We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
On some level, it took several weeks for me to wrap my mind around the spiritual aspect of climbing the mountain. In the moment, my physical needs overwhelmed. In trying to articulate the spiritual lessons, I come back to one word over and over again: interdependence.
I find myself drawing connections between myself and the Other, that which is not me. Me and the rest of the team. Me and the World Relief staff. Me and the women we met in the DRC. Me and my village back home. Me and the African Walking Company. Me and God. Everything I am—all my thoughts and feelings—are at once mine but also inextricably bound to the relationships I have with the Other.
I believe wholeheartedly in shared agency or collective intentionality. In my relationship with God, I’m motivated by the belief that God is love and wants all human beings to be loved and know they are loved. That I am moved to love and be love to everyone around me is my deepest calling, one rooted in God’s intention for creation. If I am made in God’s image, we’re in this together.
Whether we were on a bus driving through Goma or on the side of the mountain, the thing that kept our team moving was this same shared intention. We laughed and cried together, shared snacks and chapstick, and bolstered one another in moments of weakness. Joy Beth had perfect timing—every time my mouth started to feel dry, I’d hear her voice behind me yelling, “Sippy, sippy!” Krista tore pages from her journal to share with me, so I could write a letter to a friend back home who had sent daily messages for me to open as we climbed. I shared my crackers and extra can of Easy Cheese with Alyce when it was the only thing she wanted at the end of the descent.
While these moments may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, caring for each other in these very physical ways was in fact spiritual. Meeting physical needs tells the Other that she matters in tangible ways.
This entire undertaking started with shared agency with a higher power. The intention was strengthened with the support of my family and friends. Assembling with the team was confirmation that this was bigger than my individual quest to end violence against women, but the biggest lesson I learned about shared agency came from the work of our guides and porters of the African Walking Company.
Again and again, I watched their sacrifice, perseverance, and strength and thought to myself this is how we should all live our lives.
Every morning on the mountain started at 6:00 with a light tapping on our tent from our porters. We unzipped the door to receive our tea with or without sugar—our porters quickly learned our preferences. After tea came the “washy washy,” a bowl of hot water for each of us to use to wash our faces and hands. Jen used it one day to wash her hair, a somewhat pointless effort that made her feel better about the grime we’d collected along the way and had me shivering just thinking about how much colder I would be if my hair was wet.
Next, we would gather in the tent where the AWC had filled the table with bread and fruit and some kind of grainy, warm breakfast soup much like malt-o-meal. They made special accommodations for some of our team members who were gluten or dairy intolerant. Nothing was left unnoticed. After breakfast, we’d load our packs for the day’s hike, and the porters would break down the entire camp, hoisting our duffels and tents on their backs and on top of their heads to continue our journey.
During our hikes, they would ask us how we were feeling, offering snacks and medication if needed. They sat with us while we told stories on our breaks, offering their own stories when we asked. They rubbed our backs when we cried, gave us advice about blisters and headaches, and reminded us that we were strong enough to keep going when we doubted.
At the end of each hike, we would gather again in the mess tent, the table covered with platters of popcorn and peanuts—appetizers before dinner. Our dinners were generous piles of carbs—rice or pasta—with meat and vegetables in tomato sauce. For dessert, we had pineapple, mango, and watermelon. Even when I was weary, I knew that our guides would take care of us every step of the way.
When we stopped at Kibo Hut, the last camp before summit, my porter, Joel, greeted me with a large brush in his hand and started dusting off my pants and boots. I couldn’t help but think of the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, a humbling act of service for the people he loved most.
I want to be the African Walking Company for the world. I want to serve in this same way—selflessly, with regard to the needs of the person who needs me, with love and honor and respect. I want to shock people with unexpected kindness.
The African Walking Company is the perfect metaphor for what it means to be the best kind of human. I have been blessed with a family that loves me unconditionally in a supernatural way, a group of friends who know what I need to be the best me, and a God whose quiet voice whispers to me daily I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. It is not out of obligation or a need to prove something that I give from my abundance. What is life if not the opportunity every day to wake up wondering how I can make someone else’s day a little brighter?
Opportunities abound if we are paying attention. The prophet Isaiah encourages us in a chapter marked with the words, “Invitation to the Thirsty.” Isaiah says, “You will go out in JOY and be led forth in PEACE; the MOUNTAINS and the hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12, NIV)
I am thirsty.
I want to live a life of joy and peace.
I want to make the mountains sing.
How should you get involved?
Leia Johnson is the president and co-founder of Somebody's Mama, a grassroots 501(c)3 that exists to bring awareness to issues affecting women across the globe, to create a community of people who care deeply about finding real solutions, and to turn ideas into action. Somebody's Mama focuses on four areas: maternal healthcare, education, economic empowerment, and ending violence against women. Leia is a storyteller at heart and loves speaking and writing about global women's issues, the struggles and joys of being a military spouse, and life as the mother of practically perfect children. She is at work on her first book.
When she's not working for Somebody's Mama, Leia spends her time substitute teaching and dog sitting, playing Skip-bo with her Air Force pilot husband, Scott, wrestling and/or reading with her sons, Will and Ben, and eating unhealthy amounts of cheese.
Leia participated in our Kilimanjaro climb, and Somebody's Mama generously raised over $20,000 for the campaign.