I'm a small town girl. Growing up in a rural community in Iowa, life seemed pretty simple. In my little world there were bad people and good people and wise people and foolish people and the good, wise people usually rose to the top of society Unfortunately, life experience did not match that presupposition and my naivety didn't last very far into my adult life. For the last few decades my world has continued to expand, and with it, my ideas and experiences around how life plays out.
But my week in Guatemala has stretched my social, cultural and religious assumptions to some pretty freaky places. I have never much enjoyed spending time in arenas where I don't feel skilled or competent. Combine that with my go-to response of shutting down when I feel overwhelmed and you've got a recipe for denial. Essentially, the equivalent of putting my fingers in my ears and yelling, "La la la la la la"! when certain issues are being discussed.
But God is showing me that this will not do if I am going to call myself a follower of Jesus. The God of the Bible is a lover of justice and his call for the church involves the implementation of justice. "To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God." To uphold the cause of the widow, to proclaim freedom for prisoners, to care for the fatherless, to bind up wounds and ensure justice for the poor and oppressed. Not just to pray for the poor or marginalized (although prayer is vital). Not just send money to others who can deal with the messy, complicated webs of injustice and suffering. But to engage in the pursuit of justice personally, even if it's imperfect.
Last week, one of our excursions was to an organization in Guatemala City dedicated to exhuming the remains of the thousands upon thousands of casualties of the civil war that waged from 1960-1996. These victims were branded 'guerrillas' and were captured, raped, tortured and killed, then thrown into mass graves. But most were not guerrillas. They were innocent mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. The truth is beginning to come to light and the healing process begun as a team of scientists undertake the painstaking work of finding these graves, carefully removing the bones and other personal items, returning the remains to the lab and reconstructing them. In this process they note trauma, gunshot wounds, shrapnel, etc., test for DNA, interview family members or other community members who may have known them and work to connect survivors to the dead. They do this so that families and communities can heal and truth be told and forgiveness be given as injustices are exposed. And, they do this in the hope it might not happen again.
Making it Personal
What I observed as we entered the facility, was a hallway stacked floor to ceiling with boxes. Each box held the remains and personal items of one person (two, if it was a mother and her dead infant).
It was hard to believe it was real. After an introduction of their work by one of the scientists we were ushered into the lab. On the tables in front of us were the meticulously laid out skeletons of perhaps six bodies. Two were tiny--toddlers at best.
How does one process the horror and sadness contained in that one room? I do not know.
We were then shown a large storeroom where the remains of hundreds of victims in newly uncovered graves were stored. As our guide shared what they knew about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of these children, women and men our group stared blankly at the rows of boxes. We asked questions, not really wanting to know the answers. "Did they have to dig their own graves?" "Certainly." "Were they dead when they were buried?" "Not always."
One classmate asked our guide how she dealt with all the death and sadness and injustice and apathy from the general public. She seemed so calm as she stated, "Well, with the passing of time..."and then the tears began to stream down her face as the rest of her sentence was swallowed up in the sorrow.
As my black and white world continues to grow smaller in the distance, I am left moving toward an uncertain future. The heroes and villains are beginning to look a lot alike and I sometimes recognize my own face among the perpetrators. I feel damned if I move too quickly or too slowly. But I know I must do something. Not everything. Not regarding every injustice. So what is God inviting me to?
I don't know.
But I can start with telling the story.
Twenty seven summers ago I boarded an airplane to Guatemala with a group of college students from my church. I was twenty years old and had never been out of the country. Which, in retrospect, seems a rather obvious oversight for a woman claiming she wanted to be an overseas missionary. Nonetheless, I joined the trip at the last minute thanks to a full scholarship provided by an anonymous donor. Someone believed I needed to experience this trip.
As I began the last leg of the journey from Houston to Guatemala City it finally dawned on me I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. I was spiritually, emotionally and mentally unprepared for what lay ahead and I knew it. Unbeknownst to most others in the group, this trip was not just the beginning of the summer for me, it was the last thing I would do before entering in-patient treatment for my eating disorder. As I gazed out the plane window into the expanding night, I felt my emotions slowly turn off like the programs on my desktop and I dozed off to sleep.
