My friend Widian Nicola has more to say about welcoming the stranger. This is the second of three parts. (ed.)


Final thoughts on “contact.”

We are, each day, invited to move across an invisible threshold: from one space to the next.

To make contact with someone who’s in distress.

Someone, for example, who’s unable to speak or understand English. Unable to share their pain, sorrow, or fear in a language that’s familiar to us. But also someone who’s on a similar journey, starving for contact from us.

Naomi had these choices when she heard the announcement over the intercom: make contact or avoid the situation altogether.

To make contact, on the one hand, requires that we move toward suffering.
Avoidance on the other, is to justify why we are unable to help the stranger: I’m too busy.

How can I really help?

Oh, someone else will come along. Or, those people aren’t like me. Why should I help? I’ve never taken help from anyone, why should they?

For undocumented immigrants and refugees, extreme justifications, like, they don’t belong here anyway because they’re taking our jobs away, they don’t pay taxes, they don’t speak English, they are criminals suggests that those who are different from us are in fact unworthy, that they must somehow meet a particular criteria for our help.
Either way, choosing to make contact is just that: a choice.

Do we choose the path of compassion or do we choose the path of avoidance?

Just like the two men who bypassed the man who was robbed, we are invited to take the higher path. Naomi chose that path. She chose to come near the woman in distress, and as a result, received more than she’d invested. She heard of the woman’s needs from a distance, and like the Good Samaritan, made the choice to draw closer.

Each of us is called to do the same: to come near, to open the door to something greater.
Yet what makes the parable of the Good Samaritan so provocative is the fact that the man who gets beat up is a Jew, and the one who draws near is a Samaritan. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews and considered inferior as a people. This historical context was no doubt important to Jesus’ parable because it sets the stage for an encounter between mortal enemies.

By making contact, we acknowledge that although the person in need may be different from us, they are no less worthy of God’s abundant mercy.

As author Karoline Lewis asks,

“What if the Samaritan was good simply because he made the choice to come near the almost dead guy in the ditch? To approach him? To decrease the distance between him and the one clearly in need of help?

What if eternal life, seemingly so desired by the inquiring lawyer in Luke’s narrative, might also be known, here and now, in nearness, not remoteness?

In proximity, not reserve? In intentionally deciding to be closer, not looking for ways to push away or set apart?”

She continues to say, “We spend a lot of energy in our lives championing and choosing for detachment, disengagement and disenfranchisement, And that sometimes these decisions can be justified – for our safety or self-preservation. But other times, she says, our distance is decided by our determination not to change.

Our resistance to intimacy.

Our rejection of those persons who might actually expose who we truly are.

If the Levite or the priest came near?” She exclaims, “Well, they would then have to face some truths about themselves that I suspect they’d rather not admit, that they’ve spent a lifetime pretending, hoping, even ensuring, don’t exist.

Who is my neighbor?” Karoline finally says, “means, according to Jesus, a commitment to coming near.”

This type of commitment requires a level of courage that invites closeness and connection.

Connection: To live fully is to connect.

It is to connect with that which feels good, but also to connect with that which stretches us.

A close friend of mine, Caitlin, spent a short time working for Catholic Relief Services in Rwanda. There, she had the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Allow me to share with you what she wrote about her experience:

“Nobody in Rwanda is very interested in recounting those dark days, especially with me, a visitor.

Though I’m interested to know what Rwandans think about the 1994 genocide and its aftermath, I don’t believe I have a right to ask about it. It’s their story and their grief, and I fully believe in that ownership.

So I approached the Memorial as an opportunity to get some facts, understand the Rwandan perspective, and figure out what it still means.

The Memorial is just off the main road, so while there is a nice building for the museum and a beautiful garden in the compound, the noise and life of Kigali still feels close.
Surrounding the modest museum building is a multi-tiered garden where mass graves for 250,000 victims of the genocide are entombed.

Just like that: you show up, you purchase an audio tour, and within 5 minutes you’re confronted with huge numbers and mass graves.

When I saw them, the genocide felt very close all of a sudden, and very bewildering. I walked around the graves, which were simple slabs of concrete covering the earth.

The memorial site is not only a center of memoriam and education about the genocide, but a resting place for its victims and a gravesite for survivors to visit as they wish.

All the world is invited to participate in Rwanda’s grief.

After going through the memorial museum, we drove out into the country, eastward, almost to the border with Burundi.

The day was just spectacular, with billowing clouds in a sky so blue it hurt to look at, and the green mountains rippling up like a plush velvet carpet below. As far as nature goes, God has pulled out all the stops in Rwanda; it is the most beautiful place I have ever seen.

But now I wonder if He was making up for something.

After a visit to the museum, we headed to the churches that had been converted into memorial sites of the genocide. I’m told there are over 400 of these throughout the country.

