“I have waited for a book like Pillars all my adult life, a personal book that discovers similarities and honors differences between Christianity and Islam, a book that . . . shows what can happen when we connect rather than collide.”
Marilyn R. Gardner, author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging
I think it was in 2012 when I first “met” Rachel Pieh Jones. We connected online over a mutual love and struggle over lives lived between worlds, over writing, and over a shared connection to Muslim majority countries. Meeting Rachel has been a gift that keeps on giving. Through the years we have shared our hearts and our stories and I have learned much through my friendship with this extraordinary woman.
Today, Rachel’s second book Pillars is released and I cannot tell you how excited I am about this book! I had the honor of reading an advanced copy and feel like I have been waiting for it my entire adult life.
Below is an interview from the press release for Pillars developed by Plough Publishing.
When Rachel Pieh Jones moved from Minnesota to rural Somalia with her husband and twin toddlers eighteen years ago, she was secure in a faith that defined who was right and who was wrong, who was saved and who needed saving. She had been taught that Islam was evil, full of lies and darkness, and that the world would be better without it.
Luckily, locals show compassion for this blundering outsider who can’t keep her headscarf on or her toddlers from tripping over AK47s. After the murder of several foreigners forces them to evacuate, the Joneses resettle in nearby Djibouti.
Is there anything you find daunting about putting your story out like this for the world? Absolutely. Spirituality is deeply personal. Sharing such a personal story makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. I hope to honor my Christian tradition, even as my ideas of what it means to be a Christian have been transformed and I’m not sure how people will respond to some of my conclusions. I also aim to honor Islam as I experience it in the Horn of Africa and it is daunting to present another faith tradition as an outsider. I hope to have done so respectfully.
Why do you choose to do it in spite of those apprehensions? I’m a peace-builder at heart and have learned that peace does not come through avoiding hard conversations, and that peace does not mean homogeneity or agreement. Peace is built right in the middle of complexity as we learn to honor another’s perspective. This is something our communities desperately need. Peace is built through shared experiences of joy, grief, fear, and celebration, through choosing to love people without needing to change them, and through realizing that we are the ones being loved too. That conviction compels me to share this story as one example of what peace-building can look like.
How do you imagine your story will be received by North American evangelical Christians? By the Muslim community? I don’t expect all readers, whether Christian or Muslim, will agree with all the conclusions I come to in Pillars. I even anticipate some pushback because Christians and Muslims have a complicated history that can make it hard to see positive aspects in the other. I hope even in the places that feel uncomfortable, readers will find intriguing possibilities for conversation andfurther exploration. At the same time, I know many Christians and Muslims who have developed meaningful relationships. I hope these readers will feel less alone in their quest to find common ground.
Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation “This is a beautiful story, beautifully told. It’s much more than the memoirs of a Christian American living in Africa and exploring Islam with devoted Muslims; it’s about learning how to be a good neighbor to the people around you, wherever you might be in the world. This is the kind of book we need right now.”
Amy Peterson, author of Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World “Filled with hard-won insights of a mature faith lived in long community with Muslim neighbors, Pillars refuses sentimental calls for the kind of peace that glosses over differences. Instead, Jones finds her faith unraveled and rewoven, stronger for what she’s learned in the Horn of Africa and from her Muslim friends. Anyone whose faith has been challenged by life experiences will find a helpful model for spiritual growth here.”
At the end of my full review I said this, and I leave you with it now:
“Read and savor this book, which shows what can happen when we connect rather than collide.”
In 1999, researcher Pauline Boss, introduced the concept of ambiguous loss with these words: “In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief, confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict.
“While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.“
She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment… in the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*
Ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed and expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.
Ambiguous loss is unclear, traumatic, externally caused by illness/work/leaving (not by individual pathology), confusing and incomprehensible.
Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place.
I can’t think of a better description of the losses people are feeling during this worldwide pandemic. Quick pack-ups and overnight border closures, family separations and job losses, death with no or limited funerals, grieving alone – all of it has contributed to lack of closure and a prolonged and ambiguous grief process.
