Joshua Mark: A Visit to السلط

I went to the city while it slept and I thought it was dead. Leaving the bustling streets of

الجبيهة and the lines of shops of صويلح, the town, quiet and resting on a جمعة afternoon,

seemed nothing more than a small, countryside village nestled in the ruins of something

that used to be great and beautiful, like a child swimming in its parent's clothes. All the

shops were closed, the streets were empty and I could only guess at where a side-street

or staircase ended and someone's house began — or were there only ruins? Truly, the

high walls that still stood, the outlines of the arches, the remains of the balconies

recalled large, majestic houses. But looking down from the ledge of the next street up

there was rubble, the roofs had long since caved in and one, two, three rooms lay dusty

and bare except for the odd piece of junk, and then a chair, and a carpet, and only then

a front door, a whole roof and a standing house, lost in the imprint of its predecessor. I

walked through the streets in awe of the decrepit beauty of the houses I passed, of the

delicate window frames and broken panes, of the colored tiles and layers of dust, of the

imposing archway in that back yard which hinted at something much greater than what

stood there now. The people I passed seemed just as small, just as lost among all these

echoes of glory as their houses dud; the singers only half filling the small church of St

George كنيسة الخادر felt like the last few souls of a ghost town.

I was forgetting, however, that يوم الجمعة is a quiet day, a day of rest and calm — if not in

Amman's busy streets, at least in a place like this. Life, people were still there behind the

shades, and علي called me up to his balcony to meet this life. My first experience with

such simple generosity, my first true Arab welcome when a man saw a little tourist at the

bottom of his stairs and invited him up for coffee then dinner, قهوة سادة و حلوة و كبسة. He was

kind and generous and eager to feed me. He helped me understand what hospitality

meant in his culture, and also to understand his town. "My neighbors there, they're

Christian, and over there too, we live together". It was still جمعة and he didn't need to

speak a lot, and in the silence as he smoked and we stared out over the old town I could

now feel the presence of an entire bubbling city just taking it slow for a day. He invited

me back earnestly, then sent his reluctant son to show me the Ottoman cemetery.

The monument to the violence that broke over this small peaceful city, three hundred

boys from Ankara and Istanbul and beyond come to die for these windows and

archways. The day after Nice was bathed in blood and I had stared at the screen for

hours before the overlapping voices of the muezzin drifted me to sleep. That is the first

thing علي — another علي — spoke to me about; that is not Islam, no Muslim wants that.

His words helped. That my first host loved his Christian neighbors helped. That علي was

watching the kids run and play and scream in front of the graves of the young soldiers

who died for nothing, that helped too. Time heals all things.

He too invited me for coffee. I sat surrounded by his brother his parents his children his

wife another mother, I felt an intruder though they wanted me there I could tell. I couldn't

help but notice the women rush inside to cover their hair and mouth. I couldn't help but

notice the young woman standing in the doorway peering at me, hiding — recoiling —

whenever I looked up; when they brought me in to wash my hands she ran. I had never

seen علي's daughter though I knew she was feet away, though I knew she made the food

and coffee; her brother brought them to me.

علي on his balcony had shown me a sleeping سلط, my second host and his family, happy

and inquisitive, were the end of the day, جمعة evening, when the air gets fresh and the

city wakes up and the streets are alive. As I went back down to the bus, people walked

in the streets, sat and laughed before their dusty archways, climbed crooked steps

behind the old high walls, looked out their columned windows at the lights of the shops

and restaurants and السلط coming back to life.

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Kelsie Harriman: Plan to Stay

This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children…..Work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.”

Jeremiah 29:4-7

As my mother will tell you, I am not the best at planting gardens. Every summer when I was growing up, she would ask me if I wanted to plant my own vegetables in our family plot. I would always say yes, go out with her on the first day of rowing season, plop down a few carrot seeds, water them for the first three days of summer, and never tend to them again. Garden planting requires far more patience then younger me possessed, and my carrots only survived if my mother took enough pity on my vegetables to tend to them herself.

I’ve lived the life of a twenty-something for a while now, and the longer I spend in this distinctly un-permanent stage of life, the more I’ve come to appreciate the importance of planting gardens. One does invest the time and energy required to reap a harvest unless she knows that she is going to present long enough to see the process through.

The transitory nature of early adulthood can seriously inhibit one’s garden planting practice. Where are we to plant our seeds if a few months of the year are spent at school, a few months are at home, and a few months are in another city for a short-term job? I believe the answer most of us have to this question is “nowhere” — don’t put your seeds down at all, because to plant one day and to root everything up the next is a very painful process indeed. Think twice before you become too invested in any relationship, or too attached to any particular place, because chances are you’ll be saying goodbye to it all in a matter of weeks anyway.

