Tuesday, February 1, 2011

dirty stories

Some time ago, there was a guest speaker who came to the church that I used to attend back at home. I can't remember his name, home town or ethnic affiliation, but he was a Rwandan man who was interviewed by the pastor so that he might share his memories and observations from his life at home in 1994. All of us listeners were deeply struck by how patiently and quietly he told his gruesome and horrifying story of watching his loved ones be tortured to death and the place he grew up burned to the ground. The point of his tale wasn't to evoke pity or indignation, but to demonstrate how one man was able to find forgiveness and life lessons from this awful period of his life. His voice was sad and calm as he spoke of his past anger and his present peace, while all of us in the audience sat with gaping mouths and moist eyes. He explained that while we was (understandably) upset to say the least, he realized that as a survivor, he must not only honor the dead but also respect the living. Through his experience, he slowly began to forgive his enemies for what they did to his family, to forgive his kin for their hand in the violence, to forgive himself for not doing more to stop what happened, and most importantly to forgive God for letting it all unfold.

His profound story put me to shame. I thought of all of the insignificant ways I get easily angered, such as when my hurried time in a hectic schedule isn't acknowledged by others. And I remembered each of the times that I've struggled to forgive people, such as when I'm cut off in traffic or in front of in a long line at the supermarket. Needless to say, the burdens of my life pale in comparison to those of this Rwandan man. But I tucked this man's story into a little pocket of my heart and carried it with me to Mozambique. Upon my arrival here a few months ago, I was thinking of how this continent is filled with other stories like the guest speaker's that portray violence, marginalization, suffering and epic catastrophes. Mozambique alone has held its share of heartache with reoccurring droughts and famines, widespread extreme poverty and the decades-long civil war. Now, given the facts that I'm not 146 years old and have grown up in middle class America, I cannot share these manifestations of pain in the forms of civil war and hunger.

However, my life lessons here have given me my own crosses to bear. I have gotten livid when forced to pay more for bananas than the woman next to me because of my accent and skin color. I have been offended when my former host mother told me that I'm not a real woman because I'm American and don't have to work for anything. And I have had my little world turned upside down by a few wrong turns and a misunderstanding turned violent. I thought, oh no, I can't forgive because I'm too angry and far too offended and much too hurt.

Last week I was walking down the street on an exceptionally hot day, which made the odors from the dumpers I was passing particularly pungent. I started to wrinkle up my nose, my face involuntarily wore an expression of disdain and I sped up my stride to get past them quicker. But suddenly, the idea of honor the dead, respect the living popped into my head. Trash isn't exclusive to Mozambique. So therefore it shouldn't be defined by it. Sure, in this country death has come riding on the raindrops, as a result of feuding politics and through decaying diapers and mango rinds in garbage heaps. But while I acknowledge the death, there must be some drive to support the living. I realized that even if I hurried my walking to get past the uncomfortable situation faster, it doesn't fix the problem, or the fact that there might be something useful or teachable in all that smelly grossness. And if I really want my life to sing “This Is My Father's World” and believe that I'm spoken to everywhere, then God's domain needs to include these trash dump situations.

This leaves me in a tight tension of wanting to run through rustling grass and dwell on pretty things, while also recognizing that this world, this country, this street is laden with brokenness, pain and decay. It was somewhere in this tedious balance and the methane fumes from the littered sidewalk that I put down my sword and shield and forgave those who had done me wrong. The forgiveness process wasn't fun and it didn't feel good to be ripped apart in order to be built back up. But I can breathe a little bit easier, and now I don't take the smell of the fresh, nooma-living air for granted anymore. If true living means forgiveness, then I guess that's what it takes to bring some life to these dead, trashy situations of our world.