I was maybe a year into nursing school when I decided I was moving to Africa. Oh don’t worry, it was exactly as dramatic as it sounds. After putting my life on hold while my dad met and succumbed to cancer, I was bloated with a fire for changing the world. I immersed myself in the blogs of starry-eyed millennials shirking cultural norms and embracing a life of extreme sacrifice in order to make some kind of noticeable impact on this world. I could relate. I had watched someone dear to me slowly wither and fade…the brevity of life was fresh on my mind, and I was equally swept up in a culture that promised accolades for grand gestures of proclaimed faith. I wanted to do something important with the short time I had on this earth, and without even realizing it at the time, I think I wanted to do something that would make me feel loved and valued. Lack of education, useful skills, or even defined purpose aside, moving to Africa seemed like an appropriate option.
I will never forget what my older sister said to me in the midst of that season: “Ab, there is great poverty in Africa, for sure. But there is poverty everywhere. It might be a different kind of poverty, but you’ll find it here too.” Initially, her words were like a cup of cold water thrown in the face of my zealous fervor. But as I mulled over what she said, I realized she was right. Somehow I had forgotten my roots.
“Are you Lindy Heath’s daughter?” I froze, immediately distracted from my task of pulling dollar bills out of my wallet. “Uh, yeah! Did you know him?” She immediately teared up, handing me the bouquet of flowers I had just purchased. “He was a regular here, always buying flowers for your mom or his coworkers. He never failed to ask me—by name—how I was doing. I miss seeing his smile around here.” It had been 8+ years since my dad had died.
The same week as my encounter with the florist, my younger sister had a similar experience. A coworker found out Cara’s maiden name was Heath and immediately asked her if she was Lindy’s daughter. This woman then told my sister that our dad had taught her eighth grade science class. She said, “Your dad was the only person who came to visit me in the hospital after I was in a serious car accident with my family. It was so many years ago now, but I will always remember that.”
My dad lived in the same town—the same house, even—for more than fifty years of his life. In that time, he took more than 10,000 trips to and from the local middle school where he worked. He memorized the names of thousands of students, and wrote hundreds of letters to coworkers. He invested in countless lives, impacting the world without ever leaving his corner of the globe. He stayed, his life a testimony of what Shannan Martin calls the “love song for the long haul.”
“Choosing to stay, at times, can be unhealthy or even impossible. Other times, it is obedient surrender, and we just have to stick it out until the good stuff begins.” —Shannan Martin, The Ministry of Ordinary Places
I had underestimated the power of staying. I think I will always have a restless bone in my body, a lust for adventure and change when life proves to be less than glamorous. I am still easily tempted by the lure of grand gestures of service and devotion. On many days, moving across the world feels easier than facing difficult coworkers or washing dishes at the local homeless shelter. A life of staying may not be sexy, but it can be powerful. This world needs more stayers, people who will put down roots and love their neighbors and community for years on end. People who will show up with a pot of soup after that grumpy neighbor has surgery. People like my friend June, who has faithfully swept the floors and cleaned out the fridge at the family shelter every Wednesday for years. People like my dad, who served quietly and gave generously for several decades of his life in my hometown. To my knowledge, there are no plaques that bear his name, no books written about his life. But his name is still on the lips and in the hearts of people who encountered him, even a decade after his death. His was a quiet love that tended to the wounds and longings of thousands. A love song for the long haul.
Maybe you will find yourself traveling the world someday. Maybe you will have books written about you or find your name enshrined on a plaque or two. But maybe not. Maybe your life will simply be one of staying, of showing up for your neighbors and your family without acknowledgment or fanfare. Maybe the most difficult journey you will take is the one next door. If so, sing your love song loud. This world needs more stayers, and take it from me…you don’t need to move across the world to love big.
So if you are like me, occasionally looking for an escape route or hoping for a more glamorous calling, maybe you will find this prayer helpful. I know I’ll be right here, trying to grow my roots while praying:
“Oh, Lord, remind us that what we really want is more of you. You show us what it means to remain where you have placed us with great purpose—in the rumble of the city, down a winding lane, in the cookie-cutter ‘burbs where pain might show up in less obvious ways, but is breathing hot down our necks all the same. Show us the real way of worship, and grant us the guts to belong to each other when it’s hardest. Teach us to walk in place, memorizing the lay of this unimpressive land and calling it good. Help us to hang on for the encore, where your best work often waits. Prone to wander, Lord, we feel it…You are here, tuning our hearts to endurance, teaching us a love song for the long haul. Help us to endure when we feel dog-tired. Have your way.” —Shannan Martin, The Ministry of Ordinary Places