My New Hero

I’m sitting in the side chapel at St. John Chrysostom church, where Janet and I are spending a reflective hour as part of the Good Friday prayer vigil. Earlier this morning I read a meditation for Holy Saturday which I’d written last year but never sent out. It was concerning an attack on World Vision’s office in Afar Ethiopia, which happened just before Holy Week last year. My reflection was that in Afar we were in the in-between time: we knew about the bad news, but we didn’t yet know what good would come of it… “This day, the day between Crucifixion Friday and Resurrection Sunday, is the ‘not yet’ day, the day when the worst had already happened, and no one knew the best that was about to happen.  The disciples thought it was over; the women went to the tomb early Sunday morning simply to dress out Jesus’ body, not to check whether his body was still there or had been resurrected.  They could not envision another chapter to a story they thought had ended in tragedy. The best was about to happen.  God was using death to bring life in all its fullness.” I’d closed with a twist on Tony Campolo’s famous sermon: “In Afar, it’s Saturday; but Sunday’s comin’!”

But I didn’t send it out, partly because it seemed a bit glib and partly because I was concerned that explaining the causes of the attack might be too complicated or risk being misunderstood and derail the piece. I thought about sending it this year but—as I complained to Janet while we drove to our church, it’s a year later and there’s no Easter ending to the story yet.

To start my prayer vigil time, I decided to employ an ancient ritual for focusing the mind on God by “walking” along a handheld labyrinth using my fingers and a stylus.  As usual, my mindset while traveling toward the center of the labyrinth was that of moving into God’s presence.  But then it shifted, to a reminder of Christ’s arduous but willing journey up to Golgotha, Skull Hill, the place of his ultimate suffering.  My usual joy upon arrival became serious if not ominous.

Then my mind shifted again, to the suffering from last year, and then to what happened a few weeks ago when I was again in Afar…

For the first time, this year I was blessed to take my 16-year-old granddaughter Emmy to Ethiopia! She was an absolute delight to have along and stole everyone’s heart, not least her proud grandpa’s. Last weekend Emmy and I reflected again on our trip as we prepared to give a talk at University High School in Irvine, which was holding a fundraising event for WV.  I asked Emmy: Who does she remember most when she thinks about Afar. I was expecting her to say the newborn baby she’d held in her arms, or the teen girls she met, or the students she addressed. Maybe even the camel she rode.

But she surprised me by answering, “I always remember Yared. He’s my new hero.” Yared was WV’s project manager in Afar, and one of several hosts for our group. When Emmy learned that Yared had been injured in last year’s attack, she was moved to give him a letter and the Valentine’s Day teddy bear that her mom had sneaked into my suitcase for her.

After she’d written the letter, we all had a lovely morning at a school, interacting with the kids there (pretending to teach them English while they pretended to learn from us). As we drove back, Emmy and I were able to climb into a vehicle alone with Yared so Emmy could give him her gift. As he read her note, Yared wiped silent tears; they rather streamed down his face. I asked if he would mind telling us about the attack.  The story was dramatic and painful.

An angry mob of young people had attacked a high school teacher, and as the adrenalin-soaked herd headed back into town, they passed the World Vision office and decided to wreak more havoc.  The upshot is that they hit Yared over the head with bricks and though a few of them (the girls!) pressed to do more, he and three other staff were left bleeding and semi-conscious inside the wrecked office.  The wounded were moved out of the area for treatment and recuperation for several months.  Yared told us he’d been reassigned to the regional office, and though he comes back to the office in Afar and has had to give depositions in town, this was the first week he’d been back in the outlying communities where we work.

He became very quiet, turning away toward the window and wiping his face profusely.  When we’d arrived at the school earlier that morning, we had walked the joyous gauntlet of all the students clapping and shaking our hands, hundreds lined up on either side of us.  I flashed back to our interactions.

“Were…any of your attackers at the school we just visited,” I asked sheepishly.

“Yes. There were several.”

Did they do or say anything? Was any kind of remorse shown?  No, everyone just acted as though nothing had ever happened.

I didn’t need to ask him how he was feeling about this; he was doing his best to hide his face from us and furtively dry his tears.  I prayed for him instead.

We returned to the same school the next day for a second morning of “teaching” and, to my surprise and admiration, Yared came with us again, even knowing what he now knew, and he translated in the classroom, though others could have done so.

Pausing in the center of my labyrinth, my heart went out to Yared and his colleagues as they continue in their slow healing process, and I decided to travel back out of the center “walking” in Yared’s shoes, walking down from that mount of pain, taking the circuitous route one must follow out of the labyrinth, sweeping away from the center, practically around in circles, back toward the now-unwelcome center, and finally, finally out…to freedom.

I told the story to Janet as we drove away from the prayer vigil, and I pondered that Yared was clearly still in pain; he hadn’t “arrived” or done anything outwardly “heroic”.  Then I thought again: but he came back.  And, every day at our early morning devotions in the desert, Yared was one of the most enlivened worshippers.

Now I saw where the analogy to Holy Saturday, that place between the pain of Good Friday and the redeeming miracle of Easter Sunday, fits authentically.  Here is the place where we still don’t know Sunday’s comin’, except by faith.

Yared is facing and walking through the pain from his own Friday; and while it’s Saturday he’s holding firmly onto faith in the God who redeems all things.

Maybe he’s my new hero, too.

April 2012

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