Tecla: Art, Circumstance, and Identity
During services at the Herndon Campus on Africa Sunday, I told a bit about Tecla, one of the most inspiring people I met in my early travels to Africa. In the spirit of “living what we have learned,” I want to take time to tell the a bit of her story so that we can all learn from her life.
I first met Tecla 10 years ago when visiting Kenya for the first time with Brad and Cammie Matlack, two beloved Summit friends who now live and work full time in Kenya. Tecla was a lay leader in a small church at the edge of a slum on the west side of Nairobi. She, in many ways, is part of the undistinguished mass of impoverished widows whose lives have been laid waste by AIDS and poverty. She also, like many, lives as a hero of inestimable value to those who have the privilege of intersecting with her life. Her life is proof of Paul’s words to the Corinthians.
Tecla is poor. She is a widow. She lives in the squalor of a slum. She has AIDS and suffers terribly from the virus and from the side effects of the medication. These are her circumstances, but they are not her identity. Tecla refuses to be merely a product of her circumstances but has taken ownership of her life and lives from her identity as a child of Christ. She expresses this contrast of circumstance and true identity in her art. She has also won awards for this art, including an electric sewing machine that she treasures too much to use.
This autobiographical piece (the original stands a foot taller than her) tells a story of pain and purpose. The timeline of her life, measured on barbed wire to show the pain, ends with her living long enough to see her boys married. Her disease, represented as both a weed that chokes life and as a flower, reminds her that there is beauty and opportunity even in her sickness. Because she is sick, she can uniquely minister to those who are sick. This value for service to the sick, to her kids, and to her community is written on her spirit. Her self is not defined by the condition of her body but rather by the will of her spirit. Where one is breaking, the other gathers strength of purpose.
I walked with Tecla as she took her normal circuit of visits. Every stop was at the home of another widow. She would inquire after their health, offer encouragement, and listen to their needs. Occasionally a few coins, from her pastor for this purpose, would be discreetly given to pay for cooking oil or other basic needs. Tecla was not always well enough to go out, but on her good days, she wanted to make the most of her time and look after the needs of others. Tecla’s ministry in presence with those in need was a powerful and beautifully humbling thing to behold. The power of her ministry wasn’t in her strength, her wealth, or her answers. The power of her ministry was in her presence and her empathy.
In our context, we are conditioned to bring strength, power, and position to bear in the face of challenges. While those attributes are fine in their proper place, what we learn from Tecla is that God doesn’t need our strength, power, and position; he has plenty of all that on his own. What he wants from us is a humble and contrite spirit (Psalm 51) and the willingness to show up in the lives of the vulnerable in our world (James 1). Tecla, in humility and with great purpose, offers her whole self to God for his purposes. Though the world may turn from such an offering, God has honored her life in a way to which we can all aspire.