“Bridges” to Leaving

Sharing July 31, 2011
Neah Ortman

As one of the themes for this summer worship and the Youth Convention in Pittsburg was “bridges to the cross” or “bridges to cross,” I reflected on my experiences throughout college and the significance of “bridges” literally and metaphorically.  Bridges connect, and are a path of transition from one place to another.  Literally speaking, bridges have played a significant role in the past couple years. The I-90 floating bridge always transitioned from Seattle to Spokane, from home to school.  As many of you know, I studied at Gonzaga University and navigated the bridge between Jesuits and Mennonites.  I found that similar values connect the two religions; values that truly attempt to emulate Jesus’ life and work.  The values instilled in me at this church – of peace, justice, and simplicity – were reexamined and experienced throughout my years at Gonzaga. I have come to better understand what living out these values really means for me in my life, but this of course, is a process.

To continue the journey and theme of bridges, when I studied abroad in Paris junior year, I lived on a small island in the middle of the Seine river called – Ile Saint Louis – which was dependent on bridges to connect to the left or right bank.  Many of my most vivid memories of my time there was walking across bridges, in the hustle and bustle of the morning, or at night when the moon made the lights on the river dance and the city came alive. Just as the island was somewhat reclusive, I did a lot of self-reflection and development during my time abroad, even spending a week at Taize.  Taize is a community of monks who live in eastern France and invite young adults from all walks of faith and all corners of the world to share in their worship in a special form of singing and meditation.  The week I spent at Taize was an important stepping-stone in my spiritual development.

Metaphorically speaking, another kind of “bridge” that was discovered, experienced, and well traveled during my 4 years at a Jesuit institution was the notion of bridging the gap between people, because as we all know, these gaps lie wide. The gaps between rich and poor, black and white, Christian and Muslim need strong bridges to allow us to connect with one another. Being a child of Seattle Mennonite, this principle has been embedded in me for a long time.  There have been many people and experiences that have cultivated this awareness. Participating in the WTO protest downtown Seattle in November of ’99 where we chanted and carried a banner “Mennonites for Fair Trade” showed me the meaning of “power to the people” while also revealing the power of big corporations over human lives.  I remember singing This Little Light of Mine, I’m gonna let it shine in church for Weldon who was traveling to Iraq in 2003, showing me an incredible example of what accompaniment means, and how even when the world reveals itself in unforgiving ways, we shouldn’t lose hope.  And to see many before me travel distances far from home to be servant leaders, whether with SALT or Christian Peacemaker Teams, I am inspired to continue their work of bridging the gap between people.  I believe these seeds of compassion were planted here at this church, but in that time I was young – perhaps too young to completely understand what it all meant.  However, this idea of “humanity” and “kinship” took on knew meaning for me this past Spring, when I had the pleasure of spending a week on an immersion trip in East Los Angeles with 10 other Gonzaga students.

Let me introduce you to Father Greg Boyle, or G-Dog as the homies call him.  Father Boyle started Homeboy Industries in 1988 in the neighborhood of East LA, which assists at-risk, formerly gang-involved youth (called Homeboys and Homegirls, or just simply homies) to get a new start on life. Homeboy Industries provides legal and employment assistance, as well as tattoo removal services. Most importantly, Homeboy Industries provides recognition of one’s human dignity when the gangsters walk through their doors. As Anne Lamott says, “I’m human, you’re human, let me greet your humanness. Let’s be people together for a while” (Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott) This is exactly what Father Boyle does, and something the homies rarely experience on the streets of LA.   Father Boyle asks us to envision a world of not us and them, just us. Sounds simple enough, recognizing that other people are human too and that no one human life is more valuable than another.  If this could be done, think of all the issues we’d be able to solve: immigration, death penalty, waging wars, gay rights.  Father Boyle says, “If kinship was our goal, we would no longer be promoting justice. We’d be celebrating it” (University of Michigan speech “Tattoos on the Heart: Lessons from the Barrio”).

I’d like to share some experiences of when I found myself with others in ways that were not us and them, but just us, times when I have walked humbly with my God.

Let me preface by saying that preparing for the East LA immersion trip, many of us had qualms about our status as white, middle class young adults pursuing higher education.  Why would these Latino and African American gangsters be interested in opening up to us?  Would we be able to connect with them on the levels and issues we hoped to? Already the challenges of breaking the divisions, the “us and them” notion to become “just us” were surfacing.  However, these qualms were shattered quickly.

It’s 6am in East Los Angeles on the morning of Ash Wednesday.  We’ve just been to 5am mass at the community parish Dolores Mission. In the church courtyard, community members have gathered to celebrate Lent with a traditional Mexican breakfast.  I am finishing up, when I notice a young Latino man “hanging around” my table. I ask him his name, Irving he says, and he takes a seat next to me. My white skin, his brown skin. My clean clothes, his baggy, only pair of jeans.  My purse filled with things society makes me think are “necessities,” his backpack stuffed with his entire life.  My proper way of talking, his slang. Dawn is still breaking, but we lose track of time.  His story unfolds: gangbanger, immigrant, drug user, homeless, wanting so bad to go to rehab and not having the funds, suffering from a system not made for his brown skin and “Hola, como estas?”.  In preparing for this trip, what was just a statistic -millions of immigrants, thousands of gangbangers – suddenly became human.  All I have to do is listen, accompany, be present. In recognizing he has a story – and a valid story at that – we recognized each other’s humanness.  It became just us, and that is unique in a country that claims “all men are created equal” yet refuses to acknowledge him as a human being.  A few nights later, he was waiting for me outside the community parish.  An envelope was exchanged, and I will share with you a little piece of the letter enclosed, a testimony to the power of kinship: He entitled the poem “Our first to last”:

You’re the first to the last of your

Ethnicity/race/female I met

We had a long conversation

That I will never forget.

