Real Mission: Deep Wisdom
In ancient Rabbinic wisdom literature (The Jewish Talmud, Taanit 23a) there is a story about a man named Honi who, one day, sees a man planting a carob tree. Honi says to the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man answers, “It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed.” Honi, puzzled, replies, “You, sir, are already old; surely you cannot expect to eat from it in your lifetime!” The man looked around at his environment, surrounded by the sweet fragrance of fruiting carob trees, and shared this deep wisdom with Honi, “Just as my ancestors planted for me, I now plant for my grandchildren.”
Continuing my commitment to share the stories of black and brown visionaries, missionaries, and reconcilers throughout the month of February, I want to share with you today the story of an amazing Black woman who planted trees and changed the Earth.
Her name was Wangari Maathai. Wangari, an environmental activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient from Nyeri, Kenya rallied thousands of women to plant millions of trees that changed the air, earth, and water of the African continent forever. On the brink of environmental devastation fueled by war and faction, Wangari’s homeland was in deep need of healing and reconciliation.
While studying in the United States, Wangari made the decision to return to Kenya and re-imagine her life there. In quiet moments, when no one was watching, Wangari began planting the future, one that she could share with others. She began what she called the Green Belt Movement. Her goal was to replant trees where urban sprawl and deforestation for profit had ravaged the land and deprived it of water and life. As her Green Belt Movement gained momentum and strengthened in numbers, Wangari found herself standing in front of bulldozers on camera covered in blood, sweat, and tears.
Blood, because some wanted to cut down the trees just as much as she wanted to protect them. Sweat, because this work does not just happen by inaction. And tears, because the reality of her world was completely contrary to the way she was taught they should be.
When she was a little girl, the elders of her village told her of an ancient prohibition surrounding the cutting down of Fig trees. Her elders would say to her, “You can cut down any tree, if you need it for wood, but not the fig tree, you can never cut down the fig tree. It is forbidden.” The injunction was shared with her as a young child and was reiterated in various forms over the course of her lifetime. To some people, this decree seemed only to stand as an imposition or ban on a person’s individual initiative or “advancement.” Like the Ten Commandments is often treated in our wider culture, this prohibition appeared like an outmoded ancient “thou shalt not” that was simply made to keep people from doing what they wanted to do and to keep them from prospering themselves in the most efficient manner.
“Never cut down the fig tree. It is forbidden.”
Like most faithful people, she began by taking the command at face value. Someone I trust told me don’t, so by God, I won’t.
In time, she took the next step that truly faithful people take…she asked why.
What she found, was that beneath the specific command, thou salt not cut down the Fig tree, was the reality that if you did cut down the fig tree, the entire landscape would change for the worst. You see, the fig tree was the only tree native to her region with a root system strong enough to break through the hard clay soil, baked by the scorching sun. It was the only tree that could tap into a deep groundwater system and pull moisture to the surface, not only for itself, but for the plants and animals that surrounded it.
You do not cut down the fig tree not just because you will not eat figs, but because nothing else will live, if you do.
With command, and wisdom, and resolve, Wangari dedicated herself to the protection and propagation of the fig tree. She believed with all her being that if she could save the fig tree, she could save the creation around her.
Like the Gospel, Wangari’s message of hope spread rapidly to lands nearby and far away, and within a decade, the Green Belt Movement took hold in Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and more.
Eventually, people all over the world shared in Wangari’s deep wisdom; the knowledge that all things in creation are connected, that each person - and in fact each tree - has a place and purpose. What we do today, how we engage our fellow human and the environment around us, effects the future of our collective being. What we do today promotes either reconciliation or division. The choice is really up to us.
Until her death in 2011, Wangari remained committed to God’s creation and to the people who fought with her to protect it. Her life became a witness to the miracle of missionary endeavors that go out on a limb to sow love, and not destruction, to promote peace and promise over power and personal gain.
Dr. Wangari Maathai is our inspiration for today because she shows us what is possible when we lean into the deep wisdom that we have inherited in the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ.
As you reflect throughout the week on Wangari’s story, ask yourself, “what will I plant today?”
Tags: Real Mission Blog