African Great Lakes – February 15, 2018
Thoughts upon my return from Africa
By Anne M. Hutchinson, AGLI Publicist
I had never danced in church before. I knew, of course, that some Friends dance in worship. I had participated in worship at the Friends World Committee for Consultation Plenary in Peru in 2016, during which some African Friends danced, but I didn’t feel comfortable joining them. I had arrived in Kigali very early on that Sunday morning and settled into my room at about two a.m. Exhausted from the journey, I had not planned on attending worship that day. However, as the sun rose higher in the sky, and I heard people moving about, I woke up despite myself. Then, I heard a sound I couldn’t quite identify. Little by little, I realized that it was the musicians and the chorus rehearsing for service in the Friends compound. Something told me to get up and join in, and I did. I walked the short distance from my room, slipped into church, was escorted to a seat, and followed the service. When the congregants rose, sang, and danced, I held the songbook and did my best to follow along. And soon, my spine and my limbs followed too, as the joyous worship music enveloped the sanctuary.
During my month in Africa I saw first-hand some of the challenges that face the region: urbanization, overpopulation, overfarming, and political upheavals. I visited a number of Africa Great Lakes Initiative programs and sites and met with coordinators, leaders, volunteers, and participants. I spent time in Kigali and Musange. I met Congolese peace workers in Rubavu, and I spent time in Bujumbura in Burundi. I visited Healing and Reconciling Our Communities programs, Innovations in Peacemaking Burundi, Friends Peace House, Friends Women’s Association, and Children’s Peace Libraries. I visited the Genocide Memorial and Museum in Kigali, where cried and prayed. I also visited Quaker churches and schools, where I talked with congregants, worship team members, and pastors, teachers, headmasters, and students. I met people in homes, restaurants, and in villages. I was so impressed by the important work that AGLI is doing in helping to bring about peace and reconciliation among survivors of genocide, in promoting health and education, and in combating the effects of gender-based violence, among a few of its initiatives. I was moved by the dedication and persistence of the peace artisans despite the obstacles they encounter.
While I was in Africa, I often reflected on the words of Matthew 5:3, the first of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” When one thinks of poverty, one normally thinks of physical poverty, the lack of goods and resources. However, poverty can appear in numerous forms: physical, educational, moral, emotional, social, spiritual, to name a few. In Africa, I encountered material poverty in ways I had not before: in the faces of mendicants, in the high rate of unemployment, in a simplified lifestyle in which things I take for granted on a daily basis are not always available or not easily accessed. Things that might be only unpleasant in a Western context can be life-threatening in other contexts, for example, a mosquito bite. For me in the past, that had been a mere annoyance. In Africa, it was a real and present danger. And things which are available, even to many of the poor in the West, can be scarce in developing countries: clean water, hot water, the diverse offerings of a supermarket. In a similar fashion, things which may seem merely fortunate in one culture can seem to be miraculous in another.
In Africa, I also met persons of great faith who inspired me by example, persons who have lived through loss and hardship and forgiven those who had wronged them. Returning to the Beatitude, to be poor in spirit does not mean lacking in spirit or courage, but, rather, admitting one’s spiritual poverty, possessing humility, and having a willingness to continue to grow spiritually. These are qualities which enable one to attain the kingdom of heaven.
This verse in the Beatitudes has an Old Testament antecedent in Psalm 34:18, which reads: “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” This is a verse that was a comfort to me again and again when I was in grief at the loss of my son almost five years ago. It seemed to me at times that God was very distant from me, when in fact God was near, in one form or another, in matters great and small; in the presence of others, in their lovingkindness and understanding. I needed these reminders from Scripture in my times of difficulty. Indeed, God is available to us and seeks us out through God’s Word, God’s creation, and the presence of others, be they family, friends, or strangers.
This seems like ages ago, before many things were to change in my life. I had a friend named Peggy, and one of her pastimes was walking, which is also one of mine. We had met through mutual friends, in my small city where nothing is very far from anything else, exchanged phone numbers, and chatted on the phone a few times. Once, she invited me to walk in the park with her. We had a pleasant, leisurely stroll in a local park. We walked the circuitous paths past the baseball and football fields, the gazebos, the central building on whose corners dangled hanging baskets of vividly colored fuchsia petunias. It was spring. We chatted of this and that. Not long after, she was diagnosed with a fast-spreading cancer. She pursued chemotherapy until it was clear that it would not be effective. Finally, she chose to spend her final days at home being cared for by her loved ones, with assistance from the local hospice. I received a Christmas card from her that year. And a few days later, I received a phone call from another friend, saying that Peggy was close to passing, and that anyone who wanted to say goodbye should try to visit her that day, and so I went. It was a privilege to be able to spend a few hours with Peggy, among several of her other friends, as she gently departed. We took turns softly talking to her, stroking her muscles, gently washing her. She was heavily sedated, but we sensed that she knew we were with her. Once, she let out a sharp cry, and her son soothed her, saying, “Ma, it’s okay.”
Afterwards, her son came and opened the window of her room. Her sister softly donned Peggy’s slippers. We sat down to a light meal of the vegetable soup her sister had prepared. Later, her son showed me an entry in a little notebook Peggy had kept at the time. She had written the date and the words “I walked with Anne and it was good.” This short sentence, in its simplicity, meant more to me than almost any compliment I have received. I am grateful for the gift of her life and the time I was able to share with her.
