Monday, October 28, 2013

On Marrying Young: Serving Together

The "On Marrying Young" series, has been the most-contributed-to and most read series on my blog since it's beginning.  Several of the posts in the series are in the top ten posts on my blog.  I keep thinking that the series is going to peter out, that all possible topics have been addressed...and then I get an email from a reader with a new take on marrying young.  The truth is, there are so many of us (although less than there used to be) that still choose to marry young, and each of our stories is different.  Join me in reading Katherine's story, that is indeed very different, having spent much of her newlywed year with her new husband serving others in Africa. 

In September 2008, 22 years old and married three months, we set off for six months in Uganda. We didn't have a great reason for taking time off to serve. We'd been lucky enough to graduate college debt-free, and lucky enough to find each other young. We had a spare moment to give back. So why not? I rarely feel God's guidance directly in my life, and so we prayed: God, if You have a reason that we should not go to Africa, make it clear.

And He didn't, it seemed. Instead, we got a lot of encouragement, both emotional and financial, from friends and families and near strangers. We found a way to tag along with a surgical mission team, got our visas in order, and went to a travel nurse for anti-malarial meds.

So, in September, a summer after our wedding, we left. The closest we'd ever been to the developing world was the rough side of Marseilles, or New Orleans, maybe. Our parents said goodbye to us in our hometown airport, and three days later, we went to bed on the hospital compound that was to be our home for six months.

That night, tip-toeing through the open-air hall to the bathroom, I thought about the kids who'd tapped the windows of our hospital van that day, begging and beseeching. Bats swooped overhead, chasing moths the size of my hand, and I thought uneasily about hemmorhagic fever. A gecko leapt out of the toilet tank, spooking me badly. I rushed back to bed, where John was lying beneath a mosquito net, listless in the oppressive heat, and complained bitterly. This had clearly been a mistake.

But the days slouched by and we made our way. I found work at local libraries, and he kept busy on the computers down at the hospital. We never had enough work, by American standards, and filled our time making friends, reading, attending morning chapel. John learned badminton and played with the hospital staff. I read to the kids who peeked curiously through our windows.

After pretty successful undergraduate careers — and aren't we told college is for finding ourselves, and by implication, serving ourselves? — we had signed up for service. But that service didn't come in the form of heroically reorganizing African libraries or winning souls or enlightening eager students. It came in sharing meals that freaked us out (who's for goat broth and cassava, eaten with your hands?) and cramming into an overcrowded matatu without a fuss. It came in the form of learning our own unimportance, and to be happy with each other when things aren't comfortable.

As our days in Africa came to a close, as I counted down to our flight home and fantasized about those wedding gifts I'd barely had a chance to use, I came to a startling realization: I was always going to be someone who had lived in Africa.

"Oh! It is your honeymoon!" the Ugandans we'd met would claim, and it was and it wasn't. For me, a  honeymoon implied pure indulgence — champagne and sleeping in. And yet our months in Africa are vivid in my mind as any tropical cruise or Disney vacation, and shape our culture as a couple and, now, a family. Five years later, we still receive letters soliciting our help. We search out new acquaintances with an African accent, hoping just once to find a Mukonzo. (We never do.) I bear a motorcycle taxi burn scar on my calf from my twenty-third birthday. We are adventurers who now, because of our time in Africa, give more confidently and trust more fully. Lessons learned there about cheerful sacrifice helped us through my terrible morning sickness, informed our decision to be a one-car family, taught us to rejoice in the gift of children, even when we're far from rich.

There's a danger, of course, in service as young newlyweds. You're thousands of miles from home with the person with whom you've decided to share your life, and he's pretty much the only one you can share it with. Talk about leave and cleave. We were surrounded with new friends, expats and locals alike, but only he knew the real me, the me from before. But isn't this, ultimately, what marriage is all about? The two of you, alone together in the world.

Katherine Bowers is a new mother and teen librarian in Western Mass who attempts to serve through both roles, and always leaves room for ice cream. She blogs about her adventures with the wiggliest baby, an outdoorsy husband and a bouncy dog at shouting hallelujah.

Please check out the other posts in the On Marrying Young series here.

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