The prophet Jeremiah had a thing or two to say about garden planting. In his letter to the Israelites, who had been forced from their home in Jerusalem and into Babylon by King Nebuchandnezzar, Jeremiah explicitly implored everyone to build homes, plant gardens, marry, have children, and plan to stay in the city of their exile. Immediately following his order comes the oft quoted passage from Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Granted, the Isrealites were in Babylon for seventy years, which allows for significantly more time for garden planting than does a three month summer job during college. But I’d venture to guess that if Jeremiah were writing a letter to those of us who are in a transitory phase our lives, he’d tell us the same thing he told the Isrealites. Regardless of where we are — no matter how difficult, or strange, or transitory it feels — we need to take seriously the task of planting gardens. We can’t just drop a few carrot seeds in the dirt, water them for three days, and expect our mothers to take care of the rest. No matter where we are in life, God has placed us there for a reason, and to fail to plant our garden is to forsake the plan He has for us.

And the thing about God’s plans is, we’ll never know what they are until after they have unfolded. Maybe, just maybe, the transitory, challenging, or difficult place you are today is exactly where God wants you to be forever, and by refusing to plant your seeds just because you believe you’ll just have to root them all up later is going to make you very hungry and miserable indeed.

So, allot the time and due diligence necessary to see your harvest all the way through, especially during your most transitory phases. Forge friendships with those around you, even if you believe time and distance may one day prevent you from ever seeing them again. Throw yourself into the work that is before you, even if you do not know its end goal or purpose. Let yourself grow roots and become attached, even if you think you know the date and time you are going to have to rip up them from the soil.

Do these things, but not without regular consultation with the Master Gardner, because the only thing more painful then having to uproot a beautiful garden planted in exactly the right place is to find out you’ve put your  plot in a location that never belonged to you to begin with. If you are where the Gardener has asked you to be, however, plant and harvest in earnest, and you may come to find the small plot that you thought would be yours only for a summer turns into a home or a friendship that is yours for life. And as any good gardener will tell you, the harvests that bring the most blessing are often those that are unexpected.

Kelsie Harriman: “Do(n’t) Feed Me, I’m Starving”

I’ve been feeling lately that I need to make an apology, but I am unsure to whom it ought to be directed.  Maybe to my parents. Maybe to myself. Maybe to all of the gracious Rwandans who have given me a   meal with me in the last several weeks. Or, alternatively, I could just apologize to white rice, or whole milk, or any of the perfectly good foods I previously deemed “unacceptable.”  At the moment, apologizing to foods is my preferred option, as I have learned that asking forgiveness from a person is very hard.

Kigali, Rwanda – June 2016

A pile of rice, a handful of French fries, half an avocado, and a glass of whole milk. I am happy to be eating; I am hungry, and the food is good.

While scraping the remnants of the meal from my large porcelain plate, I stop abruptly and realize what I’ve just eaten. White Rice. Fried potatoes. Fat. Sugar. I am disturbed by the fact that I finished that whole plate without thinking, or fighting, or crying about it first.

I am supposed to be a healthy person. I am supposed to be worried about what I eat.

~

Often, eating disorders are misunderstood as an unhealthy or an irrational fear of “becoming fat.” When I was told by a psychologist that I had “disordered eating” in 2012, I possessed a similarly naïve understanding of the condition.  My eating wasn’t “disorderly,” so I thought. Never mind the way I routinely put myself and my family in fits of tears because I refused to eat rice and meat and cheese and potatoes and pasta and bread and anything with sugar and fat. Never mind the times I got uncontrollable body tremors from low blood sugar because I wouldn’t eat the aforementioned foods, even if nothing else was available. Never mind the way I laid awake at night mentally cataloging and recatologing every bite I had ingested throughout out the day. “My BMI is above the minimum threshold,” I told myself and everyone else. “I am fine.”

~

Several years since the worst of my struggle with food have passed, and I am now living in Kigali, Rwanda for the summer, where the culture surrounding food is completely foreign to my American self.

I have not yet met a Rwandan with an eating disorder. I believe that a person’s eating habits far less likely to be “disorderly” when real hunger is an all too present reality. Spend a day in rural Rwanda, and you’ll find children whose stomachs are bloated, not from excess food, but from parasites that have ravaged their digestive system.  There are many families who eat the same food every day because they simply don’t have the money or the opportunity to get something else.

Contrast this with how I grew up in America, where I had the money and opportunity to buy items such as powered, fat-free peanut butter for myself whenever I decided I didn’t like the full-fat, “unhealthy” version of peanut butter my parents purchased.

