Saturday, July 16, 2011

Genocide has many causes, but no reason: a lesson in compassion - part 2

I brought no cross, no prayer beads, no talismans, and no bible to Africa. I did bring ibuprofen, Imodium, Benadryl, Band Aids, and Doxycycline. While I was able to stave off Malaria and muscle pain, I wasn't sure I had the tools to ward off a darkening of the soul. Yet, when difficult moments arrived at Gisozi, Mayingye, Nyamata, and Murambi I realized I had tools available that helped me get through these experiences intact.

1. A Song in My Heart
I love my church, Belmont UMC. I especially love the Director of Music Ministry, Gayle Sullivan, and the truly inspiring pieces she and the choirs present each Sunday morning. The songs vary from African spirituals to Bach concertos, Wesleyan hymns to Taize. They always inspire a deep connection to the moment of being in time and space with other humans in God's presence during worship. A few Sundays before we left for Rwanda, I actually got to church in time to hear the call to worship and prelude. The choir chanted Keith Duke's You, Lord, Are in This Place - you can listen to an instrumental version here. It goes:

You, Lord, are in this place.
Your presence fills it.
Your presence is here.

You, Lord, are in my heart.
Your presence fill it.
Your presence is here.

I played this song in a loop in my head and heart as I walked through the memorials. It became my prayer - both a statement and a request. God, you must be here, please be here, surely you are here, you better be here, how dare you not be here, please come here! I begged and pleaded not to be in those places alone. The song became my mantra against the raging tide of questions burning at the pit of my stomach:

How devoid of God must the people here have felt when they were being murdered there? How could God have been there and let this happen? How did God let houses of worship become dens of death? Why did God seemingly abandon the people of Rwanda? Where was God's hand in this? Was it part of a plan? Was it "meant to be?" What was God thinking?

Answerless questions.

In my most desperate moments, I heard Alison Kraus' A Living Prayer, more recently touched me heart.

In this world I walk alone
With no place to call my home
But there's One who holds my hand
The rugged road through barren lands

The way is dark, the road is steep
But He's become my eyes to see
The strength to climb, my griefs to bear
This Savior lives inside me there

In Your love I find release
A haven from my unbelief
Take my life and let me be
A living prayer my God to thee

In these trials of life I find
Another Voice inside my mind
He comforts me and bids me live
Inside the love the Father gives

As with this song, I often feel uncomfortable with God the Father language. Limiting God to the masculine has serious negative theological and logistical consequences. But in this instance, it was the exact antidote I needed. Walking next to a dad who, to this day, holds my hand is a sensation I know well. Whether across a busy street or on a forest hike, my dad shows his love in the form of a steady, guiding, protecting hand. There, in Rwanda, I could feel the rough callouses of my dad's palm, the way he cracks his thumb knuckle, and how small and safe I feel when led by him. It gave God a foothold in my heart, a context in which I could feel His love. This manly, fatherly love led me by the hand through the dark places.

Yet, to feel God's love in these places felt tragic. At the memorials, I had to make myself feel God's love even when I wanted to feel a void, because if there was a void, it would all make so much more sense.

I wasn't going to get the answers to my questions in the way wanted. Instead, I was presented with a different view of tragic events that started to help me sort out the whys and hows.

2. For the Beauty of the Earth
Each of these horrific sites was located amongst devastatingly beautiful scenery. Not just pretty landscaping, the actual landscapes of Gisozi, Nyamata, and Murambi were stunningly gorgeous. Gisozi is situated atop a Rwandan "hill" (what we would call in Nashville a mountain) that overlooks the city of Kigali. The sun was setting over banana trees displaying ostentatious lilac and fuchsia beams through blue-gray clouds at Nyamata. Murambi looked like a verdant knob surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The juxtaposition of natural beauty and unnatural horror was, at first, difficult to reconcile. They were painfully disparate. But as time passed, as time does, I thought about the beauty as being the constant, the default, the beginning. Before there were humans, there was foliage. Mountains formed without our help. The sun sets regardless of human affairs. God made all of this, too, was my thought. Instead of accentuating the differences, nature softened the blow. I took refuge in the visual context of the memorials.

