African Leaders Summit

Earlier this month, our nation and president hosted more than 40 African heads of state in Washington, DC. This was the largest summit of its kind, intended to strengthen ties between Africa and the US. There were many discussions surrounding trade, energy, food security and innovation.


To our surprise, Jars of Clay and I were invited to participate in the kick-off event for the summit, which was focused on the role of faith-based organizations working in Africa. Jars was asked to play music as part of the program; I was invited to sit on the panel to discuss the role of faith organizations working in Africa.

In a room full of members of Congress, US government officials and African ambassadors, nobody really knew much about us. In fact, I was a last-minute addition to the panel after much deliberation. I don't blame them—the other panel members were established people like the South African Ambassador to the US, and the moderator was the Senior Director of the National Security Council. I'm sorry—Blood:Water who?

Washington isn't used to having a band in their meetings or an unknown person on their stage. But I'm proud of what we contributed to the kick-off of this historic gathering. The Jars of Clay guys picked a perfect set, and their song Oh My God stopped the room. The lyrics spoke to so many people there. The room paused before clapping. It had tapped something deep.


A lively discussion on the panel followed the band. I felt small sitting among such significant people. But I just tried to stay faithful and honest in my answers. And then at the close of the panel, the moderator looked over at me and said, "Jena, as a young leader, I think it's appropriate that you be the one to provide the final remarks for our time together."

I looked out at the room of important people. I think I forgot to breathe.

I don't remember exactly what I said, but it had to do with letting the young leaders of Africa be the champions. I know so many creative, hard working, compassionate individuals across Africa. I think it's our job to believe in them, invest in them, raise them up and let them be the heroes of their communities. Let's do our best in partnering with them and then move to the sidelines and cheer them on along the way. I was simply sharing Blood:Water’s values—the heart of why we choose to partner with Africans to address these complex issues of HIV/AIDS and water.

It struck a chord with people. Administrator Shah came over to thank me for what I said. (BTW, he's a remarkable person—41-years-old and running USAID's $22 BILLION operation—dang)!


As I think more about it, I am reminded that inspiration goes a long way. Stories, lyrics, ideals, moral imagination. That's just as important as the grandiose; sometimes it's most important. Let us continue to embrace the stories of our friends in Africa, to immerse ourselves in the lyrics that call us to greater vision, and to contribute to the larger narrative of which we get to be a part.