Talking about my past

Not really making you laugh

But you seemed glad

That I’m starting from scratch

Maybe it was our eye-to-eye connection

How can I forget our long talking session

There are so many things I didn’t mention

But thanks for the comprehension

Once I come out of rehabilitation

We’ll still keep communicating

I’ll never forget our first to last conversation.

…and neither will I, forget this first and last conversation. Jesus was a man not for the people, but with the people and so this too, is what we can strive to do.

The next experience I will share with you involves not only bridging gaps between people, but between language, culture, and between my American world as I knew it and the Burmese world that I, frankly, had no understanding of.  It’s my sophomore year of college, and I was venturing out of Spokane with a group of Gonzaga students to embark on a Spring Break dedicated to volunteering with refugee resettlement in Denver.  We spent majority of the time volunteering at the African Community Center, which actually settles refugees from many more places than Africa, assisting case managers with the daily work required when trying to literally bridge two worlds together.  As we arrived, I am shuffled off with Thu-Thu, a case manager currently working to resettle a Burmese family of 5 who had only arrived in the states a week prior to this encounter.  Thu-Thu explains my work for the day: get them registered for social security cards.  “I’ll go ahead and drop you and the Burmese family off at the SS office, here’s the paperwork, call me when you’re done” she says.  The van door closes, after a very interesting debacle with showing the children how to use a seatbelt, and off Thu-Thu goes.  The strangeness of the seatbelt for them opened my eyes to see that my world is not the norm for everyone. Here I am, standing in the parking lot of the SS office in Denver with 2 Burmese adults and 3 Burmese children who do not speak my language and I do not speak theirs. I gesture, I smile, I try to hide the self-doubt surfacing.  We make our way in and take a number, and wait. And wait, and wait. How do I explain the waiting? How do I explain what we are waiting for?  As we sat there together, the statistic once again turned into a human being.  The African Community Center pamphlet says “Did you know? Over 2,000 refugees arrive each year in Denver.” 2,000 refugees, 2,000 journeys across oceans and borders and bridges, 2,000 human beings trying to navigate a new world (and that’s in Denver alone!). But do we think of 2,000 refugees as 2,000 human beings? I’ll admit when I read that statistic I easily forget about the reality of 2,000 refugees resettling in urban areas, the plight, struggles, and challenges each family faces. When reading Chris Cleave’s book Little Bee, I was brought back to my experience in the waiting room of the social security office with the Burmese family. Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee in London says “So when I say that I am a refugee, you must understand that there is no refuge. Some days I wonder how many there are just like me. Thousands, I think, just floating on the ocean right now. In between our world and yours” (Little Bee, Chris Cleave).  We must not lose sight of the humanness that refugees and immigrants share with us, and begin to build bridges to connect our world and theirs.  And we can’t stop with bridges, or at least I don’t think Jesus would have. The bridges are the first step, but then we must be willing to cross the bridge to be in solidarity with those who are different.

As I prepare for my upcoming year in Africa, I take these voices, testimonies, and experiences with me.  Having gone into many of these places as a “volunteer” but coming out having been taught so much more than anything I could have offered, I enter into this next year with a new perspective: a perspective of humility and accompaniment, rather than bringing my own agenda of intentions to “fix” the problems of Burkina Faso.   I enter with hopes to become, as Aaron Ausland writes, mutually indebted to the people, so we can operate at an eye-to-eye level.  I take these experiences, but I also take questions.  Am I perpetuating the system of dependency of 3rd world countries on 1st world powers by temporarily coming in as a white, American citizen?  What does it mean that I can leave for a year, then come back to my 1st world luxuries?  How will I check my filter to not lose sight that the population/community I have been placed with have their own set of values and traditions that shape their reality that may seem completely absurd to me and my values as absurd to them?  I am sure these questions will be things I struggle with far beyond this next year in Africa.  August 11th I will board the plane to Akron, and August 18th I will depart for Ouagadougou. I leave with many questions and probably will come home with even more.  I am reassured, however, that the first step to exploring the answers is leaving. I’ll end with some wise words by author Donald Miller. The following quote was introduced to me by Erin Murray who has been an excellent role model, older sister figure, and friend.

“And so my prayer is that your story will have involved some leaving and some coming home, some summer and some winter, some roses blooming out like children in a play. My hope is your story will be about changing, about getting something beautiful born inside of you, about learning to love a woman or a man, about learning to love a child, about moving yourself around water, around mountains, around friends, about learning to love others more than we love ourselves, about learning oneness as a way of understanding God. We get one story, you and I, and one story alone. God has established the elements, the setting, the climax and the resolution. It would be a crime not to venture out, wouldn’t it?

It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out.

I want to repeat one… word for you:

Leave.

Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed” (Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road, Donald Miller).

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