I remember we were living above the clouds for days. I remember beginning to climb in the middle of the night with so many layers I had to shuffle rather than step. I remember having to wipe blood from my oxygen tubes because the dry air was battling with my weak lungs.
But more than anything else, I remember getting to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and collapsing, crying, and reaching immediately for the other women around me. Four days earlier 14 women embarked on this journey to climb the highest freestanding mountain in the world, and on March 8, 2016, 14 women made it to the top. And in our packs, on our backs, in our hearts, and on our minds were the thousands and thousands of other women we were climbing for.
We climbed for the women who experience gender-based violence. We climbed for those we met in the fistula hospital. We climbed for the victims of sexual assault. And we climbed for each other, for the belief that when 14 women come together we’re not competing—we’re complimenting. That when women fight for other women, instead of against them, mountains may not move but they can be conquered. For the hope that in doing this crazy thing, in climbing a mountain to raise awareness and funds, we were, in some small way, going to change the world.
I was never one of those children who grew up wanting to be an astronaut or a ballerina. I had modest goals, and even when I was young, I wanted a small life—I wanted to be a teacher, like my aunt, and I wanted to write bad poetry and raise a few kids. But somewhere along the way, that small life wasn’t enough. That small life didn’t take into account the children waiting in group homes to be adopted or the women who have given up dreams of a small life because survival takes priority. My life had left me content, and my complacency was a threat to my ability to live out the gospel.
Some people like a full faith, one with tendons and arteries and flesh and muscle. They spend years developing a robust understanding of theology and Greek and Hebrew. But I have always been drawn to a bare-bones faith, one that teaches me to love God and love other people, and that’s about it. But in the past year, I’ve learned that love often takes unexpected forms—such as protests, calls to congressmen, scratched dining room tables, and training in a low-altitude mask.
Love asks me to give up my small life, my shortsightedness, my pride, in order to love other people. Love demands that I trade my apathy for empathy. Love requires me to kill my self-preservation and hopes for the American dream. And love dares to believe that 14 women climbing a mountain and traipsing around Africa can actually make a difference.
In the months since the climb, I’ve only had sporadic contact with many of the women, but our hearts remain knit together. Because of One Million Thumbprints, we belong to each other now—they truly are “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” And perhaps that’s been the difference all along—One Million Thumbprints carries a message that says we are responsible for fighting for justice for all, not just for ourselves. Our stories and lives belong to each other, and they should not be held lightly. So, we climb, and we rally, and we love.
And in many ways, we know we’ve just begun. There is much left to fight for as women continue to experience sexual abuse and violence at the hands of men. There is much left to teach as women are hungry for knowledge about finances and eager to start their own businesses. There are many left to love as we gather around tables and break bread and listen.
The trek to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro was not a triumphant ending to a great story—it was the beginning of the only story that’s worth telling. Love was fostered and held and born at the top of that mountain, and I’ll spend my entire life taking that love out into the world, by whatever means necessary. And that may require me to climb the mountain again, but I’ll do so gladly because I’ve seen the view from the top of Kilimanjaro. I’ve watched the rays come through the clouds at sunrise. I’ve seen the weary faces of my sisters basking in the glory of God. And I know that on mountains, miracles happen. On mountains, friendships are forged and purpose is understood. On mountains, we’re reminded of what’s worth climbing for.
Mountains are beautiful and terrifying, fierce and lovely to behold. And on International Women’s Day, I can think of no better prayer for the women I know and love. May we all be beautiful and terrifying, fierce and lovely to behold. And may we continue to cling to a faith that moves us, no matter the cost.
Joy Beth Smith is a writer and editor, often overheard discussing singleness and sexuality, and her first book is due out early 2018 with Thomas Nelson. Follow her at @JBsTwoCents.