I spent 5 days with a group of peacemakers and activists from around the world on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and many others were imprisoned between January 18-22, 2016 This blog series is a set of reflections on that time.
The discussion assignment was to tell the others in our group an injustice that we had suffered where forgiveness was needed.
In my group, four nations were represented: South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and the United States. Look up the first three if you are not familiar with their history in the past thirty years and you will get a sense of why my life seemed perfect right about then. In the face of genocide, civil war, and profound racial inequities, what did it matter that I’ve been hurt in my journey as a woman leader? I could hardly even connect with any sense of why it had been so painful, but in the presence of their pain, there was no way I was going to falsely doctor mine.
We listened to each other and prayed for one another with tears and tenderness and then it was my turn. As I began to speak, the residual sadness and resentment begin to loosen. My friends held my story with such tenderness and gravity that I shared the rawness of my struggle in a way that I had only previously shared with my husband. The pastor from South Africa held my hand and prayed words of healing over me. The lawyer from Burundi cried as she prayed. And the human rights activist from the Congo spoke words at the end that saw right through me and named my struggle more truly than I had been able to articulate myself.
Pain recognizes pain. Healing comes when we are vulnerable with another who offers a space opened by their pain to us and offers the comfort of being seen and heard. To deny the validity of my pain would have been to allow my privilege to keep me at a distance as the one who fixes rather than a member of a community who bears each other’s burdens.
In my week with friends from around the world, I became aware of the distance that my culture puts between people. For all our American boisterous openness and over-sharing, it is rare to find a soul who really knows how to be with another soul. My African friends were not shy to look me in the eye, squeeze my hand and say, ‘You are my sister.” There were several moments in the course of a conversation when one of them would gently lean into me for a few minutes with an unspoken warmth that gave me the comfort of their friendship and the honor of their trust.
I love the simple lyric in the song, “Shelter” by Jars of Clay, “In the shelter of each other, we will live.” Back home and in my routine, what I carry most deeply is the sense of shelter from my new friends and I pray my shelter for others has also grown to be with others as we journey together.