There are two types of ambiguous loss:
Type One: Occurs when there is physical absence with psychological presence. This includes situations when a loved one is physically missing or bodily gone. While there are catastrophic examples of physical ambiguous loss (including kidnapping, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and natural disasters such as earthquake, flood, and tsunami) the more common examples of physical ambiguous loss are divorce, adoption, and loss of physical contact with family and friends because of immigration. This would be the most common type with third culture kids and expats. There is a physical absence, but you know the place you left, the friends you left, are still psychologically present. You see pictures of your adopted home, but you are no longer there. Your children see their school friends through social media, but physically, though the place remains, you are gone. You may never get to visit again.
Type Two: Occurs when there is psychological absence with physical presence. In this second type of ambiguous loss, a loved one is psychologically absent—that is, emotionally or cognitively gone or missing. Such ambiguous loss occurs from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias; traumatic brain injury; addiction, depression, or other chronic mental or physical illnesses that take away a loved one’s mind or memory. Psychological ambiguous losses can also result from obsessions or preoccupations with losses that never make sense, e.g., some suicides or infant deaths.*
Identifying ambiguous loss is a huge step. I remember first reading about it several years ago, how just reading about it did something powerful in and for me. Realizing I wasn’t alone, that there was a name for my experiences, was a pivotal point in better understanding what I needed to do.
There were several steps to my process, and I write them here cautiously, knowing that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to facing ambiguous loss.
Naming it as ambiguous loss was an important first step. Finding a name for what I was experiencing was huge. You can’t cope with something unless you know what it is. At six years old, I waved goodbye to my parents as they stood on the platform of a train station in Southern Pakistan. I strained my head to wave, crying the crocodile tears of a child that knows that they are leaving their primary source of security, but not having words to express it. I strained to watch my parents through the window until the platform was out of sight, finally succumbing to the comfort of kind adult chaperones. I knew that my parents weren’t dead, but their physical absence brought profound loss. It would be the same for all but two years of my childhood until I turned 18 and left home. Finding out about the concept of ambiguous loss was deeply comforting to me. I thought back to many childhood events like this one, realizing I had never grieved the losses because I didn’t think there were any. Naming is an edenic act, and when we name something we open up a door to understanding that is otherwise impossible. In this Pandemic year, it is important to name the ambiguous loss. If you had to pack up with little notice and no goodbyes, if you did not have time to build the RAFT to float yourself and your family, it is probably true that what you are experiencing is ambiguous loss. The place you left still exists; the work and your place within the work may still be there, but you aren’t. Soon, someone else will take your place because though people are not replaceable, positions must be replaced. Naming this is critical to moving forward. If you do nothing else but name it, you are still on a step toward healing.
Use both/and thinking. It’s not one or the other – it’s both. We have both the anxiety of no closure and the opportunity of unexpected change and relationships going forward. Absolute thinking is not helpful with ambiguous loss or the pandemic in general. F. Scott Fitzgerald said this, and it is perfect for thinking about both/and thinking:
“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
This both/and thinking is important for us and for our children. We acknowledge the losses even as we begin to write our names in the land where we find ourselves.
Find meaning in the present. Not acknowledging ambiguous loss can cripple us to finding meaning in our present reality. What is the meaning in your present reality? Where have you found meaning that is unexpected? Perhaps you have found meaning in the act of waiting. Perhaps you have had unexpected time with aging parents. Perhaps you used to long for more time with your kids, feeling like their childhoods were on fast forward in the movie of life. Suddenly, all of life has slowed down and it feels impossible to dream, to look forward to anything. Maybe there is meaning in the impossible.
