I'm thinking of my friend, Adam, today. I met Adam Langford when he moved to Portland to join his brother, Ben, who was at the time coaching soccer and teaching Bible courses at Cascade College. Adam was young, bright, energetic, and just plain fun to be around. He loved and cared about people, and people loved to be with him. He quickly found his way into the hearts of the teenagers at East County Church. One parent said that Adam was a living example to her kids that you could be cool and be a Christian. Adam had tons of talent. I never saw him play, but I heard tales of his soccer prowess. He had played collegiate soccer, and I think he was good enough to earn a pro tryout. He also had a knack for business, and was a financial advisor for American Express. Adam was doing well in his job and was likely on the fast track for promotion or starting his own firm. But then something happened that would change his life and those of us who knew him, forever.
Adam's older brother, Ben, and his sister-in-law, Kym, made a decision to join a mission team in Jinja, Uganda. When Adam went to visit them in Africa, he was intrigued by some of the business/social initiatives that the Jinja team had put in place including helping provide trees and water for villages and a redemptive business called the Source Cafe. Adam quickly grasped a vision for how his skills in business and finance could be used, and he fell in love with the people of Africa. Shortly after that trip, Adam made the decision to quit his job and move to Uganda. Adam adapted quickly to the culture and was soon involved in several efforts to improve the physical lives of the people in Jinja and the surrounding villages.
I'll never forget the call I received from Lewis Robinson, East County's Minister of the Word, telling me that Adam had been riding on one of the treacherous mountain roads and was bringing back a supply of coffee for the Source Cafe when the vehicle he was in went off the road. As far as we know, Adam and Moses, the Ugandan manager of the cafe, were killed instantly. Adam's death shocked the East County church family and all who knew and loved him. We mourned together and questioned God, asking why a young man who was so obviously doing God's work in a place where it was needed so desperately had to be taken away. We struggled together to understand what was not understandable. We composed psalms of lament. We planted Adam's tree on our church's front lawn.
In one of Adam's last posts on the mission team's web site, he reflected on the depth of hunger, pain, suffering, disease, and death that occur in Uganda daily. He admitted to being overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problems. He confessed that his naive view that he, or a host of missionaries, could solve the problems of that African country had left him long ago. He closed by saying that all he could think of to do most days was to suffer with those who were suffering. A few days later, Adam ended his tour in Uganda by joining finally and completely in the suffering and dying of the people he had come to love and serve.
Today, the East County Church celebrated the safe return of Ben and Kym Langford. There was much celebration but also moments of sadness, and it was obvious that, for most of us, the wound of losing Adam is still very much open and tender. One member said that of all of Adam's unique qualities the one he remembers most was his ability to love people very different from himself.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the poor reputation of evangelical Christianity. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I see evidence almost daily that Christians are viewed with mistrust, if not downright disdain, by many in our culture. The thing is, I can't say that I blame them. By and large, I think North American Christianity has communicated a message of intolerance and exclusivity. The political activity of conservative Christianity has left many with the impression that Christians are primarily about protecting their own doctrinal and political views and excluding those who don't share those views. Anne Rice, the ex-horror novelist, who converted to Christianity and said she would henceforth write only "for the Lord," announced recently that she is done with being a Christian because she can no longer stand to be "anti-gay, anti-feminist, and anti-liberal" among other antis. (See the documentary, "Lord, Save us from your Followers" for a detailed and creative exploration of this phenomenon.) It saddens and depresses me that all many in our culture can see of the message of Jesus as it plays out in the 21st century in America is a long list of antis.
But it is just here that the story of Adam breaks in to give me hope. The work that Adam gave his life for, and the work that the Langfords and their team members have done for the last six years and the work that Brent and Heather Abney and their team members did before that has not been about antis. It has not been about drawing lines and taking a stand against. It has been about entering into a culture and a social situation and standing with and for the people. It has been about living with, suffering with, mourning with, and celebrating with Ugandans. It has been about providing clean water, and planting trees, and enabling people to make money with their own hands and skills. It has been about being and modeling community.
I don't plan to spend too much more time worrying about the image of Christians in America. But I do plan to spend some time thinking about how I can participate in and support works like the Langfords. I somehow think that if as Christians we are spending our time living with and for the poor, if we are seeking ways to give life and hope to the sick and food to the hungry, if we are clothing the naked and visting those in prison, that image thing will take care of itself. Adam's life tells me it is so.
Though Adam was a friend of mine, I did not know him long,
And when I stood myself beside him, I never thought I was as strong.
Still it seems he stopped his singing in the middle of his song.
I sit before my only candle.
Though there's so little light to find my way.
Now this story's been laid before my candle.
And it's shorter every hour as it reaches for the day.
Well I feel just like a candle in a way.
I guess I'll get there,
But I wouldn't say for sure.
(From "Song for Adam," Jackson Browne)