Yesterday I received news that a young man from my high school had unexpectedly and suddenly passed away.
You guys….high school was 7 years ago. 7 years ago, I graduated from Sahel and left Niger. And yet 7 years later, I am mourning and grieving along with the Sahel community. Because that is what Sahel is. A community.
And of course I have a lot of thoughts bouncing around in my head. So I have decided to write them out. This is a letter to my Sahel family.
Since I heard the news, I just can’t stop thinking of you all. I had never met Jesse, and I have not met most of the people who now make up the current Sahel community. But I know what Sahel meant to me, and so I can only imagine how hard this has rocked you.
To the Sahel students– this isn’t fair. It’s just not. Plain and simple, it doesn’t make any sense. It might take a long time before it makes any sense. It might take getting to heaven before we understand why Jesse was taken so early in life. High school is rough. High school is already an emotional time, and I know that there was already so many goodbyes happening in the next week. And then you have to deal with this sudden and unexpected, tragic goodbye. It hurts. And it’s hard. And it’s ok to be angry, to cry, to not cry, to not feel motivated to go to the rec center or the court or the soccer field or wherever you have the most memories of Jesse. You know the crazy thing about grief? We all handle it in different ways. Some of us cry. Some of us deny. Some of us hang on. Some of us let go, sometimes far too early. But my dear Sahelians, I cannot think of a better place for you to be as you go through the grief of this goodbye. The Sahel community is one that is hard to find anywhere else in this world. In this community, you can find someone who will listen, who will grieve along with you. You can hold each other and talk to each other and listen to each other as needed. You can fit the entire high school in one room and there you can each process the tragedy in the way that you need to. You are all in this together. And you will help each other through it. That is beautiful, and it is a blessing.
To those of you who are believers. You world has been rocked. Everything that you thought you knew about God has probably run through your head and now you are not so sure. How could this happen? Why would this happen? What? Let me tell you this- God is sovereign. That is what it comes down to. Do you believe that? We all sing the songs and learned the verses and now the rubber meets the road. We don’t understand why this happened. We don’t! We might never know. But the important thing is that we understand that God knows why this happened. And you know what? That’s not going to look like a perfectly tranquil face, a worship song on our tongue and a smile on our lips from here on out. It might look like a tear-stained face and kicking a soccer ball against the wall as hard as you can because IT JUST DOESN’T MAKE SENSE, but you trust Him. Cling to his Word. It’s ok to be extremely sad, to be angry, to be confused. But in the end, who will you cling to?
To those of you who are not believers. Maybe you are a missionary kid and up until this moment you really thought you were a believer. Maybe you have pretended that you are believer, but really you are only saying to fit in. Maybe you are going to Sahel because it’s the best school in the country but you feel like all that Bible stuff is crap. Guys, talk to someone. Ask yourself the hard questions. Ask someone else the hard questions! Write in a journal. And ask yourself what Jesse believed- do you think it was worth it for him to believe in God? Do you feel like God is a tyrant, a meany, an unjust God who clearly has no control? It’s ok. Those are valid questions and valid feelings. Talk to someone. Ask those questions. The answers might surprise you. The answers might not be what you think.
To the Sahel seniors: This is unfair. This is confusing. This is not how you wanted to end your last week in your favorite place (or maybe it’s your least favorite place!). Either way, this was not in the plans. When our class of 10 graduated, we all handled that last month in different ways. Some of us pushed all our friends away. Some of us grabbed onto our friends and clung with all our might. Some of us could not wait to get out of there and be free from all the people everywhere who knew all of our business. Oh, yes…it’s completely normal. And now to be faced with this? To know that you have to say goodbye to a place that not only holds all of your precious high school memories, but also holds all of your memories of Jesse? Now that is hard. And this might sound like stupid advice, but I am going to encourage you to find a counselor when you get where you are going next. Someone who can listen to you as you transition. Someone who can help you when you are struggling with extreme homesickness on top of grief on top of confusion. It really doesn’t make sense, and shooting yourself off into the independent world is not always an easy transition. But you can do it. I know that Sahel has equipped you for things that most of your peers in your home country cannot even fathom dealing with. Sahel has given you friends that are actually family. Sahel has given you adults that are amazing examples of how to live life. And I hope that Sahel has given you faith. I hope that it has shown you that you make your own choices and that each of those choices can glorify God or sadden him.
To the teachers. Oh man, you guys. You are in a hard place. You guys are the support system of this school, the ones that the students will turn to with those difficult questions, with the anger, with the doubt of God’s goodness. And you know what? I know your secret. I know you feel all those things, too. I know you are asking the ‘why’ questions, too. But let me tell you a secret. I have never been more impacted than I was by my Sahel high school teachers. And you know why they had such an impact on my life? Because they were real people. They had bad days and good days and they sometimes struggled with things. And they were real about it. Ok, maybe not every moment…but they cried in front of us, and they cried with us, and they hugged us and they let us talk to them at recess and lunch and after school. They gave us their phone numbers and they let us laugh with them and they are still in touch with us today! And you, dear teachers, have a heavy weight on your shoulders this week. You are responsible adults. You are seeing tears and hugs and a memorial service and a funeral and I bet you are feeling incredibly helpless. And maybe even hopeless. Here is what you need to do: get in there with them. Cry with the students. Cry in front of the students. Hug the students, let them hug you. Kick that soccer ball furiously at the wall along with them. Listen to their questions and don’t just say, “God is good!” in response. Admit to them that you wonder why, too. But you know what you have that these students don’t have? Experience. A commitment to the gospel. Some of you have been through tragedy before. You can be an example. A very, very, very powerful example. From the little ones all the way up to the high school seniors. You can show them that grieving and anger is a real thing. That it does seem unfair that there is no pat answer. But that you believe. That you seek prayer and Scripture, and that you know that in the end, we have a hope that surpasses all the tragedy that can happen to us here on earth.
Sahel Academy…you are a family. You are in my prayers.