I helped to take a missionary colleague to the airport today. After three years here she's on her way back home. She preceded me here at the Seminary. She was a quiet friend to many at our parish Church. She was a behind-the-scenes force for many of us busy about our various task at the seminary, the translation office and in the Archbishop's parlor. And she was also the same age as one of my daughters. But when Fr. John and I were sharing a last lunch with her at the airport Java House, and standing in line to see her through the first level of security, we knew we were letting go of a friend. And that’s hard.
This is the third time I have said farewell to missionary friends in the past two weeks. The other two were families that I have known since I came to Kenya from Ethiopia back in 2008, with whom we shared so much (when I was a ‘we’) and who both picked up where we left off when I returned to Kenya alone a year ago. Such friends are rare and precious. But such is the nature of our calling that our presence as missionaries in this place is extraordinary and fragile. Any number of challenges may conspire to send us packing. No reflection on our host culture, but it is always difficult for someone not from here to find their way around, much less make a life in what is to us a foreign land. We were not born here. Our formative experiences were often on another continent and even in another language. Our families, our friends, our lives are all someplace else. We are here because somehow God called us to be here. And being here we have to learn everything new. New languages, new cultures, new foods, new realities, new politics, new churches, new everything. It isn’t easy. And once the new is taken on board, then we might get to do what we’ve been trained to do, what we’ve been told to do, what we’ve been sent to do, or not.
Through all of this, I have made really good friends with people I met in Ethiopia and people I’ve met here in Kenya. But we missionaries also all gravitate towards those who share our culture, which means who share our memories and humor and identities and language, making it easy just to be with them. Often times that’s what our same-cultural friends in our multi-cultural world can be like - little safe-place islands in an ocean of differences. And that’s what these friends have been for me. And now they have moved on. And their place here is empty. The homes and halls that reverberated with their presence are quiet. And those who are left behind are left with memories, and with a hole in our hearts that won’t be filled any time soon.
Saying Farewell is common to all humanity. Even so, it seems to happen more often in university communities, at least in my experience. And in missionary communities. But just because it happens more often here doesn’t mean we get used to it or that saying goodbye ever becomes easy. Maybe it does for some. Not for me, however.
So if you here a deep sigh coming from Kabiria Road in Kawangware in Nairobi in Kenya in East Africa tonight, just know that some of us have just said goodbye to another good friend. And given that missions is not so much the job one does but the relationships one has, every loss is, well, a loss.