Sunday, April 23, 2006
Every morning I shut off my alarm about six times, pull my ear plugs out of my ears, untangle myself from my mosquito net, roll over and somewhere in there ask God to give me the people he wants me to help that day. Some of us like to call them “divine appointments.” Beth Moore likes to call them “God stops,” but whatever one calls them it’s a moment when we recognize the gravity of a person entering our life and another layer of meaning behind our simple encounter. That maybe, just maybe God had a purpose in mind we can see partially revealed.
The first week I spent alone in Rwanda I wanted to run away. You look at the immensity of poverty, emotionally, physically and spiritually long enough, square in the face, and it threatens to take your whole soul. But this was what I wanted. I wanted to travel to the world’s darkest places and bring my little lantern of light. Like that children’s song I used to sing in church, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine…” I was determined to make some difference. I think humanitarian work comes in phases. Disillusioned dreams, disappointment, despair, and determination. The alliteration just sort of happened. The world is full of two kinds of people—those who run towards drama and those who run away from it. You can guess which of the two I am.
Dreams are often not the same kind of dreams in reality. One month and I was wondering if I was crazy. At first the aloneness sounded strong and brave. I could see the headlines now, “Young woman travels to Uganda and ends the war.”
I used to daydream of Africa, her sandalwood smell. My dad used to pack us like groceries into the back of his beat-up suburban, drive through dawn until he hit the coast and the pungent smell of sea-salt and fish. We used to get chased by crabs scurrying sideways, running into the sand with screams. I wondered if I got his wanderlust. His pick up and go heart. I wondered if I was a leaver. Maybe I still do.
But sucking away at the rock that will not yield water is exacting. I began to feel as though I didn’t know why I had come at all.
The first time I felt something like myself again, some small bird soar inside me, some shiver sift through me in recognition—as if I had finally found a cause, was when I began to hear the women’s stories and see them appear on the page in words. I felt in my heart, “Yes, this is it.” Like I felt the first time I brought bread to a group of street children. I had passed them by for days, just trying to make it through the barrage of voices, and trailing feet, the same kids always begging, “Mama, please.” They would put their dirty hands to their mouths as if I were some white savior, Mother Teresa coming to save them from their life of open hands. They tugged at me. They broke my heart and yet I’d been told not to give them money for fear of them using it to get high. Glue over food to dull the pain of existence. Eight years old and they already have some tragedy to numb.
One night I couldn’t stand it anymore. I didn’t care if I was overrun by a herd of shoving children. I’d heard the way hunger turns us into animals. Survival of the fittest, but it just didn’t matter. I went to the store and bought a bag of rolls. I distributed them with a friend until the bag was empty and then an amazing thing happened. They ran and got their friends. Even a pack of wolves is a family. They take care of their own. So I bought more bread. Good thing it’s cheap here. I felt that verse rise in my belly, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Jesus with a kid on each knee. That’s how I think of him. I felt it then—the great joy God must take in feeding his children. One of the most precious moments I’ve had here was watching them shovel bread into their mouths with rapacious greed. I wanted to remember it when the heaviness of overwhelming need got to me, so I had them pose for a picture. Like a soccer team they gave their thumbs up and laughed when I showed them what they looked like. For the first time in a while, I felt alive again. It made me feel that we start where we can. I gave a bag of bread even though I can’t take them home. And it’s something. I’m not Jesus, but I’m something like it to them. I can’t save the world. But I for damn sure can buy a loaf of bread.
This week I have been writing and listening to survivor’s stories. I have never in my life heard such pain. It is a pain with such texture, with so much grit and severity that you can actually feel it inside your skin. It’s like a broken knee that still throbs sometimes when the rain comes. The pain--it’s so deep. And understandable. Women saw their entire families murdered in front of them. I try to imagine it. I try and I feel sick.
