Monday, December 13, 2010

Hope Deferred

He has shown you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you.  To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.  Micah 6:8

It was the beginning of what we knew would be a forty hour block of travel time back from a village in Rwanda via Ethiopia, Frankfurt, Dallas and home.   I had done ten hours of teaching for a week at an Africa Regional conference for Africans (heroes to me) who pour their lives out for women in forced prostitution. We went to the largest marketplace in Africa at night, where hundreds of girls and women stand in the shadows, poverty forcing them to wait to be picked for a 30 cent sexual encounter.  We drove... and drove.... and drove.... the sea of precious women set as commodities went on for miles. It rended our hearts in ways I can't describe.  Then Steve and I spent a week of research in Rwanda, him wondering out loud about his experience with infrastructure and how it all might fit with the little African nation with such a brutal past as it rises from the ashes of shame into a true shining example of development and reconciliation.  We went to the high country region of Byumba, near the Ugandan border, where a humble Anglican priest has begun a literal movement of healing through the practice of sociotherapy – groups of ten to twelve individuals who commit to meet together for 15 weeks, for the purpose of healing from war and genocide.  Forget your images of group therapy and even the most powerful counseling prowess -  these are the invisibly bleeding caring for the invisibly bleeding.  One seventy year old grandmother, her leathered face crowned with layers of corn rowed perfection, spoke from the depths as she explained how the group had become medicine to her heart after she lost six children to war and the other four to genocide.  Her burdened existence was made bearable as she received care from a single mother, an orphan and many others in the group whose bodies bore the literal scars of hatred.  The facilitator, once a sociotherapy group member herself, now restored and precise in her facilitation, had a scar on her neck which betrayed the trauma which brought her into the esteemed place of healing. 
All that to say, I was tired.  I didn’t have the energy to engage someone sitting next to me on the plane.  As Steve and I fumbled our way to our frequent flier miles seats in economy class on our first leg of the eternal trip (seasoned international travelers know the ‘augh’ of not being in business class, knees huddled to chest, for hours and hours and hours), I saw her eyes as we sat down and something caught me.  I had been ‘caught’ for two weeks, hearing story upon story in Ethiopia and Rwanda, but this woman’s quiet fragility unnerved me.  She was equator black, as my Nigerian friend Balonle calls it.  She had on a lovely soft pink business suit and she sat with her hands folded, like a nun.  Her jewelry told me she was a well loved woman, but her aloneness puzzled me.  I kept my questions to myself for some time, hours into the flight, actually.  I nuzzled up against my exhausted husband and watched with a certain longing as several American couples struggled to quiet their Ethiopian adopted babies and toddlers to make safe passage to their new homes abroad.  I listened to my ipod.  I watched the customary movie and tv clip.  I snoozed.  And then there were the final two hours before the descent.  Steve and I had declined our meal, so I apologized to this African woman for causing her to eat alone.  Her eyes showed appreciation, and we began to chat.  She was from Burundi.  We talked of our time in Rwanda and the war and tribal blood and religious and colonization complexities and the puzzling and shocking reality of watching your own neighbors kill neighbors, family members killing family members.  She related that her home, just twenty minutes from the Rwandan border in Burundi, had also experienced this strange wave of evil dark.  She had seen things for which she could not speak. She was now a registered nurse who now works in Ottowa, Canada.  We talked of the cold.

And then I heard her story. Not the story of all the atrocities her eyes have taken in, but the story of her current injustice.  Her mother had died two weeks before, she said.  I told her of my mom’s death, and how I only knew that it was impossible for anyone else to know what it means to lose a mother.  Yes, she said.  Her mother died suddenly, and she had to make quick arrangements to fly to the funeral in Rwanda.  Traveling alone, in shock and grief, she suffered what was, for me, the crowning jewel of injustices.  She missed her flight in Europe and was unable to catch another plane until the next day.  This woman had to spend a night in Heathrow, alone and in grief and full of futility.  She arrived in Rwanda the next evening.  Two hours after her mother’s funeral was finished. 
I don’t know what it was about this story but something in me snapped inside.  I thought of a beautiful woman I know who has poured her life out for girls in forced prostitution in a Latin country, only to be raped as she was walking to her comfortable home one day.  I thought of the seventy year old grandmother.   And now a funeral missed – a once in a life time chance to say goodbye in the presence of her community, in the band of union known only to Africans – due to a ten minute distance which closed an airliner door with a thud. This injustice pierced my heart.  Steve and I sat in our sorrow, with her, over her story. Her name was Rose.  She was so kind.  As airline conversations go, she turned her questions to us and we relayed to her the beauty of our friends who are giving up everything to establish organizations and businesses and ministries to intervene for the exploited.  Her grieving heart opened to their stories, and she sat quietly.  As the plane descended Rose said, “I am comforted by our talk." "We are too," we said.

