Years ago, I spent my junior year in college studying at Trinity College in Carmarthen, Wales. (It’s now known as University of Wales Trinity Saint David.) It was probably the single most important thing I did to become a better citizen of the world. No amount of traditional learning in any setting had as significant of an impact on my understanding of the “human experience” as my year of 1989-1990.
It was also a very difficult year for me. I was away from home, I missed my family, and I saw some horrific things. Car bombings, rioting, police brutality, starving kids, extreme wealth, hatred, ignorance, fear–I saw so many things in one short year. It was a year of contrasts in so many ways.
I carry in my head and heart images from that year. They are very clear and very visceral images. The brightness of blood against a boy’s pale cheek in the riots at Trafalgar Square. The contrast of the dirt and the sagging diaper of the boy begging at the building site for a Olympic hotel in Barcelona. The shine of the man’s signet ring right before he punched me for being an American.
And the look of Nicolla’s face as she said she had to return home to Dublin. “Me brother’s been killed. I’ll be home just long enough for the funeral and then I’ll be back for class.” Her face was empty of what made her Nicolla. She never cried, her voice never broke. It was delivered in that matter of fact voice that didn’t sound like grief but of weariness. It was her third brother to be killed in the Troubles and later she confided it had just seemed like a matter of time.
I’ve never forgotten my Irish, Scottish, and Welsh classmates. They fit in with all the other kids from all over the UK, but during those days of political unrest, they seemed to carry a weight my British friends had managed to escape. It was as if they carried invisible card catalogues – rows and rows of tiny drawers filled with the pains of their lives as young people who have always lived in violence and war. If they opened a drawer, the pain and sorrow was right there. So in order to survive, they kept the drawers shut. But they couldn’t put down those burdens. Those memories and feelings bent their backs, shuttered their eyes, and kept them from fully living.
After that year, the Irish “Troubles” mattered to me.
After I had students from Sierra Leone, the diamond mining industry mattered to me.
After I had a Croatian student, the political wars in what I had known at Yugoslavia mattered to me.
After I knew a young Muslim woman who was facing her genital mutilation “ceremony”, female genital mutilation mattered to me.
And now that I know a Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem, the violence in Gaza matters to me.
I just got back from a week of outdoor ministry at Camp Adams in Mollala, Oregon. This makes the fourth year I have directed the high school week and as exhausting as it is, I love it. It is the one week of my professional year that refills and sustains me for the next 12 months. It is the week where I am reminded that working with teens is my passion and it brings out the very best of me as a person and as a leader.
And this year, it broke my heart.
My camper, whom I will call Sunshine in order to protect his identity, was a great camper. Sunshine didn’t complain about early wake-ups or late nights. He didn’t complain about the food or the mosquitos or the weather or anything. He didn’t complain. (Well, he might have, but never to me.)
My heart tells me that Sunshine didn’t complain because for the first time in all his 16 years, he got to feel like a kid and do all the silly things that we take for granted. He didn’t complain because there were no guns or shelling, no bullets and no shouting. There was only a community of people who honestly and authentically shared with him who they were and welcomed him to share of himself.
I don’t have the words to explain how I am feeling these days. I’m angry and disillusioned and scared. Because Sunshine matters to me. It matters to me that there is a very real chance that he will be killed. And for what? As he said, the violence “will never end because both sides have the money to keep buying guns, keep buying bullets.”
So I’m sitting here at my dining room table, my children playing in the background, and I think about how I work in youth ministry. I think about how my faith journey is not a clear one. I think about how I am struggling.
I’m struggling with how many times humanity has been absolutely inhumane because it has convinced other members of humanity to take up arms against one another, or to at least look the other way while whole communities are murdered. I’m struggling with current practices based on archaic texts. I’m struggling with faith practices that exalt a few at the cost of many.
I’m struggling because there are faces in my mind’s eye – real people whom I will carry in my heart who matter to me. And I know that because of their gender or their ethnicity or their passport, they don’t matter to the people who will cut their flesh or bomb their homes or gun them down on their way to school.
I am struggling.
The last thing I said to Sunshine is that I will carry his voice and smile in my heart for as long as I walk this earth because he matters to me.
I wish he mattered to everyone. I wish everyone mattered to everyone enough to put down the guns and put down the bullets.
If we put down all the ancient texts for three generations and never spoke of them, and instead spoke only of loving one another and treating everyone as we want others to treat us, if we taught children to never touch another in anger regardless of gender or appearance or age, what would our world look like?
I think we would finally see what really matters.