One woman’s story moved me a little more than the rest. And it wasn’t because of what happened, because their stories often sound so much the same, but it was because of where she is now. After managing to live through rape, almost being killed, and the death of her family, with nowhere to go she ended up with a man who beats her. I’ll change her name for safety purposes. Her perpetrators have since been released from prison. But Harriet says in her own words:
Sometimes he comes and he throws 200 Francs to me to buy food,(not even 50 cents) but mostly my friends help me. He wants me to remain in the house. He spits at me and says I’m a rat.
Whatever he does, I just pray to God and God brought me back here. I feel I won’t die though I think of committing suicide. When he beats me I think of my family, my mom and my dad. I don’t know how they died, but I heard they were thrown in a toilet. If I refuse to sleep with him, he beats me. I have nowhere to go. I ask him, doesn’t he like himself? He wants to die and for me to give him AIDS. Every night he has to come demanding sex. He comes home when he’s drunk. He doesn’t give me food and finds me at night when I am so tired.
Even if I could just get somewhere, like a small house, or a toilet. Even if I get a job washing clothes for people. That is my only wish.
I have always felt that if we see someone in need and if it is within our power to meet that need, and we don’t, then we are guilty of a sin that displeases God more than any other. Angela, one of the missionaries who left two weeks ago, said the same thing to me and it really stuck with me.
Today Harriet moved into her own house. She has a mattress, and a wash basin, and some cooking pans. After feeding her lunch, I watched her son, Christian, smile for the first time. I was beginning to think he just didn’t like me. And I was like, this is unreal, kids love me J But he was hungry and wouldn’t smile. This afternoon he kept laughing when I played peek-a-boo with him. And I realized that he was beginning to feel safe and that his tummy was full maybe for the first time. With a little over a hundred dollars I was able to rent her a house for eight months and get her a few things she needed. It blows my mind that such a small amount could make such a big difference. She has two other little girls who won’t have to watch their mom get beaten now. The house is far enough away that her husband won’t find her, but not so far that she can’t still attend her community meetings at Rwanda Women’s Network. It was important to me that she be able to still stay connected to a support network. But I’d ask you to pray for a spiritual family for her and that her children would be able to go to school for free.
I took a step of faith and so did she. She trusted me and I am trusting God to provide the rest of what she and I both need. I don’t know what will happen in these next eight months, but I’m hoping that God is using me for some bigger vision of providing shelter for these women. To build a small house here costs maybe $2,000. In comparison with what we make and what we spend, that is so small. I’m hoping for much bigger.
In each place I go, I see more needs. I know before the end of this, more situations will come up that will ask more than I have. There is an attitude here that “There are so many more like that one. You can’t just help one.” And I don’t imagine it will stop with her, but we have to respond to the one who is in front of us. That is the one we are responsible for. Money just runs through me because every time I think I have nothing to give I realize that even though I have little, I still have more than they do. And it’s really freeing just to let it go.
Pastor Sangwa, who has basically been my family here, helped us so much today. He drove us around and didn’t let me get cheated because I’m white He is a pastor who carries the troubles of so many that I wonder how he even stands. After I leave here, he will be the one to shoulder that burden alone. So please pray for him and that God would give me wisdom on how to help him.
Those of you back home are just as much a part of this. You helped me get here and you believed in my vision. When we leave here, we will have kept one woman safe in a home with her three children, and two other friends (Pendo & Emile) in school. And it’s just the beginning.
(Harriet's two kids--Christian didn't smile at all the first time but now he is smiling)
I have been reading in Nehemiah where he asks God to send him back to his people to rebuild Jerusalem. I think it has significance for Rwanda:
“And they said to me, ‘the remnant there I the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed.’ As soon as I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying, before the God of heaven. And I said, ‘O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel, your servants, confessing their sins…They are your servants and your people who you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand, give success to your servant today and grant him mercy in the sight of the king…And I said to the king, ‘if it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor, send me to Judah to the city of my father’s graves, that I may rebuild it.’” Nehemiah 1:3-6, 11, 2:4