Gratitude in the Desert

The year was 2004. We had slept very little, but needed to board buses and vans for the trip to the airport to fly into the military town of Tindouf , Algeria.

In Tindouf, we retrieved 174 pieces of luggage in a baggage-claim area that was the size of a small living room. Buses came to pick us up, separating the team’s luggage into three camps. The driver for our camp said he had no more room on his bus. The ministry leader motioned us to share her ride and we climbed into the back of an old Toyota pick-up truck.

We sat on old tires in the back, as there were no seats. We drove for half an hour in the desert, in the dark, and I was losing my sense of time and place. We were all looking haggard, our blank stares communicating fatigue, hunger, and thirst. I was unaccustomed to feeling that dirty, having not showered for days, the dust in the desert permeated all areas of our bodies. As we drove I wondered if the Sahara desert would look like our Michigan sand dunes. The truck slowed to a crawl, and looking through the dusty windows, we noticed we were stopped in front of a wall of headlights. “Maybe it’s a checkpoint.”

I was hoping it was a normal occurrence, but even our driver seemed uncomfortable. He spoke only Arabic and we only spoke English. Men with black turbans wrapped atop their heads, guns strapped to their shoulders, holding their AK 47’s as if ready to shoot, peered into our truck. Others ordered the drivers out of the vehicles, yelling and grabbing the papers each driver had pulled from behind the visors. Our driver nervously lit a rolled cigarette, inhaled deeply and leaned against the hood of the truck and waited.

The head of the ministry group we were travelling with, turned to us and said, “This has never happened before.” She had made many of these trips, so to hear her uneasiness unnerved me. I took inventory of my family sitting on the hard tires with me. I stared into my husband’s eyes, silently asking for meaning to all of this, as he quietly recited the Lord’s Prayer. Our son, Nicholas, closed his eyes and began praying for our safety. Little Emma responded to the recent dosing of Dramamine by speaking her unfiltered thoughts, “Why are we stopping? Why are they holding guns? Why are they looking at us through the window? Why are they going round and round our truck? What’s on their heads? “ Paul and I tried to whisper answers. I began formulating ideas of what they were going to do to us. I feared for our lives. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. Oh God! Oh God! Why? In a quick flash of desperation I prayed that our death would be quick, “make it through the head God, I don’t want my family to suffer.”

Psalm 23:4
Even when the way goes through
Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure.

Suddenly, our driver got back into his seat, shut his door, replaced his papers behind the visor, and we continued on into the dark night on the bumpy gravel path, wondering what had happened. No one spoke. Nervous repartee about what had just taken place in the desert, in the cold dark night, was replaced with stunned disbelief that we were moving away from danger.

My cry of “Oh God, Oh God” transposed into “Thank you God, Thank you God” “as I again took in the lovely faces of my husband, son, and daughter. Streams of tears cleared paths down my dusty cheeks as I gazed at each one of them with gratitude. We had 10 more days in this desert.

We learned days later that our drivers had missed an Algerian military check-point and the gunmen mistakenly thought we were smugglers.

Three days earlier, I had been focusing on the details that needed to be dealt with before we left for our mission trip. We were going to spend two weeks in the Sahara desert with the Saharawi people sharing Bible stories and working in a medical clinic.

We all were bringing three suitcases, one for our own belongings and two for supplies to be left in the camps with the Saharawi people. Paul and I, Nicholas our son, who was 13 at the time, and Emma our daughter, 11, all needed vaccinations for that part of the world, and antibiotics to take with us to thwart any gastrointestinal bug. I picked up the dry cleaning, made a haircut appointment for Nicholas, brought in scripts for meds. I remembered to stop the mail and I booked the dog at the kennel. I made sure the Polaroid camera worked, we had heard that the people group we were visiting enjoyed seeing themselves in photos and enjoyed the instant Polaroids. I was anxiously waiting to call into the courtroom, as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, to find out if I would need to testify that day as an expert witness. I was able to navigate my busy life and I enjoyed being in control. I got a thrill from checking things off my lists.

None of that mattered as I smiled at my husband and my babies in the back of that old Toyota pick-up.

The year is 2014. Ten years later I’m still making lists, but I’m not that same person.
I met my Shepherd in the desert and had to fully depend on Him. I continue to ask myself if I will trust Him with my family and with my life. Will I relinquish control to Him? Each day? Each hour?

One night, while we were with the Saharawi, they took us to see their sand dunes. We walked up the dunes talking and singing with the Saharawi people, it was a beautiful night, we looked down from the dune to their parked trucks; a wall of headlights casting light onto room-sized rugs, which had been rolled out onto the sand. Many of the Saharawi were sitting. There in the middle of nowhere, on the dusty earth, were opulent carpets where they were making tea for us. They asked that we sit in circles around each person making the tea and we watched the tea ceremony, experiencing the 3 things most important to the Saharawi.

1. Charcoal to heat the water to make the tea to share with others.
2. People to share the tea with.
3. Relationships with those people you’re sharing tea with.

I recognized that I have aspired to be more like the Saharawi during this last decade.
Focus less on doing and acquiring.
Focus more on being present with those around me.
Share what I have.

Thank you for that gift, God.

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Maureen Gebben is enjoying life in the Pacific Northwest after moving there a year ago with her husband, who is presently enrolled in The Seattle School. Mother of 2 fabulous children, she has been married for 29 years. She dreams of gardening on her farm with afternoons spent fly fishing in the property’s stream. Maureen loves hiking, a well-hit back hand, and laughter.