Wednesday, June 29, 2011
This is Superman. He has a magic flying cape and, like all true heroes, he also has a trusty, albeit seldom-clothed sidekick, Superbaby.
Superman is always telling us about his amazing powers. At bedtime a few nights ago he took my face in both of his hands, and very seriously said, “Everything you and Dad know, from every day and every night, I knew before I was born.” Amazing.
And this morning at breakfast he informed his older sister that he could see through walls. She was skeptical. So he proved it. He looked right through the dining room wall and into the garage.
“Well, then what do you see?” She challenged, snipping off the edges of her words.
“I see a whole lotta junk.” He answered, putting the issue to rest.
She was not astonished.
But I, his mother, find him absolutely incredible. This week, Mister has been attending a morning tennis camp, out of reach of his sister’s shadow. He made it known that his coach said he is “super-duper good at tennis” and watching him walk off, tapping his racket against the concrete and strutting just a little, has me thinking back.
Three years ago, this month, I was dreaming about this boy with a crinkled two-inch photo of him in my pocket. We had been matched and were at the mercy of the Ethiopian court system, praying like crazy for the call that would tell us we made it through court before the Ge’ez New Years holiday and additional months of waiting. Of course, I only remember the experience from my own perspective and was struck by Mister’s telling of the same story to a friend the other day with whom he shared his “special book”.
He sat next to her and carefully turned the pages, relating all the details of his life before us. “This is a picture of me when I was so sad. I was all alone.” I thought about interrupting to remind him that he was never truly alone. The beautiful people who provided transitional care had loved him and walked him up and down the alley while he screamed. But then I thought better of it. If he says he was alone, he was alone; and in a way I hope he never is again. He continued his story, looking at our friend with his saucer-serious eyes, brows raised up and towards each other. “I was all alone and very sad, so I ordered a family.”
He ordered me. Of course.
We have never used that type of language to talk about adoption so his comment caught me off guard on first hearing. Then I moved his words closer to my heart and felt their warmth. He ordered us. He is the protagonist of his own tale. Powerful. In control. Getting what he needs in this life when he asks for it. Choosing a family to bless with a fierce and constant love and a giggle that throws his head back as it bubbles out.
I hope he always tells his story this way, swapping out little words for big ones but leaving himself at its center.
Three years ago this month I was waiting for Superman.
Monday, June 27, 2011
This is Reverend Canon Japhet Ndoriyobijya. He pastors at Murambi Church and St. Steven Cathedral in Kigail. He is currently working on his doctorate in theology at Fuller Seminary. He is also Director at the CEFORMI Vocational School where we visited him and some of the students who are diligently learning skills in a variety of trades.
When Japhet met Greg and Tracy Stone, founders of Rwanda Partners, he was working for African Evangelical Enterprise running “self help groups”. Currently his students are making some of the cloth bags that Rwanda Partners sells in Costco. The vocational programs he oversees have been highly successful, so Japhet has been asked to help train students at some of the other schools RP is partnering with.
Visiting CEFORMI Vocational School was, in every way, fun. Japhet, who lives with his family on the school grounds, greeted us with enthusiasm and eagerly walked us through some of the classrooms where students and teachers were focused on making things with their hands like stools, window casings, handbags, brick pillars and electrical circuits.
In each room, bright young men and women would smile at us briefly then continue working, eager, I think, to cast small visions for us of the lives to which their hands and minds were leading them – lives of stability and accomplishment, free from hunger and want. And the blue of their jumpsuits sang the same song – like the open sky above us.
God, bless these students by the work of their hands.
Sis twirled around me as I did the dishes, a constant river of words passing through her mind and into the air around us. One topic caught my attention and warranted a response.
“Mom, do you know that some people never get to go to school?”
“Yes, Sis. I did know that. And it makes me very, very sad.”
“Ya,” she feigned agreement, but the tone suggested she had already moved past an emotional response to the logical consequences of such a circumstance. And she shared her childish common sense.
“If you don’t go to school you should not get married.”
“Why is that?” I asked, truly wondering.
“Because if you don’t go to school then you can’t help your kids with their spelling, so you shouldn’t get married.”
Although the end point of her thought process was harsh and overly simplistic, her ability to understand the scope of loss when children don’t receive an education was nonetheless profound. A child’s education means more than gainful employment and the ability to meet basic human needs in adulthood. It means, among other things, they can: read signs to avoid danger, understand contracts before signing them, learn from books, follow the news as it is reported in print, apply scientific principles to everyday problems, use math to save or invest or start a profitable business, and (of course) help their children with their schoolwork and feed them nutritious, leafy dreams about where their own education will take them.
