I’ve preached in Burkina Faso many times, to crowds of thousands, but never like this. Never one quite this size, and never on a day like today. I had gone for a walk earlier, needing to be alone. Paths made by, and for, bare feet snaked into fields flanked by golden millet stubs from last season’s harvest. I was alone with my thoughts. The school grounds where Mike was to be buried was north of the savanna, where a lit match or a lightning strike could easily set the ground ablaze in seconds. Here in the burning heat of the Sahel region, the scrub brush and foliage were simply too sparse for fire to be a risk. I took a deep breath.
This is happening, I thought. My heaving chest did not struggle for the dry air so much as comprehension. Really. Happening.
But how…how was this happening? I returned back to the compound, listening to the stillness of the wind as if my brother might call my name across the field. That’s when I noticed before me, the spontaneous procession of cars and motos, as far as I could see, all going in the same direction. I didn’t know there were that many automobiles in the entire region. I was stunned. I heard the gentle murmurs of disbelief around me as people reached out to touch me, wordless in their grief. The soft sound of weeping filled the air. Thousands of pained white eyes in a sea of dark skin betrayed the fact that they were feeling what I felt. The atmosphere was lacquered with affection and sorrow, moving hundreds to make the long trek by foot from surrounding villages, some dozens of kilometers away. They came because they must, because they needed to say goodbye to a spiritual father, mentor and friend. My brother.
The palpable sense of the unreality of that day still exists in my mind. I still pick up my phone sometimes, when I hear the ding of a new Facebook Messenger text, and think Mike might have just dropped me a quick note. Suddenly, Mike’s casket came into view. A low wail emerged from the crowd. I tried not to show too much emotion, but leading this gathering was going to be more difficult than I had imagined.
This is happening.
It was a beautifully handcrafted box, dark wood with a darker stained wooden cross adorning the top. Eight men somberly carried the vessel of my brother’s bullet-ridden body with a reverence almost befitting the ark of the covenant. I’m not exaggerating when I say that. Don’t miss anything. Stay in the moment. My eyes tried to take in the entirety of the scene because I knew it was important. It was also pointless. Over and over, I was drawn back to that cross, running the length of the casket, over my brother’s body. My thoughts raced. Of course!
Obviously, in a Christian culture, crosses are common. All I can tell you is that the cross never became something common to Mike. It was always deeply personal. He made sure that crosses were everywhere, on everything he did, like a personal signature: doors, gates, buildings, vehicles. Not as a Christian symbol, per se; certainly not ornamental. No, the Cross was the thing upon which he had built his life and existence and hope, and under which he labored for the sake of others. These Africans who built his casket knew him well—probably led by Emmanuel, a deacon and Mike’s right-hand man for all things construction—they weren’t just adding a decoration to his box, they were literally carving his signature into the wood. He died as he had lived, marked by the cross. He would be buried under a cross. His friends were giving him the highest honor they knew to give.
A fresh wave of grief washed over me, staring out across a dark but colorful sea of nearly 10,000 Muslims and Christians all crammed together to pay their respects. Though poor, they wore their finest: Boubous, head scarves, earrings, bracelets. I still ponder their secret thoughts that day. What were they thinking? What were the Muslims thinking, those who came and wept, who told me of their embarrassment and regret that such a thing as Al-Qaida even existed, or that terrorists could claim such a thing as holy service to Allah? Though they repudiated the idea, I found myself wondering if perhaps they would have felt differently toward other Americans. But with Mike, I did not doubt their sincerity. He had loved them too well, sacrificing greatly for many, many orphans and widows, in many villages.