A Stunning—and Beautiful—Collision Between the West Bank and Congo
It is humanly impossible to describe what it’s like to see the barriers of distance, culture, and language suddenly and beautifully collapse in the course of an afternoon. But I’ll do my best.
Just thirty-six hours before I arrived in Bethlehem a week ago, I hosted a fundraiser for Congo in my living room in Barrington, Illinois. World Relief staff from Goma, Congo, were there, along with six women from the Ten for Congo team. In the course of the evening, the team told stories that many of you read about in my Congo Journal posts last summer, and the World Relief staff gave updates on the situation in Rutshuru, where most of the people we met live.
Rutshuru is now under complete control of the rebel group known as M23. World Relief staff has been unable to return to the area, but they receive regular updates via cell phones. The dear pastors and women leaders we met are continuing to serve the most vulnerable as best they can. Lay counselors are continuing to care for women brutalized by rape. The village peace committees (trained volunteers from local churches) are continuing to settle local disputes.
The peace committees are amazing. In the midst of one of the most deadly conflicts on the globe, where the largest UN contingency in the world has accomplished almost nothing, in a country where there is no rule of law and no recourse for anyone seeking justice; in the midst of this, local followers of Jesus are sitting around makeshift tables, listening to stories of conflict, turning to Scripture for sound principles, praying for wisdom, and persevering until both parties embrace an agreeable resolution. Thus are disputes between tribes, denominations, neighbors, spouses, and friends being resolved in ways that open a path to authentic reconciliation. What this means is that when outside forces (whether foreign governments or rebel militias) try to reignite old grievances and local divisions in order to enlist combatants for their own cause, they find reconciled people who have no interest in fighting each other. In a war-torn land, this is no small thing.
Shortly after I returned from Congo in June, a New York Times columnist suggested that the largely ineffective UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo “should refocus its efforts on supporting grassroots projects directed at resolving local conflicts.” I’m not sure that writer knew he was describing the local churches of Eastern Congo!
Anyway, this past week some of my American and Congolese friends from World Relief went to Washington, D.C., to advocate for international intervention on behalf of Congo.
They spent a week meeting with leaders on Capitol Hill, telling stories of both devastation and hope in Congo. They spoke of World Relief’s food security and microfinance programs that enable the poorest of the poor to become self-sustaining. They also told stories about the village peace committees, those “grassroots projects directed at resolving local conflicts.” As one who saw the peace committees at work, I am so thrilled those stories are being told in high places. I hope they’re being heard!
But, you may be asking, what does any of this have to do with the West Bank, and specifically with Bethlehem? Actually, that’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot during the last year. Why, in the fall of 2009, did my friend Christine and I find ourselves on a trip that meandered from Rwanda to Congo to Lebanon to Jordan to Israel to the West Bank? And why did I come home convinced that God was nudging me to deeper engagement in both Congo and Israel/Palestine? Who in their right mind would decide that warzones make great travel destinations? Who would choose to trade poetry and literary novels for tomes devoted to complicated, depressing histories and incomprehensible geopolitics (whatever that is)? Repeatedly, I’ve tried to disconnect myself from one, if not both, of these difficult places. I’m old. Can’t I just stay home and drink tea and take care of my grandkids?
But. In June I got hoodwinked into another trip to Congo. And now, here I am in Israel/Palestine for a five-week stay, starting out this past week in Bethlehem. And the most amazing, shocking, lovely, profound thing happened.
I was scheduled to speak last Friday at a church retreat for about forty Palestinian Christian women. I had intended to get my retreat talks all completed and tied up with a bow before I left Chicago, but that didn’t happen (it never does). So Thursday evening, I was enjoying a casual, fun, dinner with some of the women from the church. I asked them to tell me about their lives in order to help me shape my talks for the retreat. After dinner, Salwa, the pastor’s wife, suggested that I focus my morning talk on encouragement. The women live in very difficult conditions, under a military occupation where mobility is limited, jobs are scarce, and kids ask questions about soldiers and checkpoints that are difficult to answer. “But in the afternoon,” she said, “why don’t you talk about Congo? Sometimes we get so focused on our own problems that we forget other women in the world are suffering far more. My husband and I are trying to teach our congregation to think not just about our little church, but about God’s Kingdom throughout the world. I really want you to talk about Congo.”
