“I distinctly remember being, even then, most strongly impressed with the idea of being a free man some day. This cheering assurance was an inborn dream of my human nature— a constant menace to slavery— and one which all the powers of slavery were unable to silence or extinguish.” Frederick Douglass
I was five years old during the Ethiopian famine of the eighties. I remember sitting on the booger green carpet of my kindergarden classroom when the teacher asked for prayer requests. All I could think about were those kids with bellies like rubber, foursquare balls. Hungry. Even National Geographic, the kindergarden porn with pics of babies on dried out breasts, couldn’t drum up the usual snicker. Desperate. Even then, I seemed unable to accept that this is the way life is, that this is how the world works. Some have a lot. Some don’t. There’s no explanation. Or at least God has some reason. A plan. So you just do what you can. You move on. You go out and enjoy recess.
Maybe that’s why I was there on Monday. I’ve never let go of that five-year old’s dream of a world unbroken. There I was on President’s Day, the Shangri-La of winter recesses, with a Youthfront auditorium full of five, fifteen, and fifty year-olds packaging thousands of meals consisting of rice, soy protein, dried vegetables and vitamin powder to be shipped to countries facing urgent food crises. I named our event the Peasants’ Day Feast. It’s a cheeky play off a day where as a country we remember the privileged and the powerful. Only here, we gathered as a church to honor the peasants and the poor, pledging our primary allegiance to a Kingdom and a King that lives by different values and different rules. We were living into a different imagination of how the world will one day be.
I’d been part of a lot of planning with the Justice Initiatives team over the past couple of months, but there was a piece of this we never saw coming. At 1:02pm, two minutes into our event, our CEO Mike King received a message from a global partner that distributed our last shipment of 275,000 Something To Eat meals to a region in Kenya that was hard-struck by famine last year. Because of ethnic and religious tensions, the images we projected from our screens had blurred out photos of the face of Abdi Welli, a fearless, enigmatic local partner, as he distributed the meals. Then Mike somberly shared the news that Abdi was killed last weekend by a fundamentalist, Islamic rebel group. The weight of his death mocked our dreams of a new world.
I never knew Abdi. I had a sense that this news should have moved me. It didn’t. I wanted it to. I took a moment to think about the fact that at one moment, Abdi held in his hands the very meals that young people I knew right here in KC held in their hands. And now Abdi’s hands have gone cold because the world has grown cruel and cold for his people. Maybe I wasn’t moved because it’s a world that is so distant from my own experience of it. I don’t feel guilty for that fact. Just saddened. I find the task of enjoying the grace of the good world I live in quite burdensome knowing that others are left out.
A couple of weeks ago, I was presenting at a conference and exposing some of the social and economic inequalities in our world to a group of people much like me. Some became anxious, uncomfortable about some of the implications of this information. Almost angry. God has his reasons, they say. We need to do what we can to help out. But don’t feel guilty about it. Move on. Go out and enjoy recess.
I was saddened. I wasn’t trying to induce guilt. It wasn’t about retributive justice, exacting revenge to undo the wrongs of the past. It wasn’t about class warfare. But that’s what we digress to when we forget to dream. There’s a vast difference between being coerced by guilt and moved by a deep longing, an unquenchable desire, for God’s shalom. It’s about having a hunger and a thirst for righteousness, for the world to be put to rights. It’s praying that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s about yearning for all of us to be enveloped in the community of the Trinity, where scarcity and fear are displaced by abundance and love. So instead of being captivated by a dream, we settle for being comfortable. Because for me, for us, the world isn’t such a bad place.
I suspect that Abdi didn’t have that kind of choice. For him, it likely meant either capitulating to a world where death pressed upon him at every corner or believing against logic, against history, against the cries of famine that life, not death, has the last word. Abdi chose to serve that God, that dream, that hope, even if it cost him his own life, much less his own comfortability. This dream was Abdi’s cheering assurance, the hope of God’s future brought into the present if only in part, if only for some. Abdi’s story is not only a constant menace to despair in his own village, but a menace to my own comfortability, to the objects of my allegiance, to the dreams I dream and one which the powers of death are unable to silence or extinguish.