Reconstructing identity is a third step in facing ambiguous loss. Moving, death, job loss, changing friendships – all of this affects our identity and our perception of our identity. Who are we without what we had? Who are we when we are not in our adopted countries using hard-earned language skills? Who are we without the brother, mother, son, or daughter that we have lost to a country or place far away? Who are we apart from our friendships? Who are we when ministry is gone? All of these questions are a part of reconstructing our identities. Ultimately, in my faith journey I’ve recognized that identity is not about where I am, for that is too fickle and can change through pandemics, military takeovers, natural disasters, and job loss – indeed everyone of those things have affected my life at different points. Instead, my core identity has to be about being beloved by God and recognizing I am part of a bigger picture in His world.
Building resilience, not seeking closure. The goal is not closure, and we make a mistake if we think that is possible. That’s the thing with ambiguous loss – the goal changes from closure to building strength and acceptance of ambiguity. We may never get to say proper goodbyes, we may always wonder “What would have happened if we stayed?” We may always long for something that we can’t even voice. I’ve been learning a lot about being grateful for those things, for they are indeed gifts. We live in a world of displaced people and refugees; indeed that is the story of our time. It is a gift that we know what it is to grieve loss of place and people. Understanding ambiguous loss is in itself a gift. It allows us to enter relationships with hope but without the guarantees that we so long for. This is far more what our world needs than a security and belief that what we have will be there forever. This is true for individuals, and it’s true for a family. As a family adapts to change, stress, and ambiguous loss, it builds resilience and this becomes a part of the larger family story. The larger family story will have a pandemic chapter, but it’s not the only chapter. It’s one of many.
Discovering new hope. As we move forward, we discover new hope. Hope in a future that will continue to hold the hard and unknown, yet entering it with a greater reality of the presence of God. Hope in the words from the book of Hebrews that He who called us is faithful. We may never know the whys, but can it be enough to know Him? I speak truth when I say that some days it is enough and some days it isn’t. I cling to the days where it is enough, where He is enough. And I’m getting better at facing the days when He is not enough, where I pray the Jesus prayer all day long and into the night.
Lastly,God is far more concerned about who we are than about what we do and where we live. If we lose everything, He still loves us. Before He called us, He loved us. I’m sitting with that hard truth, praying that I will know it in my soul. I pray that wherever you are today, and whatever your losses, you may know this hard but glorious truth. He looks at you and He loves you – and though all around you may be loss and grief, that truth is a reality.
Note: This post was originally published in A Life Overseas
It is International Women’s Day and I pause as I think about the different women in my life who have shaped me, who have helped me grow in areas that I wouldn’t have otherwise. This group of women don’t look like each other – they range in color, size, shape, and personality. They are from different countries as well as different racial and ethnic backgrounds. But where they differ in those attributes, each one is a strong force of faith, hope, and love.
I am so incredibly fortunate to have these role models and mentors in my life. But she who has been gifted much has a mandate to give back.
Everyone of us view the world through a different lens. My lens is public health, and it’s through a public health lens that I think about justice for women in the world on this International Women’s Day. What I see through this lens troubles me greatly. Consider these facts from the World Health Organization:
Approximately 810 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth
94% of all maternal deaths occur in low and lower middle-income countries.
Young adolescents (ages 10-14) face a higher risk of complications and death as a result of pregnancy than other women.
Skilled care before, during and after childbirth can save the lives of women and newborns.
Violence against women – particularly intimate partner violence and sexual violence – is a major public health problem and a violation of women’s human rights.
Global estimates published by WHO indicate that about 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
It feels like a desperately slow road for women’s health and wellbeing. I remember my dismay at my first visit to the women’s and children’s hospital in Rania in 2018. It reminded me of hospitals in Pakistan from my childhood, many, many years ago. Though things in western countries have improved dramatically through the years, little has improved for women in the developing world. I struggle deeply with all of this. I long to see better health outcomes for women, long to see real change occur. I long to see greater justice and focus on women’s health and education, because they are so integrally connected.
I long to see us working toward greater justice and equity in women’s health around the world.
And even as I write this, I am acutely aware that justice and equity are not found in a blog post.
