Tag Archives: war

Captured

Without a sign of problems, my phone captured moments for me.  Quickly shot photographs of students, friends, meals together, celebrations in the community– if I did not want something to slip through my fingers, I saved it on a memory card.

Until the day it happened.

During Young Leaders’ last class of the semester, the camera application that had been opened to record a group photo– inexplicably– showed only a blank screen.

However, when I pressed the “selfie” button, an awkward reflection of my crinkled forehead, squinted look, and exaggerated chin emerged. I’m not campaigning against selfie-taking, but I’m also not of the generation that is good at them.  My eyes dart to the wrong place, uncertain of their focus.  Moments that I intend to keep crisp and clear in memory translate into images that are distorted and fuzzy.

The quick fix, according to internet rumors, can be easily accomplished at an Apple store… The nearest of these is two countries away.  So for the last few months, my camera has only operated in selfie mode.

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Recorded or not, the moments parade by.  I drink tea at the beach with a young coworker, his new fiancé, and their families.  The five-year-old sister learned somewhere to roll her eyes back, stretch her mouth into a tall “O,” and call herself a zombie, whenever a photograph is being taken.

Her mother scolds, “Your face will get stuck like that!”  But she still does the look during our sunset selfies at the beach… and weeks later, during formal shots at her big brother’s engagement party.

I use an old camera during Young Leaders Winter Camps.  What makes a good leader?  we ask them.  IMG_1150

“A good leader helps the team,” the first student answers.  They learn about setting an example and inspiring change, and watch clips of Martin Luther King, Jr.  They learn about listening, and walk in silence around a bird observatory; if they speak too much, the moment passes, the birds fly to a safe zone.  They learn about perseverance and overcoming challenges, piecing together puzzles, giving speeches in English, and participating in their first team game of paintball.

Guess which of these is their favorite.

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Because my camera was working at that moment.

But I grow weary, attempting to be fully present in these moments, while capturing them with broken tools.  A few times– also inexplicably– my phone camera works normally, including twice out of two dozen times I attempted to use it on a recent trip to a neighboring country.  I take photos out of car windows and in airports, desperately recording things I would not have bothered with if I could have counted on the lens to work always.

 

While my camera is limited in its view, I miss many images: shots of new friends, new foods, tender sunsets and triumphs of ancient artists and architects.  But I also learn to approach things from a new angle.

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Layover in Istanbul turned into touring the Hagia Sophia.

Set the camera up, and then step aside.

Or, even more efficient, point the lens toward the sky.

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Ate at this restaurant just because it had about a thousand of these lamps hanging above the tables.

Some of the most splendid details in these places are only seen when the neck is craned back, eyes lifted to the ceiling.

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“Fireworks,” twenty-year-old Yakub told me.  “That’s what I thought it was, when I heard the first round of bombs go off in the city where I grew up.  I was happy about it.  I was just a kid, and I didn’t understand why everyone was so upset.”

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Tea with Yakub and friends.  But I can’t share their pictures, so… tea.

 

A friend introduced me to Yakub on my first day in this neighboring country– a place with a rich heritage of musicians and poets, but also a destructive legacy of war and the massacre of minorities.  He learned English from X-box games that connected people through the internet.  Yakub’s stories of multiple displacements to different countries, bombings witnessed as a child, and infamous neighbors from his town were delivered with humor and casualness.

 

But his stories of separation from family, homelessness, and interrupted high school dreams were cropped out of his conversation, to be filled in later by my friend.

The next day, I traveled outside of the city to a hotel, where a group was meeting for a retreat and had asked me to lend some music.  Arriving a little before the rest, I went into the meeting room and strapped on the guitar, looking at the green hills that stretched past the picture window.

Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for

To be overcome by Your presence, Lord. 

Holy Spirit, Brian & Katie Torwalt

My voice was catching.  To sing about God’s goodness and His glory, in a land that has experienced genocide and destruction, created a tension in me.  Tension between the knowledge that His presence has been there through the region’s long history, and the grief that many haven’t yet experienced that presence.  IMG_4275

Between the good news that many, like Yakub, are tasting real life, and the sadness that they have felt death bitterly.

Between the green beauty of the mountains, and the knowledge that many fled to them to try to save themselves from guns and gases.

Between the sweetness of singing in this place, where many have sung before, and the knowledge that so many, many have not experienced the reason for our songs.

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I want to see healing come to the people of this nation, wholly and with finality.  I want similarly conclusive results in my own life.  Because I know that brokenness can cause us to miss moments.  It can cause us to be in selfie mode in our pain— eyes uncertain where to look, our own image crowding the frame.  Distorted perceiving of the way things really are, and lower resolution, resulting in less clarity of vision.

Overeager attempts to find something which we can hold.  A job, a relationship, a celebration, any lovely thing that we don’t think will always be there.  We grasp at the grand and the mundane, hoping to capture at least a reflection of them so that we still have something nearby when darkness falls.

But perhaps it isn’t resolution, but tension, that beckons me to step out of the way, and to look up.   Perhaps, even in the darkness, my neck should be craning skyward.

Maybe brokenness invites me to see things from a different perspective.

