The chicken brought tears to my eyes. A sister in the family, the one who had cooked the feast in front of us, held up her nine-month-old baby boy. “He has never seen his homeland,” she said.
The floor mats, on which we sat, were printed with the letters “UNHCR”– the UN Refugee Agency. The family fled to this city to find some respite from the war, but here they are not permitted to work, struggle to get their kids in schools, and strive each month to pay unfair, high rental costs.
And as the sun set, its soft shades visible from the second-story landing we visited, they spread out a sumptuous meal to honor their guests. Chicken, tabbouleh, soup, rice. All prepared with exquisite culinary expertise and offered with hospitable hearts, constant guideposts amidst the crises of war, poverty, and grief.
Earlier that week, a friend and mentor had sent me these words from a Franciscan blessing:
May you hear the whisper of God’s Fatherly voice guiding you to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family of faith.
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you will live deeply and from the heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and the exploitation of people, so that you will work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those that mourn, so that you will reach out your hand to them and turn their mourning into joy.
May God bless you with just enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you will do those things that others say cannot be done.
And, May you know the love, joy and freedom that is your inheritance as the children of the Living God. Amen.
A local pastor fills a truck with small stoves, blankets, mattresses, other relief items…. and a handful of foreign guests. We leave supplies at a few apartments– some decent, some dark. We bring other supplies to tents on the outskirts, tasting the same dust that blows into the faces of those who live there.
Then we stop at a pile of concrete walls with a roof. It may be a house someday, but for now its floor is rubble, its windows and doors empty holes. A dusty, broken couch, floor mats, a woman, and five children occupy one room. A mother of seven lives in the other.
The second woman is on our distribution list for the day. Her oldest, a ten-year-old boy, silently helps carry “welcome kit” items to the room where his family sleeps. Their neighbor was not on the list for today, but when we start unloading supplies for her too, the boy helps– he is bigger, after all, than the oldest of her five children.
“We have only been outside the camp for two days,” the boy’s mother told me. “It was a bad situation. Much illness, very little water, very little food. I was afraid.” She is thin and tall. And she is determined. “I will be renting an apartment soon,” she says.
The women kiss my cheeks and we say goodbye with the blessing of this culture: “God be with you.” I climb in the back of the truck and have nothing left to say.
On the bus ride home to my cozy basement, just a few hours distance, I try to understand what He said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst… those who mourn… the poor.”
I remember the rest: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and glorify God…”
And if, after meeting these displaced families, I am more uncomfortable, angrier at injustice, and crying more over the pain of this world, I hope I can also be a little more of a “fool”– believing, no matter how dark the night seems to be, that there is hope of bringing that light.