Justice is not an instagram story or a facebook post. Justice is not loud outrage followed by a hot latte. Justice is not one stop shopping or a one time event. Justice is not fired up mirror neurons or copycat anger.
Justice is not pity. Justice is not “poor you!” Justice is not a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Justice is not meaningless nods or empty words.
Justice, true justice, is hard work and community giving. Justice is partnership over pity. Justice is daily humility, letting others be the teacher. Justice is knowing we will get it wrong, but working to get it right. Justice is loving and serving others when it hurts. Justice is quiet acts of courage that people don’t always see. Justice is hard repentance and soul searching.
Justice comes from a heart of love and a spirit of generosity. Justice without love is like bread without salt – it looks good but it tastes all wrong.
So on this International Women’s Day, I publicly reaffirm a commitment to my small part in this journey. I commit to learning, to growing, to cultural humility, to working toward greater equity in healthcare, to loving and serving well this group that holds up half the sky.
Here’s to the women around the world who have never heard of International Women’s Day, but faithfully do what they have to do to care for their families and communities. Here’s to the unsung heroes, the stories that may never be told, and the the daily sacrifice of so many. Here’s to resilience and strength, resourcefulness and tenacity. Here’s to the million choices that are made by women daily – choices that hold up half the sky. Here’s to women.
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For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.
When we hear people’s stories, when we are present through listening to events in their lives, we are bearing witness. Bearing witness to the moment that changed their lives. Bearing witness to why they have pain. Bearing witness to the deep struggles of the soul that come out in stories, when we are willing to listen.
Bearing witness means that we are showing that something exists; that something is true. To listen to the survivor of rape and abuse without judgment but with love and belief is saying to them – “I believe that this happened. I believe that you bear the cost.” To listen to the refugee with their story of losing home, family members, walking miles to safety, finally arriving at a crowded, disease-ridden camp is to validate their experience.
Sometimes we are unable to bear witness in person. Sometimes the situation is far away and a writer or journalist brings it to our attention. This was the case for me recently when I read the horrific stories of abuse and torture that are taking place among the minority Uighur populations in China. The BBC is bringing light to these atrocities so that we might bear witness. So that we may not be silent. The headline reads “Women in China’s “re-education” camps for Uighurs have been systematically raped, sexually abused, and tortured, according to detailed new accounts obtained by the BBC.” followed by a note that the reader may find the account disturbing.
More than a million men and women have been detained in what is described as a “vast and secretive system of internment camps” in China’s Xinjiang region. The camps are set up for the “re-education” of the Uighur people and other minorities in China. All freedoms have been taken away and these groups face detention, surveillance, forced “re-education”, and forced sterilization. Documents state that China’s president has given and edict to respond to Uighurs with “No mercy.”
A first hand account from a woman who was interviewed for the BBC special report revealed this:
“Tursunay Ziawudun, who fled Xinjiang after her release and is now in the US, said women were removed from the cells “every night” and raped by one or more masked Chinese men. She said she was tortured and later gang-raped on three occasions, each time by two or three men.”
Sometime after midnight, they came to the cells to select the women they wanted and took them down the corridor to a “black room”, where there were no surveillance cameras.
Several nights, Ziawudun said, they took her.
“Perhaps this is the most unforgettable scar on me forever,” she said.*
We should be disturbed and awakened by this. When we lose our ability to be distressed and disturbed we lose our humanity. That we as humans can perpetrate this kind of cruelty shows our desperate need for repentance and healing. That we can allow this cruelty shows the same.
Bearing witness is more than just hearing the stories. It’s entering into stories. Entering in with body and soul. Entering in with empathy and kindness. It’s entering, and in our entering offering hope and healing. The account in BBC is not a story I want to enter, but it’s a story I must enter. I may be helpless to do something physically, but I am not helpless to pray all of God’s mercy on the women who have been so deeply hurt.
Whose story will you bear witness to this day? To a friend who has tried a hundred times to tell you of their pain, but you have dismissed them? To your child who longs to communicate something about who they are, but is afraid to tell you? To an old woman who once lit up a room with her dance step and her smile? To a paralyzed young man who is dismissed, ignored because he sits in a wheelchair? To an angry coworker?
