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The Happiest Kind of Sadness: Portrait of a Friendship


"I heard you are going to the clinic today," I texted my friend Alyssa. "Would you mind taking in my kid's urine sample?"

"Sure," she texted back. And then we tried to figure out how to get it to her. 

"Oh! Mark's at the bakery with his prayer group," she remembered. "Just take it to him there."

This is when you know you've hit the level of BFF: You can hand a man bag of pee at the bakery with his prayer group and feel no shame.

****

By the time our lives crossed with Mark and Alyssa Dunker and Ben and Lauren Snyder, it was about six years into our Tanzanian life, and Gil and I were friend-weary. Both couples, in fact, had contributed to that--they had come into our lives for about a year, and then left. Like so many before them; like so many would after. 

But the Dunkers and the Snyders were different, because even though we assumed we would never see them again, they came back to Tanzania. We still had our guard up, though. Friendships between missionaries can go deep and strong in a short amount of time, but they tend to not last very long. Best not to get too attached. 

But life just kept throwing the six of us together. 

Being part of Reach Global, that made us automatic "family." The unwritten rules of missionary culture state that mission teammates stick together. You might have barely met these people, but they're the first ones you ask when you need someone to watch your kids. There's an assumption you'll get invited for holiday dinners. When you can't figure out how to debone a chicken or get a driver's license or kill the ticks on your dog, they are the first ones you call. You know, like family. Except in a desperate, lonely, out-of-options sort of way. You don't really have a choice. You either depend on these people, or die.  

But with the Dunkers and the Snyders, our relationships became more than mission family. Because of Haven of Peace Academy and Reach Tanzania Bible School, our lives started overlapping and boomeranging back on themselves. The paths of our lives became a mega-highway, intersecting and crossing and merging all into one. 

****

Think about all of your various friends. You've got your church friends, and your Bible study friends. There's your work friends, and your soccer mom friends. There's your friends who are the parents of your kids, and your community friends, who you keep running into in the grocery store or the local pool. 

Now imagine you have a friend who falls into every category. Every single one. And then imagine that you just happen to be living in a foreign country with that friend. 

You get the idea.

****

We were at Ben and Lauren's house when Josiah took his first steps. Lauren and I planned Haven of Peace Academy's first graduation ceremony together. The four of us shared a common love for HOPAC, and a common passion to see it get bigger, better, see its impact increase. Lauren served as school counselor, Gil as chaplain, and Ben quickly climbed from math teacher to director. I joined the board of directors for several years, then Ben and his team hired me as elementary principal. 

I drove Mark and Alyssa around Dar es Salaam their first week, and I was with them when they bought their car. Alyssa and I bonded when she spent hours picking lice out of my hair. They came to Tanzania to train pastors, which, besides HOPAC, was our other passion. So when Gil decided it was time to leave HOPAC and start training pastors, we now had a reason to stay in Tanzania. The Dunkers had started a Bible school, and we enthusiastically joined in.

We grew together with the Snyders by building Haven of Peace Academy. We grew together with the Dunkers by building Reach Tanzania Bible School. Somewhere along the way it became the six of us. Sure, we had common interests--missions, adoption, politics, theology, culture--but I think it was common life more than common interests that brought us together.

It's now been ten years. These ten years have not been easy on any of our three families--at many times bordering on tragic. At first we relied on each other because it just made sense--these were the people closest to us. But go through that enough times, and one day you realize that you really know these people. And they really know you, and they still like you. And you think, Wow, this is something really special.

In tangible ways, but also in very real emotional and spiritual ways, they kept us here. We kept them here. 

****

Have you ever been in an emotionally intense situation--a short-term missions trip or a week-long camp, where you didn't know anybody but formed deep friendships quickly? There is something about being away from home together, living in close quarters and experiencing intense emotions together that bonds people for life. 

Now take that kind of experience and multiply it by five hundred.

****

I sit here in my quiet living room and watch the darkening sky, listening to the crows bidding goodnight and the crickets waking up. This small space, with the weird pink tiled floor and the couches we could never make very comfortable, is alive with memories.

