Dear God. Pull up a chair. We need to have a chat.
I will ask you to pay close attention to me, God—look me in the eyes. Help me understand this corner of your world and the week I have lived through. I sense you have been busy in other spinning orbits of this massive universe. But I need you to listen…
Help me understand the things I have seen and can’t unsee—things that have left me beaten down and barely breathing under the weight of profound and disconcerting loneliness like I have never known before. Have you noticed? I am unmoored and in need of an anchor.
Where have you been this week? Are there more pressing galactic and celestial issues that have you so distracted that this small corner of the universe was left adrift? Because you sure as hell have not been seen around here!
Are you noticing that I am struggling through moments of lucidity and insanity.
I need some clarity.
First of all, you know my claim of unshakable resilience and strength. You are hopefully aware of the work I have done to deconstruct and then reconstruct myself…to try and be a loving balm in a struggling world. But I am ready to resign. It’s simply too much.
I embraced you, even through the tutelage of Catholic school, and certain credos I continue to argue are nonsensical. I successfully learned how to find a piece of you almost every day! I discovered your sublime presence spilling in to everyday moments—as I held my child, or gazed on the wonders in this amazing world. And up until recently, I have continued to believe in you, to hold on to you while looking in to the eyes of a mother as she held her starving child, ears chewed to the cartilage from insects— a mere skeleton ravaged by disease. Through it all, I never experienced you as completely devoid...as I have experienced you this week.
Surely you have noticed that I am constantly studying you. For certain, you have heard me yell at you one day, and felt me dance with you on others. You fascinate me. All the stories about you from the far reaches of the world! Enigmatic, yet not. People vie for your presence, claim to know you; and some understandably dismiss you. Amazingly, wars are fought over you, for God’s (sorry, your) sake! You hold a great amount of power, in case you have forgotten that fact.
Of late, I have stretched my understanding of notions like your “omnipresence," and your “omnipotence,” big words thrown around about you. I have gone out on a limb—claimed to many that I have experienced you in the moments when I stood at the bed of a dying patient; and I remain firm in the knowledge that I experienced you in the liminal space— between here and there— as I held my father’s hand and watched him transition from this world. You can’t claim I have not been your advocate!
So what’s going on??
In this moment, I feel like I have given you way too much credibility, bordering on homage; and far too much leeway tucked inside some silly notion called faith.
I am going to scoot closer to you, so I know you are listening.
I have come to this corner of the world because (although I hate this overly used platitude ), I felt “called.” After my experience working in Kenya—witnessing both the beautiful and the ugly, I wanted to return to Africa and see how I might be of assistance. But this week…it’s been too much. I can’t seem to balance it all in my head. In this moment, I no longer have faith in you.
Let me describe my week, catch you up on a few details that I believe you have missed…
In my arms I carried a 12 year old boy through the doors of the hospital. He was barely alive. In fact, he made it perfectly clear as he fell in and out of awareness, that he wanted to die. This is one of your children, so you say…
I am not proud to admit, but I recoiled when I first touched his body. The shock was like a surge of electricity through my fingers that temporarily paralyzed any volitional movement towards him. As I lifted him in to my arms from the back seat of the car, I was terrified that my fingers would puncture through the thin membrane of his skin, tautly stretched across his rib cage like saranwrap over softened fruit. I knew his story. I repeated it over and over again in my mind, during the painfully long 4 hour drive from the village to the hospital in the capital city. His story was long and complicated, too much for the short life of any child. But I needed the medical team to hear every detail of this horror story. I needed to grasp it myself. I hoped by memorizing each word, the story would somehow find reality outside of the resounding belief that his story could only be a nightmare.
He weighed 24 pounds! He had been rescued from his village on three separate occasions over the past year. Yes, incomprehensible! The abuse he endured is beyond the words I can give it. It has to be witnessed to grasp the magnitude.
His mother and father died from AIDS when he was only 3 years old.
His mother got pregnant by a man who, unbeknownst at the time, was HIV positive, and from a “lesser tribe” than hers. As a result, his mother ended up HIV positive, as did this child, (as are so many children born in this area, just to be orphaned by the ravaging disease). After her death, the maternal grandparents saw this boy as nothing more than a constant reminder of the shame their daughter brought upon the family. As with any family shame, they locked him away. For almost 12 years of his life, he lived in a room smaller than most of our closets. They fed him just enough to stay alive, while they fed their “legitimate” grandchildren plenty. I am confident that the lack of nourishment and shear abandonment were not the only abuses this little one endured.
I watched him as he laid coiled in the fetal position, lost inside the white sheets of the hospital bed, somewhere in that realm between life or death. Tests demonstrated he had TB, and he had developed immunity to the HIV medicine months ago. How could his tiny 24 pound body resist death? Would he be better off? I wondered these things as I struggled to watch the sheet rise and fall with his breath.
I need you to listen very closely, God, to this next part...
After returning to the village, leaving the boy in the excellent care this particular hospital was providing, I went with an interpreter to the grandparents’ house in the village, to get them to sign over guardianship to our organization. Our hope is to eventually find him a loving home.
Expecting to enter a hut with a dirt floor, as most dwellings are in the village, I was surprised to enter a relatively large and lovely home. Their fields were full of livestock, orchards plentiful with a variety of fruit trees. These people were highly regarded as “good people in the community,” so the government informed me as we picked up the necessary legal paperwork.
As the interpreter was explaining the process to the grandparents in their native language, I took the opportunity to look around the living room where we were seated. Nice furniture. On the wall to my right was a near life size poster of Jesus, you know, your son—the one where the heart is like a beam of light extending out to the world. In the opposite corner, as if watching Jesus, was a framed picture of the Blessed Mary…in all her whiteness… you know, the one of her adorned in a blue garment that remarkably matched her blue eyes…twinkling stars around her head. Quite gorgeous to look at, even if the resemblance is highly unlikely— I''m fairly confident she was not of Aryan descent. Obviously this depiction captivated the family. It was placed on an altar with a candle and a rosary—some sort of devotional space.
