Unexpected Lessons in Love

A young man's travels to Sudan open his heart and lead him to a life-changing purpose
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Editor's Note: Billy Riddle is a senior English major at Appalachian. He was a starting player on two of Appalachian's championship football teams and played on special teams during the 2008 football season. Billy has travelled twice to Sudan with a relief organization and, as a result, has started his own nonprofit organization, WhyTheWoods, which is building two wells in Sudan and reconstructing a nursery school and primary school. We asked Billy to share his motivation, passion and experiences with the readers of Appalachian Today magazine. Following are excerpts from his story, in his own words. You can read Billy's blog at www.billyriddlejr.blogspot.com.

On Coming to Boone and Appalachian

Billy finds Appalachian exciting and stimulating after growing up in a small town and appreciates the learning environment that will prepare him for the rest of his life.

"I am from a small town—Cooleemee, N.C. There's not much there but farms, football, and good people. From that small town, I learned the value of a firm handshake, an honest word, and a Sunday morning service. Those are my roots. Only God knew what this small town boy would see when I climbed up the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2004.

"My eyes were opened to a whole new world of Appalachian college life blended with the unique Boone culture. Once, I stood laughing with my friends on the edge of a big waterfall located on the Elk River. We jumped and had the time of our lives.

"If someone were to ask to me to describe my time at Appalachian, I think that story would pretty much sum it up. I met some great friends, we stood on the edge of a beautiful world, and we jumped. Each of us into our own careers and futures; it was a great time in my life."

Faint Beginnings of a Calling

Through friends in the football program at Appalachian, Billy is introduced to the organization Samaritan's Purse and a possible calling he did not anticipate.

"I came to Appalachian State to play football. My friend and teammate, Seth Breitenstein, introduced me to the Graham family my freshman year. A friendship blossomed and the next summer I found myself working at the Samaritan's Purse offices in Boone. Samaritan's Purse is an international relief organization led by Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Rev. Billy Graham.

Soon after the 2006 National Football Championship (Appalachian's and my second) my blind desire to make this world a better place and divine opportunity finally met. That summer I was offered an opportunity by Samaritan's Purse to spend two months working in Sudan."

Wandering and Wondering in the Dark

Experiencing Africa for the first time and meeting its people forces Billy to confront the reality of their way of life.

"In May 2007, I was plunged right into the middle of a country recovering from a civil war that had given humanity a glimpse of hell. My rookie year of mission work began in a world of malaria death tolls, wartime orphans, boy soldiers, and girl sex slaves. I drove down those muddy roads I had imagined on the plane, littered with trash, and lined by shanties.

"The things I saw and the stories I heard brought me to my knees and broke my heart. I was broken and confused, then a little angel changed my life and revealed a purpose of divine origin. She helped me understand."

The Little Toothless Girl

Billy meets an African child who seeks something from this young American man that he does not yet understand.

"One day I stood in the wild of Southern Sudan overseeing the reconstruction of a new church. I stood there by my mud-covered truck and watched those Sudanese men work like hungry ants all striving to achieve something greater. It was a poetic moment for me. In a land where the laws of nature are the only honest form of government, and where the flaws of mankind cannot be hidden by the luster of the dollar, I stood and watched humanity in motion.

"I watched these men so desperately grasping for a better life, while bearing the weight of government oppression, still in desperate need of the most basic commodities, but working all the while with hopes of one day finding what we are all looking for ... life abundant. I wondered if they would ever find it.

"Watching those men peck away at the new building, I began to lose all hope in my mission and in myself. I asked, 'What is this one new church going to do for the country of Sudan? How much of a difference can one young man make in this massive suffering place.'

"I felt swallowed by the overwhelming tragedy of humanity that is Sudan. And then I felt a little hand tickling fingers down my forearm.

"My eyes quickly shot to the little four-year-old girl who was bravely exploring my hairy, white arms. Her hand froze. She had big brown eyes that got wider as we stared at one another. She was giddy almost, like she was petting a lion and was waiting for it to jump at her.