I got up very early the next morning and prayed that God would give me words to say that would create a pathway for God’s love to flow directly into the heart of each woman. I prayed that, together, these women and I would create a space for healing of inner wounds, for soulful rest, and for infusions of hope. I typed out notes on my iPad.
Then I focused on Congo. Christine, my dear friend, editor, travel companion, and photo-journalist had created a beautiful presentation for last weekend’s Congo fundraiser and I had it on my computer. Christine has eyes to see and in June her camera captured both the pain and the beauty of our Congolese friends. As I watched her photos slide across the screen, I thought, Yes, I will describe the way the women go into the forest to gather massive bundles of wood to sell so they can buy food for their kids. I will describe what the rebels who hide in the woods do to these women; how they rape their bodies and their souls. I’ll tell about sitting in a church sanctuary in Rutshuru, Eastern Congo, listening to story after story of violence, death, and hopelessness. A fifty-two-year-old woman who watched as her husband was murdered by the same men who then raped her. A fifteen-year-old girl who went to gather wood and whose life will never be the same. A young mother who lost her health, her husband, her kids, her extended family. I’ll talk about what happened as we listened and prayed and shared a meal with these women. I’ll describe what it was like, over the course of those many hours, to see hunched shoulders relax, clenched fingers unfold, downcast eyes lift to meet ours, to see the beginnings of smiles and then—amazingly—to hear laughter. Yes, that’s what I’ll do.
The morning session of the retreat was exactly what I had hoped it would be: intimate, soulful, nurturing. During lunch, I wandered around with my iPhone, snapping photos and chatting with women who now felt like friends.
In the morning, I had talked about discovering in Jesus the Lover of my soul. That afternoon, I said I had also discovered in Jesus a radical call to compassionate action in the world. It was a natural segue to Congo. I told the stories and showed Christine’s video. At first there was stunned silence. Then the questions began. Can’t their government protect them? How long has this war been going on? What were their lives like before the war? Why are they so poor? And this one, asked in different ways repeatedly: Isn’t there something that can be done so they don’t have to go into the forest to get wood? So they don’t have to be so vulnerable?
Ah, yes, that. What can keep the women out of the forest? I told the women on the retreat that the lay counselors we’d met in Rutshuru do have a plan. They want to acquire a grain-grinding mill to allow local women to start a collective business and earn what they need without having to face the terror of the forest. I told the women in Bethlehem about the mill.
The women in Bethlehem are not sub-Saharan Africa poor; they’re not destitute. But the modest lunch we shared at a local restaurant, paid for by an outside donor, was an extravagance for them. They make ends meet through hard work and unending frugality. Within minutes of my talk about Congo, they took an offering, traded their shekels for dollars at the local money exchange, and pressed into my hand ten $100 dollar bills for the women in Congo. One thousand dollars toward the grinding mill!
The Bethlehem sisters ended the day in prayer for their Congolese sisters. I stood silently outside one of the prayer circles, listening to heartfelt Arabic prayers rising on behalf of Swahili-speaking women in Ruthshuru. Should I laugh? Cry? Dance? I felt energized, almost jittery, so caught up in the palpable power of God at work. And utterly awed by how Bethlehem and Rutshuru—these two places that claim my passion—have become bound together through women I have come to love.
I thought this morning of an odd photo Christine took during our first trip to Rutshuru in 2009. We saw a door that seemed so out of place and silly and wondered, What is this door doing in a remote village in the middle of Congo? So I posed and Christine snapped a photo. I found it on my computer this morning.
As I look at this photo, I am reminded of the Mother Teresa quote that has become my guide as I move throughout the world: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
Palestinians? Israelis? Americans? Congolese? Yes, we do indeed belong to each other.