The country of Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills.
As it turns out, this nickname is no joke.
I experienced these hills on a recent high school mission trip to Rwanda. While there, we traveled from one side of the country to the other, along a road that zig zags through the hills. The road’s narrow and steep. At times, it feels as though your vehicle is mere inches from the edge of a cliff. The reality is, however, that each day, thousands of people navigate this road safely.
Unfortunately, the day we traveled it we came upon a terrible collision: A 17-passenger bus verses a motorcycle. As we rounded the corner, my trip leaders and I caught a glimpse of the accident’s severity. The bus was flipped over at an awkward angle, the belongings of it’s passengers strewn throughout the road. The motorcycle lay mangled on the other side of the road. Onlookers were everywhere.
So, too, I assume, were the bodies of the crash victims.
Given the speed at which people travel this road and the fact that Rwandan buses don’t come equipped with seat belts, there’s no way this accident didn’t result in fatalities.
My trip leaders and I all realized this at the same moment. Without thinking, we started simultaneously screaming directions to our students.
No, look straight ahead.
We meant for our directions to protect our students, to prevent them from seeing something unforgettable, and to keep them from being frightened about our remaining travel throughout the Rwandan countryside.
In reality, they did the opposite.
Rather than protect our students, our reaction made things worse. It left students confused, unsure which way to look. Worse still, our fear permeated our bus, making teens fearful, too.
In reflecting on this moment, I’ve realized three important things about dealing with crises.
1. Students’ emotions and responses mimic ours. Thus, how we respond to crises directly impacts students. If we’re calm, they will be too. If we’re afraid, they will be too.
2. If you don’t actually know what’s going on, say nothing. When we happened upon the crash, neither myself nor my other leaders knew what had happened. Yet, we all spoke. To make matters worse, we all said different things. That, more than anything our teens might have seen, is what contributed to their fear.
3. Despite our best efforts, we cannot protect teens from bad things. We can’t keep them from seeing or experiencing things that might scar or frighten them. What we can do is help teens make sense of those experiences by processing them together.
As I think back on that day in Rwanda, I wish we wouldn’t have tried so hard to protect our teens from the horror that lay on the side of the road. Instead, I wish we would have let them look and then afterward, ask them what they saw and how that made them feel.
Rather than make them fearful, I suspect such a response would have shown teens that faith is something that carries them through, rather than avoids, bad things; That God is not someone who necessarily protects them from the bad, but instead, walks through it with them.
And for that matter, so are we.