When Jesus spoke of the children, he must have had Liberia in mind. Everywhere, in every village, in every town, on every road, there are children. Most, at least at first, will eye you warily, looking like a frightened cat, an intense stare, muscles tensed, ready to take flight from this unknown threat that we represent, white folks with note books in hand and cameras by our side. Of course, had I the misfortune of being born into a place where over the last twenty years there has been at least as much warfare as peace, I suspect I might look a bit cat-like as well. For here, even during the times of peace, marauding bands of rebels, or the over-zealous thugs known as government forces, never remained too far from one’s periphery, always seeming to inject themselves with shakedowns and roadblocks and violent outbursts that would bring another moment of anguish or an additional point of death. In such an environment, I imagine that skittishness is a desirable trait if one wishes to extend one’s life into the next minute. But sometimes, if one is indeed fortunate, even a frightened cat will find its way to gently nuzzle your leg, and then you will know, you have been well-adopted indeed.
Our small party had come these thousands of miles to enter into a covenant of sorts, to lay claim to this notion that the church, this Body of Christ, really does extend beyond the bricks and carpet and fine crosses and candelabras of our local sanctuaries. We came with the strange idea that our borders are not confined by this nationality or that, that our culture is not established solely within the context of geography or language, and that our familial ties are more than flesh and blood and genes.
We came to this place with the wild assumption that we are a connected people, brought together in a relationship that is never static but must always be lived into and out of. We came because these children of Africa are our children. In their wholeness, resides our wholeness and in their suffering, resides our condemnation. We came in the hope that together, we might somehow discover a bit more of God’s joy.
And I think, if I am truly honest, I must admit, we came because to not come, in some measure, gives ourselves over to the death of our own faith, the deception that never seems very far removed from our own reality, the great lie that insidiously permeates our being always whispering that nothing changes, love fails, that violence only understands violence. Indeed, perhaps we came out of the simple fear that despite it being a seemingly ludicrous notion, God really does expect us to put a foot on the mountain and climb, or submerge one’s shoe in the river and cross, or maybe even get out of the boat … and walk.
Perhaps, that is the wonder of this paradox of faith, the act of stepping into the empty chasm of our own disbelief and discovering that, “surprise!” it is the only solid ground around that ever truly exists — a preposterous assertion I know, but I’d suggest no more ridiculous than the absurd thought that the most vulnerable and insignificant children somehow are indwelled by the essence of the creator of the universe and that these little ones who are seemingly of no account become the living receptacles of incarnation. Children, always, there are the children.
As we moved into a village, the adults would rush forward with jubilant embraces. The children would be there too – a few venturing forward with the boldness of the adults, but most, especially the small ones, keeping their distance. They peeked at us from behind mothers’ skirts, sometimes natural mothers, but most times mothers who had become mothers only because the war had left no one else to care for these small ones. Mothers of necessity. Mothers because they could not leave the children to fend for themselves, or to die.
But then, as someone would raise their camera and focus on the face of a child who had braved the presence of these very strange strangers, the other children would suddenly explode from their hiding places. With great exuberance, most would seek to place themselves squarely in front of the clicking shutters. The camera would become the flute and its holder would know the reality of the piper. Amid the laughter and smiles, amid the squeals of joy and rampant jubilation, amid the good humored jostling for the best position, some of the thoughts of fear and war and killing would be over washed with love … and at least for the moment, children would simply be children.
I often wonder how it was for these little ones when the makers of war came to their village. I wonder what were their thoughts when the madness erupted around them, when the rockets crashed through their buildings and the bullets ripped through the bodies of their parents. I wonder what imagery impressed itself forever through the shutters of their souls as their sisters were torn apart by the explosions and their brothers burned in the smouldering rubble. I wonder what it is that must indwell us humans that we could do such things to our children … and never notice the horror, or simply dismiss it with clichés. I’m sure that the nuance of it all is lost on them – the reasons and explanations, the honorable and high-sounding words with which we dress these unspeakable horrors of war, the prose we use when we advocate for war’s necessity or claim it as a just act. The children seem only to be left with the scars and the nightmares and the fear that never seems to completely diminish … even amid clicking shutters and squeals of laughter.
Those of us who have waged these wars, and those of us who have remained silent, who have been too busy to notice the nightmare or too apathetic to care, we are the ones who bear this sin by which we have marked our children, not only in Liberia, but in all other places where children go to sleep by the sounds of shots or sirens, or explosions or where children play amidst collapsed buildings and expended shell casings. And I suspect that one day, as we stand before the one who fully loves the children, the one who caresses their heads and offers them blessing, we will have to answer for it. I think it will be a most terrible place to stand. In my selfish pondering, in the reality of my sin, I hope, I pray, that perhaps we might find ourselves as frightened children too.
As I look toward that day, I think I will pray not for justice, but for grace … for I guess there is more than a bit of cat in all of us.
For information about how you can connect with the children of Liberia, see Love for Liberia.