During that period of my life, I wanted desperately to be in control of something, and it so happens I had the luxury to control my food consumption. My parents served a food I deemed unhealthy and therefore didn’t want to eat ? No problem, because I could easily find some, carbohydrate-free-fat-free-sugar-free version of whatever it was to consume alone in my room later that night, when the hunger that resulted from me not eating dinner was bothering me enough that I could not sleep.

It is not just the availability of food in America that is causing our population’s problems with eating — be it obesity, bulimia, or anorexia. It due every bit as much to the manner in which Americans consume food. How often to we eat meals alone, or while working, or while en route to our next destination? How many times per week are we “too busy” to have breakfast, lunch, or dinner? If your experience has been anything like mine, your answer to that question is “often.” Frighteningly often.

Food works quite differently in Rwanda. Dinner (and often breakfast and lunch, depending on the family’s schedule), are eaten together, with every member of the household present. There is no snacking. At the scheduled meal time, all are served equally-sized plates from a communal pot, and everyone eats together. If you choose not to eat at the designated meal time, you are going to be hungry later, because no one is going to buy fat-free powered peanut butter to for you to snack on in the middle of the night.

Adapting my habits to this structure has been somewhat of a challenge, but I am now able to do it with more success than I ever thought possible. I know from where I come, and to eat a plate of rice in the company of my Rwandan friends is a personal victory that perhaps no one here will ever understand. But a victory it is, nonetheless.

~

As my food consumption assumes more of a Rwandan character, my impulse to apologize for my “disorderly”, American eating habits grows. I want to apologize to the foods I am able eat in Rwanda  with eagerness, which only two years ago in the States I had deemed unacceptable in my “healthy diet.” I want to apologize myself for the pain my irrational rules about food  introduced into my life.

Most of all, though, I want to apologize to my family, whose food I turned down countless times because I thought it was not “good enough” for a healthy, controlled, thin person like me. I see now how wrong this was, and how much pain can be caused to someone who prepares a meal especially for someone else, only then to have that person turn it down.

Yes, I want to apologize to my family.

However, I am not going to do this because I have also lately been learning something else: apologizing too much is not going to get you anywhere, or have the power to really make anything right again. The only thing to do when you know you’ve done something wrong is to change your behavior. Maybe the one you have offended will notice, and maybe they won’t, but a sincere change in heart and a concerted effort to make things right again do not go unaccounted for in the grand scheme of things.

When I return to the United States, then, I am not going to apologize to my family. I am just going to hope that they will have read this post, and that the next time we share a plate of rice together, they will know that I love them, and that I am sorry.

Then, I’ll do my best to just eat a lot and be happy, which, as I am learning in Rwanda, is the only right and proper way to do things.

 

Kelsie Harriman: Where Was God? The Horror at St. Famille

There is a Catholic church in Kigali, Rwanda called St. Famille. It is a large structure made of red bricks that stands on a hill overlooking the city of Kigali. Today, the church is well-known and widely used by locals; mass is held in St. Famille every weekday morning at 6:45am, as well as three times each Sunday.

St. Famille is also one of the many Rwandan churches that became a site of human slaughter in 1994. During Rwanda’s Genocide, people would often seek refuge in the country’s churches in that hopes that the House of God would protect from the hell that was unfolding outside.  Often, though, these churches were not a place of sanctuary, but of massacre. There are numerous documented accounts of priests who offered refuge to people in their parish, only later allow or to orchestrate the slaughter of the innocent people whom they had lured inside. Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, the vicar of St. Famille during the Genocide, was one such priest. He is said to have openly commanded the Interahamwe militia to kill the Tutsi in his church, and he has been accused of actively participating in the rape of women and girls within the halls of his parish.

After the Genocide, Munyeshyake was charged with genocide, complicity in genocide, torture, ill-treatment and inhuman and degrading acts and sentenced in absentia to life in prison by the Rwandan Military Court in 2006 (The Hague). However, his case was later referred to a criminal tribunal in France, which dropped all charges against Munyeshyaka in 2015. Munyeshyake is now a free man, and he actively serves as a priest of two parishes in France.

It was with the horror of this injustice that I entered St. Famille for the first time this weekend. Munyeshyake – and the countless other “religious leaders” who participated in the Genocide – claimed to worship the same God that I do. Who is this God, and where was He when His priests were raping and killing innocent people in His name? What happened to the God of the blameless Rwandan, the God that I worship, the God of redemption and love who is described in Isiah  63?

In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

I am sure, at least,  of where my God was not. He was not in heart of Munyeshyake, or of the perpetrators who lost themselves in slaughter of the innocent people in St. Famille in 1994. He was not in the wood and the stone and the nails that compose the “Holy House” that became a place of carnage. He was not in the extravagant robes and the drapes and the ornate decorations that today give St. Famille a sense of majesty.

