August approaches. It’s funny – the month of August is usually my cue for reflection. I’ll stop, try and take some space to look back into the past, remember where I’ve come from, the people who have touched my life, reevaluate where I’m headed, and generally try to slow down and remember. I love this habit, but the reason that it happens during August is because of the great (almost seismic?) shifts that have happened in this month over the course of my life.
10 years ago I stepped off a plane in Rio de Janeiro, a little confused, home-sick, lost, and overwhelmed, as well as excited, full of anticipation and eager expectation that good things would happen. One of the things that I didn’t expect was Jeferson. I’ve shared about him before – snippets of his life and death. [I think it’s important to remember (and sometimes impossible to forget) that this story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending.] If he were alive today, we’d be getting ready to celebrate his 26th birthday. He’d probably have kids.
(It’s the might-have-beens that will eat away at your soul…)
Some of you don’t know about Jeferson. I’m sorry. He was one of my first friends in Brazil. A small word-picture of him: picture a 14-year old kid from one of the rougher favelas with a smile and laugh that drew you in and made you feel as if you were sharing a joke that was on the whole world, a zest for life, a deep curiosity about other ways of life, a sense of humor that loved the absurd and was always looking for something to laugh about (or at), a softness and compassion that years on the street hadn’t managed to deaden, and so much potential for leadership that it made your teeth hurt. He was by no means unreal – he had a bit of a temper, and made too many poor decisions, and would all too often be high out of his mind – whether out of boredom, or addiction, or just a way to deal with the immense amounts of pain and brokenness and heaviness that was his life day in and day out, or some combination of the three. But he was deeply, authentically alive, and he was my friend, and he was someone whom God loved, and I loved, and who loved us in return.
There was his voice yelling across the praça when we would arrive, yelling out our names and running to meet us – echoes of the Father running to greet the prodigal son. He would sing loud and hard, loved to eat spaghetti and pizza, and spent a couple of weeks living with us as we attempted to provide a safe place for him get his life together and off the streets. He began to teach me what it meant to parent a child – the mix of love and anxiety, the desire to control and force them to make good decisions balancing out the necessity for freedom, autonomy, and the reality that those you love will make their own decisions for good or for ill, leavened with a healthy dollop of hope and apprehension.
That time didn’t stick – he left our home and was back on the streets shortly thereafter. And the time after that when he went home to live with an older sister who was in over her head in the drug trade didn’t stick either. And then he was in prison for theft, was gone for a few months, and came back a little wiser, a little more guarded, a little harder… Yet in the midst of this, flashes of hope would glimmer. A request for prayer – a tear and a whispered confession and a sincere effort to change and make good decisions – caring for younger kids on the cold wet sidewalks of Rio – a sense of hope – murmured prayers in the dark on the sidewalks and under streetlights.
This went on for two years – two years of shared meals, of spontaneous encounters on the streets and in the slums, on the beaches and in the churches, sandwiches and hot chocolate while huddled under an overhang from the winter rains, singing songs of hope and life and joy and a reality that must have seemed unimaginable at times. Two years of growth, of failure, of prayers, of heartache, of dancing and beauty and life, of pouring myself into him, and being poured into in return. Two years of slow movement, of incremental changes, of three steps forward and two steps back.
I remember sitting in my apartment doing something stupid and pointless on the internet when I heard someone knocking on my door. It was Rich, and he had bad news. “Jeferson’s dead.” And things came crumbling down…
Details were fuzzy, yet as they slowly crystallized became more and more horrific – betrayal, ambush, humiliation, torture, murder… par for the course in our broken world, so full of death, yet real to me in a new and powerful way. It’s a story that has taken place too many times. It’s a story that happens daily, sometimes on a much bigger scale – Syria, Egypt, DRC, Colombia, Haiti, Brazil… It’s a story that continue to play itself out here in Chicago today in my very own backyard. It’s a reality that I find all too easy to forget.
I don’t want to forget. I can’t really. I can pretend, I can distract myself with shiny toys and fun games, but YouTube videos and books won’t bring resolution and a sense of closure. There is work to be done. Reconciliation. Justice. Forgiveness. Hope. Safety. All things new…
I think of friends who are still involved – still kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight – in Kolkata, Katmandu, El Alto, Bangkok, LA, Jacksonville, Antakya, Jerusalem, Port-au-Prince, Chicago – and I am thankful. For their life. For their example. For their courage.
My only response that can hope to make sense of this is trust. Not a trust that pretends there is no doubt. Trust in the midst of doubt. Not a faith that is blind to uncertainty. Faith working through uncertainty. Asking questions, pushing, not settling for the status quo, but in the midst of that holding on to the vision of all things new that gives us hope. I recognize that this is a choice, but it is a choice that I choose to make. And maybe that’s where grace comes in – that I choose to hope, that I choose to look for God, that I choose to try and find beauty, that I choose to act and not despair, that I choose to love and not wall myself off from others, from life, from the pain and the joy.
This spring I finished reading Aftershock by Kent Annan – a slim book written shortly after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, processing what it means to hold honestly to faith while engaging the reality of our world in a clear-eyed & hope-filled way.
In it, I came across this:
An Annotated Wish List
For Changes In/By God
- Rather than a God of occasional disaster-rescue miracles, I want a God whose miracles prevent the disasters in the first place.
- Rather than a God who needed to retreat in order to leave room for human freedom and love, I want a God who finds a
less painful way to make freedom and love work.
- Rather than a system set up so that those who suffer most are also the most vulnerable (usually those who are poor), I want the wealthy to be the most vulnerable. An increase in money beyond one’s necessity could inhibit the body’s production of antibodies.
- Rather than children being at the mercy of nature and of other people, I want no one to die or be physically or emotionally traumatized before turning twelve years old. Nobody. And the only ones who die between thirteen and eighteen should be those whose decisions represent a clear and present danger to others.
- For every unethical action, there should be an equal and opposite reaction – immediately. If you inflict suffering, you should immediately suffer accordingly.
- I want a small indicator button, like a low-battery light, on the prominent C7 vertebrae that protrudes slightly on the cervical spine at the base of the neck between the shoulders. A gentle red light would glow forty-eight hours before death is irreversible, when the downward spiral toward unconsciousness or pain has won. It would indicate time for final goodbyes with loved ones and that a final welcome from God is imminent: “You’re released from this life. Welcome into the next one.”
Kent Annan works in Haiti. He is the author of a couple of books. They are all highly recommended. As is the way he continues to kick at the darkness…
Keep kicking at the darkness friends… until it bleeds daylight…