Encounter

Baalbek, Temple of the Sun, 2010

Beirut, Lebanon, is a fascinating city. There are places we have found to visit once that draw us back again and again. One of those is the Sursock Museum. It was once the home of the Sursock family (funny how they named it after them…) and is a grand old three-story Lebanese home, now filled with modern art. Mr. Sursock and his family were great patrons of encouraging and collecting modern art and every time we come there is a new display. This trip was no different. I have encountered two rooms that are my favorites. One usually has a great collection of old photos, much older than the rest of the art in the place. On Friday, there were late 19th and early 20th century sepia photos of Baalbek, a place I visited in 2010. The color quality of the old photos seemed to match my 2010 versions; the sun was so bright the day I was there that any color simply washed away in its brightness, sacrificed as it were in the Temple to the Sun. The other room is a beautiful old salon with benches that curve around a small fountain. You can just imagine sitting there with a good book and wiling away the hours escaping that same sun on a hot summer day.

After I scanned the Baalbek photos and poked my head into the salon, I walked a bit farther down the corridor and came across this painting. It is called Encounter and it is by Amine al Bacha, the artist whose work was the feature display of the Sursock. I was entranced by the face-to-face encounters he depicted. Except for the one pair of humans, they are all birds, which I found to be kind of whimsical, as I don’t think I have ever seen birds gaze into each other’s eyes. I noticed that in some of the blocks of the painting they were farther apart and some closer together. They are even touching beaks in one block. They are encountering each other, maybe for the first time, or maybe for the second or third. And I love how the distance closes.

This is how I have experienced my own encounters as I have traveled in these places. The first time in 2010, I encountered new people from a distance. I encountered my roommate, my team members, the church people we met, first in shy conversations and then near the end in nose-to-nose embraces. We encountered each other in those spaces and drew closer to one another in deep relationships. That first roommate is now my dear friend and sister, Barbara Exley. Those team members are faithful women who have gathered me in by Facetime to pray with me over my continued travels. Our faithful leader and my now mentor and friend Marilyn Borst, along with The Outreach Foundation, have enabled me to encounter the churches in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in ways that help me understand that the body of Christ is much bigger than my church in Omaha, Nebraska. In their midst, I have encountered Emmanuel – God-with-us – who closes the gap between us that our sin and failings create.

Past the painting of encounter, I discovered a series of paintings Mr. al Bacha did of the last supper, a meal we celebrate and remember every time we have communion. We encounter that same Jesus in the bread broken and the cup raised. That is the place where the gap is closed. And we all are invited to the table to encounter our brokenness and his sacrifice that forgives and heals and redeems us. It was fitting today that in Tripoli, Lebanon, we encountered him again. The words were in Arabic, but the breaking of the bread and the raised cup are universal. He drew us to each other as we shared the elements, and we were all drawn closer to him.

Rev. Nuhad Tomeh and Rev. Rola Sleiman offer the words of institution.

Whether for the first time, or the second, or the thirteenth, I remain grateful for these encounters and the opportunity to meet Jesus face to face.

Incarnational Witness in Washington, D.C.

I was looking through some old files on my computer recently. Not finding what I was looking for, instead I found this gem from 2005, one of my best trips to Washington, D.C., with Jana. I’ve just got to share it! What follows is a series of stories and emails between me and another hunger advocate named Tracy Young. They remind me of how God calls us to minister out of the broken clay pots of our lives, and just what a gift I have in a sister who never gave up on me, even as others might have given up on her. She teaches me still. Every. Day.

***

This article is reprinted with the author’s permission from “The Advocate,” a publication of the Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action of the Christian Reformed Church, July, 2005

A Glimpse of Hunger No More

By Tracy Young

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Rev. 21:4

I saw her shuffling awkwardly across the American University campus, her body all elbows and right angles, her chin tucked stiffly into her neck. Her movements were rigid, stilted and slow. I wondered if it hurt to be curled up like that, to disappear into oneself.

At One Table, Many Voices: A Mobilization to Overcome Poverty and Hunger, I joined 600 other Christians in Washington, D.C. on the American University campus to work to end extreme poverty and hunger in our nation and the world. About thirty people from Christian Reformed churches, agencies, and related colleges came together to discuss our efforts to overcome poverty – as individuals, as churches, as schools, as communities. We participated in workshops, listened to speakers, worshipped, lobbied, prayed and learned together.

But the most striking moment for me in Washington did not come in the shadow of the Capitol building on lobby day. It did not come during the round of excellent speakers, during my conversations with the people I met, or even at the National Cathedral during the Interfaith Convocation that mourned hunger and demanded action as a storm pounded the stained glass with rain and lighting made the microphones fizz. It came, of all places, at the French Embassy while I greedily shoveled mushroom canapés into my mouth.

One Table participants piled into the not-so-elegant mass transit of school buses and shuttled to the très élégant French Embassy one evening to celebrate the countries who had become eligible for the US’s Millennium Challenge Account program. Our entertainment for the evening was an African dance troupe from the local Market 5 Gallery.

