I saw her pink soccer socks first, so daring they were almost more orange than pink, pulled up high to meet black and hot pink Adidas shorts in a uniform that surely designated skill and supremacy.
She was kicking the ball in the air, juggling and bouncing it on her knees as onlookers, perhaps her family, watched, the younger boys dreaming of a day when they too would have neon socks and a bright nylon uniform, crisp cleats covered in dirt and muscles honed by hours on the pitch.
She was good, that was clear. An athlete and a team member who practiced because she loved it.
Her teammate sat behind her, knees pulled up, waiting next to their soccer bags, toes shoved through thong sandals and those same distinctive socks: socks of belonging and prowess and, somehow, hope.
She looked utterly normal. Unaffected, as though the ball could soar through the air – touching Jupiter and Mars and Neptune and maybe even heaven – and sail back through the air to her and she’d juggle it without a hitch, so confident was she that the ball would return to her and the game would be on.
She smiled as it came down, as though no one had ever once suggested to her that women shouldn’t show their knees or their arms, that girls should learn to pick up after their brothers and their fathers and should never smile except secretively, when no one could see their mouths.
She smiled as though she were free – unencumbered, without fear, without pain – as free to run up and down the pitch as she was to run up and down Africa, no one standing in her way but all gazing up at that bright pink uniform that matched the fiery sunset and shouting: Bravo! Bravo! Well done!
Her face seemed better suited for London, or Liverpool, or Barcelona or even Orlando, Houston, San Diego, Denver, Chicago. The audacity of hope we often limit to the affluent West, leaving Africa shadowed and forlorn.
I did a Google Image Search for Democratic Republic of Congo (People), where she lives. Five categories popped up, three of which were devastating: Poverty. Hospital. Child Soldiers.
The Congo has been mired in Civil War since 1996, nearly 20 years, after 31 years of reign by the authoritarian dictator Mobutu. Five and half million lives have been lost, mostly due to disease and malnutrition. Nearly 3 million children have died. One study suggests that 400, 000 women are raped each year in the DRC.
Our soccer player lives in the capital city, Kinshasa, home to more than 9 million people and a homicide rate of 112 per 100, 000 (as a comparison, Chicago’s rate is 18.5). An estimated 20, 000 children – many orphaned or abandoned during the war – live on the streets.
Most Americans see photos of the Congo in desperate men and women fleeing violence and despair in their villages. Young women carrying babies on their backs; children with distended bellies; young boys carrying AK-47s over their shoulders, a hardened, desperate look in their eyes.
Yet she smiled. In her hot pink uniform, practicing for her soccer game, she smiled.
I thought about that moment a few hours ago when I angrily honked at the van in front of me on a crowded intersection in downtown Chicago, as he backed himself into me with abandon and the light refused to change.
About when I grimaced to button up my sweater and pull on a stocking cap to 20 mph winds and 40-degree temperatures in the denial of spring.
I thought of my casual hatred, my callous dismissal, my impatience and frustration and #firstworldproblems.
It’s funny when we say that, except we laugh that dry laugh – free of mirth – because inside we know these really are our problems, covering over the deeper problems of addiction or depression or illness or broken relationships or loss of meaning or mounting debt or divorce or fear or aging or infertility or jealousy and inside we know even our money and our mortgages and our handbags cannot free us – that we are encumbered by appearances and lies and determined disregard for life itself.
I do not even know her name, but she has stayed with me this week since I first saw her photo last Monday. She reminds me of myself, in those moments when I too am unencumbered, casting away fear, and drinking in joy with confidence that glows from within like neon pink and orange soccer socks.
She reminds me of grace – that when we see those photos of devastation or fear or death in the Congo – we never are seeing the whole picture. Down that same street where the death trucks once rumbled, pick-up beds full of little boys with machine guns, today a young girl practices soccer, and she is full of joy.
Our worlds are not so different, except when we make them so.
It is not, as we often imagine it to be, that joy comes in after all the cobwebs of evil, doubt, despair and death are swept away: when the baby is born, when the loans are paid off, when you graduate, when you retire, when you get married, when you go to heaven, even.
Rather joy, as it did for Jesus at Calvary, exists alongside death and despair, at least here on earth. We are so unhappy because we make ourselves wait for joy. We refuse to embrace it, to realize it can happen just as easily at a red light in traffic in windy Chicago as on a beach in Jamaica.
Joy is not like a mountain peak but rather like a hanging apple, waiting to be picked.
Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Sometimes we hide our joy, we cover up the Kingdom of Heaven, and we become so terribly unhappy, covering up our unhappiness with possessions and addictions.
Sometimes Jesus discovers the Kingdom of Heaven, and puts it in a photo series – in the midst of death and materialism and natural disaster – a young girl is playing soccer in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
I did a Google Image Search for Democratic Republic of Congo People. Five categories popped up. Three were devastating: Poverty. Hospital. Child Soldiers.
This time I clicked on the first category. It said: