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During one summer in seminary, I worked in a theological college in a country in east Africa. It was the worst summer ever. And I think about it every day. Whatever capacity I have to sit with you in times of pain or mystery is largely because of that summer and in spite of me.
For the semester before going I had worked to prepare. I researched the countries located on the eastern side of the African continent. I studied the history of religion along with the political history.
I had some previous classroom experience teaching before going to seminary and loved the energy I felt when I was facilitating a discussion or describing a concept. With “great joy” I entered the building where I was to teach my first class. Great joy, however, even a little joy did not manage to cross the threshold with me.
The first thing I noticed was the water. Apparently, each day begins with hosing down the interior of the building. Not only is this necessary in order to breathe because of the dust that accumulates during the night, but it cuts down on snakes and rats whose occupation of the territory made real headway during the night.
Once this was completed, the students took their seats and I realized there were no women. The women I had seen on campus were in secretarial classes. And so, a little off-balance, I opened my notebook and looked out with courage I didn’t feel at a room filled with men. I had prepared a course on the book of Ruth. In case you haven’t read Ruth, it is a 4 chapter story of a family and community in crisis, and all the men are dead by verse four of chapter one.
I stammered around for a few moments as I tried to take in what I was seeing. Somehow nothing in Virginia had prepared me for the reality of Tanzania on the ground. Looking at those men, two of them dressed in traditional Masai warrior drapes, the others wearing some sort of garment that indicated their tribe, their village. In a weird Twilight Zone kind of suspended animation, I became acutely aware that, for all practical purposes, I had been treating the entire Bible as an American anthology of literature all set in an exotic location. But, other than the location, I had grounded every part of the text’s message onto what was central to MY understanding of society and propriety, which included western civilization at its center. And, now, I was present in the midst of people who were not all that far removed from the actual context of the Bible and whose world view could not have been more different from my own.
I had asked for the room to be set up like a traditional American classroom. But now, I felt like a sitting duck behind my bull’s eye podium. I stopped talking. I literally couldn’t think how to proceed. My interpreter stared at me as if to say, “What is going on?”
One of the students said, “Pole Sana Ma’am, would you like to hear a story?”
“Long ago, when the missionaries first came, they were so happy to see us! They delighted at the beautiful purple rocks we dug from the hillsides and the diamonds from the mines. They loved our flowing rivers, and the medicinal minerals for healing that filled the rivers’ beds. Then they wanted to teach us about their God, and because they were so kind, we listened. And then they taught us to pray to their God. They told us to close our eyes and bow our heads. And we did. But when we opened our eyes again, the purple rocks and the diamonds were gone, and the rivers had been dammed up and were now dry. And so we are glad you are here. But we have no intention of closing our eyes on you.”
Perhaps, I suggested, we could begin again, and maybe this time we can sit in a circle. And so we did.
I’d like to tell you that this changed everything and that at the end of the summer, like many of my classmates who had done this before me, I cried when it was time to leave. But, that’s not what happened. Every minute of every day and night was hard. I got one chance to call Jack and I said “It’s hot, it is noisy day and night, the plumbing doesn’t work, and neither do most of the men from what I can tell, and I can’t sleep and dare not eat.”
Tell me something good, he said. I am embarrassed now to say that the only good thing I had was that I knew exactly how many days until I could leave and come home.
Here’s why this story matters. That summer has shaped every minute of every day of my priesthood. In moments when I feel truly connected to each of you it is because, slipping on the banana peel that is always in the gospel stories, we have stumbled together into one of the crevasses that remain broken inside me from that summer; that summer that, because I couldn’t get away, I learned to pay attention to what bothered me and to ask deep questions in prayer and during long walks about why I was so bothered.
My professor who accompanied me and was to have been my teaching partner in all of this promptly came down with a relapse of malaria. And so when he could talk it was brief and he just patted my hand and asked what he always asked, “Where do you see God?”
Then Jesus said: “Peace is what I’m leaving with you when I go away. It is my gift to you. But it is not the peace that the world gives you. Do not let your hearts be troubled because you THINK you cannot see me.”
But my heart WAS troubled. I understood almost nothing about that place. Why not just cover the windows and doors so you wouldn’t have to hose down things every morning? Why couldn’t the women also study theology? Why do people have to be so stubborn – and just to be clear I’m talking about their stubbornness, not mine — and do things the hard way? And what was I supposed to do with an entire curriculum built around women who take over the world when the men die? And why didn’t someone tell me my classes be all men? And how could I not realize how much anger I carried? Or what a self-centered princess I’d become? I hadn’t gone there to “give”; I’d gone there to “use” like so many others. These men were part of my grade and I was treating them that way.
“And for those who love me, I’ll live inside them; their lives will be my new home.”
Where? Not here, surely! I hate this place. The entire summer has been a failure. All I wanted to do was go home.
First, he healed the sick and gave sight to the blind. He welcomed children and sinners into his company. He brought Lazarus back from the dead and he made the man who denied even knowing him the rock on which he built his Church. The only order he ever gave was to love.
And, for all that, we killed him. Bet he really wanted to go home, too.
I was so focused on how I was so different from those men that I was blinded to how much we were alike. They had inherited and experienced a history of exploitation and I had come to them with a chip on my shoulder the size of Texas.
In the years that followed, the book of Ruth became my particular area of research. I never intended that. It was just supposed to be for that summer. It happened because of something that one of the men that summer said, something I never would have noticed without him, because my indignation about women being treated as second class citizens was as blinding as the men’s distrust of foreign teachers.
In the first verse of the first chapter it says “In Bethlehem (the “house of bread”) there was a famine and one man took his wife and his two sons and left and went to a foreign country and they stayed there.”
He said, “We, like they, are tribal people. There is really no such clear distinction in a tribe about ‘one man’s family’ and certainly not when it comes to a disaster like a famine; and to go to a foreign land with different language and religion and customs? Indeed, mama, this is a story about the end of the world.” He just shook his head.
For the past 12 years, Ruth has continued to stir uncomfortably in my soul. How horribly broken is a society that causes its people to lose their minds and their bearings and set out to do the unthinkable? How is it that through our panic when times are hard, we rush toward what is actually the end of our world?
“The peace I am leaving as my gift to you is not like the peace that the world offers.”
I finally saw it. The “gift” of God’s peace, at least for me, was the capacity to experience breaking apart for the sake of being made well. I thought of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’: “Ring the bells that still can ring; forget your perfect offering. For there’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”
And I thought of the Japanese pottery technique of kintsugi that uses gold to accentuate the broken pieces of a vessel, the art of preserving scars.
I thought of Thomas Merton’s notion of the wounded healer.
But, in the end, I thought about “home.” Or, at least, I thought about MY home with its motley crew of wildly unique people, each designed by God who struggle every day to make sense out of what they thought was going to happen on the other side of that threshold but discovered something very different indeed from what they’d prepared to encounter, breaking open spaces in the process, hosing it all down on a regular basis to get rid of snakes and rats that creep in during the night, leaving plenty of room for God to come home.
“O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises.”
Bwana asafiwe. (Praise to God)
The Rev. Cynthia Park, LPC, PhD
May 27, 2019