Taozi Tree Yoga is thrilled to present… “Adventures Abroad”
with special guest writer, a soldier in the US Army… JJ Black.
I can’t imagine a better place for self-examination and spiritual development for myself than a deployment, especially this deployment. I often find myself in a place where I must just believe, trust, and have faith. With some deployments, it’s the faith that we will make it home, some it’s that we will make it home in one piece, and some, such as this one, it is that I may make a difference and take away what I was meant to learn. I must put faith in myself, in my leaders, and above all I find myself placing my faith in a higher power.
My name is JJ, and I am a Soldier of the United States Army.
I am currently deployed to Djibouti, Africa. Now, I am not the most religious person, so I hope that my references to God don’t throw anybody off. My experience with my spirituality often comes through my interactions with people and witnessing the power of the almighty through nature and the beauty of all things created. There are, however, simply certain things that really stop me in my tracks and make me say ‘wow!’ God, whatever your plan is in all of this, You Kick Ass!! So let me start from the beginning to share about what my journey has looked like so far.
I arrived to my base around 4 am after twenty-four hours of travel, mostly confined to cramped airplanes. There were a few exceptions along the way where I got to step off the plane and experience some culture. It really felt like a firsthand geography lesson that you don’t forget. Anyway first impressions; this place is dirty, it smells bad, and based on my past experiences with deployments, I am on guard as soon as I see anyone who doesn’t look like United States Armed Forces. Its dark and I cannot see much. There is a lot of excitement streaming through my blood, but by this time, I am also feeling the wear of the travel. I notice trash on the side of the road leading to the Camp. As the sun comes up, I can see and smell the ocean barely in the distance. My nerves and anxiety start to melt away as I begin to see the landscape that surrounds me. Quickly, the reality of where I am sinks in. I stand strong on the floors of Africa! My long awaited desires to travel here have finally come and it is mind blowing that I am here! As the excitement overcomes me, the sun begins to rise and I instantly become aware that I am only beginning to taste what is to come in my awareness of God’s presence constantly surrounding me.
After taking a couple of weeks to get settled into work, I realized that I was going to have an ample amount of free time to take advantage of. I was not about to let this experience slip through my fingers, so I started digging. A little background, Djibouti is a very poor country about the size of Road Island. The climate is desert like and very hot. Djibouti was colonized by the French and is now independent. The economy relies on the huge port, and our American base—which are the largest employers for this country. Basically this is a country in early development, with potential, but could use a little help. Through my research and my desire to really “experience Africa,” I found that there were some Volunteer opportunities within the city. Thus, the real experience began. Every Thursday a couple of the other guys from my squad and I played football (our soccer) with the young kids at a local orphanage.
On Tuesdays I volunteered my time to help high school age kids learn English through small discussion groups. I felt the warmth of the people around me immediately and that warmth only grew as I spent more time with them. Every day that we returned we were greeted with smiles and friendly and polite attitudes. The kids were always excited to use their English! I loved getting to experience the growth and excitement in the kids I was working with and I especially loved playing soccer at the orphanage. These kids were so cool! They were so happy to play! To play on a dirt field, some with no shoes and most in only flip flops. Even though we could barely communicate, the camaraderie we built through playing together was shown with high fives and laughter.
Now, in my experience, the army does not tend to be a highly spiritual community. We are trained, we are tough, and we are usually on a mission. We tend to spend a lot of time worrying about what’s next and we curse in our everyday tongue. However, these guys I was traveling with–they impressed me. Our conversations on the way back to the camp after our trips into the city would start with how interesting our new friends were. The conversation would then quickly turn to how we might help them. We talked about how we could do more and how we might impact the lives of our new young friends?! We really wanted to find a way to get all of these kids some shoes! In my past experiences with slums in Mexico and mission trips, I had seen people struck by poverty in different ways. My expectations were not high for the group of Soldiers I was traveling with, and maybe that’s why I was so impressed by the virtue and determination they had to really do good with our time here. During those moments I remember thinking about God and his presence in all of our interactions.
I thought about how we can see God in the face of the most unexpected man.
I thought about how he worked through people whether they believed in him or not. It didn’t matter, because the power of the spirit is more than belief, it is action! The action I was seeing taking place through our interactions, through our play, and through our conversations.
A few weeks ago on one of our trips to the orphanage we were able to take with us a huge box of shoes in all shapes and sizes that were donated and shipped by friends and families of Soldiers. It was the most amazing thing to be able to be part of handing out something as simple as shoes to these orphaned boys and girls. Their smiles will never be forgotten. To be a part of a bigger picture like that has become something very dear to me over the years. Being of service to others helps me to realize my mission and to find comfort in times of loneliness and longing for family and friends. It has helped me feel connected and proud of what I’m doing. We all need help in our lives sometimes and I know I have needed plenty. While the help I have received is appreciated, I have learned that giving back can be even more rewarding and healing! Being present for smiles as big as the ones I saw that day, is an experience all in its own.
Stay tuned to read more on JJ’s adventures in Africa… I can’t wait!
This has been a special guest post by JJ Black, an incredible young man that I have had the pleasure of knowing for nearly 8 years. He is humorous, kind, and the definition of a good friend. Thank you so much JJ!