Or perhaps to a news story far away, that you may never enter in person, but you can enter through prayer with the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on the Suffering. Have Mercy on the Hurting. Have Mercy on Your Creation.”
“But witnesses incur responsibilities, as anyone who has ever seen a traffic accident and had to go to court to testify, knows. In the new world of globally televised war crimes, the defence of ‘not knowing,’ or neutrality, will dissolve for everyone. To be a witness or bystander is not a value-free choice but, inadvertently, a moral position; and in this sense the ‘guilt’ of people who live with the memory of crimes committed by members of their families, or communities, has been unwittingly extended to everyone who watches appalling pictures on the news.” Erna Paris in Long Shadows: Truth, Lies, and History
I feel something oddly comforting as I walk into the hair salon. It smells of conditioner and peroxide, of hair color and shampoo. Everything is black, grey,and chrome. Sleek black chairs with chrome swiveled bases, black framed mirrors, grey baskets on black shelves, shiny black sinks with chrome fixtures, silver sprayed plants, and a vintage grey metal trunk serving as a resting place for a plant and magazines. The look is sophisticated and sleek, luring me in with a vision of all that I am not.
For I am neither sleek or sophisticated and, though I should feel out of place in this space, I don’t.
A lovely young woman with shiny dark hair and smiling brown eyes greets me, laughing as I confess that I look a fright.
“When I saw myself on a video chat the other day, I was so puzzled. I thought my grandmother had come back from the dead only to greet me through 21st century technology, and then I realized it was me!” I said shaking my older than middle aged head.
“Ahh! We’ll get you fixed up in no time,” She said leading me to a chair.
As she expertly worked my hair we chatted and my sad, busy week suddenly felt not so bad, not so sad.
We talked about the pandemic, about masks, about the vaccine hesitation in different communities. We talked about family and loneliness, about fear of others and the sadness of loss. We talked about long summer beach days and picnics on the sand, about her favorite television show centered on Persians in Los Angeles.
None of us has made it through this past year unscathed. Instead, we bear the wounds of disconnection and the discomfort of fraught friendships. We hold this tension in our bodies and our souls. We are more desperate than we know.
We are created for each other, for community, for the kindness and conversation of both strangers and friends. The stylist may never realize the impact she had, the therapy she gave on that black and chrome chair, but in the comforting conversation of a stranger I found myself relaxing. I left more whole, more thoughtful, and less of a fright.
I rarely get political on this blog. While the theme of communicating across the boundaries of faith and culture doesn’t exclude politics, it would limit me too much. But I don’t think of this post as political. Rather, I see it as fitting for connecting the dots to a God who cared enough to walk among us
Last night the news came through that President Trump had pardoned several people. For me, the most disturbing pardon was given to four government contractors, who in 2007 massacred 14 Iraqi civilians and injured 17 others. Witnesses described the attack as a completely unprovoked ambush of innocent people. In Iraq, the tragedy is called “Nisour Square Massacre.” The group who were sentenced, now pardoned, worked for a private military contractor called Blackwater.
Among those killed was a 9-year old boy, shot in the head as he sat in the back of his father’s car.
The trial and subsequent guilty verdict was applauded by human rights leaders around the world. It showed the world, but especially Iraqi citizens, that military contractors would be held accountable for their actions.
I remember living in Phoenix at the time when news of the attack was broadcast. I remember being horrified but in an impersonal way. This was before I had visited Iraq; before I moved to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and had the privilege of working under a boss who was from Baghdad; before I had worshiped in churches with Iraqi Christians. This was before all of that. I felt it, but not the same way.
I hear this news, news of justice rolled back, with a heavy heart. It contributes to what my friend calls a year of “incomprehensible sadness.” And this, just a day before Christmas is celebrated by a majority of the Western world.