I had to stand in order to capture the full extent of the poster taped to the wall behind me. I stood exuding a highly pissed off attitude, not caring if I appeared nosy, or if I offended those family members gathered in the room. My discontent was mounting with every second of civility that passed.
The poster was brightly colored, stamped with the logo of their church….St. someone—a Catholic church in the village. The calendar listed upcoming feast days and the daily mass schedule; certain days circled with a black marker. Those days obviously held importance to this family. Curious. I would say from outside appearances, God, these people were part of your “holy” flock.
If you were lurking somewhere in the background, dear God, you would have felt my rage. You would have sat with me through my rising disillusionment. And after they fell over themselves thanking us for the “good care we were providing their grandson,” requesting we pray together— invoking your holy name— you could have calmed my pounding heart, or at least offered me a hand as I felt myself sinking to the floor under the weight of it all. At the very least, you could have shown up later that evening as I sobbed in the quiet of my room, longing to hold my own children.
The very next day, you remained off the grid, and I witnessed yet another horrifying disregard of human life. I fully understand it was just a matter of time before I witnessed what I am about to explain. The driving situation here is incomprehensibly dangerous.
I was riding to town in the organization’s car, with our wonderful and talented (thank you) driver. Traffic came to a stop, horns blaring and people yelling over the inconvenience of the traffic jam. As we crept closer to the cause of the delay, my brain scrambled to understand the scene before me. There, in the middle of the roadway, was a young man, face down and unmoving. His legs were bent and flattened in a way that can only be described as an action figure that had been overly stretched and broken. Cars swerved around him, people stepped over him. His mangled motorcycle could be seen down the road, teetering towards the ditch beyond the edge. The disconnect between humane and inhumane treatment of a life was irreconcilable in my mind. This man, and his death, was just one big inconvenience on the way to work.
As our car came up beside the man, it took me several beats to realize that I was looking at parts of his brain on the cement. It felt like a slow motion reel. I yelled out, “stop…stop. We have to help.”
But the driver, sensing my shock, attempted to calm my outrage by placing his hand on my outstretched arm. “We can’t stop,” he whispered.
I did not ask for an explanation. I could no longer speak. I sat in the passenger seat for the remainder of the ride in stone silent. It was hours later, when words were needed to make sense, to fill in the unexplained gaps of this experience, that the driver sat down with me.
“We could not stop because, if we did, we might have been blamed for the accident,”
You see, whoever hit this man, this father, brother, uncle, son, simply kept driving.
“We could have been arrested,” he explained. There is a sad and unspoken reality here—the misfortune of being a mzungu (white person). Any corrupt government official (and there are many here), would have used my presence to line his or her greedy pocket.
God, are you still with me? I know this is a lot, but let’s keep in mind that I am describing your creation, right?
That night, as we drove back to the village in the darkness and the pelting rain, (traveling at such a high rate of speed to stay with the traffic flow), we came so close, too close, to people on the side of the road, riding bicycles and motorcycles stacked with plastic jugs and building supplies, wider than the small ledge they were granted; children less than 2 years of age walking alone or with a sibling, unseen until we were almost of top of them; so many weary people, bent over as they tread the miles home in complete darkness, in hopes of getting a sweet potato and a little rest before they had to start all over again the next morning. I had to close my eyes while I white knuckled it through the long drive back to Masindi. I don’t know if you heard me God, but I found myself reciting over and over again, the guardian angel prayer I learned as a child...I was grasping for solace:
“Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here.
Ever this day be at my side, to light to guard, to rule and to guide, Amen.”
Funny how this simple grade school prayer has stuck with me all these years! Its rhythm and sweetness comforts me.
I am almost finished God…
My week ended with a situation that pierced through my heart. You know that employee — the one I sensed had the ability to create amazing programs to educate the community on nutrition and disease prevention? The guy with the 4 kids that plays the drums so beautifully when the staff sings songs during the morning devotional…the guy that preaches at his local church? Yes, that one…
You know how excited I was to offer him a management position, give him a raise, and give him the tools he asked for to build his outreach program! I trusted him in a culture where trust seems to be a novel concept, and rarely given or received. Well, yesterday I found out that he padded a receipt in order to take money from the organization. Monday I will need to either fire him or at the very least demote him.
I am weary God. In this moment, I do not know how to believe in you.
I reached out to a friend who has also worked in a 3rd world county. He reminded me, “We will never know what it is like to be born into abject poverty, where there is a struggle for survival from a person’s first breath until their last." It is true, we cannot begin to comprehend what it is like to be born in a place where learning self-worth is foreign, a concept to entertain in the world of the privileged. Life here is perceived as having little value..another mouth that requires feeding. He reminded me that when people see a dead body on the pavement, they are most likely thinking, “They are better off.”
I will never know. I cannot assume to ever understand.
But he cautioned, “Mary, don’t let these experiences make you cynical. Give it time, and beauty will somehow balance it out.” He affirmed my rage and my grief. A friend that soothed by lonely spirit.
God, I never before would have admitted how much I need connection!
On a side-note here God, while I have your attention, I want you to know that if one person says to me, “This is all part of God’s plan,” I will haul off and deck them. Unless you truly are some sadist leader that loves to toy with peoples’ lives for your own entertainment, I refuse to believe that this is part of any plan. I can’t believe it, or else I can no longer believe in you.
I would rather believe you weep as well.
I will get through this, God. I have experienced your exquisiteness far too often to write you off. But please, every so often, remind me that you are paying attention.
Thank you for this chat.
Fondly (I think),