Catherine Thiel Lee is a member and serves her congregation at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. She is a chaplain at University of North Carolina Hospitals. Catherine has a Master of Divinity degree from Regent College and worked with refugee claimants in Vancouver, British Columbia. She lives, plays, reads, and lovingly tends a scrappy garden in Chapel Hill with her husband, Michael, and two sons.
Open Our Mouths
Open our eyes to see the misery you see
Open our ears to hear the cries you hear
Open our hearts to weep where you are weeping
Open our lives to love with the love of Christ.
from Seeds of the Kingdom: Common Prayers for Ordinary Time, Taproot Press
A failed military coup happened a couple of weeks ago in a nation about the size of Maryland. Burundi, Rwanda’s less famous neighbor, is in crisis: protestors are demonstrating and being killed, thousands are fleeing the country. Many fear that wealthy elites will try to fan the flames of quieted ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis who engaged in devastating acts of genocide twenty years ago. Burundi made our national news for about 20 seconds. Small places get small press.
I know about the situation in Burundi not because I keep close watch on global politics but because I have dear friends there. I am afraid for their lives. I am afraid for the stability of their home, the country they love, the place I had hoped one day to visit and share a table with them. I cannot tell you their names because we have been warned to keep them off social media for their safety.
Naming people and places is powerful.
I cannot tell you my friends’ names, but I can tell you the name of their country. I want you to read “Burundi” as you sit at your desk or scan this blog on your phone while you wait in line at the supermarket. I want you to know that Burundi exists, even if media outlets only show mild interest. In the aftermath of the genocides in Burundi and Rwanda, we in the West marveled that something so terrible happened in plain sight of the world.
Back in February of 2009 my family and I shuffled in the back door of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. It was our first time visiting a Mennonite congregation. We never meant to become Mennonite. We were there by happenstance – the church met close to our house, the pastor was a friend of a friend, and we wondered if we might find some respite with the peace and justice crowd. We were not a little bedraggled, dragging young children onto a new set of pews among strangers. We had recently returned to Chapel Hill after seven years in a beloved community in Canada. We were tired and in the throes of reverse culture shock, grieving and feeling far from “home.”
After the opening hymns Dave stood up for the congregational prayer. I don’t remember much. (A seven month old was squirming in my lap; prayer is hard.) I do remember these words:
“And we pray for the on-going world food crisis, for people who don’t have enough to eat and can’t buy food today.”
In three words, I became one of you; “world food crisis,” Dave prayed. Tears pricked my eyes. I let out a deep sigh of sadness mingled with relief.
I wondered if these Mennonites might be my people.
It turns out you are.
At the height of our “Great Recession,” I was confused and longing for a community that remembered the rest of the world. Amidst daily reports of the fear and intensity of our U.S. Economic Downturn it was hard to remember there were things unfolding outside our borders. Insularity is difficult to combat for communities in turmoil. In my three months back in the U.S. I hadn’t heard a single mention of the “world food crisis”: not in the news, not in the activist university community, and certainly not among Christians. My west coast friends’ families were starving in Cambodia. There was not enough rice. None of us here seemed to notice.
And yet a small community gathered in prayer and spoke truth to God.
Together we asked for God’s mercy. Our prayers stretched our eyes and ears and hearts and lives – stretched us out to include others far away, those seen and heard and wept for and loved by God. It wasn’t much, those three words of prayer. I doubt it filled the bellies of my friends’ families. I doubt it impacted global food shortages.
And yet our prayer acknowledged what was happening in the world, in plain sight of God and neighbor. I came to know the Mennonite community as one who dares to see and hear, to weep and love – and to speak together.
So I will go join my congregation again this week and speak “Burundi” and my friends’ unspoken names.
I will trust that my community will listen, and will pray with me.
I will remember that the Lord does not stand far off, and the oppressed are not hidden from God in times of trouble. I will know again that in crises near and far – in moments of turmoil and hunger, sickness and death – our God draws near.