Day Three continued with a story about running for your life, story in the form of many mediums of art, and a story of how to balance faith, power, and allegiance. In other words, a refugee, an artist, and a chaplain walk into a bar…
“What did I do to deserve this?”
Our final speaker for our first day of seminars at the United Methodist Building was a young man named Engoma Fataki, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo who has spent a majority of his life living in various refugee camps. For those keeping track at home, Engoma first entered a refugee camp at age 5. He’s 19 now. Engoma is working with GBCS as a student in the Ethnic Young Adult Intern Cohort, a ministry designed for young people to explore their faith while they work with an organization focused on social justice. What we heard today was his personal witness.
In his story, there are many tents, many pieces of trash, and not much else. That’s the
sea of items one could find where Engoma lived most of his life. He recounted tales of wandering with the other children, playing amongst the trash that had nowhere else to go, seeking out sugar cane. Not for the sweet taste, but because it grew nearby and they didn’t know where food would come from tomorrow. As for the tents, not everyone got them, because a tent is yet another resource a refugee must apply to receive and it’s quite possible one could be denied such a basic shelter.
In his story, there’s a lot of tears. He recounts crying a lot as a child, that there were “Many tears flowing from my eyes, like a natural stream.” He told us he kept returning to some tough questions, the kind of questions no child of God should have to ask themselves: “Did I deserve this? Did [my family] deserve this?” He even says he questioned his own existence. May died around him of diarrhea and Malaria. There were even suicides as the conditions of life as a refugee overwhelmed some hearts.
The words Engoma kept returning to? “Harsh conditions.” Over and over.
I’m not okay with a 5-year-old going to and ending up living a majority of his life in “harsh conditions.” Are you?
Is it just that a 5-year-old boy must flee with his family to a swarthy camp?
Is it a fair policy that he cry himself to sleep most nights because of his own and international governments’ level of concerns over human rights?
Is it an equitable policy to live in a refugee camp with no freedom to exercise his religion?
Is it right his application process to enter the US took four years?
Is it okay that a young man who has aspirations to work with the UN, whose back-up plan is law school, who “only speaks Portugese, French, Swahili, and pieces of other native dialects,” who witnessed his siblings narrowly survive diarrhea that brought death to so many around them, is it okay that after he finally, finally, finally gets to the US legally, he’s bullied for not knowing English?
Because that’s what happened.
This is one story of many, of course. Every person whom has lived as a refugee has her or his own story. Hearing Engoma helped make the migration policies we’ve been exploring real in an authentic way.
It’s one thing to talk about the theory. It’s another to listen to someone’s story.
“I like art, long walks through the city, and Ivanka Trump…”
After seminars, we walked into downtown for a museum and dinner. The United Methodist Building is around a half-mile from the William Penn House, so our walk to the restaurant area was another mile or so, definitely our longest intentional hike of the whole trip. We went this far because nearly all of the free Smithsonian museums close at 5:30 p.m., but the National Portrait Gallery and connected Smithsonian American Art Museum are open until 7:00 p.m., so off we went.
I’ve been to these museums before and really dig them. Lots of contemporary, fascinating art. Video sculptures, 3D displays of seedy 1930s Brooklyn apartments, fossil skeletons of beasts that never existed, and even a few Internet forwards in-person. The last time I was there, I was alone, and this time I was excited to experience it with others. It certainly my gave me an excuse to recite “We Real Cool” by memory, doing my best Gwendolyn Brooks impression, as we past by her bust. The art display of portraits in the freedom exhibit was especially poignant, given our seminar that day about considering whether people are oppressed and in need of allies seeking justice through the majority power they have. The special exhibit, Painting Disaster, was haunting.
Art wasn’t the only thing on display in our time there. Turns out, Ivanka Trump walked in about five minutes after we did. There was a moment of mixed responses, from taking photos and gawking to shrugging or turning away. We all respond to the notion of “celebrity” in different ways, of course, and let’s be honest: throwing politics on top of it can enhance our response and sometimes in surprising ways. Many of us, after that initial moment, zoomed past Ms. Trump, her detail, and museum guide so as to pick up the pace and stay out of the way.
