Month: May 2019

At the Border (between the old life and the new)

We stepped out of the car onto dirt packed hard by thousands of feet that should never have been there in the first place. Refugees are driven here in endless lines by war, and this was one of the first places their feet rested after fleeing Sudan and South Sudan. I had gotten in the car with little-to-no idea of where we were going or how far away it would be. We followed a UN car and listened the whole way to stories about Mama Salome, a Ugandan woman in the car ahead who cared fiercely for the refugees and often spent her days working with them here. They loved her. They unburdened themselves of their stories to her. The people respected her.


I knew we had arrived by the blue and white UNHCR tarps covering mud and stick structures. Those tarps are recognizable from a mile away. We hopped out of the car, steeling ourselves for what we were about to experience. This was a place on the border of Uganda and South Sudan, a place where thousands of refugees have been first received, processed, given identification cards and basic medical treatments, clothed, and sent on their way to live in the refugee settlements. This site was relatively new. It had been moved there from a location closer to the border. Sometimes stray bullets from the fighting had whizzed overhead. It wasn’t safe. But that word was relative to all the people crowded into this place—over a thousand people today, we were told. They had moved to a location farther than a stone’s throw from the border. And now they were here. I didn’t even know if ‘here’ had a name.


In some ways this place was nicer than the refugee camps themselves. There was a kitchen, with wood-fed brick ovens and gigantic pots for cooking huge quantities of rice, posho, or beans, to feed hundreds of starved figures. The water pump never ran dry, and it was only a few yards at most from anywhere on the compound, not miles like some of the water wells in the camps. Everyone was seen at least once by the medical staff. They were given clothing. Conditions can be harder for some once they are transported to their plots of land in the settlements.


Next to the open-air industrial African kitchen, there was a protection house, completely walled up, floor to roof with sheet metal. That was odd for this area, where the roof usually sits a few inches above the walls to encourage a breeze to enter and bring some relief from the hot equator sun. Just recently, we were told, four Dinka women had to be hidden there. The Dinka are ethnically different from many of the other Sudanese refugees, and in their trauma and anger with no way to vent their emotions, the Dinka people can often become targets of aggression for the other Sudanese. The four Dinka women had to be locked into the protection house to keep them safe from the hundreds of new refugees who wanted to kill them. Police were called and they stood guard around the small building. But in calmer times, the protection house is a place for mothers to birth their babies. As if on cue a woman walked toward us from that direction, carefully holding a bundle of blankets. One of our people walked toward her with a smile, and at a returning smile from the mother, gently pulled back the bundle where a head should be. A days-old baby. The protection house had an apt name. It preserved life and brought it into the world, even here where lives had been treated so cheaply by the war that drove them away.


We walked deeper into the compound, toward a long, low building separated into three rooms. To enter the first, we squeezed past a line of people standing in the hot sun. They were all waiting to be sent inside, where they would receive small, yellow, crumpled pieces of paper. These papers were life and death. They had an identification number that registered a family and its members for basic human rights—healthcare, rations, water, a kit of items and tools to make a home in their new places at the camps.


We squeezed back out through the lines and this time I felt bold enough to look up at the faces around me. As I raised my head I noticed that my shoulders had unconsciously stooped in response to the sorrow of this place, and under the acknowledgement that the crowds parted for me without question because of the lack of color in my skin. But what really separated me from the people I brushed past? I had grown up in a different country, one not at war. It was the luck of the draw. These men, women, and children, they had lives before. Some had educations, they had homes and family traditions, they had all the members of their families at one time. And now here they were, with nothing to their name except the clothes on their backs. For some, even those clothes were alien. We knew that many times children who have been separated from their families would band together and come across the border in groups, naked and traumatized, after wandering through the bush. We’d brought two small bales of clothing with us today that we gathered in response to one such report of a thousand children coming across with no adult in sight. Today we learned that the men and the women would often come across naked too. Many had been forcibly stripped along the way, and they first came into Uganda without even the dignity of a shirt or a pair of pants.


Before I knew it, I’d followed our people into the second room. It had medical posters covering the walls, and the stench of illness in the air. Here everyone was checked for any records they may have of vaccinations and given what they lacked. They were tested for malnutrition or any other diseases they might be carrying and suffering under. Privacy screens hid the patients, and the room was quieter and felt more somber than any other we had been in. The next room in the row had only a waist-high wall on the side facing us. It was originally intended for a children’s play room, we were told. But because of the overflow of refugees, some slept in here. There were cartoonish posters on the wall, and bedrolls on the floor. My brain didn’t know what to make of what I was seeing, and at first impression the room reminded me of some bizarre, out-of-place church nursery.


