Jesus was a refugee. That’s all I can think about this Christmas.
Last Sunday at church was the Christmas extravaganza, shepherds and angels and wise men and Mary and Joseph and a baby who didn’t cry (which is, in itself, a small miracle). Carols have been on the radio for a month, lights and wacky displays are up all over Austin, and my parents’ house is as beautiful as ever with garland and wreaths hanging on the porch railings. Daddy and I will watch an unreasonable number of football games, my sister won’t allow me to enter the kitchen while she’s baking, and mom will prepare a beautiful dinner, and we’ll all go to the movies. Sunday night we will venture out in the cold and go to church, where someone will read Luke 2 and we’ll sing “Silent Night.” And it will be Christmas.
But I keep thinking about refugees. A refugee is someone who has to leave their home and cross a border for political reasons. Either there is a war, or a rebel group keeps invading your village, or you or your family have done something to upset the powers that be. And so you have to run, carrying whatever you can, and praying that the house and field and possessions you left behind will still be there whenever, if ever, you get to return.
There’s a different term for people who don’t cross a border, but who still have to leave their homes due to violence. “Internally-displaced persons” they’re called, with a name that sounds so clinical that it can cause you to forget that they are in just as desperate circumstances as those who cross borders. Maybe worse. It’s often more difficult to get aid to IDP’s, as has been the case in Sake in the DR Congo for the past few weeks.
Tucked away in the Christmas stories is a passage about Jesus as a refugee. I can’t remember the last time I heard a sermon on it. It’s certainly not a pretty story for Christmas Eve Sunday. It wouldn’t make for a very good holiday pageant, nor is it an inspirational subject for a carol. Here’s what happens: Herod decides to kill all the infant boys in the territory under his control, because he’s worried that a future challenger to his political power has been born. If he kills all those little boys, he won’t have anything to worry about. Joseph learns about this nasty little plan in a dream, wakes up his wife and baby, and runs. Across the desert, far away from home, into Egypt.
Egypt. The place from which his ancestors had escaped. The place his people had been enslaved. The place from which the great narrative of Israel’s deliverance began.
Things have to be pretty bad if you’re going to run to a place like that. Joseph was, of course, following the angel’s orders, which made it possible to fulfill a prophecy. But still. What would it take to make you pick up in the middle of the night, take only the people you love and the few things you can carry, and hightail it to a place that holds nothing but bad memories for you and your family?
Political persecution, that’s what. If the state threatened to kill your child, your innocent, harmless baby, you’d run, too. And when you cross a border for political reasons, you’re a refugee.
This year has been unusual for me, to say the least. The experience of living in the eastern Congo and seeing what its people endure shook me to the depths of my being. I had seen poverty before, even extreme poverty, but I had never seen direct evidence of atrocity. I had never seen thousands of people who are starving to death. I had never seen 8-year-old rape victims who have emotionally shut down in order to survive. I had never seen 3-year-old children abandoned on the streets, living alone without parents or brothers or sisters to protect them. I had never considered the possibility that some people might just be evil to the core. I had never seen what a society looks like after the death of 4 million of its members.
But I have lived in Africa before, and so I have learned how to handle the contradictions and tensions that arise from the contrast between my own privilege and the dire poverty around me there. I know that it’s impossible to “save Africa” and that the best thing to do is to find some small way to help, and to tell the story so others can know how to help, too. And even though I was so ready to leave when the time came, I knew it would be hard to come home. And it was. Is.
Congo. Sometimes it feels like a dream. Its people and places come to mind at the strangest times. At a football game, the offense is about to score and I’m suddenly thinking about the moneychangers in the market in Goma. Watching a movie with friends, all I can think about is the underequipped health clinic in Sake. At a show in Charlottesville, my mind is half there and half at Coco Jambo, dancing until all hours of the night. Out to dinner last week with the D.A. and a Camp CLC-er, I looked out the door at the trees and the patio and I’d’ve sworn we were in Kigali, having lunch at La Baguette, expecting to run into my friend Suzy.
I don’t know what to do about this. I think about Congo everyday. Sometimes I dream in Kiswahili, about starving children and weeping mothers, about soldiers and checkpoints and guns for sale in the market. I think about the beauty and the joy, too, about a baby dedication at church in Goma and the Baptists who run the public schools and teaching Irish aid workers to two-step. And that’s why I don’t know if it’s possible, or if it’s wise, to try to “get over” Congo. When you do dissertation research, you are supposed to remain detached, be an objective observer, and walk away when the project is done.
It is not in my nature to walk away from this.
My pastor preached about joy the other day. He talked about this question of how we can be joyful when we know that the world is full of so much that’s bad. The best reformers, he said, are always great rejoicers.
Is there joy in Congo’s suffering? There’s certainly dancing and singing and a sense of hope that God will redeem. And the people who do the best work to help are the ones who don’t despair, but who choose to be joyful at setbacks and successes.
I’m not sure I’m there yet. But I keep thinking about Sam’s point, that Jesus didn’t always have a plan to make things better, but that he was always present in suffering. Sometimes all you can do is embrace suffering, because there’s something to learn in that space between understanding and deep despair.
And that’s the funny thing. I’m not optimistic about Congo, but I don’t despair. The people are too good. I don’t understand it, but I can’t give up on it. These memories, these images, these people won’t let me. And the wonder of having lived in such a beautiful place with stories and languages to learn under a million equatorial stars–that won’t let me give up either.
Jesus was a refugee. He and his family knew, intimately, what it means to have your life uprooted overnight, to live in a terrifying land where your security is anything but sure, to lose your sense of place. Congo’s people need to know that truth. So do I.
Laura Seay is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas and member of First Baptist Church in Austin, who has studied and lived in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. This column appeared as a Dec. 21 blog and is used here with permission.