When I awoke we were landing in a foreign land. I was disoriented and exhausted. We met our hosts, loaded our things and headed to our hotel. There was too much to take in. Too many smells, too many cars moving in too chaotic a path, too many people staring at my blond hair. That first night I dreamed about food and throwing up and I awoke more exhausted than when I'd gone to bed. This had all been a terrible mistake.
But as the week wore on my emotional shield sometimes lowered without me noticing and I felt more alive than I could remember. I'm not sure what this trip was supposed to be, but what it turned out to be was our little group being billed as a small choir and we toured city churches, village churches, a military chapel service and even the presidential palace --singing.
I had never known someone who didn't speak English as a first language or at all so I didn't know that it was possible to love someone you couldn't even talk to. But, wow, did I love--in the messy, broken way I was capable of at the time--but it was more than I knew was in me.
And then, long before I was ready, it was time to leave and I realized I had let down my guard and I had experienced happiness in the midst of pain and mess and I had experienced God ministering to my soul through people who couldn't speak my language, many of whom were uneducated and poor, and I knew I would never be the same.
And here I am again.
After that first trip, I returned four more times within a ten year period. Our hosts became like family and this country became part of my emotional healing, ultimately helping to nurture the love of different cultures and people that I have today. It has now been eighteen summers since I was last on Guatemalan soil. From my arrival at the airport is has seemed almost a different country, but the love I have for this place and these people came quickly rushing back. Thankfully, Guatemala isn't the only one who's changed. I, too, am different. Two decades ago I came as an arrogant outsider; an expert. But today I come knowing less than before and saddened by my complete lack of understanding about God's heart for justice--not just charity. I can do charity. I can give money. I've gone so far as to personally visit people who are suffering injustice, but doing something about the injustice hasn't seemed a natural outflow of my Christian faith. Why? I don't exactly know. But I'm learning. Slowly.
And yet, I have to admit I'm afraid. I'm afraid I won't know what to do. Or worse, that I won't feel great compassion for others. That I'll remained detached and overwhelmed by the need. What if I remain unchanged? Lord, may it never be!
I have a confession. I'm on my way to Guatemala City for a class on Spiritual Formation and Social Justice. The pre-class reading has already convicted me. Not like a shame-filled, guilt motivated burden, but like a love-expanding, eye-opening invitation.
So, here is where the confession comes in. I'm currently sitting in the United Club in the Houston airport. In a moment of self-protecting rationalization I upgraded the next leg of my journey to first class. That's right. Just as I open my heart to the injustices that most of the world experiences, I make a move that only highlights the separation between the haves and the have-nots.
My excuse? My heart isn't working as well as it should and long flights cause my ankles to swell up like a pregnant elephant. More leg room in business class with the ability to lift my feet and help my poor, ailing heart get blood to my extremities must be what God wants for me. Right? Plus, it was an absolute STEAL!
Don't worry, I'm not demonizing first class. On the contrary, so far it has been the best decision I've made all day and I haven't even boarded the plane yet. My flight is delayed and instead of the impersonal, glaring fluorescent lights of the general boarding area I'm enjoying a comfortable leather chair with a personal outlet for my waning computer battery. There may or may not be free drinks available (I haven't made it that far yet) and the wifi is much faster than what I was getting outside these doors. I'm pretty sure the bathrooms are much cleaner in here as well. This is good. Very good.
But it does highlight the fact that I'm an insider. True, in my 47 years I've never been in an airline 'club' or flown first class on my own dollar , but I fit in here. I'm in insider. I have power. And that means I have a responsibility to use that power for the good of those who don't.
I don't know what that looks like yet, but I'm more keenly aware of that than ever before. So this week I'll be updating you on the journey God is leading me on. And, my guess is, it won't involve a lifetime of first class. Then again, you never know.
Kelli is a writer, speaker and consultant equipping leaders for a deepening intimacy with Christ, greater impact in ministry and more effective intentionality in all of life.
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