Trying to Walk the Tightrope

Trying to Walk the Tightrope

Something is always happening here at the United Church of Zambia University.  I have been sent to this Global Ministries mission partner to teach in the theology department.  I have been entrusted with a full teaching load this semester, so I am in contact with students all the time.  

When I am not lecturing, I am researching about the next week’s coming topic, or I am meeting with students to explain something again a little differently or more clearly (one hopes!), or I am executing every teacher’s least favorite task – grading papers.  Sometimes, however, the distinction between my work assignment and my commission as a volunteer here gets blurry.  I think of it as walking a tightrope sometimes. I have to maintain professional dignity and classroom authority but I must also, as a Christian and member of the church, risk opening myself at times to serve as a fraternal presence for the occasional student who is experiencing a need beyond the classroom. 

So it was a few weeks ago when one of my students – let’s call him Immanuel – failed to return to the UCZU from our mid-semester 2-week break when he was expected.  Most of the class returned and came back rested and ready to pursue their studies afresh.  Immanuel did not.  In fact, he did not come back at all with the others.  He was not in direct contact with me or the dean but some of his classmates explained that he would not be back for at least the first week after classes resumed because his father had died and he had to remain with his mother and help the family deal with the sudden unhappy circumstances.  I made a mental note of the need to be alert when he returned and proceeded with class.

About a week later, Immanuel finally returned to campus.  He came to my office to explain his absence and begin the process of catching up – in two classes because I have him in both of the first year courses I teach, theology and mission.  He was falling far behind his classmates in both the homework and the reading load. I gave him a detailed rundown on all that he had missed and needed to turn in to get caught up.  He was so grateful but seemed to have more on his mind than a few pieces of work I had imposed.  He did not take my hints that the meat of our conversation was over and he should be moving on.  He clearly wanted to talk more.

And so, of course, our conversation moved into his grief and loss.  As we sat there sharing our faith and our lives – my father, too, died when I was young – I learned that his father had been healthy and vigorous to the end. His death was totally unexpected and neither he nor anyone in his family was emotionally prepared for the loss. His father was only a few years older than I am.  I think Immanuel needed the comfort of speaking with an older person at that moment and, even though I would normally have to keep my distance, I felt privileged to sit and share something of myself with him.  I jumped off the tightrope into the depths of commiseration and compassion.  We were both close to tears more than once.  We prayed for God’s comfort of all who grieve … and Immanuel went on his way.

As I get to know my colleagues, their families and my students, this happens, I confess, uncomfortably often in Zambia.  There can be a lot of sadness and loss here, where, the BBC recently reported, fifty percent of the population lives in acute poverty.  Sure, there are some emotional costs, but I’m not registering any regrets at this point.  The rewards to my faith experience richly compensate me for those costs.

Robert L. Breckenridge


Robert Breckenridge serves with the United Church of Zambia. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, WOC, OGHS, and your special gifts.