Each day we were in Rwanda, we saw groups of children in uniform coming and going from school. Sometimes they were holding hands. The little ones carried backpacks on their backs that obscured all but their ankles. I loved to stare out the window of our minibus and watch. The groups of older girls always sent warm surges of blood through my heart. And the groups of older boys, with fresh white shirts and confident shoulders, caught my breath. They seemed to reflect the full strength of the sun. Radiant with promise.
There is no substitute for education.
The Ntarama Genocide Memorial caught up to me at church yesterday. While everyone around me sang upbeat praise songs, I cried silent tears with my hand over my mouth. Ntarama was the third and last memorial we visited. Like many of the sites where Tutsis were killed by the thousands, it had been a church. Our experience at the Ntarama Memorial was different in that a guide walked us around, laying over the hallowed grounds a steady stream of calculated words. He said things like systematic, indoctrination, polarization, oppression, and racism. He patiently relayed the colonial history and its aftermath - the story of the blood-soaked earth beneath our feet in the tiny sanctuary.
The church was the site of over 5,000 murders. Our guide explained that in the “practice genocide” of 1992, the Interahamwe militia had purposefully avoided church grounds, hoping that Tutsis would flock there when the time was right for their extermination. The plan succeeded and in 1994 many of those who died did so inside the walls of God’s houses.
We entered the memorial through an iron gate that opened into the back of the sanctuary, passing a sampling of human bones which had been cleaned and stacked on gorilla shelves. Some of the skulls were partially crushed or had machete hacks through them. They came in all sizes. The clothes of the victims had been stacked on pews or hung from the rafters, so that we had to pass underneath the rust-colored dresses, coats and trousers on our way to the front of the room.
Our guide spent a long time talking to us once we had squeezed ourselves into earshot around the linen-draped coffins. He pointed out how grenades had come through the windows. He showed us the collection of water cans, baby-bathing tubs, purses and shoes that had been stacked from floor to ceiling to the right of where a preacher had once stood addressing the crowd. He also showed us one of the government ID cards, which had meant life or death during the genocide. Each person had one so that race could be confirmed, since there was no way to accurately separate Hutu from Tutsi based on physical appearance, language or culture. The yellowed paper of the card, peppered with holes and smeared with dirt, was silent but the eyes of the woman pictured stared back, burning my heart.
Our guide added his own story of survival as a child; running from his home after watching his father murdered and traversing the marshland runs through Rwanda, cut here and there by a meandering river where bodies were dumped by the thousands, sent back to Ethiopia, from where the Tutsi clans were said to have originated.
He talked to us with his back to a wall of names. There was not that many names listed. The genocide was been so effective in this region that there was hardly anyone left to properly name the dead. Sometimes there would be only a first name, or a last name – a partial identity gleaned from the evidence that had fallen near the body. “Look at those hillsides there,” our guide said. “They used to be covered with farms. Now there is only grass. There are no people left.” I looked. It was a day’s hike across the space he was describing and the lush hillsides were indeed void of any evidence of human hands.
The Ntarama Memorial caught up to me yesterday morning in church. I pictured the entire permanent population of the college town where I live squeezed into the sanctuary. I looked at the clothes that people around me were wearing and suddenly the heaps of clothing, rusted with blood in the Ntarama church, took the forms of the men, women and children who had been wearing them, waiting in darkness for their eminent death. I pictured our own sanctuary littered with skulls and I wept.
That place had been a church. And it was full of bones. Full. Of bones.
Earlier, when we had visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, I had scribbled down a quote from Yolande Mukagasana. I wrote it down because the beauty and pace of the words grated against the circular and empty logic:
“There will be no humanity without forgiveness.
There will be no forgiveness without justice.
But justice will be impossible without humanity.”
Pascal had told us that humanity does not have in itself what is needed for forgiveness. Forgiveness, or the grace to forgive, is a gift from God. Without it, as Mukagasana seemed to know, there is no hope and no point hoping.
But asking God for the gift of forgiveness by which to begin healing is complicated or stunted by one deep and craterous question: Can he be trusted? The reconciliation director who had met with us early in the week had talked about the importance of beginning the reconciliation process by letting people say out loud what they think about God. He told us what many victims say:
“God is Interahamwe.”