Accompanying each other, walking together through happiness and hardships, is one of the greatest gifts we can give each other in this fleeting, ephemeral life, in which we can, with God’s grace, strive together for a more permanent life. Sometimes the burdens we carry seem to be impossible, but sharing our burdens and tasks can ease the load. When you and I walk together, there is a third who walks with us, which is the opening of the Holy Spirit. There are different forms of happiness and sorrow, but in accompanying each other and listening deeply, we can gain appreciation and compassion for each other’s joys and struggles. What does it mean to walk together? It means to live as Jesus Christ did, to “abide in him,” as in 1 John 2:6. John goes on the write of the new commandment to love and to set aside hate. He reminds that whoever hates a brother or a sister lives in the darkness, while whoever loves lives in the light. It’s natural to love those who are like us and who have similar backgrounds and beliefs. It’s not so easy to love those who are different from us. If we live in darkness, as John says, we will be blind. The analogy is a powerful one.
Who are our brothers and sisters? Are they only our family, our kin, our neighbors, those of our town, city, country, or faith group? Or do we live in a global family? Indeed, who is easier to love and to forgive, someone who is biologically kin to me, or someone who is a stranger? It is not an easy matter to live in community, and there are disagreements between family members that sometimes last a lifetime.
I’ve heard it said that, in Japan, broken ceramics are more highly valued than new ones. The damaged edges are assembled and cemented together, incorporating precious metals, sometimes gold. This practice is a striking contrast to the throwaway consumer society of the West which values the new over the old, the young over the old, technology over tradition. It is a tradition that acknowledges experience, wisdom, and tradition in transforming something beautiful into a new shape. In a similar way, it seems to me that brokenness—whether at the personal, community, or global level–can be the gateway to spiritual growth, which enhances our own lives and that of the community. I believe that one may need to pass through a period of brokenness to arrive at a state of spiritual maturity. Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian philosopher, wrote “In his failure, the believer finds his triumph.” Our failures and sins can be the paving stones towards acceptance of our dependence on God and submission to His will. In a state of loss and despair, one can acknowledge one’s true relationship with God, our Creator, and surrender to God’s will. As we reach our full humanity, we can be united in the full joy which unites us all and excludes no one.
The accumulation of sorrow and trauma, whether our own, witnessing that of persons close to us, or hearing about it third-hand by word of mouth or the media, can sometimes cause us to lose the ability to grieve or to have compassion for others. There is a phenomenon called compassion fatigue, typically experienced by professionals who work with traumatized persons. As these persons listen to stories of trauma and see and treat the effects of trauma again and again, they become desensitized to it. It is my belief that prayer, spiritual growth and renewal, and the experience of joy are necessary guards against the mental weariness which can prevent one from truly feeling, caring, and loving.
When I participated in an HROC training in Burundi, I rose to share with the group something about my experience of loss, speaking of my grief at the death of my son. I related that I have learned that an aspect of my healing—which is not to negate in any way the necessary grief work that I had to do—was to be open to and to incorporate new and positive things into my life. I participated in grief support groups and I met with a bereavement counselor. Both of those experiences were invaluable to me. And healing from such a loss is a long process, and it is one that is not necessarily linear. My time spent in prayer, Scripture reading, silent meditation, and service to others are also helping me heal. When I walk in the forest and take in its beauties with my senses, when I look at the geometry and the colors of a flower, when I see God’s creation in its abundance, I feel consolation and courage, knowing that God’s work of creation and enabling creation continues. No one and nothing will ever replace my son. But I am convinced that God has put new people in my life for me to love and care about, and given me new gifts and joys. If I hadn’t had the patience to live through the worst of my grief, those people and those experiences would not be there for me today. One doesn’t have to dwell forever in a state of despair and brokenness, indeed, one should not.
After I shared my story at that workshop, one of the participants said that as a Barundi, she had felt that only Barundi had gone through such grief and trauma. Grief can turn us into silos. It is easy think that we are the only ones who are suffering. In Rwanda and Burundi, as I made friends, we asked each other, as people naturally do, about each other’s families. I told of the death of my son. Many people told me of the death of multiple family members: fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, children, sometimes of whole families. Many young people talked about growing up without fathers, and of how their lives might be better, their futures might be more promising if they had fathers. I related how difficult it was for me to see young men achieving milestones in their lives which my son would never achieve: having birthdays, graduating from university, getting married, having children. One woman sat with me and embraced me and wept gently when I told her about my son. Later, she said to me firmly, affectionately, “je t’aime beaucoup.”
Guilt and shame, as well as sorrow, can cause one to feel alone and isolated. It is normal and natural to feel guilty for having done something wrong, and it is imperative to repent, make amends, and change one’s ways. But to experience shame is to feel that one as a person is bad, that one is a defective person. Despite our broken state, whether we are the griever or the perpetrator, or both, we must realize that we are beloved children of God and never far from God’s mercy and grace.
If we are to participate in the healing of the world, we must find common ground. We must appreciate each other’s struggles and aspirations. We must tell our stories to each other because telling stories can help to heal, not just ourselves but also the person who listens. And, we must forgive. We must cultivate compassion and forgiveness, including for ourselves.
Among Friends in East Africa, I found wisdom, welcome, hospitality, and agape, Christian love, for which I am so very grateful. I returned home filled with hope and with a sense of lightness and healing.
In the words of Ezekiel 36:26: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” May God heal our wounds, give us new hearts, and bestow his blessings on us.
© Copyright Anne M. Hutchinson 2018
Photos provided by the author