What Mom taught me about Africa, middle school, and everything else

I have a theory and I'm going to Africa to test it. 

Last Sunday I had the privilege of speaking to a group of middle schoolers at my church. One of our student ministry interns “interviewed” me about life, faith, and my favorite pastry. But her last question is the one that has stuck with me: "If you could teach one lesson to middle schoolers around the world, what would it be?" What I told her was a lesson my mother taught me — one that has colored the way I see the world ever since fourth grade — one that has formed a theory I apply to all people everywhere. Here it is:

We are all the same.

Mom explained that kids who make other kids feel afraid or ashamed are only hiding their own fear or shame. I tried to explain that to the middle schoolers — jocks or bullies, nerds or goths, teenagers are all the same in their soft, gooey center. So are adults. If pastoring small groups has taught me anything, it’s this same lesson. Your group, my group, the senior pastor's group — none is any better or worse than the next. 

I told the middle schoolers, “You’re all just 14 years old and trying to figure out this thing called life.” And if you visited my small group this week, you would come away saying, “They’re all just 41 years old and trying to figure out this thing called life.”

We are all the same. 

Last week, I also volunteered with my church’s Vacation Bible School. The crowd at VBS is an interesting mix of church kids and neighborhood kids. Pastor’s kids who think they own the place build crafts and play games with kids for whom VBS is the only exposure to the gospel. They are diverse in other ways too: black and white, rich and poor, healthy and disabled. But none of them is confused by a water gun. All of them giggle when tickled. And they all know what to do with a high-five or a hug. 

We are all the same.

I’m headed to Africa this week. My family is joining three other families for 12 days in Tanzania where we will meet children we sponsor through Compassion International. Two of those kids — Sabrina and Onesmo — have been in our home by way of photos on our fridge for almost four years. We have traded letters and report cards with them. We buy them Christmas presents. We can’t wait to meet them in person. 

In part, I’m going to Africa to test my theory. It could be that I return in July with the conviction that Africans are fundamentally different, that long centuries of culture and evolution have erased the most basic commonalities between us. But I doubt it. My guess is that Sabrina, Onesmo, and the rest of the kids in Tanzania will laugh like my kids, play soccer like my kids, and feel shy about meeting strangers like my kids. I expect that they’ll know what to do with a high-five, they’ll know how to lay their head on my shoulder when I hug them, and they’ll laugh when I tickle them.

Because we are all the same. 

Even in Tanzania. 
Even in middle school.
Mom told me so. 

Ryan SandersComment