After the last of the rooms in the low building bordering the lot, we came out not far from a large bus. It looked like a charter bus, out of place here. This was the bus that took new families to the camps when they had been processed, either to Imvepi or Omugo where the openings are at the moment. Families stay here at this way-station for anywhere from 3 days to two weeks before they take that bus out. Our guides pointed out a warehouse-like building diagonal from us and perpendicular to the building we had just left. This is where the women and children slept. The men slept separate, all males over the age of 15, at the far end of the lot. We had seen the UN tarps draped and stretched over what must have been their sleeping quarters on our way in.


We walked back toward the kitchen area and the water pump, at the opposite side of the rectangular compound. The shock was wearing off some, so we started to use our stumbling Arabic to speak to people and say anything we could—we are praying for you, God bless you, what is your name, I like your smile. The urge to say something, anything, to these people—to remind them that we saw them as humans with names and needs—was so strong. We were starting to feel so small in the face of such need.


We followed our bales of clothes over to a flat area. Some of the workers had already laid out plastic mats and started to unpack and sort the clothes. It looked like a big Goodwill bin from America. In fact, some of these clothes might just have come from somewhere like that. We ooh-ed and ahh-ed over a tiny lavender dress with a sparkly tutu attached at the waist. We laughed as the workers raised a little boy’s costume shirt—soft green back, pale tan belly, and a ridged dinosaur tail handing off the center of the back. As the clothes were sorted, tables were brought for them to be laid out on in stacks of size and gender. The people began gathering in a crowd to save a spot in line for their children to have some clothes. We stood around and tried to strike up conversations.


Even in this place so much life was happening. Some of the smiles made you forget where you were or what some of the people had been through. But there were always reminders of the displacement and the transient, perpetually uprooted lives these people led. We heard the bus engine crank and several heads looked up in dismay. Several tongues clicked disapproval and frustration. These men and women couldn’t leave the clothing distribution or they’d risk not getting clothes for their children. But I wondered how many had friends on that bus, or fellow travelers that they might not get to see again. And how many got to say goodbye before the bus left?


Some of the pairs of eyes were doggedly fixed on the ground, thinking of far-off events in far-off places. Many heads swiveled to look in our direction. They wanted to observe, to touch, to smile. Some of the braver tried out their English to greet us or ask us how we were. I found myself most of the time squatted down and talking to children, or smiling and tentatively sticking out my hand to greet them. The smallest ones are often afraid of our skin and don’t know how to respond. One little boy waved at me and flashed wide grin. I made my way over to him and his siblings to clasp his hand but his face immediately froze in fear and he hid behind big brother’s leg. I raised my gaze to the older siblings, “He’s afraid,” I said in Arabic. They giggled to confirm, and smiled at the familiar sounds in the words.


One lady sat on the ground embroidering one of the beautiful Sudanese sheets that are used for everything from bedspreads to seat throws to curtains. Hers was an elephant with gleaming white tusks, surrounded by abstract leaves and flowers, with maybe a few birds begun on the outer edges of the design. I tried to imagine how far that one piece of home had come with her, and where she’d managed to get the needle and embroidery floss. The bright lime green sheet somehow made even this clustered mass of people seem more homely. It was a piece of settled life. She proudly unknotted the edges to show us and model for a picture.


I wandered off to another part of the mass of people. A small baby was crying hard. His head looked too big for his malnourished body. “He’s hot,” someone said with a knowing smile. No, “He’s sick,” said his mother. Rubbing his back turned into the back of a hand to his forehead, rubbing his head. His mother nursed him to calm him and his eyes closed for an untroubled second. He raised his tiny had to rest it on the arm rubbing his head.


I wandered off again, this time finding a mother with a welcoming smile. She held a baby and had two little ones circling her feet. Babies usually cry the loudest at my pale skin, but this one reached out for me. I offered my hand and he was fascinated with it. He held the fingers one at a time and would reach for it again if I ever thoughtlessly dropped it while trying to talk to his mother. The white skin on my palm looked almost luminous in that light, up next to his richly colored fingers. “What is that?” I asked in a high baby voice. “It’s white!” I said in Arabic, to the giggles of those clustered around. The crowd shifted and I said goodbye to this mother so she could move with them and not lose her place in line.


