I don’t rightly understand how to process the death of a friend.
Death has always been like lightning to me; something powerful but always viewed from a distance. I’ve heard about lightning strike right next to people, but never seen it. Likewise, I’ve heard about people losing immediate family, spouses, or close friends, but never experienced it.
My life has been mostly sheltered from death. Grandparents, great-grandparents, after living long and full lives, yes. But still, death didn’t come unannounced. It sent letters months in advance. It gave us a heads up. A timetable. Death is always an ugly thing, but I’ve always been able to prepare for it, to steel my courage, say goodbyes, shore up thoughts and feelings, and hold my breath as we awaited the news.
But last Monday was painfully different.
It was like a hammer shattering a window, a tire exploding on the freeway, a punch being rifled into my gut. Samson Charles, our dear friend, a 19 year old basketball player from Tanzania who had been living here in North Platte for six months, tragically drowned. While floating the North Platte River with our neighbors Samson was pulled into an abnormally strong current when his kayak capsized. He was seen briefly to be standing up in the river, but was pulled under. The husband of the couple he was floating with heroically dove in after Samson, risking his own life, but the current was too strong and Samson was already gone. In a matter of a few minutes the happy, kind, towering Samson Charles was taken by the muddy Nebraskan water.
Over the past few years my wife and I have had different people live with us. We’ve loved the opportunity to be a tangible blessing to others and share with others in the good things that the Lord has provided us with. One of my closest friends in North Platte was working as the assistant basketball coach for the community college at the time, and in the Spring mentioned that he had an exchange student from Tanzania who needed somewhere to stay over the Summer. Enter Samson.
My first impression of Samson was memorable. At nearly 7 feet tall, dark African skin, and a thick Swahili accent, it was hard for anyone to not have a memorable first encounter with Samson – especially in North Platte, Nebraska (we are fairly monochromatic here).
The first time we met was in the lobby of our church. He stood a good foot over everyone else, standing like a tree over the rest of us. I introduced myself and received back a wide smile and polite, “Hello, my name is Samson, so good to meet you.” Samson came over to our house for Easter dinner and told us what it was like growing up in his village, taking the cattle out to graze, and living without electricity or running water for most of his life. We, sheltered middle-class westerners, were rapt with attention. We asked question after question, with what must have felt like an interrogation (How did you live without a refrigerator? When did you learn to speak English? What happened if a hyena attacked one of your cattle? Have you seen the Lion King?) We must have been so obnoxious. But he would just smile and laugh to himself, and graciously answer us. Samson really loved people and didn’t mind. After about 45 minutes of this we suddenly realized that his plate of food stood there nearly untouched, so we apologized and vowed to stop and let him eat. But he just laughed.
Samson moved into our downstairs bedroom in May. He had to duck to get under all of our doors, and would still occasionally whack his head when he wasn’t careful (Now that I think of it, the poor guy probably had to shower on his knees). But still, he would look around at his room and our house (both very modest) and would say with a wide grin and deep voice, “Wow, this is nice!”
Samson was fairly clueless to many things that seemed common sense to Hillary and I.
He knew nothing about cooking. Hillary had to teach him how to make a ham and cheese sandwich, which Samson still was a little confused over (He thought that after you completed the sandwich, you just started putting more meat and cheese on the top piece of bread and would just keep adding layers upon layers of sandwich). I once tried to explain to him that there were other kinds of sandwiches he could try besides ham and cheese, like peanut butter and jelly. But somehow he misunderstood me and made a peanut butter, ham, jelly, and cheese sandwich (He didn’t like the jelly on it, but from then on preferred and made crunchy peanut butter, ham and cheese sandwiches, despite my protests). Samson mostly lived off of Tony’s frozen pizzas and Hillary’s left-overs.
He was also a terrible card/board game player. He had never played any card games (at least that we knew of). We taught him how to play War, Cribbage, and best of all, B.S. He was a remarkably bad liar. Every time it was his turn you only had to look at him for an extra few seconds and if he lied, he would try to choke down a deep giggle and hide his big Tanzanian smile behind his cards, as if he just got away with stealing a cookie from the jar. We could never really tell if he liked playing games necessarily, but he always seemed to enjoy spending time with us, even if he would get walloped every time.
But at the same time, there was a whole other world unknown to us where Samson was an expert.
He knew how to build a hut out of mud in the Tanzanian country. He was confident that he could easily survive if dropped in the wilderness anywhere. He believed that if you had a spear or bow and arrow you could essentially fight off any predator. He didn’t understand our dependance on grocery stores. He was well-versed in the current sociopolitical issues facing East Africa. He spoke six different languages, most of them tribal tongues, and knew ritual dances for special events like weddings and circumcisions.
And of course, there was basketball. He loved the sport and dedicated himself to it. Most nights we would find him watching and re-watching basketball tutorial videos. He would ride our bright red bike miles to the school’s gym and work out for hours, almost every day. He was committed, and so eager to start his season this Fall.