3. Even when it's hard to look away, you can look away
My dear-heart friend, Hannah, sent me an email the day before we went to Gisozi without even realizing the impeccable timing she had giving this piece of pertinent advice. She new how obligated I would feel to be fully in it at these sites. So, she gave me permission to protect my heart when she knew I couldn't give it to myself. So I took it. When we approached the cave-like classrooms in Murambi filled with the chalky remains of men, women, children, and babies I glanced in and looked away. It was more than enough to smell the lime covered corpses to experience death there. At this memorial, they want everyone to look. It's gratuitous morbidity with a purpose. It's incontrovertible evidence that a genocide took place here. After being ignored by the international community in 1994, this is their "I told you so." I didn't need this kind of proof, but I understand the motivation to present it this way. Hannah's words were my shield and gave me permission to experience that site in the way I needed.

4. My companion, my friend, my spouse
From the moment we arrived on the continent, we were synced. He tuned in to my physical and emotional needs setting an appropriate pace for both. Following a tradition of his Jewish faith, we placed stones at the mass graves together. We witnessed the influence of Jesus' teachings on redeeming victims and perpetrators together. We did not go through these sites walking in tandem. It was more like there was a elastic string attached to each of us allowing an ebb and flow of space between us - enough space to let us process independently while always gauging the other's need for consolation. Weaving in an out of rooms and tombs, the string kept us in tight, breathable bond: eye contact, the squeeze of a hand, a head on a shoulder, a glance across a room. Our refrain was, "how are you doin'?" "Okay. You?" "Okay." It was more like we were saying, "I see you. This is hard for me, too. I'm right here if you need me." I fell deeply in love with the person I chose to be my partner almost five years ago and the person he became on this journey.

I learned that I have tools available waiting undiscovered, ready to reveal themselves exactly when needed - "unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see."

(The Hymn of Promise is a hymn I memorized in middle school. This was a regular exercise in choir practice and one my friends and I relished. I don't know if Gayle realized that when she had us learn these hymns that they would later serve as beacons of hope keeping us grounded in our community of faith, but this is a song that has seen me through many a hard time. Thank you Gayle.)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Genocide has many causes, but no reason: a lesson in compassion – Part 1

Our first day of studying genocide in Rwanda started at the Kigali Genocide Memorial and Museum. Upon entering the facility, you first pass an armed guard then a wide gravel parking lot. You are surrounded by gray, a man in navy blue, and an AK47. It is a daunting walk. Past a wall, a white building rises surrounded by verdant gardens, aquamarine shallow pools and a glowing orange flame atop a white sculpture. There is life. Every part of the memorial is intentional. The flame is a sign of mourning lifted upwards to heaven balanced on white poles topped with white knobs – reminiscent of bones and proud people standing tall. It is set in a pool of water symbolizing life. This yin and yang, light and dark, life and death, appear in multiple places throughout the space. Each time we were pulled toward despair, we were sucked back into hope. The seesaw affect was exhausting, but appropriate.

The tour started at the top of a flight of stairs. Each step was short, leading us gradually towards the mass graves. Then, after walking through a shady canopy of brilliant yellow lilies upheld by trellised vines, we stepped out onto descending stone slabs about 50 yards long. The mass graves were dotted with baskets of flowers adorned with ribbons stating “Never Forget” in three different languages. We walked down the path to the last slab, which was still open. Glass paned doors revealed purple and white cloth-covered coffins each emblazoned with a cross. The shiny satin seemed as gaudy as the pristinely white sign of the cross making death look so neat and tidy. Pretty crosses have never made sense to me.

