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Fear and faith

Fear and faith

by Maria Evans

Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. –A Collect for Aid against Perils, p. 123, Book of Common Prayer

You know, the month of December 2012 changed everything I ever thought about danger. Now, I’m no stranger to danger. There have been many episodes in my life that had elements of personal and professional danger. There have been times in my life I have feared I would not live to see the next day or even the next minute. There have been times in my life I feared being professionally thrown under the bus. But in a space of a few days in December 2012, all of the landmarks, all of the signs of how I traditionally saw danger, lost their historical meanings.

I was on my way home with our Diocese of Missouri mission team in Lui, South Sudan. The plans were to have about a day and a half stopover in Kampala, Uganda, fly home via Entebbe/Amsterdam/Detroit/St. Louis, and then I could kick back and await Christmas safe and sound, back home in rural northeast Missouri. Now, probably not a single thing overtly dangerous happened to me, personally. But the series of things that happened seemed almost hard-wired to remove all the waypoints on how I internally map danger.

To folks back home, I was the one in the dangerous place. Before I went to Lui, I wish I’d had a dollar for every one of my friends who had reported to me what the US Department of State said about travel to the Republic of South Sudan (which was basically, “Don’t even think about going there.” I think my favorite line in the Department of State’s travel advisory went something like, “If you are going to live in or travel to South Sudan despite this Travel Warning, please take the time to tell us about your trip by enrolling in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).”) I was well aware of the danger of infectious disease, because I had the typhoid, yellow fever, and rabies shots to prove it, in addition to a box full of malaria prophylaxis pills. I knew what was happening only a day or so’s journey away at the Sudan/South Sudan border. I knew how politically unstable the country still is. Yet I felt absolutely safe. The only time I realized that Lui was still a dangerous place was a time when I casually met a uniformed, armed officer on the street, and the children walking alongside me were suddenly walking behind me. Something unspoken showed me that fear of violence is still present in even the more peaceful parts of South Sudan.

En route home, we stayed over in Uganda, allegedly one of the safer countries in eastern Africa. As I told friends, “Wow–it’s just like Hawaii, except every fifth person is carrying an automatic weapon.” Every place we went, there stood the ubiquitous “dude with a gun.” Trip to the gas station? Public restroom? Market? There’s a Dude With A Gun. At the guest compound where we stayed, not only were there Dudes With Guns, there were big iron gates and a tire shredder embedded in the pavement. As we drove around the city, it was clear that even modest affluence meant gates, walls, tire shredders, and Dudes With Guns. I saw gated, guarded, walled compounds that had outhouses in their back yards. These things obviously took precedence over indoor plumbing.

We visited the Presidential Palace in Kampala. All during my time in Lui, although women wearing pants was not the norm, no one seemed to worry much that I did. Once inside the gates of the Ugandan Presidential Palace, however, I was given a piece of fabric to wear over my pants to simulate a skirt, in order to be allowed access on the tour–which I did, despite the chuckling amongst my fellow missioners that I was “in drag.” We visited the ammunition bunker that became Idi Amin’s torture chamber and stood in the exact spot that 350,000 Ugandans drew their last breath and were summarily dumped in the lake for crocodile chow. I can’t even begin to describe the emotions that go with being physically present in a place where so much death and despair once dwelled but has ended. About all I can say is that despair is not silent there, even though no one has been killed there for years. I kept thinking, “A place where this happened not that many years ago, can’t possibly be a safe place. But my trousers seem dangerous to THEM.”

En route home, I had a little more up close and personal security screen in Amsterdam than I was used to getting from the TSA. (You know how TSA agents say, “Now I’m going to touch the sensitive areas with the backs of my hands only?” Well, the Dutch don’t use the backs of their hands.) Despite this feeling uneasily intrusive to me, it obviously did not feel intrusive to the Dutch nor to the other international travelers in line with me for the “special screening.”

Finally, within 24 hours of arriving at home sweet home, suddenly the shootings in Sandy Hook were front and center on the national news. My disorientation was palpable. Yes, at one level, I knew a terrible tragedy had taken place. I realized how jarring and unsettling it was to so many people’s safety. People let their children on the bus to school expecting them to come home safe. It was clear several children did not that day. TV commentator after TV commentator spoke of the danger, and person after person commented via social media and blogs. Yet another part of my brain was saying, “Unsafe? Really? Here? I just came from a place where less that 1/3 of the children I met don’t have a drinking cup to prevent Nodding Disease, and at least that many children die each month from malaria.” I realized I was in one sphere, fully present in the Sandy Hook tragedy, but in another sphere, completely numb to it, because I was still more fully present to a different type of danger.

What I’ve come to realize in these last couple of months being back home, is that danger has two aspects. One aspect has to do with the physical parameters in which we live. I was far more likely to be bitten by a scorpion or a poisonous snake in Lui than I was to show up on the world news with people using my head as a soccer ball–even with the real threat of political instability in South Sudan. At home I am far more likely to be kicked in my head by my own mule than I am to be physically assaulted or burglarized–even though I live in the Meth Belt. Most of our dangers are far more personal and internal than we realize. Yet to both everyone who’s been the victim in a violent crime, and everyone who has successfully defended themselves from one, there is a real parameter to those experiences. Sorting out the actual from the possible is mentally and emotionally taxing, as well as difficult and messy.

The other aspect is “if people feel a danger, that danger is real to them, and not to be trivialized.” Danger translates to fear, and fear translates to either paralysis or reactive behavior. Things we fear cause us to react from our parasympathetic nervous system rather than from either our head or our heart. Someone with a personal or political opinion squarely opposing mine, and being rather adamant about it, may well be reacting to a danger that he or she feels viscerally. Making room for that disagreement while at the same time being true to our own individual principles seems to be an important aspect of it. The Bible is full of “don’t be afraid” messages, and the message of Jesus is that the antidote to fear is love.

Before I traveled to Lui as part of the Diocese of Missouri’s mission team, I stratified danger. Things that felt dangerous to me were most important, followed by things that are dangerous to those close to me, followed by danger that people I don’t even know face in their lives. My disorienting experience with danger has left me unable to stratify the needs of my world as any more or less important than the needs of THE world. The only things I know for certain are rooted in my understanding of Christianity and the particular brand of it I’ve chosen to practice.

I know the Christ-like response is to love, listen, and include when my spinal cord itches to fear, flee, or fight. Our shared heritage as Anglicans has taught me this involves being serious about honoring my Baptismal Covenant, to continue to be active and diligent in prayer, in the reading of Scripture and in corporate worship. It means to be serious about mission as a vehicle to inch a broken world just a smidgen closer to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Anglican Christianity is about agreeing to remain at the table and sharing the Sacraments with anyone who believes in the power of sharing corporate worship, even when we vehemently disagree with each other. Honoring our Baptismal Covenant means to reach out to “the least of these” and be generous with our time, our expertise, and our physical means when the world says it is impractical, foolish, or crazy. It means being open to the will of the Holy Spirit rather than our own spirited wills. Sometimes it means speaking when no one else dares; sometimes it means being quiet when we are dead set on everyone seeing it our way. It means trusting that God is capable of holding these whopping dissimilarities when our brains cannot. It means accepting that most forms of change are never seen in our lifetimes and we may never know if we were in the right or in the wrong about some things in the span of a single human life.

This, I believe, is the main ingredient to faith. May each of us be mindful of the possibility that when we pray the Collect for Aid against perils, we are also praying to be part of the solution in dangers we don’t even know enough to ask, or imagine–or disagree.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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