The day I found out about Samson’s death I was two days into a week long mission trip with High Schoolers in downtown Denver. The last words I shared with Samson were, “Alright Samson, I’m gonna be gone for a week so its your job to protect the home now.” I was being a little facetious, but Samson missed the humor entirely and took the responsibility very seriously, “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure everyone is safe.” I laughed and thanked him and drove away to Colorado.
I sat in the basement of a stuffy, un-air-conditioned house and cried into the carpet, pleading that God would intervene and somehow this would all be a big misunderstanding. Samson was so strong, how could he have been swept away by a current? He was so young, how could his life be over already? Maybe he just floated down the river aways and was hiking around the Nebraskan wilderness, putting his survival skills to the test. Maybe he was entirely oblivious to the fact that there were search parties looking for him and he would be found the next morning sprawled out, sleeping in his bed. We would throw our arms around him in relief, lecture him and sternly tell him about how worried we were and that it isn’t okay to just leave unannounced like that, and he would smile back and say, “Oh! People were looking for me? Really?” And we would laugh and roll our eyes and tell him to be more careful next time. Totally something that silly, care-free Samson would do…
But that didn’t happen. Oh, how desperately I wish it did.
This Sunday would have been his 20th birthday. Tonight, we were going to take him bowling and eat cake and play arcade games and teach him what American birthday parties were like. But instead, his room is empty and I am writing this.
Samson loved his family deeply. He would often spend hours on the phone with one of his brothers. You could always see a noticeable difference in him after he had, he would smile (as if it were possible) even wider. Not long ago Hillary and I found out that Samson would wake up every morning at 4 AM to pray for his family. Whenever Hillary and I would ask how we could be praying for Samson he would always mention his family. Just a few days before his death Samson was telling us that he had been unable to talk to his mother for a number of months because of problems with his phone – that really pained him. Samson always only ever spoke highly and respectfully of his family. I wish everyone could have seen the joy in his face as he spoke with his brothers, both of them effortlessly and rhythmically speaking, almost musically, in Swahili – often laughing, always smiling. It was fun just to hear him speak his native language.
A few weeks ago I preached a sermon on the unity of the Church and how we are one family. I used my relationship with Samson, with his permission, as an example,
“What binds the Church together is not shared interests, cultures, or race – what brings the Church together as one is that we all stand on the foundation of Christ, and that is the most important thing in all of reality. And because we all believe that Christ is of supreme importance, we have unity. Take my brother Samson for example: He is from Tanzania and I (obviously) am not. Samson’s upbringing and my upbringing could not possibly be more different, our cultures could not be more different, our interests could not be more different – but because we both know and love Christ, we are brothers and share a deeper love and friendship with one another than with people from our own cultural backgrounds who don’t. That is what the Church is to be built on. And by the way, if you haven’t gotten to know Samson yet, you should!”
I could see Samson bashfully smiling as I spoke, probably disliking the amount of attention he was now getting. But every word I spoke was gospel truth. Scripture teaches us that those who trust in Christ are “adopted” into Christ (Eph. 1:5) and are therefore now one family (Eph. 2:19). I’m not just speaking metaphorically, when Samson died on Monday our whole church, along with his family, lost a brother.
I am profoundly sad at the death of Samson. The world needed so many more Samson’s, not one less. But I am profoundly grateful for the time I had with him. He reflected the humility, kindness, and joy of Christ to me in such a memorable way. And my life is the better for it.
I don’t know why God decided that Samson’s last day would be Monday, July 11th, 2016. But I know that because of what Christ has done in His death and resurrection we can grieve with hope (1 Thess. 4:13). Christ came in order that death may no longer have the final say, to remove its deep sting with a resurrection power. Samson loved Jesus and trusted in Him for his salvation, and is at this very moment more alive than he ever was here on earth. He is no longer seeing our Lord dimly, but face to face (1 Cor. 13:12).
And while we are left with the pain of loss, we trust God’s inscrutable wisdom and boundless love that guides His sovereign plan. We trust that the Lord never needlessly wounds us, but uses all things together for good, to mold us into looking more and more like Christ (Rom. 8:28-29). And we trust that one day, only through our own faith in Christ, not only will we be reunited with Samson, but with the God who Samson reflected to us.
Goodbye, Brother – With tears, both sorrowful and rejoicing, and love.
Till we meet again.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
– Jesus Christ (John 11:25-26)
Please join me in regular prayer for Samson’s family as they grapple with their loss. If you would like to help support returning Samson back to Tanzania for his family, please make a donation here – 100% of the funds go directly towards the shipping costs. Samson’s memorial service will be held at North Platte Berean Church on Thursday, July 21st at 10 AM. All who wish to honor and remember Samson are welcome to come.