As for me, later, at the Disaster display, she walked up to my place in front of a beautiful painting as I turned to walk back to a crowd of teens. She and I smiled at each other and nodded as we walked past maybe 1-2 feet from each other. I’ll do not always agree with Ms. Trump, and yet kindness is important to me. After all:
Dinner and a Chaplain
How fortuitous, for across the street from the museum that’s open late is a great restaurant for dinner, Gordon Biersch. Rebecca, Ben, and the whole crew were very helpful, ensuring our private room was all ready. We even had a specialized menu with great options: classic Caesar salad (with chicken or salmon), ½ lbs. cheeseburger, fish and chips (so good!), or red sauce pasta with a garlic crostini. I suppose it’s not so important to mention the crostini, but how often does one get to write about a crostini?
At dinner, we were joined by Col. Rev. John Morris, who serves the office of the Chief of Chaplains for the US Army at the Pentagon. Ch. Morris has a Minnesota connection and told us to look him up if ever we were in town. Well, here we are! Before I get too far with our meeting with Ch. Morris, he did make it a point to say that while some of our other speakers are speaking on behalf of organizations (Rob and JFON, I think, is a perfect example), he is offering his own opinion and not necessarily representative of the views of the US government. Please keep that in mind, Dear Reader, as you go on.
After we ate, Ch. Morris told us about his responsibilities and took our questions. He explained that as a military chaplain, he holds worship services with communion and preaches, only sometimes his sanctuary is the desert or a field, and sometimes communion elements aren’t set on an altar but on the hood of a Humvee. Certainly, a testament to the United Methodist Church’s push to remind us all that “Church can happen anywhere.” He advises commanders on moral and ethical issues and end up doing a lot of 1:1 spiritual counseling. He mentors young chaplains and sometimes is responsible that even if there are 20 Jews on a base of 28,000 professing Christian personnel on a base in Oklahoma, it’s up to him make sure they still have worship, still have a rabbi available. He’s had the opportunity to sit down with other world religion leaders from all corners of the globe and with theological hermeneutics “all over the spectrum,” from an attitude of new friendships to being told we will not see each other again. Certainly, there is risk in his work.
Most every situation we asked Ch. Morris about was complex and Ch. Morris gave complex answers. Not cagey, not carefully-constructed, but simply complex. A vast majority of his work is about trying to see an issue from as many angles as possible in order to help military leaders see issues with all of that in mind, too. Therefore, for example when we asked him about whether the US should sell arms to nations that have human rights violations, he affirmed how challenging it can be to assert the need for human rights to be upheld while also not losing the sale to competitors who don’t even think about those consequences, abroad or otherwise.
The big question of the night was about how to serve Jesus and the United States and what does allegiance look like for him as a chaplain. I appreciated his response. Ch. Morris reminds us that Jesus is sovereign over the whole earth and rules with complete justice while the US is an earthly kingdom and it doesn’t always work out that it’s right. It can be tough for young Christian soldiers to wrap their mind around that.
Chaplains must live in that internal tension every day. They ask is this moral, is this ethical, is this legal, what would Jesus do, over and over. For example, conflict involving military force can involve one soldier taking another person’s life. So if someone can’t do it any more, they have a conscientious objection, they must discern whether they will walk things long and thorough path toward a healthy parting / discharge. It’s necessary because this is a team sport and if you can’t do your job, someone else has to do it or someone can be killed. And “moral objections don’t cut it.” If you’re in a line of work that involves having to kill someone, “You should have moral objections to work out.” For him, it’s the homeless vets who are often the ones haunted by some of the things they’ve done or witnessed regarding this moral and ethical issues.
If you want a funny chaplain story, you’ll have to ask Ch. Morris about his trip to Airborne school, Dear Reader. 🙂
Friends, that is a big full day. Tomorrow we have our second and final day of GBCS seminars, and an evening on the National Mall. Thank you for your prayers, your subscription, your shares, and your comments. See you soon!