The First Duty of Love

Thinking back now, I don’t know what I expected.

In my mind, mountaintops are noisy places. Wind, weather, rumbling rock, calling birds, not to mention a whole team of women who had just achieved their goal of summiting the tallest freestanding mountain to the world about to shout peace and pray protection for our sisters. God bonded fourteen very different souls together to climb in solidarity with brave women who lived in the most dangerous war-torn countries on the planet.The odds defied us. Our bodies defied us. Natural laws like gravity, altitude and oxygen defied us. But now, after four days of base camps and steady climbs, cold nights and early mornings, of reminding each other of the strength and resilience of the women we were climbing for. After taking 38,680 steps up the mountain my African friends call ‘Ngaje Ngai’, which means “The House of God” each and every woman reached the summit.

I imagined the collective noise at the top would be more like the adrenaline infused whoops of a Superbowl touchdown. But this was the sound of my mountaintop.


Looking back I know why. Kilimanjaro has a 30% grade at the top, meaning—it was crazy steep. Breath came faster, the sound of oxygen being pulled in and pushed out with effort, the unnatural task of having to think about breathing. All talk completely ceased as each of us strained to pull ourselves over the final boulder field to Kilimanjaro’s first summit. We spoke encouragement with our eyes and outstretched hands. As we climbed over the top to see the iconic Gilman’s Peak summit sign, the quiet enveloped each of us. I stood and listened in awe.


We were in the house of God. We entered his halls with what little we had, the breath in our lungs, the care we had for each other, the bravery transferred to us through the suffering of our sisters. Standing on the edge of the world, staring at the miles of steps we had taken from the bottom to the top, I imagined the Old Testament story of Elijah hiding in the mountain cave as Jezebel sought to end his life. He was tempted, in despair, to give up. There on the mountain he listened for the voice of God, and God chose to speak in a still small voice.

The Father does not need to shout if we are already listening.

Divine quiet does not mean divine indifference. God whispers so that we will lean in, drawing closer to him.The closer we are to him, the more we can hear each other.

This journey had taught me that brave souls listen. Really listen—the empathetic, spiritual discipline kind of listening that does not allow culturally acceptable sympathy or indifferent apathy to get in the way of hearing God, or others. Listening to the stories of overcoming from women who experienced gender based violence, hearing their plea for their story to be told to the world, woke my soul from an indifferent, privileged slumber. Hearing my climb sisters speak truth to one another as we climbed, telling stories of overcoming in both mundane life and miracle rescues had been the rocket fuel we needed to face our next day, our next mile, our next step. Encouragement, confession, testimony, repentance– all had been spoken by us as we walked.

It is becoming increasingly rare to find the brave soul willing to really hear what our lives are saying in this loud and noisy world.

So very, very rare.

“The first duty of love,”writes theologian Paul Tillich, “is to listen.” Empathetic listening requires risk, and produces love. In the silence of thin mountain air, the lessons of my journey became crystal clear. When I willingly give my ear to those around me, those with me and even those opposed to me, I am choose to give their story validity. In making empathy a priority, I become both generous and receiving. I was grieved to think about the cumulative result of all my “non-listening”.

As we entered God’s house at the top of the world, I felt my soul grow brave and lean in. Closing my eyes, I whispered, “God, I have not listened.” And I heard a still small voice say, “My daughter, I know, I understand. And you are forgiven.”

Educator turned advocate, Belinda Wilson Bauman seeks to bring hope to women in crisis. After living internationally for a decade in conflict and post-conflict zones, Belinda experienced what she calls a “beautiful collision” with the brave souls of women who survive in the most dangerous places in the world. She is a wife and mother, speaker and contributor to Newsweek’s The Daily Beast, Huffington Post and Today’s Christian Woman. As the founder of One Million Thumbprints, she leads a movement of peacemakers empowering peacemakers in the world’s worst conflicts. Belinda and her husband, Stephan, and their two sons, Joshua and Caleb, live in Grand Rapids, MI where they relish promoting peace, raising chickens and gazing at stars while living in the country.