A Window Into the Heart of God
In June I found myself in Mumbai, India. I was traveling with a recent college graduate who was interning with Wellspring International for the summer. As the humanitarian arm of RZIM, Wellspring provides financial grants to global organizations that provide aid for women and children at risk. I was there to introduce her to a faith-based organization that provides medical treatment and safe housing to women trafficked intothe sex industry, and education and full support for children living in the brothels and on the streets. After seeing the brothels with bars on the windows, the crowded streets, the thousands of young faces, my intern was struggling to come to terms with it all. We stayed awakelong after dark, and I remember her asking me if it would always feel this way. I answered, “I think you always feel it as deeply, but you learn to cope with it.” Twenty-four hours later I questioned my own sentiments as I stood in the hallway of an international adoption agency in Mumbai and shook thehand of a six-year-old boy. He had padded across the floor in barefeet, smiled shyly, and placed his hand in mine. He had a hearing aid in one ear and tried to speak to me in English, yet he was obviously abit nervous in his mastery of my first language. After hearing his complicated story that left him abandoned by his mother, I learned the agency was searching for a suitable home for him in Mumbai. I wondered what was in store for him in life, and I struggled to compose myself through our short exchange. As he walked off in his jeans and short-sleeved plaid shirt, my eyes filled with tears and I wondered if you do actually learn to cope with it after all. For it seems around each corner is something that will break your heart in a new way. A few days later I was in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. We had driven through the night. At one point along the way I had succumbed to fatigue and started to doze off just as the sun was rising. But I was startled awake as my head slammed into the window. Rubbing my temple in an attempt to soothe the ache, I learned that the driver, too, had fallen asleep and driven the car into the median off the road. No one was hurt, the car was fine, and without any words we continued on our way. During our drive my guides tried to teach me a few lines to say in Urduin case we were asked any questions. I tested their patience as I unimpressively tried to mimic the unfamiliar syllables. They would shake their heads and correct me, concerned the foreign accent was overwhelmingly apparent. As we approached our destination, my friend began to carefully makeseveral adjustments to my head covering, tugging and pulling at thematerial to ensure that only my eyes could be seen. We arrived shortly after sunrise. We were entering into a region on the outskirts of a battle between the Pakistan government forces and the Taliban. Since May 2009, over two million people have fled their homes to escape the violence as grassroots rebellions and military forces fight to pushback the Taliban insurgency for control of the region. There are reportedly 42 million refugees around the world today. It is difficult and even detrimental to try to rank human crises, but thealarmingly rapid expansion of the situation in Pakistan demandsimmediate attention and action, with 100,000 displaced people per day who suddenly find themselves homeless. With only the clothes on their backs, these civilians nowfind themselves officially displaced persons in their own country, leaving burning houses and escaping violence that claimed their belongings and a mother, or a sister, or a grandfather. Schools areclosed early for the year to provide shelter, and hundreds of thousands have set up camp over an expanse of land. Estimates suggest another 500,000 more displaced people are trying to escape the epicenter of the battlefield to limited safety nearby. “Sister, this way!” I stepped out of the car and into the sweltering heat of over 125 degrees. I wasn’t used to the veil, and with no peripheral vision I found it hard to navigate my surroundings.
“Sister, this way!”
A ten-year old boy who courageously became my stronghold and self proclaimed protector for the day called out to direct my path. I was ushered into a school compound that provided emergency housing for women and children, and instantly surrounded by countless faces. As they encircled me, they all yelled out in Urdu, andI glanced from face to face trying to read expressions and understand what was being communicated. At a loss, I looked down at my young companion who quickly added interpreter to his job description. Some of the faces smiled, others were expressionless, and others looked lost.They called out various needs and concerns, and asked if I was there to help them. My little friend yelled so I could hear him above the voices, and I looked helplessly from face to face trying to guess whowas asking which question. I was overwhelmed trying to take in their circumstances, their massively apparent need. We went into several camps to gain a context for the situation, existing needs, and a way to help. A handful of NGOs and the government are providing food, but it is obviously an overwhelming situation and an enormous responsibility. Food provision is always a severe need in displacement and refugee camps. When asked what they needed, repeatedly the answer was immediate: “Vegetables,” they said. One moment I witnessed a defiant exterior as they expressed political frustrations and opinions within their own system and the global community; in thenext moment their humanity was magnified and any divisions made largely invisible in their simple human longing to be able to feed their children and to go home. I stood in a camp seeking answers to my various questions from a man who worked with the government aid program. He provided direct answers and addressed their concern for proper food and the complexities of offering aid to so many people. Obviously, one cannot walk in with food for only some of the people as riots break out, and this leads to crime within the camps themselves as survival is the goal for each day. But the immediate food needs for two million people are enormous, and the challenges for both acquisition and delivery are many. With one hand on my veil to be sure it didn’t slip, my eyes took in the camp’s surroundings. I saw an older gentleman with his white beard, sitting on his heels in front of his small burlap tent, silently watching our interaction. There was chaos, yet there was silence.
