smart. She is a dynamic teacher and planner. We share a wry sense of humor and an interest in dark crime shows; a country-music interest we try to keep under wraps, and a passion for social justice. She sends me funny text messages with hashtags intended to offer me reassurance like #protectingyourstreetcred.
Last year at this time, she flew to Columbus to drive the Ryder truck to Florida with me. I spent our initial time together assuring her that I was impressively organized and poised for this cross-country venture, because that’s how I roll: in an impressively organized manner.
By now she has figured out that might’ve been a bit of an overstatement.
We lead children’s chapel for 50 preschoolers together on Wednesday mornings. That is how I learned the hippo song, which, as most songs written for 3 year olds are, has embarrassing full-body motions that go with it and a whimsy that calls all ages to check their inhibition at the door and sing with abandon. I do this more willingly than I like to admit.
I am proud of the work she and Kamy will do in the weeks ahead; the vision of these two gifted women sharing their love with children so far away, who need exactly the gifts they bring, is the stuff from which Award-winning picture books spring.
I imagine them greeting the children with hands that shoo them.
I imagine the ground in Juba shaking as the children learn the hippo song.
I imagine the lists and plans they will create late into the night when the 102° heat finally breaks and their minds are able to focus on the challenges of the day.
I imagine them collapsing onto minimalist cots, embraced so tightly by sleep they awake too early in the exact same position.
We call Michelle, Sister, because she is a consecrated deaconess, meaning she went through particular training, including seminary studies, and has been called to serve in our church in the areas of Word and Service. The distinction between a Deaconess and a Pastor is a fine line and has to do with how a person feels led to use their gifts and live out their call in the world. Sometimes people at our church confuse us, calling me Sister, which is a little funny since she is a good 8″ taller than me, but I don’t mind at all.
If you knew Sister Michelle, you’d know that to be confused with her, is a compliment.
When she reads this she will no doubt be a little embarrassed; she’s not really one to talk about herself a lot. Perhaps she will send me a hashtag greeting like #youareanidiot…and then tell me that in Swahili, this mean that she misses me very much. Or. That it means the exact same thing in Swahili as it does in English.
I cannot believe I serve a church that is invested enough in the world to willingly send two of our gifted women to Juba for the sake of a community of children we do not know. I pray their journey is safe; their mission blessed; their return without complications.
In the meantime, I think about the fact that I am working under our same sun, while they prepare to sleep under our same moon, and I am honored to say that Advent Lutheran Church in Melbourne, Florida shoos our greetings to the community of Juba, from 7,389 miles away, planet Earth.