A man introduced himself to me, desperately trying to tell his story in English. He had a toddler boy with him, and his said his wife had a five-day old baby. It was hard to understand whether she was here in the camp, if she had passed, or if she was still in Sudan. As the man broke off the conversation to follow the shifting crowd, he said they were making it little by little. “Little by little,” I repeated in Arabic. His eyes brightened and his wiry body almost bounced with energy. “You speak Arabic?” he asked in his heart language. “Little by little,” I said with a sly smile. Later I saw him trying out his English on another of our group. The little toddler was escaping behind him toward the latrines. He was so intent on his conversation he hadn’t noticed until a group of mommas were almost yelling to get his attention. He sprang off after the little one as I turned my head with a smile.


We waited around as some of the clothes were handed out. The mass of children who’d been pushed right in front of the tables by their parents was overwhelming. So many and so much need. My Arabic felt so insufficient, but I don’t think I would have had the words in any language to know what to say, how to comfort, how best to listen. As we were leaving one mother pushed her way through the crowd to show us her daughter, beaming in a new dress, posing for us. He mother looked on in pride and thanked us for the clothes. The little one let us take her picture before we said goodbye and walked to the car.


We all crammed into the car and someone asked to pray before we left. I couldn’t. I couldn’t speak for a while. I’d kept the tears in until we were behind the closed doors of the car, but they came silently in waves for most of the trip home. Thoughts raced through my head quicker than I could sort them out. What can be done in the face of such deep, dehumanizing need? How can you help or encourage? Who was I to even think I had anything to offer to help, or that I could make a difference at all? Pray for my team and me in the coming days as we sort through what we experienced and brainstorm what to do and how to help in situations like these. Pray especially for Casey and me as we consider how to find a way to help, work with, or minister to some of the separated children that come through check-in stations like these and can be sent to the refugee camps without family to speak of, in prime positions for exploitation in many different forms.

The Sabbath Rest of Resurrection


Easter is over. A lot of us have moved on with our lives. I happened to be on vacation for Easter, and instead of spending it with my refugee friends, I spent it in Uganda’s capital with American friends. In some ways it feels like I skipped Easter. The traditions were different enough and even my new habits and routines from Uganda were nowhere to be seen.


But in some ways, I didn’t skip Easter. My different situation and perspective helped me learn something new about it.


I spent Holy Week sleeping in a soft bed, using a fan, enjoying constant electricity and cool temperatures. I climbed hiking trails and clambered over boulders and looked out from a mountain ridge over a peaceful cape. I went skydiving and (after some of the loudest screaming I’ve ever done in my life), I was shocked into speechlessness as I gaped out over the land laid out beneath me—an inexpressible mural of ocean, beach, scrub, mountain, city, town, farmland. I was on vacation.


My Holy Week was spent in real sabbath rest from heat, from dry season, from conserving water and being on constant alert for the indicator light on the wall that means the electricity is on. It was sabbath rest that healed by body, mind, and soul, and filled me up to better serve. I worshipped on Easter Sunday in friends’ church. I was able to dance and sing and listen to the sermon with distance and disconnect from the people around me, my own island of worship and contemplation. But I also worshiped during the week in moments full of awe as I gazed out at beautiful landscapes, or as I cocooned myself in a soft bed with gratefulness overflowing into prayers.


I rested from my labors and gained a greater sense of resurrection.


Often my Easter celebrations have centered on the death of Jesus. The somber awareness of his gruesome death in my place has been a heavy presence. But this Easter I was able to focus on the resurrection—Jesus’ new life that came with the sunrise on the third day. He died that we may have life. But I have often forgotten the weight of his life. He lived that we may have life too. His new life is the firstfruits, the beginning evidence of the promise that we who follow can all partake. Because he lives, we live—abundantly. We can have fresh life, new life, rebirth, regeneration. He has conquered death and its power over us. His broken body moved with life again so that our wounds may be healed, so that our broken spirits may be made new, so that our hearts may be made whole.


The promise of Easter is new life amidst brokenness, pain, suffering, trauma, sin, and even death.


There is no better character in the Gospel’s Easter stories to illustrate this idea than Mary Magdalene.

And goodness, does that woman have a story to tell! One of the few women given a name in the Gospels, much of her story is still hidden from us. We know Jesus cast seven demons out of her. She had seen darkness, lived in it, been imprisoned and controlled by it. But our Lord set her free. She had a taste of his new life long before she saw it in full at the resurrection.


Who knows what she had seen or done. Who knows what fears haunted her dreams or what broken thoughts of her own insufficiency dogged her days. Her life before Christ would have reeked of death. Her life with the demons would have sapped her strength and left her feeling lifeless.

