We met Leah in August 2013 when she traveled to Cape Town for a missions trip, and it's been an absolute joy to get to know her over the last year! She is truly hilarious and full of energy. Check out the photos of her trip at the end of this post. (We included a few that she's actually in!) Thank you, Leah, for contributing to our blog!
Almost a year ago, I traveled to Cape Town with a missions organization based in Detroit, Michigan. It was my fifth trip to South Africa, and every single time, I held a leadership role that required me to be front and center.
This time was different.
This time, I was the photographer. I was the unseen person behind the camera. If it weren’t for the few selfies I took with my phone, it would’ve appeared like I wasn’t even on the trip. I knew the role would be different from anything I’d experienced, but I wasn’t aware of the impact it would have on my life.
By nature, I’m the center of attention. It happens. I don’t even know how it happens; it just does. My dad says it’s because I'm loud. I don’t know where he’s getting that information. My mom says it’s because I’m dramatic. Again, seriously. Either way, I find myself in situations where all eyes are on me. The funny thing is, I’m actually more comfortable when I’m in the background. I love the feeling of making things happen behind the scenes, but because of my dramatic flair and booming personality, I’m often given a microphone and told to be funny. Don’t get me wrong, I’m hilarious. But there are times when it feels forced.
As the trip planning began, I asked our team leader if I could be the photographer. I’d been the photographer for trips before, but I still oversaw a group of youth. “This time,” I said, “I would like to only take pictures.”
At first I was faced with a bit of friendly opposition. I’m an experienced traveler. I’ve been on 45 million mission trips. And I’m good at finding lost people in the airport. So the idea of making me the photographer and only the photographer seemed a little silly. But somehow (aka God), things worked out, and enough leaders signed up to go. That opened an opportunity for me to focus solely on documenting the trip.
Man, was I pumped. I felt like I was working for National Geographic or something, except I wasn’t getting paid… and I didn’t have one of those cool safari jackets. Greenish. Lots of pockets. Anyways, not important.
The trip came quickly, and I found myself back in South Africa in a pair of jeans, flip flops, and a camera around my neck. Through the lens, I experienced a South Africa that I’d never encountered before. My job was one of observation. It was my sole responsibility to seek out moments worthy of remembering. That was the only reason I was there, and all that I can say is, God knew I needed it.
For an entire week, I was behind my camera… watching, waiting, capturing, creating. I’ve never felt more like myself. In those moments, I was able to catch people in their truest form. I was able to capture my team members doing what they were made to do: loving people with the love of God. I was undistracted. I was focused. I saw things that’ll forever be engraved in my mind.
I watched a little boy come out of his shell after three days and came face-to-face with the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen. I watched a team member, normally faced with tremendous insecurity, deliver her testimony to a group of teenagers. I watched a young man on our team, full of developing manhood and toughness, hold a little girl as she cried from scraping her knee. I saw grandmas connect with teenagers, locals connect with foreigners. I saw God’s heart connect with the hardest of hearts, and I saw a light in the eyes of those who explained that they’d never felt light before.
It would’ve been easy to think that I missed out because I wasn’t making crafts with the kids or acting in any of the skits. I never once grabbed a microphone, gave my testimony, or led someone into a relationship with Christ. I didn’t lay hands on anyone or pray for healing. I didn’t develop relationships with kids. They weren’t asking for me or trying to hold my hand or crawl on my lap. I didn’t gain the favor of the neighborhood teenagers or catch the attention of the missionaries we worked with. I didn’t stand out. I wasn’t visible. And because of that, God was able to work.
So many times in life, we measure the work that God has done in our life based on how many people witnessed it. We’ve put so much stock in the opinion of, “Wow! You’ve changed!” and forget to actually ask God if the change is what he intended. We weigh our spiritual enlightenment against that of somebody else’s. We compare testimonies and stories of woe from which God brought us.
That was never God’s intention.
Instead, he wants to take us to those quiet places, where we’re visible to nobody but him, and he wants to show us what he’s doing. But first, we need to be stripped of the weight of responsibility. We need to minimize what we’re doing for him, and focus more on being with him.
That’s what my time in Lavender Hill did for me.
I saw people through God’s eyes. I was able, with a camera, to capture love, hurt, acceptance, pain, forgiveness, excitement, wonder, and hope. In those moments, God spoke to me so clearly about contentment, about releasing burdens, about the importance of quiet space. My entire trip was spent being quiet in God’s presence, and waiting for him to move. It was beautiful. It was life-altering. It was me in my truest form, exactly as he’d always intended.
Since South Africa, I’ve found myself filled with an intense understanding of God’s love for me. Why? I saw how he loved the people around me. I saw his love being actively poured out and drenching the community of Lavender Hill. I know I was sent to South Africa to capture his love, physically, on film.
People may never look at my pictures, but occasionally he calls me to look back at them. When I’m in those moments, I’m filled with the assurance of his plan for me. He met me right there, in a dusty parking lot in front of a church, and he reminded me of his complete and absolute adoration. He reminded me that he thinks about me. On that trip, I learned what my Father’s voice sounds like. It was clearer than ever. And it was just for me. And I recognized it, because I was listening to him and him only.
Chances are, nobody in that neighborhood will remember me. Nobody probably even knew I was there. But I was there, in God’s presence, and only in his presence are we truly ourselves.