When Esther Swaffield-Bray set out to climb Africa’s highest peak, she had no idea of the lessons she would learn along the way
Recently, I helped lead a group of 17 people in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro – the world’s tallest freestanding mountain. The climb took six days, and we eventually summitted Uhuru (Freedom) Peak at an incredible height of 5,895 meters.
Here’s what I learned along the way – from porridge to dance parties to perseverance – and why climbing mountains is a lot like seeking justice, and growing in faith:
1. The right fuel is necessary
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day - especially when you’re climbing a mountain. Long days covering many miles meant that each morning – even at high altitude – began with a big bowl of honey-topped porridge and a hot mug of (very strong!) coffee. You simply cannot sustain a climb on ‘empty’.
Finding the right fuel is also essential to the Christian life: that’s why my colleagues and I at IJM start each morning with 30 minutes of quiet reflection and prayer. It helps us stay connected to God and inspires, empowers and fuels our work. Whatever your day looks like, starting it with God is always a good idea.
2. A committed community really helps
Reaching the summit was a real group effort: from the chefs who prepared our meals to the team member who encouraged us when the going got tough. On paper, our group had little in common and barely knew each other before the climb – but it was our different skills, gifts and perspectives that made us such a strong team. Likewise, the Christian life is best done in community.
Find reasons to celebrate even when the work feels hard. Justice and joy go hand in hand
IJM’s work could not happen without the churches and supporters in the UK, or our global family of investigators, lawyers, social workers, survivors and advocates. As individual believers, our Christian faith grows best with the support, strength and encouragement that comes from meeting together with people of all ages and backgrounds. It’s one of the things the Church does best.
3. Remember your kit
On the mountain, without the right equipment, we would have found ourselves in real danger. Similarly, we need the right kit to grow spiritually and in our work tackling injustice: from expert investigative and legal skills to therapists and social workers with the knowledge to help people rebuild their lives in freedom.
For Christians, our essential kit includes each other (the Church), prayer, worship and regular Bible reading. This ensures the survival of our faith as well as a life-long adventure as we grow in it.
4. The journey isn’t always easy
Six days of walking with no showers and little sleep meant none of us were feeling - or looking! - our best by the end of our trek. Just putting one foot in front of the other was all we could do at times.
Having seen God at work in many situations of injustice - and in my own life - I know that the story isn’t always neat and polished. There are times when situations can appear messy and hard and sometimes it can feel really rough when you’re in the middle of it.
5. … but through perseverance, we make extraordinary progress
Despite often difficult conditions (like the hailstorm on day four or the altitude sickness that kicked in for many) we made steady progress towards the summit. That said, it was very much a marathon, not a sprint.
IJM has been working hard for 25 years to bring victims of slavery and abuse to safety, and hold perpetrators to account. At times, progress has felt slow – but looking back, it’s clear that we’ve come a long way.
Our founder, Gary Haugen, says: “Victims of injustice in our world do not need our spasms of passion; they need our long obedience in the same direction”. And there’s not much better advice for our walk with Christ, either. James 1:12 says: "Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
6. Celebration gets you through
Each time we felt our energy dip, we spurred each other on with spontaneous dance parties – there’s nothing like singing to a re-mix of ‘You raise me up’ at 4,000m! When we finally reached the summit, we had our biggest celebration of all.
“The joy of the Lord is my strength” says Nehemiah 8:10. Whether at work or in our personal lives, it’s important to not only to celebrate big successes but also the moments of joy along the way - it can help sustain us for the journey.
Having seen God at work in many situations of injustice – and in my own life - I know that the story isn’t always neat and polished
Take joy seriously, and thank God for any and all progress, big or small. Find reasons to celebrate even when you are weary and the work feels hard. After all, justice and joy go hand in hand.
7. Choose the right guide
We could not have climbed Kilimanjaro without the expertise of the guides who led us. Similarly, at IJM we would feel lost if we tried to do the work of justice on our own, without guidance from the God of justice, who promises he will never leave or forsake us.
For each of us, even when the task seems too big, when the right path isn’t clear or we can’t see the way forward, we can trust that God is with us. He is our ultimate guide.
Find out more about IJM and joining the team to climb Kilimanjaro at IJMUK.org