And maybe it is less about capture, and more about release.

 

 

 

 

Press In

“Do you think we’ve visited long enough?” she asked me, quietly.  Flashed across my friend’s forehead was a wrinkle of concern.  I blinked back my surprise.

Full two hours earlier:  

Nine-year-old Hamza sprinted down the bannister-free stairs and into her arms.  “Miss Joanne!  Miss Joanne!”  His exuberance was equivalent to a winning goal-scorer in a World Cup finals match.

He seized her hand, leading his teacher– and me– proudly up to the second-story apartment (amidst her, “Be careful, Hamza– you don’t want to break your arm again on these stairs”), pausing at its broken-concrete threshold so we could slip off our shoes.  We entered in to kisses from mother, warm welcome from father, shy hello from sister.

Before we could sip the first cup of sweet tea, Hamza– from his position of love and honor at Joanne’s side– asked what they would be doing in school tomorrow.  “You have two more WEEKS of vacation,” Joanne laughed.

Hamza grinned.  “So what are we doing in two weeks?”

Last year, in a community center just a few hours away from my basement apartment, an informal “school” began with Joanne and three other teachers.  They provide free education to 30 displaced children, whose families dwell in apartments across this border town; the concrete of these homes is cold in the winter.  But it is better than the tents of the refugee camps, where most of them started out.  The war not only removed people from their native lands but also ravaged routines, like going to school.  So Joanne’s second-grade class includes students as old as 12.

Others have no place to go.  One mother arrived at the center on “registration day,” seeking help for her household, which included her 15- and 16-year-old daughters.  I asked if they were able to attend a school.  “They have not been in school for a year and a half– since we left home.”  She suddenly began to weep.  “Their future is gone.”

Just like I witnessed last summer, local leaders still fill trucks with mattresses, blankets, gas bottles, stoves, and now heaters.  Then they empty them, little by little, into the homes of the displaced.

IMG_4162One of the leaders, Baha, asked me to come with him for “distribution.”  Culturally, men should try to avoid going by themselves to a female-headed home (culturally, Baha also felt that as a woman i should not lift anything heavier than a blanket into the truck… but that’s a second story).  Many of those who registered for help, like the woman with the teenage daughters, have homes that fit this description; the husbands either remain in war-torn areas, or are dead.  So with another volunteer– to guard the truck while we were inside peoples’ houses– we headed out.

Since the temperatures had lowered in December, the sense of urgency had heightened.  During distribution, whenever we finished emptying a little bit of relief into one family’s home, several new families would gather around Baha to voice their requests.

Their cries would become more urgent, and their bodies press closer, as he climbed into the truck.  “Baha!” “Baha!”  I understood more of their stories than I had last summer: descriptions of the coldness of houses; urgent requests for Pampers or pills or preference over others already registered; reports of the number of children they had at home, in need…

Once in the cab, Baha did the opposite of my expectation: he rolled down the window.

He listened to each of them.  He recorded their needs and phone numbers in a notebook.  And he sang to himself as we drove away, mentally preparing to do it all over again at the next house… as he has been doing for four years.

Back at Hamza’s house, I tried to reassure Joanne that we had visited long enough.  She is hoping to see each of her students during school vacation.  But she knows that most families are not allowed to work; that they are separated from their relational networks; and that presence, that listening, matters.

So she takes her time.

How do you stay full inside when emptying yourself, over and over, into an ocean of want?  How do you listen when the stories pound like waves, individual surges of the same substance, over and over, threatening to wear down or drag under?

Hamza’s mother re-entered with a bag of spongey, pancake-shaped bread.  Half an hour more.  She filled a dish with thick cream and sugar.  Then she showed Joanne and me how to put a spoonful of filling in the middle of each pancake, crimping the edges by pressing them together.  “You have to seal it completely,” she cautioned us.

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My word for this year is “full.”  A week up by the border, and I am reminded that the only way to stay full is to press in deeply.

Because as I learned making this dessert… if you don’t fully press in, all you make is a mess.

Radical Welcome

“We long for the land,” she said. “The soil of home.” Anise chatted with us in the sitting room, one hand cradling a cup of coffee, the other steadying her infant daughter. Her parents had fled war in a neighboring country, when Anise was not much older than her baby is now.

Her identity is bound up in a land she only knows through her family’s stories, of Palestine.

Zaina, the hostess, carried heaping dishes of tabbouleh, vegetables, and hand-made pastries into the sitting room from the kitchen, which doubles as a bedroom for her two children. She sat down and listened as Anise’s stories continued. “My cousin tried to visit our homeland to see his mother before she died. They delayed him at the border for four days. When he got through, she was gone. Grief was strong. He had a stroke, and he has been paralyzed since.”

Anise retold her stories of woe and hunger for homelands with a flair that, from the surface, bordered on cheerfulness. She introduced us new listeners to her decades-old tales with great animation. Zaina’s face, however, grew cloudy, then dark. She burst into tears and ran into the kitchen.

Gathering tissues, Anise said to us in a matter-of-fact tone: “She fled Syria only eight months ago. It’s difficult. We all long for our lands.” And she went to the kitchen to pursue Zaina.