It had been God himself who had come for them and killed their families and stalked them in marsh and darkness. Even if he had not been the one with the machete, he had closed his eyes and listened with arms folded.
The reconciliation director told us that these things need to be said aloud. And heard. And wept over. Then, gently, people can begin to go back to God. “When people begin to realize that God is not hunting them down, they can begin healing.”
And so I add a small prayer of my own: Lord, be waiting. Be warm. Make them brave enough to say what they feel. And strong enough to tip their chins toward heaven.
“The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18
Saturday, June 25, 2011
I started reading Space for God by Don Postema on the bike today. I had rescued it from a free books table at church last Sunday, recognizing the cover from the bookshelves at my parent’s house. The idea of making space for God seems to be a theme for me lately. So I am mulling over some of the mustier spaces inside, tip-toeing around with my hands behind my back. And all that quiet wandering in the depths has brought me to the years my husband and I spent expecting children.
I realize as I write this that I have many friends who are still struggling in the deep darkness of infertility or postponed hopes of children based on life circumstance. I also know there are many friends who will never be able to relate to my confessions about the expecting years. That is okay. I still feel that there is a little word working its way to the surface and it must find its way through honesty with myself about those years.
There seems to be a space for God opened up inside me lately that appeared unreachable in the years that we were hoping for and tending to babies. It is not that God was far away. I can remember the warmth and safety of resting in the shadow of his wing. And I did my share of hovering in prayer around the gates of heaven, shouting suggestions, slipping little notes through the grates, using sign language, and sometimes resting against the wall in exhaustion. He was not far. But I was distracted – foggy with expectation, and the fatigue that comes from wringing my hands in the dark.
My brain was full –
Or green with envy
Or gray. Like charcoal.
Filling out papers
Grieving some more
Trying to remember that my husband married a girl he liked. Not a young and frazzled mother.
For all these reasons, I remembered today as I listened to the words rising off the page, that I don’t miss the space that I have forfeited by our choice to be done bearing children. But thinking about the space that seems to be opening up now leads me to a string of questions that I think will have relevance for other seasons of life which bring along storms of distraction, worry and hope.
Could I have done it differently?
Could I have left more space for God?
Did he feel shutout by my tears, lists and all that shouting at him I did?
Or was I as open as a bleeding heart is able?
Looking back into that fog, I do not feel his judgment or condemnation. I remember him as a loving, faithful Father. But I do wonder how he remembers me?
“Be still before the Lord…” Psalm 37:7
I was next to the sink. Mister was next to me, his waist bent over the back of the chair he had sidled over to the counter. Sis was on a chair next to him, bumping him with her body to express her disapproval at his being allowed to help at all. Peanut was next to Sis. She was also next to the toaster oven and the banana tree. Mister, Sis and I applied what remained of our late afternoon concentration on the task at hand – the expert assembly of layered pudding parfaits complete with two kinds of pudding, bananas, shredded coconut and Nilla wafers. Peanut applied her reserves of attention to toddler inquiry. Then we smelled something burning. I pulled two smoking bananas from the toaster oven and gave you-know-who a talking to. She tipped her chin down, averting her eyes and showed me the fluffy top of her head.
This is what we do, she and I. She discovers, disassembles, disappears. I chastise, chase. Click my tongue and shake my head.
Yesterday she tried to leave for Seattle with a close family friend. The other kids hugged our friend good-bye. Peanut put on her sister's shoes, four sizes too big and on the wrong feet. She zipped up her rain jacket and headed out the door with no pants.
A few highlights from the day:
- Today she led me to her room to show me where she had had an accident. I looked around for the puddle. “Peanut, where did you go potty?” I asked. She looked me in the eye and answered in all seriousness. “All around in a circle.” So I fetched the pet deoderizer and sprayed the trickled circumference.
- I caught hold of her ankle and drug her out from the bottom shelf of the Adult Fiction section during the magic show at the Public Library.
- She found me dutifully doing the neck exercises assigned by the physical therapist to whom I had complained about a six-month headache. As I contorted myself over an exercise ball she came and crawled onto my back with a hairbrush.
“Want me to do your hair?”
“Sure, okay. I’ll do it.” The brush raked through my ponytail until it was transformed into a beehive kept up by a combination of sweat and static. “Looks good. Do you want to see?” She asked, tilting her head and offering me a magnifying glass.
- But she also grabbed my face between both her little hands and told me I was her best friend. Never mind that I was the seventh person she told today and one of the only with whom we are on a first name basis.
