God in These Cities
When I was twelve, my family packed up from our home in Atlanta, Georgia, and moved thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean to the city of Lagos, Nigeria. At first, it was an unsettling change of pace, one that took me a long while to adjust to. Lagos was extremely vibrant (nowadays, with the crash of the economy, it’s a bit more despondent), and it was known for culture, its music, and most of all, its ability to accommodate all, regardless of race or tribe. Or wealth. Seeing beggars, panhandlers and hawkers during the daily commute–which usually featured heavy traffic–was as normal as getting mosquito bites at night.
It was in this city that I found God. As the years went by, and as I grew older, I began to see Him, mainly in the people I met. There’s a form of inner strength that grows in the face of adversity, and this was what I often saw amongst my fellow believers here. Nigeria is not an easy place to live, what with a corrupt government, and bad infrastructure, and poor standards of living for many people. But nowhere before had I seen such ardent faith amongst the people I met, and such close and intentional relationships with God. I had grown up in a Christian household, and my parents had always been strong believers. But being constantly surrounded by Christianity and its practices had desensitized me, in a way; I’d go through the motions, but oftentimes they brought no change to my heart. When I came to Nigeria, I saw God in the way my grandparents would lead morning prayer in their household; the way my youth pastors at church would check up on me and listen to me, in the way trips to orphanages and prisons and local hospitals would regularly be organized by my church, to comfort the people there. I saw him in the way people worshiped at church, while dancing and singing along to the eclectic mix of both foreign and traditional songs. And I saw Him in the way he worked in me, and grew me as a person.
During my six years in Nigeria, I noticed that many of the people I met put their faith first, or at least, were keenly aware of a higher presence in their lives, whether or not they believed it was the Christian God or not. Not once did I ever meet a Nigerian atheist or agnostic, and there were so many streets around where I lived that were lined with churches, one after the other, or the occasional mosque. And some time ago, I realized that this was largely due to the fact that as human beings, we have an inherent desire to serve. We may serve ourselves, or our careers, or money. We may serve our families, our ethnic groups, our countries. Or, we may serve God. In a country like Nigeria, there tends to be a large number of people leaning towards that higher power, whether for intercession or comfort. If there’s one thing I learned as a Christian, it’s that when you serve God–when you put Him first–everything else eventually falls into place, regardless of the current situation.
About six years after leaving the United States, I came back to attend college at Columbia, located in ‘the greatest city in the world’–New York. As I talked to the people around me, and learned about their backgrounds and experiences, I began to realize that a lot of them had such different priorities from mine. Amongst the people I met, during orientation, or at lunch, or in class, the most common desire was to pursue a bankable degree, get a job, and earn an enviable income. And of course, I found nothing wrong with being ambitious and being rewarded for hard work–after all, that’s the definition of the American dream. But I could sense that the average New Yorker or Columbian had a different level of happiness than the average Lagosian. This could be seen, for example, in the way the two groups evaluated the future of their countries. While Lagosians were mainly disappointed in the way Nigeria was run, there was still a sense of hope that God would redeem the country, and that the future was bright. The people I met at Columbia seemed hardened and pessimistic when it came to all matters concerning the future of the United States, and could not fathom anything possibly getting better in the days ahead.
So what is responsible for these differences in beliefs? In a place like New York, where all your basic needs can more easily be met, and where the world throws so many opportunities your way that you seemingly get by with your own strength, it’s easy to forget God, or at the very least take Him for granted. Lagos wasn’t the easiest place to live, but when times got tough, the people I knew leaned into God, and found His rest. Many Lagosians would often remind themselves that their future was in God’s hands. Here in New York, I found that the default response to hardship, even for many of the Christians I met, was to lean into effort and abilities. However, as human beings, we must realize there’s only so much that we can do on our own. Coming here, that was something that I struggled with. I would forget about God until it was convenient for me, like on Sundays at church or when I met up with my Christian group on campus. In Nigeria, it was so easy for me to remember. My church would regularly hold thanksgiving services, during which we’d remind ourselves of how God had been faithful, whether through a new job, or a child, or the fact that we woke up that morning. Here at Columbia it has been so easy for me to forget to stop and count my blessings. But now that I’ve recognized this, I’ve been reminding myself not to take things for granted while I’m here. I’m thankful each day for my friends, my family, and all the opportunities God has given me. And because I remember God, I’m able to meet each day with a heart full of gratitude and joy.
What would Columbia’s campus–or even the city of New York–be like if we as Christians, learned never to take God for granted? If we regularly thanked Him for the things we had, and even the things that we didn’t have? We’d pause more often, take a step back, and remind ourselves that we’ve been blessed beyond measure. Just by recognizing God’s presence more often, our lives would be completely changed.