From Ghana to Gandalf: The Journey of Michael Sawyer

By Micah McIntyre

As Americans, very few of us can say that we’ve looked our dinner in the eye. Before his trip to Ghana, neither could Michael Sawyer.

One morning, his host siblings led him outside behind the house, where he watched the local Imam slaughter a goat with the same ease as if he were going through a drive-through. Suddenly, the gift of creation and of food specifically took on new meaning.  

Michael grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and his family owned a small cabin in the mountains that provided ample opportunity to explore God’s creation. “As a kid I was always fascinated by animals,” he said. By the time he graduated high school, he understood the importance of caring for the environment, but his undergrad experience changed the way he viewed nature.

Life in a Broken World

Michael said that “his love for nature took another form” after he entered Wheaton College as an environmental science major and joined the Human Needs and Global Resource program (HNGR). His superficial and “aesthetic” appreciation of nature turned into a deep, theological love for God’s creation. In looking at the physical world through a theological lens, he realized that “viewing the resurrection as a renewal for only humanity is too narrow.” He told me that the thought of a holistic renewal of all creation is much more beautiful and hopeful to him than renewal limited to humanity.

In his senior year at Wheaton, HNGR took Michael to Damongo, Ghana, for six months. There he conducted an independent study project (ISP) on the relationship between charcoal production and consumption and deforestation. He also worked as an intern for A Rocha Ghana, an international environmental protection organization, and collected data about vulnerable farmers in the area around the park who were affected by animal encroachment.

When he was not working, Michael said that he and his host siblings would “religiously watch an Indian soap opera on a Nigerian television network.” (Both of us had a good laugh about globalization after this response.) When I asked him about any weird encounters with food, he could not think of anything too strange. However, he did say that he still has cravings for fufu, a native Ghanan dish that features a doughy, starchy ball that you dip into a beef stew. He is yet to find it served here in America.

He also has fond memories of playing soccer games first thing in the morning with the local Ghanan children. But the memories about these games are as “sobering” as they are pleasant. The field he played on was situated between a mosque and a massive, burning heap of garbage. “It was a very interesting paradox to play between those two things,” he said. Even in a game of soccer, Michael walked in the shadow of poverty and suffering.

For four months, Michael was the only white person (as far as he knew) in all of Damongo, a town of 41,000 people. He said that while it wasn’t the same as in America, he did get a little taste of what it’s like to be a minority. People would approach him in friendship when, in reality, they were only coming to him for money.

“Being a minority, I saw that there was a marred identity with poor, but there was also a marred identity with the non-poor where my skin meant wealth. My whiteness meant power, wealth and status, thus it was a barrier to relationships.”

In addition to struggling with the question of identity, Michael faced the harsh reality of the state of the environment. A haunting statistic that stuck with him is that if every nation consumed as much as the United States, it would take five earths to sustain humanity. Where there was excess in America, there were the bulging bellies of starving children in Ghana.

This contrast only deepened when he attended a conference about climate change. At the conference, he learned that while the continent of Africa only contributes three percent of global emissions, they will be most harmed by the changing climate.

For the farmers that he studied, their land was their life. But upon his return home, he saw how differently Americans view and treat the environment.

Trading Despair for Hope

Michael arrived back in the States at Christmas after six months in the developing world. “I was in one universe and I came to another,” he said. Despite his love for the holidays, he couldn’t help but wonder if Isaiah 1 was applicable to our own celebrations. He had to ask himself, “Are our festivals at the expense of the poor?”

And yet this is exactly where Michael wants to be.

“For some reason we have been placed in this time, in the early part of the 21st century. I believe that if there is any theme to my life, it would be to get on my knees and get closer to the earth to discover the human groans that will result from the ignoring and neglecting of the groans of creation.”

Michael does not plan to run away from the suffering of creation. He is studying humanitarian disaster leadership in grad school here at Wheaton and knows that he is entering a field of crisis and disaster where he will be surrounded by despair. “I want to be like Gandalf,” he said with an infectious grin. “I want to be a person who’s experienced the resurrection and has the glimmer of the resurrection in his eye. [I want to have] a calm reassurance, a calm center of hope and resilience and resurrection.”

For him, the hope of the resurrection and the renewal of Creation is real. James Huff, the associate director of HNGR and Michael’s HNGR small group leader said, “He is a roll up your sleeves and jump in there, figure things out, kind of guy. He really is a joyful person and isn’t freaked out by making a mistake.”

It is easy to panic and despair when faced with the brokenness of our world. Michael has seen this brokenness firsthand, but does not want it to define him– he wants his identity to be shaped by the promise of what is to come.

“[Christians] are a people of hope,” he said with resolution. “True hope and not sad hope.”

As our interview came to a close, Michael said that he wants to be a person of “peace and shalom.” He has not forgotten what a precious gift God has given us in the form of creation. When he watched his host family slaughter the goat and the blood drain into the hole they had dug, he witnessed the “gruesome and holy love of God.”

Food and creation became more sacred in that moment. “With the energy that it gives me, I want to be that more energetic to pursue compassion,” he says.

I walked away from our short conversation energized by Michael’s joy and passion for the world around him. He is not afraid of what lies ahead because his hope rests in the promise of renewal.