Friday, April 20, 2007

Where is God?

Where is God in all this? A friend emailed me that question in light of Cuttington’s current crisis, and I realized I haven’t asked myself that in a long time. Sometimes that question is just too hard to answer, so I look at the easier questions: what’s going wrong, who is to blame, what do I do now, how do I distract myself. When I hear stories of the utter horror and loss of humanity that was Liberia’s civil war, when I see the destruction, when I come across corruption, when children and amputees ask me for money and I walk away, when I see young people fighting instead of talking, when hope for the future seems so far away… Where is God?

I’ve heard reports of a school shooting in Virginia, and I know that that must be at the front of everyone’s minds. Tragic events like these break through that barrier we think we have between the violence and suffering that plague the rest of the world, and us. We believe that these things aren’t supposed to happen, so where is God in all this? When tragedy strikes, we reach out to other people, we care, we come together… but we also get scared. We look for where we can assign blame, and so many times we forget that we are not alone in suffering. We care most about those who are closest to us; I understand that. But we miss so much when we close our hearts to the rest of the world. In January more than 100 union demonstrators were killed by their government in Guinea. The demonstrators were standing up against the corruption of their government (ranked the most corrupt in Africa). The people of Guinea are becoming united against their government, and most likely moving toward a coup. I’m sure Guinea wasn’t on the US news. When I first got here, a Liberian I was talking to was shocked that I didn’t hear that the presidential mansion had caught on fire. “But we get all of your news, you mean you don’t hear about what’s going on here?” I didn’t have the heart to admit I didn’t even hear about Liberia’s war when it was raging just over 3 years ago. In the states, when you do hear about the suffering in Africa, it seems so distant almost not real. And Virginia Tech seems very far away to me too. But perhaps when we speak the language of suffering we will understand one another. Where is God in all of this?

The last few days at Cuttington have been a mixture of scary, sad, and hopeful. The students staged what they claimed was a non-violent boycott of classes on Monday, to bring attention to the grievances they had against the administration. It began by a group of chanting male students, driving all students and teachers from classrooms, and not allowing them to re-enter. The female student leaders had not wanted the boycott, but the men went ahead. The tension on campus continued to escalate as both students and the administration issued demands and a forum for dialogue could not be agreed on. The students blocked entrances to the school, and threatened to break down the generator. The students concerns are valid, having to do with services they are paying for but not receiving, but their methods got out of control. In what seemed to be a moment of panic on the second day, the President of the University, issued a memo declaring that the school be closed indefinitely, and the dorms be vacated. None of the administrators made this announcement to the student body because they did not believe the situation to be safe. A mob of students began throwing stones at official vehicles, and all administrators’ vehicles fled across a field to escape campus (all the roads were blocked). All the ex-pats were asked to evacuate campus, so we packed our bags, and left via footpaths to avoid the roadblocks. We sought refuge with friends at the Phebe Hospital Compound, about a mile from campus. They call it “running” when they talk about the war, “when we had to run”. As Mary and I walked through an overgrown field, and across a stream, pursued part way by jeering students, with all our valuables on our backs, I thought to myself how unreal it was that I was running. Running from students I know and love and do not fear. Jumping from a ship that I couldn’t believe was sinking. None of it made sense. We were in classes last week, and everything seemed fine… how could all that be snatched away so fast? Where was God in all of that?

Mary and I were greeted warmly by our friends. We waited, and slowly the other six Americans arrived. We passed the evening talking, sometimes laughing. Several of my students called to check that I was safe. We got the news that the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (affectionately known as Ma Ellen), was herself coming to meet with the two sides in the morning. So Wednesday we all got up and headed back to campus. The men in our group were called to meet with the President of the University, to discuss the situation. The rest of us waited in the chapel for a couple hours with the students. Packed into the building like sardines, we could feel the energy and tension as though it were waves and all of us were the ocean. Waves crashed down as riot police and a huge caravan of UN troops arrived, and as troops marched in with metal detectors to secure the area. Finally the music director started playing songs on a keyboard, and the music calmed the waves. There was God!

Ma Ellen had a big task on her shoulders. She is so loved and respected here, I had high hopes, but it seemed like it was going to take a real miracle to change things. I have seen female politicians and scientists in the US, who have had to fight for every rung of the ladder they climbed, and in joining the “man’s world” they had to adopt a certain amount of cold aggression. I expected to see that, especially since women are given so little authority here. But Ma Ellen was the picture of a loving African matriarch. Refreshingly feminine, and very much in charge, it felt to me like she was reconciling two children who had had a fight. Without undermining either party’s authority or belittling their concerns, she managed to put the bigger picture back in focus, re-open dialogue, and restore peace. The dorms will remain open while dialogue continues (eliminating the need for a military forced evacuation), and academic activity will be suspended until an agreement can be reached. Ma Ellen said that the government would pay for the dorms to remain open, and in return the students would agree to stop their protest activities, understanding that any perpetrators of violence will be dealt with by the government. An agreement has not yet been reached, we expect to be out of school until the middle of next week at least, but we are home on campus again, and safe to resume life as usual. Our housekeeper asked when we got back from the meeting, “Did the woman come make everything alright?” Yes, the woman did. There was God!

When I think of it, it’s easy to see God in Ma Ellen, in the music director, in my students calling to check on me, in the camaraderie of friends during our one night of exile, in the student body president’s apology. But God isn’t just in the stuff that’s easy to see. If I think about it hard, God was in the jungle smell of the fresh green overgrown field we “escaped” through. God was in the sense of calm I felt, even when I was scared or sad. God was in the beating of every heart, whether in fear or excitement. And If I think about it even harder, God is in everything, everywhere, all the time… we are all the pieces of God woven together into a vibrant ever changing awe inspiring terrible wonderful creation.

Until today I have been afraid to ask, “where is God?” because I was afraid that I wouldn’t see God anymore. What other questions are we afraid to ask? What answers are we afraid to see?

Yesterday I heard the assembly of students sing the Liberian national anthem in the presence of their President, who came to spark reconciliation when others were afraid. “… the home of glorious liberty by God’s command!” How many times has that promise been broken? How many oppressive regimes have stolen the liberty of Liberians? And yet they sing. Yesterday I was privileged to sing along.

May the answers to difficult questions enrich our lives, and lead us ever outward, into the world.