I watched Rose disappear into the crowds as we departed into the transit terminal.  I quietly wondered if moments such as those - communing together in deferred hope, sorrow and the strength which comes from the stories of others - are feast of God.

Monday, November 15, 2010

An Untended Story

No matter what we might think of it, social media is an avenue into clarity.  It is a great way to force us to have to articulate ourselves well, to determine what is important enough to us to do so.  We either engage in it silently and keep our head low, or we venture out and have to say, “Look, this is what I mean.”  I’m having one of those moments.

Like many, my Facebook friends list is a menagerie of current intimate relationships mixed in with friends from the block I grew up on in New Mexico, mixed with high school friends from Trigonometry, college reading group folks and various people from many countries I’ve encountered in my adult life.  It is a mixture of professing followers of Christ, Buddhists, Jews, nominal Christians, agnostics, academic atheists and those practicing a various smattering of contemporary spiritual mixes.

So, each time I desired to post something about a story of forced prostitution and/or the work of folks I care about involved in that realm, or even my own heart and work, I was forced to consider how it would be ‘heard’ by those on my friends’ list.   Would it come across as moralizing?  I realized that many would immediately think of the ‘sex trade’ as a viable if not necessary form of income for the impoverished. For many, when not aware of the coercive and violent nature of how many of the girls are forced into slavery, the term ‘traffiicked’ has helped in recent years to underscore the difference between forced prostitution and the practice or trade of selling sex simply to make a living. Even with that distinction, however, many hear of attempts at intervening in prostitution as either moralizing or a na├»ve intrusion into the private choices of others.   I recognized that there were perhaps men in my list who have, at one point in their life, participated in securing a prostitute.  The spectrum of opinion and impression and unspoken images around the subject would be as varied as, well, the Facebook list.

There’s too much encumbered around the notions and stigmas around prostitution.  That’s okay.  Actually, it is really good.  It allows us to come to the subject the way Christ comes to any subject.  It is not that he refuses to be boxed in, its just that he can't be.   His heart is so intent on the true nature of a person's heart that he speaks of slavery as our condition.  He brazenly stood up in his hometown temple, reading the prophetic scroll of Isaiah and claiming it as a description of himself as the one who would 'heal the broken hearted, and set the captive free' (Isaiah 61).  He not only leveled the playing field for Greek and Hebrew, Male and Female, Slave and Slave Owner, but he makes it clear that our log-fogged eyes can't see clearly just how similar we are to the speck-blinded poor folks we pity.   Another way for us to think of it:  his words are as much for the hardened child porn producer as they are for the eleven year old Cambodian girl taken into an interment camp intended to prepare her for filming.  His words are for organized crime, and for my own heart.   His definition of captivity is comprehensive, it cannot be separated, body from spirit from heart.  Oppression is slavery is bondage is…. our state. 

Last week was a case in point for me.  I (along with thousands of others, apparently) was really grieved when I learned that was selling and promoting a book entitled, ‘A Pedophiles Guide to Love and Pleasure.’  My heart was immediately flooded with the stories of women I’ve had the privilege to walk with in my counseling practice, many of whom have struggled upstream their entire life after being drawn into the conflictual relational nature of child sexual abuse.  And my mind was overwhelmed at the thought of the countless kids who are forced onto the soiled mattresses or pristine silk pillows or suburban couches which are the venues of child exploitation in this age.  I picked up the phone and called to complain.  As I was on hold, waiting to speak to an supervisor, the thought crossed my mind that many would consider what I was doing an affront to freedom of speech.  I knew intellectually that this argument did not hold up, as the book promotes criminal activity, and yet, our culture has become desensitized to the point that ‘live and let live’ often is the stronger choir than intervening on behalf of goodness.   I posted something about the book, and I was off and running in wondering what people might be thinking about it.  It was important enough to post – I really hoped others would call Amazon as well.  Amazon responded to a cavalcade of complaints, and the supervisor I spoke with expressed their own personal horror that the book had slipped through normal decency channels.  I thought to myself, “This is not about decency.  It is about kids.”  But I just said yes and thanked him.   A few days later CNN did a story about this whole thing – the book, the avalanche of opposition, the guy who wrote it.  I was struck when I read how the author of the book spoke of his intentions – to show people they could express love for children in sexual ways.  He referenced his own life and experiences as a child, and my heart broke as I realized this is a man who has a history of sexual abuse himself.  An unnamed, untended to story.  I realized anew the level playing field.  This man needs to be in prison, yet in the same breath that he needs a rescue from the prison he is in.    Just like me.

 ~ Jan Meyers Proett