The questions go through my mind – who paid for this pardon? Whose connections reversed justice? And though I know I can connect the theological dots, as it were, to what any of us deserve versus what Christ has done for us in his mercy and grace, I’m not going there.
Rather, I think about who is so far removed from this event that they make a decision with so little thought to the agony of the victims’ families? Who would dismiss the importance and significance of what a guilty verdict meant in the case?
A quote by John le Carré says that ‘a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.’ This decision was surely made from a view behind a large desk.
As usual, when I encounter something like this and try to make sense of it, I turn to reflective writing. Where is the ‘But God’ in this? Where, on Christmas Eve, can I find some measure of hope in what has proven time and time again to be an unjust world?
So I go back to the desk quote by John le Carré and there is where I find my hope. When Jesus entered our world as a small helpless baby, he moved away from the desk and entered the place of action where all of life happens. He encountered deep pain, anger at injustice, joy at weddings, dining and drinking with sinners, the beauty of a sunrise, the sadness of a woman cast out. He got out from behind the desk and got into the thick of it. We are told he “emptied himself and took on the form of a servant.”
That God, in his love for us, entered gladly through the person of Christ to live out the joys and struggles of life locked within the limitations of the human body, ultimately conquering sin, suffering, and death is the ultimate moving away from the desk scenario. This is the incomprehensible story of the incarnation.
He loves us enough to get away from the desk. And on this Christmas Eve of 2020, a year where I have grieved and mourned personal and collective death and loss, injustice and wrong, I find my only hope is to rest in the promise that some day evil will be conquered and it won’t be from behind a desk.
So I pause, close my eyes, and hear the beautiful words sung on Christmas Eve “a thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and gloriously morn.”
May Christmas Eve 2020 bring a measure of hope to your world.
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It was 10 years ago today that my sister-in-law and I arrived in Pakistan to participate in a 2-week medical relief trip.
At the end of the summer of 2010, Pakistan had been overwhelmed by floods with millions displaced. Camps for those who had lost their homes were set up across the country and aid was coming in from many countries around the world. Anytime there is a disaster like these floods, there is a domino effect of problems. Malaria, severe malnutrition, dysentery from poor water supplies, and skin diseases that happen when you have thousands of people living in close proximity to each other.
As my childhood home and love, Pakistan has a special place in my heart and to go back in this capacity was a gift. I returned with far more than I gave. What I didn’t know at the time is that it would change the trajectory of my life, for it was during and soon after that trip that I began to write.
I began writing about childhood memories and belonging, about the trip to Pakistan and what it meant to me. I wrote about saudade and identity, about faith and being an adult third culture kid. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Soon after, I began a blog. The blog propelled me into writing a book, and then another book that I had begun several years earlier. Writing was my therapy, my way to make sense of so much that had happened long ago.
At the end of my trip, I wrote an essay called “Holy Moments from an Unholy Disaster.” It was later published in my first book, but as I remember the anniverary of that return, I wanted to post it here.
To you who have read my words, who have encouraged me in my writing journey, who have stuck with me through mixed metaphors and my sometimes grammatically dubious sentence structure – I am beyond grateful. You have made my words live by reading them and posting them, by emailing or messaging me to say that my words resonate. I am so thankful.
On this 10 year anniversary of my return, here is the essay “Holy Moments from an Unholy Disaster.”
Given the choice of a five-star hotel or camping, I will pick a five-star hotel every time. I tell friends that anyone who grew up in the developing world with a commode for a toilet and one bath a week would appreciate my love of luxury. So it was with some surprise that I found myself eager to return to Pakistan on a medical flood relief team.
When I first heard news of the floods, I felt a sadness that was somewhat distant and removed. Pakistan was my childhood love and home, but as an adult I have been more connected to the Middle East through work and travel. My connections with Pakistan had been reduced to occasional emails from friends and to moments on the subway when, eyes closed, the rhythmic movement transports me back to the Pakistani trains of my childhood. That changed when I saw a picture in the New York Times of the city of Jacobabad under floodwaters.
