There is a universal quality I learned about in Africa: a smile. A smile is universal. It means that same thing in France as it does in Australia. Smile at someone in India and they will know what you are feeling, and they might even smile back!

While in Kenya, I drove through the streets of some of the largest and most impoverished slums in Africa. Streets were pitted with deep potholes, some wider than our vehicle, and at times, there were mountains of trash in a number of areas we passed. I watched people work very hard for very little, often only having enough to feed their family one meal a day. Yet they would smile at each other. The joy they had in the midst of what appeared to be the most terrible of circumstances was almost unfathomable. In the days that I spent among my new African friends, I tried to understand how they could smile at the same time they were suffering. Perhaps based on their experiences it did not classify as suffering. Maybe they had seen much worse and were actual grateful for what they had. None of these ideas were plausible in my mind.

How could people feel joy in these circumstances? It was clear that many of them suffered from physical pain and were often hungry. They lived in homes constructed of metal pieces for the walls and ceiling and with dirt floors. We also worshipped at a church composed exclusively of women with HIV and their children who had been ostracized from their families and communities. I have never met such smiling people! They greeted us with singing and a bouquet of flowers.

I realized that the African people I met chose joy in spite of their difficult lives. While I did not ask them to explain, it was clear that they prioritized their relationships over their possessions. They practiced gratitude for the very little they possessed. I was humbled by what I observed, and I reflected about how I grumbled about things that did not seem worth complaining about in comparison. The verse in James 1 seemed fitting here, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” How often do we face a trial but allow it to overwhelm us so that we lose our joy! My African friends reminded me that pure joy is possible even while grieving and suffering.

In a few months, members of our ministry will return to Kenya and Uganda to lead essential biblical training to African pastors and ministry leaders, training not available in their areas. These pastors are the lifeline of their communities, walking alongside people in the midst of their pain, hardship, and suffering. We invite you to partner with our team as they lead this training. You can find more information about how to support our ministry at

Jessica Carlson, Coach


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