Well I’ve made it! I’m officially writing from Zithulele, South Africa. I can’t believe I’m saying this, because it feels like I just hopped off my last plane ride in Umthatha, but it’s actually been a whole month, this Friday, since I arrived. That’s wild. The truth is that this month actually kickstarted with a plethora of different emotions that include excitement, grief, loneliness, fear, and ultimately hope. Here’s a update on the spiritual side of how my first month in South Africa has been for me.
One week from arriving in Zithulele, I woke up on August 9th to grievous news that my friend and former Gap Year Racer, Colin Sullivan, tragically passed away. Gap I was reuniting one last time to reflect, debrief, and celebrate their 9 months on the field and their 2 months of being back home. In a moment, everything changed. As I sat in tears with this earth shattering news, the excitement of being in Zithulele quickly dwindled. Pretty shocking for the girl that spent days daydreaming about coming back here. Everything inside of me was wanting to hop back on a plane, and be with Gap I. Almost immediately my mind thought of different scenarios that could’ve happened if I had been in Georgia. Maybe instead of going on a motorcycle that day, Colin and I would’ve chatted on the porch about his exciting mission to go to the Ukraine.
I haven’t dealt with grief from death since my grandmother’s passing who was ill prior to her last day on earth. This isn’t to say that her death wasn’t as equally as painful as Colin’s, but it wasn’t near as shocking. I tried to wrap my head around why God in all his sovereignty would allow the death of a 19 year old who was risking his life to go to the Ukraine to spread God’s kingdom. It didn’t make sense to me. Somehow the hope that believers have in seeing our passing loved ones again wasn’t sinking in for me. I felt deeply unsettled, and really lonely.
My experience within the first week in Zithulele had definitely shifted from how it was when I was here a year ago. When I left in March 2021, the impact was an enormous amount of encouragement, hope, faith, fulfillment, and happiness. Now I was here not feeling very much of that. I guess somewhere in my mind I just assumed it would be the same experience especially because this is where God asked me to be right now.
As I tried to snuff out the painful emotions by making myself busy, I couldn’t help but think about Colin’s life in the year that I got to know him and be his squad leader. He was bold and passionate. He was the life of the party. The guy who brought everybody out of their shells no matter how shy or introverted they were. As you got to spend more time with him the more important aspects of what made him so vibrant started to stand out. He loved Jesus so passionately and so boldly. He was the life of the party because the life that was in him deeply believed and lived in the freedom that Christ gives. He didn’t care what you labeled yourself as or what others labeled you as. He saw you as a brother or sister in Christ, and that’s what drove him to make a friend in everyone. The more I thought about Colin’s life the more that God answered my prayers by giving me grace to have a heavenly perspective about his unexpected death. You see Colin didn’t live for the things in this world that made life feel good or comfortable. He lived with purpose. He lived for Jesus and His Kingdom, and because of that he loved his life.
I started to have vivid pictures of him being absolutely thrilled that he found himself in the presence of the One he longed to dwell with physically. He made it. His dreams came true. There was no way Colin would have chosen to come back to earth if God had given him the option.
Because Romans was Colin’s favorite book in the Bible, I thought to read it and came across Romans 8:6. It says, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” It was then my full perspective changed. With the valid emotions that come with grief, I had also let my flesh have its way in entitlement. Because my mind was consumed with how unfair it was for Colin to have left this earth at an early age, I couldn’t set my mind on the spiritual perspectives. I couldn’t be happy he was where he ultimately wanted to be because my flesh was selfishly wanting him to be here for the sake of having pain-free emotions, and for the emotional comfort I was wanting for his parents, sister, girlfriend, and Gap I. The Holy Spirit also gave way for me to realize that my time here in Zithulele isn’t supposed thrive on experience but on purpose. Colin didn’t go from country to country on his Gap Year expecting for things to look the exact same. He did, however, expect that the purpose would be the same, and that was to bring glory and honor to Christ’s name wherever he went regardless of experience.
Thinking and processing these things in God’s truth has made his passing a lot less chaotic in my mind. While I couldn’t get a hold of God’s sovereignty in that initial shock, I can now trust who He says He is. Where there was deep unsettling there is now peace. I was able to reach the end of this month in Zithulele challenged to live intentionally for the purpose rather than the experience. It has made the emotionally hard days of being here feel less hard. It has returned my hope and reminds me of why I’m here. I will miss Colin deeply. I know he leaves a big empty hole in the hearts that knew him, but I believe therein lies opportunity to fill it with the things of the Spirit.
My first month here in Zithulele hasn’t been the easiest, but God has used it to grow me. Where there’s hard, there’s also evident goodness of God roaming all around me. This excites me and makes me look forward to the days here that are still yet to come. I hope when reading this you too can be encouraged to live life with the purpose God intended for all of us. I hope you can set your mind on the things of the Spirit when your path comes across less desirable experiences or circumstances as my friend Colin did. Thank you for reading this. If you have a chance, please continue to pray for Colin’s family, girlfriend, and friends who are still grieving him. Have a blessed day wherever you find yourself. 🤍