Our guide explained that historically, the Tutsi had been able to find sanctuary in churches to ride out the violence against them, and so five thousand people fled to this church for protection again. But this time, their pursuers did not hesitate at its doors.
There was a shed beside the church, the walls and roof made of shiny, new, corrugated tin, recently constructed.

It was a crude structure, but there was a padlock on the door, which I thought was curious.

Our guide unlocked it and led us into the crowded, hot and musty space. It smelled like dust and old things, and it was difficult to see at first, coming in from the blinding, sunny day outside. When my eyes adjusted, the place seemed like a warehouse— a dirt floor, disorganized piles of things, some shelving— but then I realized what I was seeing. These were unceremonious stacks of coffins, and there were mountains of dusty, stained, crumpled clothes. There were tools used for killing that had been left behind: sticks, knives, machetes, clubs with nails sticking out of them. Stacks of mattresses—burnt, tattered, and dyed dark from being saturated with blood once— leaned up against one wall. On the shelves of the shed’s far wall were rows and rows and rows of skulls.

I’d never seen a skull up close until today. They are kind of beautiful, and they are all the same, more or less, with the delicate seams across the top and their smooth white planes.

But on the shelves there were broken ones, some with the backs missing, others with neat holes in the top where a bullet once punched through. Others with slices missing from the cut of a machete, or the side crushed by a fatal blow. I cried in the shed, a lot.
There was nothing neat and tidy about this, I thought. There are no glass cases here, or delicate barriers to keep visitors back from the artifacts.

These are not artifacts, because this is not history. This happened only 22 years ago.
It is still a raw, infected wound for Rwanda, something that is still very present in everyday life today, all the time.

It’s still developing and being navigated and being grappled with. The museums haven’t been built yet, the memorials aren’t finished, and the names haven’t been etched in the wall. Many names will never make it to a memorial wall anyway, I learned, because when entire families die, there is no one to speak for them.

With all of this in mind, Rwanda has become a much richer, more complex place for me. The limits of my understanding have never been so plain, and I am enormously humbled by that.

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the question, “what have we learned from this?” and so far, I’ve been disappointed by the answers.

Violence and hate and prejudice have a stronghold in so many places in this world, including my own country, and it’s dispiriting to see that Rwanda’s tragedy has not left a deeper impression on our society.

What have we learned from this? Why haven’t we learned it better?
This is what connection looks like.

It is human connection on every level: raw, vulnerable, sometimes painful, but always worthwhile.

You see, connection is the encounter with suffering itself.

It is the extension of ourselves into another person’s experience.
It is the vulnerability that opens us up to the beauty, potential, dignity, and divinity in those around us.

Healing, then, can only come from the embodied connections we have with one another.
As you know, the nature and character of God is fundamentally relational.
So when the Good Samaritan draws near the wounded man, he connects to his pain and empathizes with his experience.

He sees fully the man’s humanity and the man’s divinity.
He doesn’t see difference or stranger, like a clear reflection, he sees the frailty of all human experience, including his own. That’s why Jesus’ experience of suffering is so meaningful to us. It’s where our greatest human need and God’s great love intersect.
And for that type of deep, intimate connection, we must call on courage, which comes from the Latin word ‘cour,’ meaning, heart. Therefore, courage means to act with your whole heart.

Today, the word courage is associated with a person’s ability to do something that frightens them. But courage is less about being brave and more about being wholehearted.
It means connecting with others in the profound, often hidden, internal places.
It means extending ourselves, speaking from our hearts about who we are, where our journey has taken us, who we’ve met along the way, and what meaning we’ve made of the wounds we’ve acquired.

It is an exchange: one person to another.

Like my friend Caitlin who went beyond herself to connect to an experience distant from her own, we are also challenged to connect to those who are seemingly different and distant: The day laborer standing on the corner of the street waiting for work. The 60-year-old woman from Thailand at the grocery store trying to find foods she used to cook in her homeland. The Muslim refugee student who wants to go to college and earn a degree. Your child’s 8-year-old classmates who has to translate for her parents.

Connection, then, is seeing the stranger in ourselves, as ourselves, and realizing that that stranger is no stranger at all, but a familiar friend.
More next week…

widian-nicolaAs a qualitative researcher, Dr. Widian Nicola is interested in individual narratives of the lived human experience. As such, she created, produced, and published the Lived Experience Project, a narrative social work podcast show that explores unique and evocative stories rarely heard in mainstream media. As a social justice educator, Dr. Nicola offers numerous professional and academic presentations on issues surrounding poverty and immigration. She supervises, advises, and provides oversight to students and organizations on a wide range of social justice programming. She maintains an interest in social policy, particularly immigration reform, and serves on the NASW-NJ Legislative Action and Social Advocacy committee, as well as maintains a small private practice.

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