I was typing an e-mail when he sat down beside me for the first time. He looked about 7 or 8 years old. He had large, dark eyes and a smile that somehow seemed both timid and unbound. Unimpressed that I would waste a computer screen on e-mail, he pulled out a paper spinner and proceeded to play and giggle. As opposed to the adult clients, he seemed unconscious of his limited English. In fact, my new friend was determined to have a conversation with me and the other intern.
We asked him where he was from. Asia. We asked him how long he had been in the United States. Eight months. We asked him who taught him to make the paper spinner—was it his dad? No. His dad had died. He laughed awkwardly, looked down, and continued playing.
Only later did I discover that his father had been assassinated. Men from an opposition political party wanted to destroy the father’s political influence and take his land. In the end, they attempted to kill the boy, too. Fleeing for their lives, he and his mother have sought asylum in the United States. Each time that I see him, I learn something new that complicates the simple image of a boy laughing and playing with a paper spinner.
After ten weeks of interning with World Relief, I have come to appreciate the stories that lie protected just beyond an introductory smile. Syrian refugees invite us into their homes and offer us food and coffee. They smile. They laugh. They talk. All is well. I drive a pair of Congolese brothers to work, and they talk about their favorite American music. They smile. They laugh. They talk. All is well. I take a young Nepali to buy a new car battery. He smiles. He laughs. He talks. All is well. Everyone seems so normal until they offer you a glimpse of their story. Then, you hear that their village had been bombed. Their mother and sisters had been raped. He had spent his entire life in the limbo of a refugee camp. All is not well.
This summer has taught me the discomfort of moving beyond initial smiles and polite conversations. (Such movement must be by invitation only—never by force or presumption.) To do so means relinquishing easy stereotypes and reductive explanations. It requires living in ambiguity. It involves grieving. It promises pain.
By all means, thank God for the smiles and the laughter, but do not misinterpret moments of joy and rest for a world of justice and righteousness. We must draw near to the oppressed and marginalized and to the wounded and scarred. We must crucify our comfort.* Then, we just might move beyond niceties and enter with our neighbors into the grave of grief. Only then can we rise with Christ. Only then will we understand resurrection.
-Mary Ellen Poe, 2016 Summer Intern
* I am speaking here to myself and to others who lead comfortable lives, to those who have the privilege of distance from poverty, abuse, exploitation, and other forms of social harm. This statement should never be used against those who are already oppressed for the purpose of reinforcing unhealthy systems of power. Those who already live in constant grief understand the implications of resurrection.