I couldn’t believe we didn’t bring flowers to the graves. Why hadn’t I thought to pick up some lovely silk peonies before our trip? I felt ashamed by my thoughtlessness. Then, I looked down and under my feet was agate gravel; iridescent white, streaked with burnt orange and reddish pink – almost bloodstained. I picked up a stone and remembered a tradition.* Whispering, I explained to Benon, “In our family, it is our custom to place stones on a grave.” Then I asked, “Do you think anyone would be offended if we placed stones here?” He replied in his Yoda-esque, sing-song way, “Not a problem, I think.” I showed Matthew my stone and he picked one up also. We walked up to an out of the way spot and placed the stone on the grave. I couldn’t let it go. Tears welled up and burned my eyelids. I spoke to God, “Please bless this place and the memory of the people buried here. May their souls and those who mourn them be free from fear, free from compulsion, blessed with love, blessed with peace.” It is a prayer I read about in Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s book, The Sacred Art of Loving Kindness (p.27). It is a Buddhist practice of Metta prayer and compassion.

Before coming to Rwanda, I knew I had work to do on being compassionate. When I first read Loving Kindness, Rami’s words on fearless compassion stopped me cold. I couldn’t move past those pages of chapter 3. It wasn’t until at least the third try that I made it past the chapter and finished the book. It took over a year. I had too much fear and too much empathy to engage in compassion, as well as some misconceptions. I always assumed that having compassion was equivalent to feeling sorry for someone and through that sensation, being motivated to do something to alleviate their pain or suffering. I also took compassion to mean empathy – intimately sharing someone else’s feelings. I thought, if I can feel a victim’s pain accurately enough, I can absorb some of it and thereby diminish his or her pain. Through compassion, I could also ward off the things I feared most; that somehow my “hyper vigilance” in experiencing someone else’s suffering would ward off my own (thank you Tina Fey for accurately putting this practice into words in your memoir, Bossy Pants and thank you Hannah for telling me about it). For example, if I felt enough of a rape victim’s pain, I would avoid being raped. If I practiced loved ones’ funerals in my imagination, they wouldn’t die tragically before their time. Insanity.
More recently, I came face to face with my lack of compassion skills when I was teaching at an inner-city school. The children were faced with horrors I didn’t believe existed beyond Hollywood crime dramas. Complicated issues of race, poverty, religious persecution, language barriers, neglect and abuse awaited them every day at dismissal and there was so little I could do about it. So, I took on the mantel of their pain and anger. I became useless in the classroom and ultimately took a position at another school. Trying to absorb all the pain my students felt left me incapacitated, stripped of my strength, stressed to the point of illness, frustrated to the point of lashing out at their misbehavior, gasping for breath, and gritting my teeth so hard that one broke.

Slowly, I have realized that being a feelings sponge is not a useful endeavor nor is it truly compassionate. The word is deceptive. Compassion means to suffer with and I took it literally. But, this is a fruitless pursuit. As Rami says, “If I come to you in pain and you end up with the same pain, all we have done is add to the world’s suffering” (22). That year at Cameron Middle School, I added to the world’s suffering.

This trip has been about the second part of compassion: letting go. I can share the suffering in the moment of visiting the memorial, I can use that pain to motivate me to share Rwanda’s story so that “Never Again” will become a reality, but I will not add to the pain of the genocide by taking that pain into my being and letting it manifest itself in me.

Placing the stone on the mass grave was my first true act of compassion. Holding the rock, praying through tears, squeezing my partner’s hand, and then releasing the rock, I let it go. By not carrying the weight of that place on my heart, I am light enough, free enough to act as an advocate and educator.

But, this was only the beginning of the tour. Not only did I have the rest of the memorial and museum to go, but two more days of experiences ahead.

*Placing small rocks or stones on a grave is a Jewish tradition that I first experience at Matthew’s grandmother’s gravestone setting service. It is a beautiful remembrance and sign of love and respect, though I don’t know much about the tradition’s history.