Jacobabad, in the Sindh province, was home to my family when I was a little girl. I broke my leg there. My mother’s artificial flowers were stolen in Jacobabad. Mom had planted them around our house to add color to clay that would never grow anything. They provided a source of joy for a few hours and then they were gone. The New York Times photograph hit my heart in a way I had not anticipated, and through what could only be a work of God, an opportunity came about for me to participate as a nurse on a medical relief trip to care for internally displaced people in northern Sindh.
I never imagined that my life for a short time would resemble a National Geographic feature story. Although I grew up in Pakistan, raised my family in Islamabad, and lived for seven years in Cairo, my current reality is downtown Boston, where I drink a Starbucks coffee daily. I shop at Ann Taylor and get frustrated when my hot water runs out or I don’t have time to put on my eyeliner. But in early September the idea of working with victims of the flood suddenly became real and I became cautiously excited, knowing I may not have what it would take but willing to take that chance.
On October fifteenth, accompanied by my sister-in-law, Carol, and thirteen thousand dollars worth of donated medical supplies, I boarded an Etihad airliner and flew via Abu Dhabi to Karachi ending the journey in Shikarpur, Sindh. Outside the Shikarpur gates, a kilometer from the hospital where we were based we passed the burnt remains of a convoy of twenty-seven trucks that had been featured in the New York Times “Pictures of the Day,” and I realized that I hadn’t paid as close attention to the location of that picture as I perhaps should have.
The two weeks that followed were filled with holy moments. I watched as a mom pointed to heaven in thanks for food distributed to her family. I laughed with children at my own mistakes in Urdu and Sindhi. I prayed in the depths of my soul for the baby who looked like a skeleton at four months of age and for the emaciated mom who held that child with the love only a mother could have. I put shoes on the ulcerated feet of an ancient woman, countless stories written into the wrinkles on her face. We delivered a sewing machine to a widow who danced with it on her head. We saw and served people created in the image of God. These women and children in their beautiful, brightly colored clothing were “no mere mortals” and dear to the heart of God.
Our team — a doctor, two nurses, a community healthworker, interpreter and food distributors — were like a mini United Nations. We represented six people groups and six different languages, but we shared a unity in purpose and spirit that gave us efficiency, laughter and joy. In fourteen days we covered eight villages, surveying needs, running medical camps, and distributing food. Mud huts, tents provided by USAID, and charpais combined with chickens, roosters, water buffalo and cow dung completed the setting and tested our nostrils and stamina. But everyday provided a new adventure and new moments of awe.
There was, for me, an added bonus. Almost anyone who was raised in a country other than his or her passport country can relate with the immigrant experience. The sense of isolation, nontransferable skills, and being ‘other’ can creep up at the oddest of times and result in a deep loneliness and sometimes conflict with one’s passport country. Our lives are lived between worlds.
But for those two weeks I was not other. I was home. I saw friends who knew me when I was young, received blessings from men who worked with my father and women who had deep friendships with my mother, walked through compounds to the embraces of old friends, and was woken yet again by the call to prayer. These were holy moments that I had not anticipated.
A wise friend once told me that there are times in our lives when we need to remember who we are. During those two weeks, I was given the gift of remembering who I was.
Since leaving Pakistan as a child, I, like many, had to redefine my faith. It has often been a painful process. I struggle with unanswerable questions about life and God. This trip back was a humbling reminder that the God who sustained me when I was six years old at boarding school, crying into my pillow, is a God who still provides holy moments in places where real life happens.
I arrived back in JFK International Airport in New York City after twenty-three hours of travel and within a few minutes felt ‘other’ again. I faced a moment of confusion as I looked at the Immigration line options. Was I really a resident alien? An alien? No. I was a US citizen, shaped by cultures and moments that were not of my own making. In that moment I recognized that the peace of belonging happens deep in my soul and that peace can transcend the outside circumstances.
I don’t know why I was given the gift of going. That is a mystery to me. But I know it was Grace.
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