I see the Christmases. The plastic gangly tree in the corner, the stockings strung across the window, the stale smell of air conditioning pushing out the stifling heat seeking to consume us. Many are here in the room, many we love and consider family, but they come and go during different years like Ebenezer's ghosts. But the Dunkers and the Snyders, they are the constant. They are here every year. 

I see Friday nights with my floor strewn with popcorn and my throw pillows with holes in them and the sweat stains on my couch from dozens of teenagers. Ben and Lauren are here in the midst of them, Ben and Gil playing basketball with the boys outside the window, the girls chatting with Lauren and me. Sometimes the power goes out. And we sit here in the dark and laugh hysterically and sweat even more. 

I see Lauren and me on one of those Friday nights, sitting in that corner on the weird pink tile floor, the swirl of teenagers laughing around us, while I tell her about my trip to see Lily. And about another little girl named Zawadi, who also needed a family. 

I see Alyssa and Lauren and I, all three of us on the well-worn carpet, weeping in prayer over Zawadi. Weeks and months and years. 

I see movies projected on the wall while my kids snuggle in with Aunt Alyssa or Uncle Ben. And finally, Zawadi is there too.

I see the Medina and Snyder and Dunker kids sitting on that tile floor with their striped melamine plates filled with homemade pizza. Don't sit on the carpet! I holler every time. They don't. They know better. Because I say it every time.

****

There was also the traveling.

We went all over Tanzania together--for language school, for vacation, for HOPAC trips--to Zanzibar, Moshi, Lushoto, Kigomboni, Arusha. And then out of the country--Kenya, South Africa, even Slovenia. 

It wasn't always all six of us, and it was rarely just the six of us, but again, the Snyders and the Dunkers and Medinas were the common denominator. Together we navigated airports and taxis and foreign languages. We caravanned in our mini-vans and would stop on the side of the road for kids to pee. We would always send each other text messages about speed traps. 

We took students to camp and on spiritual retreats, sports weekends and senior trips. We went to mission conferences and HOPAC conferences. We went to the mountains for the week after Christmas--every single year. 

We sat around beach campfires and laughed about ridiculous inside jokes. The guys played board games for seemingly every waking hour. We prayed and played with students side by side. We explored other missionary schools together, collecting ideas that led to passionate conversations late into the night, planning together how to make our school better. 

Every place, every drive, every airport, we wracked up more memories. Sometimes bad ones, most of them good.

****

Their friendships snuck up on me. 

I was so used to holding loosely to missionary friendships that at first I didn't even recognize the bonds, thin as gossamer webs, slowly beginning to pull us together. Events that seem insignificant, if there are enough of them, one day start becoming quite significant indeed. Building memories, after enough time, becomes building history.

And one day, several years ago, I woke up and realized that the Snyders and the Dunkers and the Medinas weren't just family. When you work and play and grow and cry alongside each other, for so many years, the description is closer to siblings than anything else.

The day I came to that realization was also the day I began to grieve. I was in deep; I was past the point of no return. What we had was quite extraordinary, but what we had would never last. When you move overseas, there should be flashing red lights around a huge sign that reads, "Beware: Make friendships at your own risk. They will be amazing, but they will break your heart."

But it will be the happiest kind of sadness.

****

It didn't matter how many ways that our roads had intersected. At some point, we always knew they would diverge. None of us belong to this country. It would be just a matter of time before those paths would start going in opposite directions. The Snyders are leaving Tanzania. It's the end of an era.

Of course, the friendship won't end; that would be inconceivable. But it won't ever be the same.

So I am grieving. I guess I always have been. That's the danger of loving something or someone too much in this overseas life. I guess that's the danger of loving anything in this fleeting life. There is no constant. There is no permanency. Not on this side of the veil, anyway.

But we do sometimes get glimpses of eternity in this fleeting life--a perfect sunset, delicious ice cream, a belly-laugh with a spouse or child, a resonant symphony. Extraordinary friendship fits into that category. What's temporary now will one day be forever. And it will be glorious. How grateful I am to have had that glimpse.

Lily's "Support Tree" in first grade: Mom, Dad, Uncle Ben, Aunt Lauren, Uncle Mark, Aunt Alyssa
















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