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In 2007, I had the opportunity to visit Africa as part of a three week humanitarian trip with a group called Mothers Without Borders (MWB). Perhaps at no time in my life have I been so strongly reminded that the lives we each lead are complex and difficult to discern through limited information and interactions.
Our group in Zambia consisted of over 20 Americans, most of them members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Liz Lemon Swindle, a Christian artist, had also come to Zambia with MWB along with her small entourage. They were working on Liz’s next project: a painting depicting Jesus and an African child.
MWB operates an orphanage with a couple dozen kids at any given time, and during the course of our stay we were briefly told some of their background—their family life, their medical challenges, and why they ended up under the care of MWB. Their stories were obviously heart-breaking, and seemed like situations from a world with which I was barely familiar. I struggled to imagine what their lives would be like.
As it was explained to us, Swindle’s painting would be based off of a photo, or a composite of multiple photos, that her photographer was there with her to take. She had a “Jesus model” as well—a kind man named Philip who looks similar to the Americanized Jesus we’re used to in familiar art. We were further told that the project entailed simulating Jesus meeting these children by having the model approach them without the children knowing it was a simulation.
Apparently when Swindle had previously done this in Utah, the little children were happy and excited, beaming with enthusiasm at getting to meet the Jesus that they sing about so often in Sunday School. Perhaps Swindle’s group thought that this result would remain consistent in Africa, and they would be presented with a plethora of perfect photos from which to base their painting.
We Americans sat off to the side at the orphanage to watch the simulation unfold, and my uneasiness at the experience was likely evident on my face. These children were being lied to, effectively exploited to produce an emotional reaction upon which to base a painting. I remained silent and observant, eager to watch what happened.
As “Jesus” approached these orphaned African children, and as the children caught a glimpse of a long-haired Jesus-looking man in robes, they began to cry. Seconds later there were outbursts of uncontrollable sobbing among some of the children. They stood, shocked, before being prodded by somebody to walk out to meet “Jesus”. One girl in particular was a weeping mess, loudly crying at the thought of meeting God.
We were later told the cause of the reaction: the children felt unclean. They felt ashamed, unworthy to meet God. Many of these orphans had experienced sexual or physical trauma, had AIDS, and had otherwise experienced things in their life that made them feel dejected and disowned—including by the God they praise so often, and who they thought was now standing before them.
Only after several minutes and some singing did the mood begin to lighten, and the children began to smile when seeing a kind “Jesus” who was not angry with them, but affectionate and friendly. Lots of singing, dancing, laughter, and photo opportunities ensued, and over the next few days the children learned that it was not actually Jesus.
I had interacted often with these kids, and was informed (if only briefly) about their life experiences. But nothing prepared me for the raw emotional reaction that was produced that day when they thought they were being confronted by their Creator. I did not understand the complexity of their hearts—their fears, their concerns, and their lack of feeling self worth.
These thoughts surfaced recently as I watched a newly released video by Imagine Dragons for their song “Demons” which depicts a similar theme:
How often we judge people based on their appearance, their outward attitude, their performance, or any number of discernable but extremely limited characteristics. Even in trying to understand the African orphans I interacted with, I did not know how much I did not know.
Road rage, workplace conflict, political strife, sports competitions, and any number of other scenarios afford us many opportunities to cast judgment upon others. I suggest, based on my own experience, that such personal judgments should be significantly tempered by the realization that each person may carry substantial baggage that affects their actions or attitude. We do not know how much we do not know.