"I gave her a little wink and she was sent over the top with an explosion of laughter. Her friends, who had probably dared her to touch the white man, erupted in the background. But, I had no time for little games. What did this little girl want from me anyway? Couldn't she understand that there was no reason in this world that she should be happy?"

'She Overcame the World'

Billy finds all he is seeking in the beautiful brown eyes of one young African child.

"With that she slid her hand down my arm, slowly traced the lines on my palm, until her dirty little fingers were interlocked with mine. Somewhere in the space between my hopeless eyes and her beautiful, toothless grin she overcame the world.

"Her eyes wild with amazement, her little tongue poking through the missing teeth, her smile; all explained the mystery of love. My gaze was shattered by that glow radiating from her body. It reverberated into my soul eclipsing all wisdom and forever changing my idea of life. My eyes opened like a newborn.

"I realized then, she doesn't need or really want the things I came to offer. I have seen so many who have exponentially more than this little toothless girl ever will have, yet have never smiled so wholly as she when she simply held my hand. I stood there with nothing more to offer than that simple human touch.

"I had no miracle of life, no clean new well, no shiny new school, only my dirty hand. As we stood there holding hands, love overcame me. The true love between us in that moment conquered our plight. Love is the ultimate value of life. And that is all she ever wanted. May God bless the little toothless girl who taught me the value of love. And may our dirty hands meet again one day where love is abundant."

Billy Returns to Sudan

Billy returned to Sudan a second time after coming home to Boone and finding he still needed to search for his heart's purpose. He left family and Appalachian's football program a second time to work with the people of Sudan. This second visit was even more impactful to his life.

"In the dirtiest places I found love. Around the campfire at night I found love. In the mud-hut, grass-roof shanties I found love. And where I found love I also found hope and excitement. These were the smiling people of whom I was in awe. These were the people who changed my worldview. The more time I spent with the Sudanese the more I learned about true community and brotherly love.

"They taught me how to value time spent with another person over time spent completing a task. I watched them sit around a campfire at night and talk about the hard times. They talked about their families, and they joked, and laughed. They enjoyed each other's presence. It all became clear to me. After my experience with the little toothless girl I knew the value of love. After watching it in action through the Sudanese I began to have faith in the healing power of love.

"During my last days I came down with malaria for the second time. I had to leave the village and return to my base. At the time I didn't know that I had malaria. I was very dehydrated, I was dizzy, and my stomach was hurting. The people of the village were very worried about me and I knew I had to get back to our base fast. They put me on a motorbike and sent me back 17 miles to the main base. When I got there our nurse quickly diagnosed the malaria and I was bound to the bed for the next three days.

"While lying in bed cycling through the cold and hot spells that are common with malaria, the pastor from the village popped his head into my room. I was truly amazed to see him there. He had ridden 17 miles in the blistering sun on a rickety old bike for no other reason than to see how I was doing.

"Those final days I spent lying in bed recovering gave me plenty of time to reflect on the things I had been through during the seven months. I established these things: My life is meant to be founded on love. My sole purpose is to love God and love others. I learned through my interaction and inclusion into the village that the best way to show love to others is to meet them where they are. I learned that I must humble myself to the point of pure equality with my neighbor. I am no better than the Sudanese man I am trying to help. I am his equal. His brother.

"I took these principles of love and humility and began to develop the idea and movement of WhyTheWoods. This idea is about living a lifestyle founded on these principles and having faith to give everything, your life, your time, your money, and your relationships to the creator. Now my life is centered on these beliefs. I work to motivate others around me to live a lifestyle of complete devotion to love God and our fellow men. I will return one day to the people of Sudan and help them in any way that I can."

Editor's Note: Billy Riddle plans to return to Sudan in September 2009 to work with WhyTheWoods. For more information on "WhyTheWoods," a 501c(3) non-profit organization, go to www.WhyTheWoods.com.

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