By Hilda Bih Muluh, author of The Girl with Special Shoes.

When you think of a leader, strength comes to mind. People want a strong leader. They want someone who has everything together and under control. But today, I am going to talk about leaning into weakness.

Many of us did not feel strong in the face of a global pandemic. We no longer had control of our circumstances – our organizations, our health, our family, our finances, and ultimately our destiny. The pin pricked the bubble. Normally powerful and competent, we were reminded of our weakness and our inability.

I may be an unlikely person to stand – or sit – on this stage, but when it comes to weakness and inability, I am an expert.

At an early age, I developed a progressive disability. It chipped away at the strength in my muscles reducing what physical ability I had. It eroded my mobility leaving me in a place where I never wanted to end up in, this wheelchair. For much of this time, my family and I did everything in our power to keep my weakness at bay. We went to hospitals, stayed in witch doctors’ huts, and visited faith healers at crusades. I drank and ate ineffable things, but, as you can see, we still didn’t win the fight.

Often, our first response to weakness is to fight it frantically. We try to fix it. We try to regain the control we have lost. Part of the reason is that we are ashamed of our weakness.

Now, I am grateful and proud of my vibrant culture, which cherishes life and joyously celebrates family across many generations. But, where I grew up in Cameroon, our culture also turned its back on anyone who looked different or lived with an impairment, that is, anyone like me. Even today, in many places in Africa, a child with a disability is seen as a bad omen, maybe a curse from the spirit world, with no potential. Such children are not seen as worth investing in. Some families work very hard to keep their relatives with disabilities in the shadows, while others go as far as killing their children.

Of course, that is an extreme, but how often are we afraid of weakness? How far would we go to hide the shameful parts of ourselves?

My culture tried to tell me I was worthless, but my family refused to buy into the cultural narrative. I was blessed to be born into a family that not only accepted but celebrated me. My parents saw me as a beautiful child and loved me deeply. They saw lots of potential in me to the extent of sacrificing so much for me to get an education. I remember some people asking my parents why they wasted their time carrying me on their backs to school every day, since I did not have a wheelchair then.

As I grew older, rather than appreciate my family, I started to feel ashamed for being carried around like a baby when really, I should have been in control of my body. I was almost beginning to think like the people who wanted to stop my parents from carrying me to school. I lost a desire to keep going. When I considered such a life of shame and disability ahead of me, I thought I’d be better off dead. But even when I tried to kill myself with a blunt knife, my hands were too weak.

When we are at our weakest, the voice of shame seems overpowering. We feel helpless and hopeless. We see clearly that our future is not in our control.

One of the most difficult things about disability is the loss of control it imposes on you. You may think that after about forty years of living with a weakening body, I’d be used to it. Whether it be to turn in bed at night, to brush my teeth, eat, drink, use the bathroom, I still find myself pausing, taking deep breaths before calling out for help. Admitting my weakness is still hard, but it is the first step.

Think of Moses, whom God called to deliver his people from Egypt. There were an estimated 2.5 to 3 million people. Add to that number animals, household items, crossing the Red Sea on foot, a powerful hostile army after them, walking for hundreds of miles in desert weather – and Moses was the one called to lead them! The good thing is that Moses confessed his weakness to God from the very moment He called him. The fact that God still chose to use him was God’s way of telling Moses, “Relax, lean on me, and watch me do this mighty thing through you.” We see Moses constantly returning to the Lord, depending on Him and in the process becoming transformed into the humblest man on earth (Numbers 12:3). I cannot think of a more noble title for a leader than “Friend of God”, and Moses attained it by depending on God and being transformed in his weakness.

It is in that exact moment of being overwhelmed by our inadequacy; when we reach out to someone stronger than us and can help us. When we admit we are not in control, we can surrender to the God, who is truly in control. Ask yourself, what if your weakness is an invitation to surrender?

When I was at my lowest, I came upon the verse about God working for the good of those who had been called according to his purpose. I got saved and my perspective began to shift. I began to see that my weakness was not just a problem to overcome, but a part of my purpose.

Graduation day with my brother, Elvis.

I saw how my pain had a purpose on the day I graduated from university. It was a beautiful morning. A long terrace led to the ceremony grounds and people singled me out for special congratulations. I received gifts and bouquets of flowers from people who were total strangers to me. I remember one man, himself limping with one paralyzed leg, bursting through the crowd to press a coin into my palm, a widow’s mite of sorts. “God bless you,” he said, “you are an encouragement to many people.” His words moved me deeply because, as the only person in a wheelchair for most of my school life, I sometimes wondered if it was worth the trouble. I was not only a young girl losing mobility in a culture that frowned upon it, I was also losing my identity, wondering how to find my way in this big crazy world. Here I saw a glimpse of purpose. 

The years after graduation came with another big hurdle as getting employment for a person with disability was unthought of. Eventually, I was recruited as a broadcaster with the national radio and television service of my country. To my surprise, this news generated euphoria in my community and beyond. Many people, who until now had only considered disability a curse, could see here that a person with a disability could get a prestigious job. I got to help challenge the perception of disability in my country, and I took every opportunity on air to lift up other people with disabilities. The Lord was helping me own the weakness I had considered shame, using it to inspire and uplift other people.

We seek to always hide or fix our weakness, but when we own our stories, we can begin to change the narrative. God can use us to fulfil a purpose, often times greater than what we ever dreamed of. Often though, God’s trajectory is very different from what we plan.

After a few years of working with the national broadcasting service, it became impossible for me to continue because I was in a big city with huge problems of accessibility. My siblings, who had pushed my wheelchair up flights of stairs at work every day, had grown up and were moving away. Life was becoming unbearable. I requested to be transferred to work in my hometown so I could have help from other family members. I felt like a big-time failure. Who leaves the spotlight at the pinnacle of their career to return to parts unknown?

Once again, I thought, my weakness blocks my path. But in fact, this was the route God had planned. Back in my dusty little hometown, I met people who commended my work and encouraged me to apply for the Mandela Washington Fellowship. In 2014, I was selected to be one of young African leaders to take part in President Barack Obama’s program. I got a chance to travel to the United States for the first time where could see new opportunities for persons with disabilities. I had been told my only shot at life, was to be handed to a man older than my father in marriage. And here I was shaking hands with the US president. It was too much!

This handshake was a reward, yet it pales significantly in comparison to the nod of approval, I believe, God almighty gives to anyone who depends on him even in weakness. 

When it comes to embracing weakness, Jesus is our example. As seen in Philippians chapter 2, He became weak and made himself nothing, becoming like one of us. He was born into poverty, homeless, hungry, knocked out by tiredness and thirst, and then, “he endured the cross, scorning its shame.” I ask myself, if the Creator and King of the universe embraced weakness, then who am I not to do the same? Knowing Jesus is helping me understand that my weakness can be a tool that God uses effectively-in my life, in others’ lives, and for His glory. 

It is not easy to lean into weakness. I do not like depending on others, but God is teaching me the beauty of dependence. When I lean on others, I’m ultimately depending on Him. He uses weakness to remind us that we are not enough and we’re not in control. We need others. We need the Lord. When we start by owning our story despite its shame, when we surrender to someone stronger, we will find out that God really does use the broken things, disapproved and despised by the world in amazing ways.

Even as a leader, it is when I am weak that I am strong.

The Girl with Special Shoes is now out! Visit The Girl With Special Shoes to order from Amazon. We have both Paperback and kindle/e-book.

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