I was fortunate today to be able to spend time with a small child, not yet 2 years old, who is fighting for his life. The boy's eyelashes are gorgeously black and long, framing his large mocha colored eyes. His frail body resembles a newly hatched baby bird, struggling to fill his body with air. He is fighting for his life, recovering from medical complications that required 4 different surgeries since November. He is in a private room with his mother, away from the dark, noisy, and overcrowded main patient area. His mother keeps the room spotless.
When I gazed at him, loosely wrapped in a white sheet, I watched his tiny chest rise and fall, wondering how someone so little can muster the energy to take that next inhalation. The IV lines inserted in to his body looked as if they would consume him. The boy's mother, tiredly hunched over her son, gently caresses his bony leg, as if she is willing him to breath. The bags under her eyes and the deep creases of her brow paint a picture of a woman 20 years older than her actual age. You can feel her wasted frame struggling to keep her upright. Before her is the totality of her life—not only her struggling son, but her child that has been growing in her womb for 8 months. Her very being is the embodiment of suffering.
When I first entered the child's room, I heard soft chanting coming from the child's bed. The mother had propped her phone on a pillow next to the child's ear—a soothing melody flowing from it towards him. On the other side of her son, she had propped a pillow to support his tiny hand, palm open. In his palm she had placed a paper prayer book.
As I breathed in what lay before me, my heart became utterly absorbed in the mother and the child. "Motherhood is universal," I reflected later in the day. In that room, there was no gulf between us. Although we were born thousands of miles apart, although we speak different languages and have cultural and religious differences, we are mothers. The signs of suffering and anguish cross all boundaries between us.
Later in the day, I met her husband as he was leaning over his son's bed, reading to him a scriptural prayer. Knowing her son was safely being cared for by his father, the mother was able to surrender herself to sleep, curled around her son's body.
The father is a gentle man, looking worn and worried himself. He has traveled a great distance to visit his wife and son. He is drawn and thin, his eyes telling a story of anxiety and exhaustion. The financial demands for his family rest on his shoulders, and the hospital bills are mounting. In a sad whisper, he explains that his wife is lonely. He appreciates my visit because no one steps in the room to offer friendship or help. He sighs, "We are strangers in a strange place.You see, we are Muslims from a distant home."
From the way the father spoke, it was evident that he was a highly educated man. Tightly holding the Quran in his hand, I asked him about the prayer he was reading his child. He described it as a prayer of healing. I asked him what his faith meant to him, explaining that many Westerners like myself do not fully understand the Muslim faith. I explained that after 9/11, there is an underlying fear that resonates in our country that I believe is manipulated to engender greater fear and suspicion. He nodded his head to indicate he understood.
He thought for a moment, crossed his legs, and with the most gentle smile leaned closer to me, as to not wake the mom and the baby. "Unfortunately, the Muslim faith is greatly misunderstood, and people do not want to take the time to know the truth about the faith. It is faith that promotes peace and love." He explained that Allah, (God), made various revelations to Mohammed that were written down exactly how they were spoken, in the Quran.
He emphasized the critical necessity of understanding the context in which these revelations were transcribed. "There were many atrocities occurring during the period of the revelations—child killings and abuse, warfare amongst the people, just to name a few." Mohammed's revelations (starting around the 7th century), revealed the importance of stopping these atrocities, and living from a place of compassion and love. "There is corruption everywhere," he sighed. "Terrorist are corrupting the Muslim faith by using it to justify atrocities."
I commented that I believe Christians often forget to consider the context in which our scriptures were written—in the cultural milieu of 1st century Palestine. Christians can also pick and choose lines from the bible to justify many harmful thoughts and actions. I commented that I have experienced many religious people from all faiths perpetuating harm in the name of their god. He and I discussed the concept of Jihad, or the call to holy war. "This is a very misunderstood concept," he asserted. "Again, context matters. People were being persecuted, and the oppressed needed guidance to stand up for themselves. The use of Jihad in modern days is a tool for the terrorists, not for those of the true faith."
The call to war is not an exclusive Muslim tenet. During the formation of early Christianity, both Augustine and Aquinas wrote about the need for "just war," at a time in history when rising up against persecution became necessary. Missionaries used the concept in extremely violent ways! The Hindu religion has one of the earliest epics regarding just war—dharma yudda.
It is impossible for those of us lucky enough to be born in a 1st world country to understand life in a 3rd world country. Kenya is struggling to become "modern," having only gained its independence in 1963. For me to interpret behaviors inside of this culture is impossible, because I am looking at it from the lens of modern America. There are a vast number of countries living literally centuries behind us. These areas remain tribal, run by one tribal king or supreme leader. They are fighting to maintain their lands and their beliefs. The people are not educated except for what the tribe teaches them. Their identity is paramount, and is enmeshed in some sort of religious belief. One can see how people who are destitute, or looking for a way to protect their identity, can become drawn in to a cause they believe is worthy. As this little boy's father stated, many of the groups are corrupt and violent, misusing their faith to promote their cause. Unfortunately, the tribal ideology is all that many of these people know.
I left this room humbled, with a deeper appreciation for the complexity of the human narrative.
What would happen if all of us had the opportunity to question someone whose identity evokes misunderstanding and fear? Have we ever taken the time to retreat from the intensity and inflaming rhetoric and wonder if we truly understand the human experience of another? Are we content to remain in our station, believing the politically driven media? I believe our conscious is a sacred gift inextricably linked to our hearts, and we are asked to move through life connected to this awareness. It is easy for us in our comfortable homes to unabashedly dig our heels in the sand and say words and make stances that literally mean life and death to the stranger. Trust me readers, I am saying this to myself.
I believe the only thing we are spiritually asked to see in this child's room is a narrative of human suffering in the face of a mother and a father wanting their son to survive. The rest is irrelevant. The rest is nothing but fearful conjecture.
I know many read this blog and wonder, "What can I do," reading about these palpable situations. I believe it starts with ourselves. We must ask ourselves how our biases manifest themselves in our thoughts and behaviors towards the "other?" If we attest to the ideal that every sentient being is created in the image of the Divine, what does that mean when we approach someone radically different than us? What kind of jokes do we tell that may be demeaning to a fellow human being? Do I stand up against others that say things that demean another? No, I usually keep my mouth shut as to not make waves.
We must educate ourselves; teach our children what it means to recognize the Divine in all, regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual identity; and to stand up for all of humanity. Analyzing myself, I am amazed at how many negative and judgmental thoughts I can have in a day, just by looking at a total stranger. I wonder what makes me feel self righteous and lash out at others whose experience and understanding of life is different than mine? Who gave me that power?
What would we do as we stood at our borders, face to face with this mother, father and child fighting for survival? Would I be able to say, "Stay on your side of the wall? You are Muslim. You are different?" The itinerant travelers standing at our borders are not terrorists. Sure, there are a few criminals mixed in with the thousands of families looking across to our land of opportunity. We have our own home grown criminals terrorizing and killing children at school, people at concerts and places of worship. The immigrant people are looking for a better life, just like our relatives did years ago. Let us not lose the fact, we just happened to be born in America because someone at sometime years ago struggled and sacrificed to cross the border.