Have you ever had one of those moments? You know the ones, where something so remarkable happens that you feel your whole world shift? Every perception, every understanding, shaken down and reordered again by something that has simply appeared before your eyes.
I had one of those moments as I bumped along in a minibus down a potholed dirt road shortly after arriving in Zambia at the start of my Tearfund Gap Year. The radio was on and our hosts chatted away together in Bemba, singing along to the occasional lines of the sweet African melody.
The rest of my team had drifted off to sleep, undeterred by the potholes, so I found myself alone, the warm breeze in my face, watching Africa pass me by.
I watched, eyes wide open, the people walking along the roads their backs bowed from carrying fire wood to the village. The children by the roadside in the town, scratching at the window for food. The beauty of the landscape, the utter wildness of it.
Suddenly everything I knew about life and faith was turned upside down on itself. Here I was in this brand new world where everything had to be discovered again.
As I learnt about this brand new world opening up before me I also discovered deeply about myself. Everywhere we went my trusty notebook came out as I tried to record the stories around me.
Mr Chisaka who raised six of his own children and four of his deceased brothers in a one room building in a place called Twapia, translated ‘Broken’. My host, Pastor Nelson and his bold, bright daughters full of dreams and possibilities growing up in an environment that simply couldn’t deliver. Poverty became real to me, real faces, real people. I gathered up these real stories and I took them home with me.
From there I spent a year with Tearfund speaking in schools, youth groups and churches. More often than not I simply retold these stories as the people I met in Zambia asked me too. I brought pictures and anecdotes, tried to recreate something of that magical moment I had on the road for the people I spoke to.
Since then I have been a story gatherer in many different contexts, taking heroic lives quietly lived across the world and using what we have here in the UK, Twitter, Facebook, magazines and blogs, to tell their story as loudly as I can.
I have told stories of people who define what it is to be Christian for me. A Zambian woman who opened her heart and home to set up a school for deaf and blind children at great personal cost, whose sacrifice made me feel like I was standing in the very presence of holiness.
I have led my own team to Zambia, watched them turn wide eyed to a new world and find out more about their own place within it. At just seventeen years old one of them is looking to set up a charity to support disabled children in the developing world.
My Gap Year set me on the road to becoming who I am today. It gave me a deep sense of my own calling and a deep sense of the wider calling of God on us Christians living so richly in the West. That being concerned for the poor is fundamental to what it means to be a Christian and not an optional extra. More than this, that this service transforms you into everything God has for you to be.
I may not have changed the world on that one short trip to Zambia but it utterly changed my world in such a way that I can’t help but pay it forwards.
Nicola is an international writer and theologian