I have an indelible mental photograph. Our friend John Dina sitting in the back of a pickup gazing into the distance. His hand protectively stretches over the tarp-covered box which holds the casket in which Jeremiah's body rests.
It is a peaceful photo. It follows a sad and painful procession of people-packed pickups and cars wending their ways through the rain-filled potholes to the airport some 4 km outside of Quelimane. The rain stopped soon after the service which was under an awning right next to the Casa Mortuaria at the Central Hospital. The service was heart-breaking. More than 150 Mozambicans and our few foreign faces (like a little salt mixed in with the pepper) quietly stood as the lead-lined casket was carried in to sit on a carved table. The singing and the faces were subdued. Jeremiah was only 21.
Jeremiah Johnson had come to Mozambique in 2009 to work with the Baptist missionaries in our province; he returned this year for five months. He was supposed to go home next month. But as Cleber, the Brazilian giving the message observed, Jeremiah didn't only come to serve, he gave his life. We were all challenged by his vitality and commitment to the Lord. We are reminded of our own mortality and that of our children.
In a place where sun beats relentlessly, the drizzly rain was a relief as we huddled under the rustic roof. Whether we knew Jeremiah well or had merely met him a few times; whether he'd lived or eaten in our houses or not, he was telling each of us something. He is our brother in the larger family of God and he had gone home ahead of us.
He was killed in a motorcycle accident on Monday afternoon and despite a bureaucratic labyrinth, he was on his way to his parents Wednesday. Now it is Friday and I have heard that his final flight to Arizona has been confirmed.
Each year the Lord gives me a word to meditate on and learn from. Last year's word was "sovereignty." I am picking it up again and find it as curiously heavy and opaque as then. It is a word that feels deep and serious. It tends to be the answer to questions that don't really have answers. Which means that I still don't grasp it, I just stroke it and know that it is power. Stealth power--because it doesn't show off. It doesn't protect young people on motorcycles from random motorists. It doesn't intervene and save every child from malaria or abuse. But it is surely there or we would not be able to survive this world.
So why do I entitle this post "Africa hurts"? These things happen on other continents. Mothers bury their strapping sons. Irresponsible people get behind the wheel. Police turn a blind eye to the victim in a crisis--after all, the victim is dead. But Africa doesn't sanitize its pains. It feels sometimes like Africans walk into the pain with open arms. They attend funerals and wakes. They walk slowly alongside a coffin-bearing truck, chanting the same words over and over. They honor death more than life. It is a more tangible thread in the fabric of their life than we have with elegant hearses and padded coffins with pillows.
Death is definitely in one's face and consciousness here. It is pervasive and frequent conversation fodder. But only rarely is there a ray of the hope that we heard at Jeremiah's service. Death is the absence of hope for many here.
It gives me pause and reminds me what a privilege it is for me to live my life where I may be able to share my hope with someone who desperately needs it and may not otherwise hear.