My second-story view this week is from an apartment in the United States, where I am staying with good friends. We are grieving the transition of a beloved woman of faith from this life to the next. Her husband sent me a text in the weeks leading up to her death, letting me know specifically that he was praying for me.

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Upside-down, isn’t it? The displaced being hosts. The grieving giving prayers. The wounded bringing wholeness. Since moving eight months ago, I have become an adult who needs to re-learn communication; a member separated from a body; an extroverted person who spends great portions of time in quiet.

It’s changing my perspective.

There is this story about giving food to the hungry, drink to those who thirst, a visit to those in prison, and a home to the lonely. Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” In this upside-down time, I’ve been starting to see this story through the lens of the “least of these.”

For I was hungry for companionship, and an Arab family asked me to spend every night of their holidays with them, eating and playing games. I was thirsty for knowledge of the language, and new friends patiently repeated themselves until my mind was sated, unable to hold more. I was sick, and the women in the community center’s wellness program offered seven different cough remedies. I was a stranger to their country and their language, and they kept pouring coffee and urging me to eat more, kept insisting that I remain with them.

Last month, a family of Syrian refugees invited some friends and I to their home. From the second story of an apartment building on the border, they have watched and waited more than a year for stability to return to their homeland. Over the elaborate meal they fed us, we asked them about rent and employment and heard the story that had become familiar: high rental costs, no jobs.

Back at Zaina’s, while Anise was comforting her in the kitchen, I had thought about the night before.  I had been alone in my house, crying out homesick and longing for my own “land.” And I realized that with my decision to move here, I was sensing some type of hunger, thirst, and what it meant to be alone– and that Zaina, and my other friends who have been displaced by war and division, experienced that pain with much less choice and a far greater depth.  Yet they were the ones feeding me, helping me learn the language, and inviting me into their families.

I carry them in my heart for these days that I am visiting in the United States. They exist on the borders, uncertain of rent but offering a meal to strangers. They bear longing and even pain– for lost soil, for absent loved ones– and still look up, seeing those around them who hunger and thirst.

Even when my soul thirsts– when I grieve– when everything feels unsettled– will I extend a radical welcome?

On Waiting for the Story’s Ending

Sleep refused to come.  It’s possible that it was because of the evening visit to wish my friends Eid Mubarak, a blessed holiday, as they finished 30 days of Ramadan fasting.  A short visit, with “simple” hospitality– which meant only two cups of coffee, a cup of tea, a glass of soda, and sugary holiday cookies known as ma’amoul.

I shifted pillows, counted out deep inhales and exhales, listened to the 4:30 a.m. call to prayer sound from the neighborhood mosque.

And then I wondered if my restlessness was because of you.  You, the friend from home, whose deep struggle I heard about just before bed.  You, the family I recently met, striving to make life work with newly adopted daughters, separated from them by heart-sickening delays.  You, Palestine… and you, Israel.  You, Iraq and you, Syria.

You, ISIS.  You, politicians.  You, Hamas.  You, reporters and re-posters and you, you who haven’t watched or heard or read the news in recent weeks.

Me, sharing these words to you, and running the risk of adding noise without insight.  I don’t know where your situation is going, but I’m going to risk it for this reason: I think I know a place to start.

A friend of mine wrote a book called “The Power of Mentoring.”  He retells the story of the prophet Elijah, tracing his history backwards.  On Mt. Carmel, fire fell and a multitude saw God’s power demonstrated.  Before that, however, Elijah camped by a brook alone during a desolate time, with birds delivering him meals twice each day.  Next he invited one woman– a widow about to starve– to join him in trusting God for daily bread, and later for life to be restored to her dead child.  He went to Carmel AFTER faith had grown in those quiet places.

I visited a fifty-person fellowship earlier in the month.  This anonymous congregation, ten years ago, had noticed local needs and decided to live out His love.  They asked.  They visited.  They brought aid.  When war came close to them, they were on one of the main escape routes through which people fled suffering.  The fellowship kept asking, visiting… loving.  Today, this small congregation has served thousands of displaced, and local, families.

They receive grants from organizations as varied as Samaritan’s Purse and the European Union.  They are consulted by governments and other-faith groups, because they were loving the region before the eyes of the world were on them.

They did not, however, start by reading an article called, “Ten Steps for Responding to a Refugee” or “Three Things to Say to the Suffering.”

They started by loving those in front of them.  In the upheavals of this time, when I think of you and can’t sleep– broken people, beloved people– I pray that love abounds for you.  I pray it rescues you from the destructiveness and darkness that plague us, and ushers you into light.

And I pray today that we are saved from the allure of delay, and the inoculation that comes from information laced with disengagement.

Love the people who are in front of you.  The ones close are often hardest, and acknowledgment may not be present.  Love strongly anyway.  Love daily, without waiting for a crisis to prompt your action.  Love widely, keep your heart soft when you watch the news or receive the updates.  I don’t know where it will go from there… but let’s begin.

Rest comes with surrender.  I fell asleep as dawn broke, accepting the fact that I am unwilling to wait until I know its end before I begin the story.