The Cost of Truly Engaging
One week later I was walking into aStarbucks in San Diego, California. I was restless in every space. There are times when I can recognize the power in each story, the example in the lives of men, women, and children who have all lost something significant and yet find a way to still engage in life and embrace it. I believe it will be the greatest experience of my life to have seen such beautiful faces, to witness remarkable strength, the resilience of the human spirit, and the restoration God can bring. I do not believe I will ever be the same after the stories. But with the opportunity to witness rare beauty one has to look at the harsh reality so often alongside it. There are times where I feel angry at both the quantity and nature of so many injustices in the world. And this brings anger, disillusionment, and an ever-present sadness in my spirit. I once read these words of an American poet and priest: Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even. The cost of truly engaging in any relationship is to die to oneself. Often, it is to die to our selfish desires. This seems to be a simple choice though it is by no means easy. But other times it is to die to a naïve, yet simpler life. It is to choose to look at something tragic for which there are not satisfying answers. And life is never quite the same. I think of the words Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Forwhoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his lifefor my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26, ESV). What does it mean to deny oneself? I think the call of Christ went to a greater depth than even our selfishness. I believe the choice to lookat life’s pain, both our own and that of another, affords one of thegreatest gifts to life. When we see each individual as a life created by God, and therefore with intrinsic value and honor, we find the convergence of the denial of self, following Christ, and meaningful life. It involves dying to our selfish desires but also dying to a passivity in life. We are then handed glasses into depths of our soul and that of another—and offered a window into the heart of God.
A Conscious Effort to See
The chocolate brown eyes of the little boy abandoned in India appear in my subconscious mind as I sleep. The lines of worry on a mother’s face in Pakistan are etched in my memory and weave themselves into my disconnected thoughts. And a pretty young little girl in a cranberry red salwar kameez leaning against a stark white wall in a displacement camp smiles at me. I do not have many answers, but I find a gift in knowing, a strength in finding a way to participate. And in this search, I discover a beauty in meeting people from various cultures and countries, some directly affected and others miles from the scene of a tragedy, who will engage together to strive toward something that is good and alleviates pain. For all of the horrors we can inflict on each other, this is one of the testimonies to the good in human experience when love is extended without prejudice. For the little boy in India, I keep calling to the point of being what I am sure is a nuisance to see how he is doing, to encourage and facilitate the process for him in any way I can until he has found home. In Pakistan, the challenges are many but I am hopeful that through a group of individuals and those with great expertise in refugee relief, we will form a partnership for food provision. And I have been making a conscious effort to see things in life that are simple, that are gifts, that are simply beautiful. Beauty is found in unexpected places and often juxtaposed against a backdrop of pain. It is demonstrated in the purity of the small hand of a child with no home who envelops your own hand, in the grieving eyes of a man who lost his wife, in the spirit of a woman who was robbed of the rights to her own physical body but holds her head high and knows her value is God-given and cannot be taken from her. Life is also filled with little treasures that don’t need to be deciphered—and only need to be noticed. I have learned this from those who have lived at the forefront of pain. They remind me that life is full and hope abounds with their smile, their perseverance, their faith, and the joy they take in basic simplicities, which remind them that there is, in fact, life. In the midst of the darker side of what it means to be human and to exist in a flawed world filled with tragedies, somehow the simple beauties serve to remind us of this. After just arriving home, I was determined to find something beautiful in the day. I discovered it in the little flower shop, the one with a woman with a full-bodied laugh who once told me she liked my shoes, and the owner, an attractive man in his 40s who sits in a wheelchair behind the counter. He shook his head at my flower choice, smiled, and told me to look in the bin by the door, where there was a red-colored blossom that looked like a cross between a gerbera daisy and a peony, a flower I had never seen before. And it was lovely.
Naomi Zacharias is director of Wellspring International.