IMG_4768When I was standing in St. Famille, I saw my God in only one place: the crucifix behind the center alter. I saw  my God only in the suffering Jesus who looks over the sanctuary at St. Famille and bore witness to every rape and murder that occurred in the church in 1994. In those days, my God was in the Jesus  who cried out as he died on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I am sorrowfully silent about where the Angel of His presence described Isaiah 63 was during the Rwandan Genocide. It certainly seems that he was not around in the summer of 1994 to redeem the one million people who were killed by their priests, their friends, and their neighbors.

Hence, I cannot speak to the reason for this Angel’s absence in 1994, but I can speak on behalf of a Jesus who hung on the cross two thousand years before. That Jesus suffered, bled, and died alongside every Rwandan who was killed in the Genocide.

When I stood in St. Famille and pondered the horrors that took place inside, I could not speak, I could not think, and I could not offer explanation. All I could do is point to the image of the dying Jesus behind the center alter, and tell myself that somehow, someway, while my brothers and sisters were suffering inside of St. Famille in 1994, my God was in Jesus, hanging on across, and suffering too.

A suffering Jesus is only half the story, however, and a tragedy such as the Rwandan Genocide makes me  yearn even more desperately for the day when the Angel of His Presence will return to finish the tale by making right all the the world’s evils. Until then, however, we must wait patiently in our suffering, but not without hope – for we have been promised a day when we will be carried by that Angel to a place where pain will touch us no longer.

IMG_4763

Helen Ho: The Invisibility of Depression

A guest post from a dear friend of mine, Helen Ho. Helen, I wish you all the best, and pray for God’s guidance and comfort as you continue on your journey. 

~

When I talk to counselors, they would ask me when the depression started. I remember vividly: it was the spring quarter of my third year in college. There was a particular day, actually. I came back home from a really great fellowship to an empty apartment. It was as if I came face to face with the loneliness that haunted me in the shadows. I think I went to bed crying that night and the crying continued from that day onward, with me in my room, sobbing over my life, carrying pain inextricably deep in my soul. I didn’t understand what was wrong–I simply tried to keep on living. I thought I was simply burned out from school, needed a break and to change my living situation. I held on tightly to the hope that the school year would end soon.

Fourth year came along and I decided I would toughen up. I would no longer play games with sadness and get on with it. Maybe if I ran fast enough, I could outrun my feelings. I wanted to live excellently and honor God in every aspect of my life. So, I didn’t sleep much, and studied, worked, and strove hard against my depression. The whole time, I thought there was something wrong with me: I was simply lazy, was simply romanticizing sadness, was this and was that. The tears came anyways and, due to the work and stress load, my anxiety increased to the point where I was not able to sleep well at night.

At the end of Autumn quarter, during finals week, I sat in my room and words I didn’t plan to speak came out of my mouth, “I hate myself.” It continued: “I hate my life” and “I don’t want to live.” Then, I cried a little, grabbed my backpack and biked over to the library to study for the GREs. I didn’t know what to do and still had applications to fill out. At the end of 2015, I went to a conference for Christian students called Urbana, and upon praying with someone and opening up to my roommates, I realized I was actually depressed. I wasn’t making it all up in my head.

I wanted to attack my depression with gusto. During Winter quarter, I started to meet with a therapist, told my friends about what was going on to ask them for support, and was ready to get rid of this emotional issue within the next month or so. But it wasn’t so easy. I saw my therapist downtown and it was tiring to get there every week, the process was slow, and some weeks felt even worse than before I started to tackle the whole thing. I had a hard time explaining to my friends what was going on with me, had a hard time getting some to even believe me, and then had a hard time getting myself to believe that I wasn’t okay.

I wonder why God didn’t just heal me if He had the power to. Why did it have to be such a grueling process? Why couldn’t I just be okay? My life felt like such a mess, I couldn’t do anything–doing dishes, my laundry and getting out of bed was a struggle.

And the journey continues even until now. Things have gotten better. I’ve made some good friends along the way, resolved a variety of emotional issues that had plagued me, learn to give myself more grace and perhaps like myself a little more than before. But the emotional difficulties remain a constant.

Depression is difficult to deal with. Everything happens inside. Externally, my life is fairly swell–there’s not much for concern. People have a hard time understanding why I’m depressed because of this I think…and sometimes I have a hard time understanding it myself. I try counting my blessings on my fingers, holding up all the good that I have in my hand. I end up feeling guilty that I’m not enjoying my life more.

This may all seem very pessimistic but depression is a sobering reality which plagues a large number of our generation. However, I do have hope that I will one day be a very happy camper because God is good. And I have hope that my own experiences will be able to help me help others because, again, God is good.