Go, Peanut, go.
Friday, June 24, 2011
The evening of our first day in Rwanda the team met with a man who oversees reconciliation projects around the country and the continent. His PowerPoint presentation moved at a pace slow enough to accommodate some vulnerable and raw details of his experiences growing up Hutu, fleeing the country and living through the inhumane conditions of a refugee camp and eventually coming to see the absurdity of hate through the eyes of Jesus. But because he was Hutu and because his family is from the northern hotbed of Hutu hate frenzy, he told us that he often begins his work facilitating reconciliation by apologizing on behalf of Hutus for the genocide, even though he was not himself a perpetrator.
As I chewed curiously on this idea of blanket apology, he pulled the rug out. “You know, you should think about doing the same thing,” he said. “You will go to these villages and people will be polite to you, but they hold mzungus (white people) responsible in many ways for what happened here.” I looked at my shoes but I knew in my heart that I had just been given a word from God.
Leading up to the trip, lots of people naturally asked me what we would be doing in Rwanda. “I really don’t know,” I answered. I anticipated that there was something important about just being there, listening and learning – offering a witness and trying to take some of that home in our suitcases along with the red clay dust of the roads we traveled, stained into our clothes. But I did not imagine taking responsibility for my part in a genocide.
By the time we met this man we had been to the Kigali memorial and looked at the mass grave with the glass door by which they feed the bodies (continually unearthed by construction) onto their rest. At the point of conversation, the 1994 genocide was very real to me, and I would never of had the courage on my own to say anything meaningful about it to the survivors we were visiting.
The Germans colonized in 1884. The Belgians invaded in 1916 (during World War I) and are generally credited with taking a convoluted quasi-social classification and turning it into an arbitrary race war, which burst into the bloody flames of genocide in 1994. And the genocide itself is when the rest of the West solidified its position of purposeful and disdainful disinterest in the dismemberment of innocent women and children by machete. The UN had soldiers in the country. The U.S. received daily faxes from Paul Rusesabagina at the Hotel des Mille Collines (made famous by the movie Hotel Rwanda). But the lives of one million Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers were met with total silence from the West. Although I was not a diplomat or a lobbyist or even a High School graduate in 1994, I know that the UN stood down, paralyzed by their orders and only raised their rifles to kill the dogs that were feeding on the bodies in the street.
On day two of the trip we met with a large group of widows who use a Rwanda Partners building for weekly meetings where they offer each other emotional support. Many of the women were clearly fragile. One had a deep machete scar across her left cheekbone. They talked about Jesus and friendship and finding the strength to bathe themselves and dress themselves, despite their crushing grief. When it was my turn to speak, my lip trembled violently and my heart kept pace. I told them I was very sorry for their sorrows and asked for their forgiveness on behalf of my family, my church and my nation. Right away a few women stood and offered me an embrace. I was folded into strong arms that held me close for a few long, breathless and healing seconds. The small words were accepted over shared tears.
Later in the week we met with a large group of reconciliation ambassadors, many traveling long distances by bus to make the meeting. These are men and women who have made forgiveness the business of their life, investing themselves in the physical, emotional and spiritual healing of their communities. We took our place around the circle of patio chairs.
We exchanged polite greeting and kisses on the cheeks, but I could feel the vague chill that we had been warned about, like the cold of a concrete floor coming through wool socks. My husband felt it too and stood to take his turn with the small words. His eyes began swimming and his voice faltered but he spoke from his heart about the shame and silence of our family, church and nation. When he was done speaking, a few men rose to hug him. One man, with both his arms around my husband’s neck sobbed quietly while the rest of us studied our folded hands.
Then one of the men who had stood to forgive my husband spoke. He spoke quietly, saying through an interpreter that he appreciated the sincerity and accepted my husband’s small words. He then bravely added that all his life he had dreamed of one day getting a gun and killing all mzungus. The hyperbole of his statement did not dilute its raw honesty and truth. Even someone who has made forgiveness his life deserves the chance to extend that forgiveness and continue the process of healing. Pascal, who works for Rwanda Partners and whose story is featured in Wounded Healers, had told us days before (while sitting next to Narcisse, who killed his wife and unborn child during the genocide) that man is not capable of forgiveness. It is a gift from God, accepted in an instant. But healing, on the other hand, is a process. And it can take a lifetime. And sometimes it demands extraordinary distances over which to carry small words.
(forgiver and forgiven after the meeting)
(Narcisse, Pascal and us)