22 January 2017

What are we holding on to?

To live in Iraq is to be surrounded by stories of suffering.  Recently, friends of mine have been returning to their home villages on the Nineveh Plains in territory newly re-captured from ISIS by Iraqi forces.  They had hoped for this day during two long years of displacement, but when they arrived, they discovered that their homes were looted beyond recognition, or simply destroyed.  My friend Father Behnam, who served as a priest in one of these villages, showed me a picture of him taken in the ruins of his former church.  The sanctuary is a blackened ruin, burnt out by the C4 explosives ISIS set off as they left.  He stands in front of the charred altarpiece from which he had celebrated Mass so often before, his eyes empty, his open hands splayed slightly out from himself as though looking for something recognizable to grasp, or perhaps keeping the wreckage at arm’s length.  Liberation from ISIS—the dream sustaining Christians, Yazidis, and displaced Iraqis of all religions—is nearly complete. But the reality of this dream seems now to be a nightmare—and with that dream gone, what is left?

Father Behnam Benoka stands in the ruins of his church in Bartella,
 a town on the Nineveh Plains recently re-captured from ISIS. 
In the movie adaptation of The Two Towers, when any chance of success for their desperate mission seems to have gone, Frodo Baggins asks his companion, “what are we holding on to, Sam?”  I marvel at the ability of Iraqis to persevere despite decades of war and economic crisis, but that perseverance has limits—as evidenced by the steady stream of emigration from Iraq of those who see nothing left to hold on to.  When I cast a wider gaze—to a world in which strongmen and oligarchs are everywhere on the rise—I see even less cause for hope.  What are we holding on to?  In The Two Towers, Sam answers, “that there’s some good in this world.  And it’s worth fighting for.”

This answer, stirring as it is in the movie, is not altogether convincing.  After all, it is precisely the lack—or impotence—of good in the world that is the source of our hopelessness.  Yet this answer is close to the way I see the life of Christian faith, and more particularly the work of MCC:  Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.  Convinced of this, we venture out into the world to see how and through whom God is working and align ourselves with those workers.  In so doing, we not only witness to our hope in Christ but are ourselves witnessed to and taught by those around us.     

One experience recently crystallized this for me.  For over a decade, MCC has had a partnership with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an Iraqi order of nuns of the Chaldean Catholic Church.  This partnership has included a SALT worker, a long-time Global Family grant to their kindergarten, and a rich friendship—with Sisters of the order providing generous gifts, matter-of-fact assistance, and warm social support to MCC workers for many years.  Sister Azhar (pictured here.  Photo credit: Jim Fine.) who heads this school, recently visited me and my wife Kaitlin, saying that she felt deeply troubled about accepting further MCC funding because she felt her school was in a good position financially.  “Every day,” she said “I pass unemployed displaced men, standing by the road, hoping to find work as day laborers.”  She felt that she could not use the money for the school in good conscience when dire need was all around her.  “We have enough,” she said. “MCC should use this money for those who need it more.”  In response to our confusion and sadness—we wanted to continue the project partnership—Sister Azhar only said, “We do not need the money to be friends.  It will make us happy that, because of this, someone else will know the work of MCC.”  So, with a mix of joy, regret, and deep admiration, we accepted her generosity—and her lesson—and began imagining ways to support education for refugees. 
Sister Azhar a nun in the Chaldean Catholic order of the Sacred Heart of Jesus interacts with students in 2013 at Kids House Kindergarten in Iraq,  an MCC Global Family project from 2009 to 2017. (MCC Photo/Jim Fine)

This is what we hold on to.  This is our hope: to find the hands and feet of Christ already at work around the world and partner with them—perhaps through volunteer assistance, perhaps through financial grants, but always through friendships—in the hopes that by sharing in their work and learning from them, Christ’s Kingdom, when it comes, finds a world a little less weary, a little less sick, a little more whole.