As we continued to work alongside many creative and courageous Iraqi human rights workers, we became more conscious about rooting out aspects of colonialist attitudes or patterns of how we worked. We saw ourselves less as working to help them, as walking alongside them in their struggles. And these Iraqi sisters and brothers taught me much and were a source of encouragement and inspiration for me.
One of those was a Sunni Muslim woman, Awezan, from the city of Kirkuk, who, with her husband, risked death threats when they organized protests against the violence toward Christians and other minority groups in their city. They also brought people and leaders of the differing faiths together to work cooperatively for justice and reconciliation. One day, I asked Awezan, “Tell me why you do this work?” I’ll never forget what she said:
“We do this because we must. The power of deadly force leads to more death, poverty, and suppression of the human spirit. We may not see peace in our lifetime, but we must choose a way that can stop the cycles of violence and bring life for future generations.”
Developing close relationships with people of other faiths gave me the opportunity to see through many of the divisions and suspicions, and even the sense of superiority many of us had been programmed to have. My heart, and understandings about faith, were continually expanded, and theological correctness became less important. Matters of the heart and our common commitment to work out of love for those suffering violence and oppression bonded us together, so that I feel more in tune with them than with those who use the “right” words, labels, and practices of faith, but don’t manifest these things in their life.
While we were in Baghdad, I looked forward to the days when I had free time to volunteer at a home for severely handicapped children. While playing with the children, they gave me a lot of love that helped balance the heaviness of the grief and pain we constantly took in.
These moments of love and beauty helped me through times when danger was very real—times when I didn’t know if I’d come out alive—times when my beliefs were put to the test—and refined.
The most harrowing time was when some of us were kidnapped for several days, but, fortunately, released unharmed. I felt no firm footing, no assurance that I would live through it. I had to walk into a space of the unknown, a place that was frightening and hard. No theological beliefs could carry me. I had to hold onto every thread of faith and inner strength I had.
I prayed continually for strength and guidance or silently sang songs of strength and hope. Those of us captive shared stories of our lives when we were alone together. I recalled the things I learned in my previous nonviolence training, about staying in the present in a threatening situation and how to relate to those threatening us. I was able to speak firmly to our captors, even if I didn’t feel strong, and was able to avoid sinking into the terror that was lurking in the wings.
Later, I could look back and see ways that I was protected and guided and given strength way beyond my own. After processing this more, this is a shortened version of what I wrote:
“When we do give ourselves to love in action, we know it might result in personal harm. But we can also know that we do not walk alone, even if we can’t feel it—when we are stumbling along blindly in the darkness. When we accept the possibility of death, we can act boldly. So many wonderful gifts have come out of these times when we took risks to do the work we felt compelled to do.”
The deep experiences and the trauma I experienced working in Iraq did challenge my faith and produced growth. We prefer putting God into neat packages. I’ve come to more acceptance of the paradoxes and reality that things are not the way I think they should be—and that there is just much that I don’t understand.
I still consider myself a follower of Jesus, though it is more difficult identifying myself as a Christian when throughout history, the Church has blessed and supported the rich and powerful and systems of injustice. I don’t feel in sync with people who call themselves Christian but have discarded or twisted the core of Jesus’ teachings into something to make us feel good or give us power or wealth. Religious language and having the correct theological beliefs about God and Jesus are not as important as what is real in one’s life and can be seen in their lives and actions.
It’s also tempting at times to just disassociate myself from the Christian faith. But I would be denying the many gifts I’ve been given in my life—the times when I haven’t been able to love, forgive, deal with situations, where the strength and ability was given to me. God is still real for me and is a source of love and spiritual power when I am open, and not seeking these for just my own benefit, but as gifts to help me put love into action.
There are periods of time when the pain and grief I had experienced make it hard to feel God’s presence and guidance, and the joy I would like to have. But even when I can’t feel it, there is a foundation of faith that stays with me and guides and strengthens me. I still pray for clarity, love, understanding, compassion, and strength, and be given strength I don’t believe I have. God helps me rise out of my self-centeredness, fears, and complacency—what people of faith call “sin,” and be able to take powerful action. Sure, others may use a different language for this reality.
And I see the way Jesus articulated and lived—the way of love, reconciliation, caring for the needs of all—actually a very revolutionary way—as the most life-giving way I know. I still feel an awe and wonder at the amazing beauty, intricacy, and resiliency of the natural world that I can’t explain, but which has been healing for me. I still experience times of love breaking in, like a gift, in almost impossible situations to help us through. I’m deeply grateful for life, as it has been given back to me over and over.
I have now stopped going overseas to work, and I find many worthwhile things to do here with neighbors and friends that need help, and volunteering with our local food pantry, and there are endless causes of justice to work for. I stand at our weekly peace vigil, protest the fracking industry and injection wells around Athens County, go out on the street after yet another black man or woman is killed, or protest the big banks pouring money into more fossil fuel pipelines. Yet, in the face of so much structural violence, our environmental crises, and little political will to really address them, I, too, get discouraged.
But what happens if we give up, stop speaking out, telling the truth, and seeking justice? I keep on, because, like Awezan, something deep inside me says, “I must!”
I believe this knowing that “I must,” is a gift that God gives us. We can still work for justice and peace over the long-haul, experiencing repeated failure to see real basic change in our society and government, and yet not fall into complete despair when this hope that propels us is based in our trust in God.
At the end of my second book, I wrote this: [changing just a few words]
“I am not the same person who came to Baghdad in Oct. 2002….My heart has learned to deeply love and also to break….I have struggled to accept a world that is full of undeserved pain and loss, caused by the callousness and cruelty of others. My faith has been tested and refined to take into account all the darkness I’ve taken in, but not get lost in it. I never want to lose sight of beauty and kindness, and the redemptive power of love. I have chosen to keep on walking forward with others who have caught a vision of the power of truth and love to confront and transform structures of evil—the power-seeking violence and greed that exploit and crush a people for an institution’s, government’s, or individual’s gain.”
So, for me, it comes back around to this: It is one thing to talk about love, but another to really experience its power to break down fear and the barriers of hostility. At such times I have been given the gift to know that this power is real—so real, that I have been willing to live [give] my life for it! And, thank God, this power and this love doesn’t depend on me and my meager strength!