But we do know that she found peace in Jesus’ presence. She was with him often in the gospel accounts. Luke chapter 8 tells us that she and other women that Jesus had healed followed him and the disciples and provided for and supported the men out of their own time and their own pockets.


But precisely because Mary was no stranger to suffering and brokenness, we find her among the few faithful at the foot of the cross. John and four women were there. Mary was one of the last to see him alive, and she went to the tomb as soon as possible to care for his body. She was well acquainted with the pain of death and the comfort a friendly presence could be.


But what she found there, at that place of death, was a resurrection power to be reckoned with. Mary had seen the worst the world had to offer. She had endured trauma physical, mental, and spiritual. She watched her Lord tortured to death. She was the first at the tomb, and finding it empty, she ran to the men to tell them. She ran back with them as they came to see for themselves. They believed he had risen. But her grief was perhaps too deep, and her memories too strong of the power death held over her old life. After experiencing so much trauma, sometimes you grow to expect it. This was the way of the world. How could she have expected the best thing to have ever happened to her to last anyway?


Once, what feels like a lifetime ago, I played Mary Magdalene in my church’s Easter play. Maybe my teenage drama was a little too much for our tiny church production, but I remember putting myself in Mary’s shoes, under her head wrap, and it did something to me. I thought a lot about her emotions and about the devotion she had given to Jesus. Her whole life was wrapped up in his. And with his death she was broken beyond belief. I didn’t have to act for the tears to well up. I begged and pleaded with the gardener. I tripped at Jesus’ feet when he said my name and called His name out in a ragged voice in response. Mary must have felt dead until she witnessed that resurrection herself and was filled with hope.


In a tear-jerking interaction, Jesus appears to Mary at the climax of this story from the gospels. She cannot believe he is anyone but the gardener. Maybe she couldn’t see well through her tears. Maybe she couldn’t understand through her grief. Maybe her trauma was too heavy. But she begs this man just to tell her where the body is—she’ll move it herself if that’s what it takes to give him dignity in death like he gave her in life.


But then the truth shines on her like the sunrise and warms her soul in a flush of new life. She finally understands that this man is Jesus when he speaks her name. Have you even been loved so deeply by someone that just to hear them speak your name gives you new strength and reminds you of your value, of how much you matter to them? Jesus spoke her name. He recognized her life as a precious thing to him, and in speaking her name, he spoke life over her. And she wept at his feet.


The life-giver, the one who bore her heavy burden, the one who freed her from darkness, the one who had begun to heal her wounded life and heart—the Resurrection and the Life—he stood before her, with fresh wounds of his own. He chose to appear first to a woman desperately in need of new life.


Jesus appeared first to a woman. But not just any woman—one who understood what it meant to be broken and what an incredible gift resurrection would be.


The broken are the first to recognize the healer, and the dead are the first to recognize new life, so Jesus chose Mary to be his voice. Go and tell my brothers, he commissioned her. Some call her the first evangelist, or a preacher of the gospel. Whatever the case, she proudly announced to the men and the women, “I have seen the Lord.”


Mary was given the task only on person in history could have—to be the first to break the news of resurrection. To be that messenger, Jesus chose someone who knew the weight of suffering and trauma and so knew the miracle gift resurrection and life would be.


When I say I learned about resurrection this Easter, I mean that I came to Holy Week and to our remembrance of the cross weary and heavy-laden. I came bearing trauma that was not my own because of my friendship with refugees. But my soul did not leave this year’s Easter feeling the deadweight of the second-hand trauma I saw and heard about daily.


This Easter taught me about resurrection. It taught me about new life and the immeasurable value of resurrection. It taught me not to settle for anything less than the life-and-death difference I should seek from my new life in Christ. And true sabbath rest abounds in worship at the feet of the Lord of the Sabbath, who conquered death to give our souls rest and refreshment from the death that can seem to fill this not-yet-redeemed world. This Easter taught me that the broken, poor, marginalized people around me have a greater understanding of the joy new life can bring and the dignity it gives to even the lowliest, like Mary Magdalene.


So if you have been weary and heavy-laden…

Let these remembrances of Easter refresh you. Seek time to mourn the death and lifelessness that has crept into your new life with Christ, as Mary Magdalene did at the tomb. Mourn for it, and then listen for Jesus to call you by your name, to speak new life into you. Read these stories in the gospels for yourself, and remember the resurrection power that came that Easter sabbath day long ago when Jesus shook off the grave clothes and arose. He arose to bring new life in the midst of death. May you seek it, and find it for yourself.