Market 5 came into the room, all drums and joy, moving like people don’t move where I worship, shouting and beaming and raising the hair on our arms. We were entranced by the energy in front of us, clapping and bouncing our bodies to the beat. As the troupe ended an impressive choreographed sequence, they motioned for the crowd to come into the circle and start dancing with them. People poured in, laughing and dancing, letting the rhythms lift their feet.

And as I watched this gleeful group, I saw a couple of the troupe members move to the side of the circle and bring back with them the woman I saw laboring across the AU campus. I watched as they gently guided her into the circle, right into the middle of it all, held her hands and carefully danced with her, stepping their feet lightly as she swayed and bobbed and shuffled, ever so slightly, back and forth. She was smiling, and they were smiling, and the drums were beating, and I think it was as close to a picture of heaven as I’ve ever seen.

I had only noticed this woman because she had trouble walking. The troupe noticed her and saw a woman who could dance. They went straight to her with no thought that she couldn’t or shouldn’t and invited her in, someone who had probably been overlooked, or ignored – by people like me. By the time the group pulled a participant in a wheelchair into the circle to dance, I was uncomfortably stuffed with shame, joy and too many mushrooms. What a strange combination.

One table, many voices. The dance troupe got it. Everyone, all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities and abilities were invited into that circle, invited to that table. Everyone moved a different way, but they all moved together.

As I continue my own work for justice, I’m going to remember that moment. It reminds me that God uses us, unlikely, imperfect vessels to do great things. God uses the timid to speak to the powerful and a teenager to carry the Savior. Even with our heavy feet, God sees that we can dance.

That moment also reminds me of my own sin. How often do I look at image-bearers of God and see only what I consider their weakness? Their homelessness, their poverty, their shortcomings. I don’t like to ask that question. It’s much easier to turn a critical eye on someone else.

But what I take from that moment most of all, and what I’ll remember when I’m discouraged with this hard work called “doing justice,” is that surreal feeling of the in-between. I caught a precious slivered glimpse of the deep and far and wide, pulsing open just so, with each beat of those drums. I saw hunger no more, justice for all, grace, peace and love radiating out the toes of some twirling children of God.

***

July 23, 2005 – Jana shared this article with me when she received it in the mail from David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World and just another friend of Jana’s. I cried while trying to read it to Steve and immediately sat down to email the author so she could hear the “rest of the story.”

Dear Tracy,

I just finished reading your article “A Glimpse of Hunger No More” in The Advocate, and it moved me to tears.

The article was sent to my sister Jana Prescott from David Beckman with this note, “I never see you in the unflattering way that this young woman first saw you. But I think you will be encouoraged to know what a powerful witness to Christ’s life you were to her.”

I wanted to thank you for the moving way you shared the gospel and our call in this article. For Jana’s life is the witness that brought me back to Christ, and also to his call for justice and love.

Jana was injured in a car/train accident 22 years ago in Colorado, where she worked at a Presbyterian camp in her beautiful Rocky Mountains. A very independent woman, you can imagine what this did to her life.

She would tell you that Feb 14, 1983, is her second birthday, and indeed, we celebrate it each year as a second chance at life.I was with her in Washington as I’ve been privileged to be most years since 1991 for the BFW event. (If you saw her walking alone, it’s because I got sick in the cold of the auditorium, and she even brought food over to me in the dorm! Quite a feat with her impaired balance. ) I’ve learned a lot there and have found my voice, even as she has lost hers. She does dance for joy every day! And I might say that even though I’m the “talker” on Lobby Day, her voicelessness always speaks more profoundly to why we’re there and who we’re there for. We are
voices for the voiceless.

So, thank you. I hope you two meet some day. Don’t be surprised if you hear from her.

I’m hoping it’s okay if I reprint your article in our church newsletter: West Hills Church, Omaha, NE.

Dancing for God with heavy feet, but not a heavy heart,

Julie Prescott Burgess

***

Dear Julie,

Thanks so much for your email. I was actually a little nervous that this article would make its way back to “the woman” – who I now know is Jana! At first, I wasn’t sure if I should write the piece at all. I did not want to hurt the feelings of or embarrass the person I was writing about, and that was my primary concern. I didn’t want to exploit her difficulty for the sake of writing an article. But also, it’s really hard to write about your own brokenness and tell a thousand people about it. At any rate, I hope I did the right thing by sharing the story.

I hate to think that I can be so unfair or so dismissive without even a thought as to what I’m doing…what a soft prejudice, what a quiet little judgement I made about your sister. It just snuck into my brain without any hoopla and sat there until God decided it was time to send in the drums and a lesson.

I hope that Jana will forgive my shortsightedness, and know that she has been a participant in a great, grace-filled gift to me. I’m so glad to know her name and her story and feel blessed to have had her life intersect with mine, even for that brief moment.

Please do feel free to reprint the article in your newsletter.

Blessings,

Tracy

Tracy Young
Social Justice Network and Communications Assistant
Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action
Christian Reformed Church in North America