News from war zones has been particularly tragic this week: A deadly airstrike in Aleppo, Syria. A brutal ISIS attack on a refugee camp in Iraq. A massacre by an extremist militia on innocent villagers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Violence. Destruction. Death.
A century or so ago, an estimated 90 percent of war casualties were male soldiers. Today, an estimated 90 percent of casualties are civilians, and 75 percent of these are estimated to be women and children.
In the early 1990s I traveled with a humanitarian organization to Croatia and Bosnia as those countries were being ripped apart by war with Serbia.
In Bosnia we visited refugee centers filled with middle-class women just like me who had lost everything: jobs, husbands, homes, their planned-for futures. Many had also been victims of brutal rape, the increasingly prevalent and horrific weapon of war which shatters body and soul.
We visited schools where social workers tried to help grade school kids who had watched their parents killed. They suffered so severely from posttraumatic stress that they sat all day silently chewing their nails to the quick.
It was the first time I had seen war up close and I was stunned by what human beings do to one another.
Leaving Bosnia, I traveled to a little border town in Croatia where I could climb to the top of a hill and look out over the Bosnian countryside. I sat there for hours and wept and prayed for the women and children I’d seen.
While I prayed, an unbidden question repeated itself in my mind: Am I my sister’s keeper?
Am I my sister’s keeper?
And the repeated answer I sensed from God was: Yes. Yes. Yes. You are your sister’s keeper!
Then who is my sister? God, who is my sister?
They are all your sisters, I sensed God say. Croatian Catholics. Bosnian Muslims. Serbian Orthodox. They—and every other woman you will ever meet—are all your sisters. Because they are all part of the human family I have created.
That’s what happens when you open your mind and your heart to God and to the world. You end up with a huge family. And you realize that every single member of the family is as important to God as you are.
You can’t possibly meet the need of every family member, but you can never again dismiss their needs thoughtlessly. They’re family.
And they haunt you. A grim image dances across your vision at an inopportune time. A light-hearted moment is darkened by a disturbing subtext. A chill pierces your heart on a sunny day.
Yes, you’ll end up haunted. Even more, you’ll end up in despair. There’s no way around it. I can’t remember who wrote that God’s heart is an open wound of love, but I believe it. And I believe our hearts become open wounds, too, when we dare to love this damaged world God loves.
There are two antidotes to despair.
One is denial. Pretending you didn’t see that picture. Didn’t read that story. Didn’t hear those screams.
Or maybe you acknowledge the horror of what you saw or read or heard, but you pretend it’s not your responsibility. There’s nothing you can do. What difference can one person make? And where would you start anyway?
Denial works. But it shrinks your heart. It makes you a little less human. It puts distance between you and God.
The other antidote to despair is action—doing something, however small, to address the need.
Seems like every few years I have an experience that pushes me so far into despair that I toy with denial. I start listening to the cynic inside me who asks why I even bother to hope in the face of such a broken world. But I have learned that if I consciously choose action I will find hope.
When I met with women in Bosnia and Croatia in the 90s I did not imagine that twenty years later my personal ministry would be focused primarily on women in warzones.
I hate war. I can’t even watch war movies. And yet in the last year I’ve met with Syrian refugee mothers in Jordan, with Yezidi women rescued from ISIS in Iraq, with women recovering from brutal rape by rebel militiamen in the DR Congo, and with women bravely denouncing violence and working for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
Though I have clearly sensed Jesus call to follow him into places of conflict, it’s not been easy. Part of the challenge, of course, is the physical threat. While I travel into regions of conflict as wisely as possible and take seriously the counsel of friends on the ground, I accept that safety is never guaranteed.
But I’ve often thought how willing Americans are to send their sons and daughter into harm’s way for the sake of war. Should we not be at least equally willing to send ourselves into the possibility of harm’s way for the sake of peace? I think that sometimes following Jesus requires it.
For me, a far more difficult challenge is the inevitable confusion and complexity that surrounds conflict. Following Jesus into conflict zones requires constant listening and learning. It demands that I humbly place myself at the feet of people with whom I may or may not agree, but who have much to teach me.
I’ve not always done that well. Often I’ve had to face and confess my own quick tendency to judge harshly rather than try to understand a perspective I consider misguided. At other times I’ve been misunderstood and criticized by those who think I am wrong to listen to voices with which I (or they) disagree.
Finally, there is the ever-present challenge of finding the peacemakers. For that is the primary call that I sense: to find the women of peace. To find the women actively working for reconciliation, caring for refugees, and seeking their own deep healing as well as the healing of other wounded and grieving women. While those are massive challenges, I’ve discovered so many amazing women faithfully meeting those challenges.
Morning after morning they get up to face another heartbreaking day.
Despite their own trauma and grief, they work to create a better life for their kids.
When they’d rather nurse their pain in silence, they tell their stories to give other women hope.
When they’ve paid the highest price a mother can pay—the death of her child to a violent enemy—they reach across those very enemy lines to comfort another grieving mother.
Time and again I have been broken, humbled and inspired by these women.
By these sisters.
It isn’t easy to engage in regions of conflict. But I can’t deny my deep-down conviction that I am my sister’s keeper. And that the opportunity I have to engage with women in regions of conflict is a unique and precious opportunity that I must steward well.
I offer the following information for those who’d like to join me in financially supporting great organizations doing significant on-the-ground work to serve those who are suffering so severely today:
In Syria: Questscope is an organization I partner with in Jordan and Syria. They’ve served vulnerable people in the Middle East for over three decades, so they’re uniquely experienced and positioned to offer help that organizations just entering the region can’t do. I’ve met the Questscope leadership and have seen their work with refugees. They have 1800 staff and volunteers in Syria, and they’re currently one of the largest distributors of emergency food relief in Aleppo. We can support their work in Syria here. (On this link you can make a single donation or become a fundraiser yourself!)
In Iraq: The Preemptive Love Coalition has worked in Iraq for a decade. I’ve visited them twice in Iraq because I love their work with Iraqis displaced and terrorized by ISIS. They’re front-line heroes. Because of their history and network of relationships in Iraq–and because of their commitment to love anyway and everywhere–they go into regions where most organizations don’t dare go. We can support their work in Iraq here.
In the DR Congo: In March I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with One Million Thumbprints, to raise awareness and funds for women in war zones. Our current funding focus is a fistula hospital for Congolese women who have been brutally raped by rebels who consider rape a legitimate and useful weapon of war. Created for the most brutally violated women, the hospital offers trauma counseling, legal help and extensive after-care in addition to multiple surgeries. You can support this project here.
If you have your own favorite organizations serving refugees and other victims of war, by all means support their work. This is a critical time for all victims of violence. We must recognize our common humanity and do whatever we can to offer help and hope.