Three American soldiers committed suicide in the first few months after U.S. forces arrived in Haiti in September 1994. Speculation on the reason for these tragedies centered on the inability of those three young persons to stand the inhuman conditions they found in that country.
An acquaintance of ours formed part of the delegation that returned to Haiti with President Aristide on October 15 of that year. She described the dramatic and unsettling picture of Haitian people bathing, washing clothes, and even drinking from the sewer-like water running along the roadside in front of American service men and women standing guard. How does one view such an inhuman scene for hours on end without great despair?
One way is together with a faith community. In August 1993 a group sponsored by the Church of the Saviour's Ministry of Money in Washington, D.C., journeyed to Bosnia on a "Pilgrimage of Reverse Mission." The "reverse mission" of the Ministry of Money is to aid the conscientization of First World Christians to the reality of the hurting world beyond our shores.
During our 10 days in the devastated Bosnian countryside, we, like our military personnel in Haiti, looked into the face of evil and its consequences. The difference was that we had each other's Christian faith as our support. Not that our "pilgrimage community" sought to evade what we were seeing through escapist prayer or frivolous theological rationalizing. None of our group could pass through Bosnia and be satisfied only with asking God to help the many victims we encountered; nor could we submerge the conflict we were witnessing into a reflection on "life hereafter." The insults to God's sons and daughters resulting from the killing taking place in Bosnia prevented any of that.
What is more, our little community came up against questions that surely confront American personnel in Haiti or any other place where human beings suffer oppression: How can there be such suffering in a world where some of us enjoy so much privilege? What, if anything, can we who are not poor or oppressed do to alleviate and end the enormous pain we witness in the world? And hardest of all, as citizens of a superpower, are we in some way responsible for the evil we are seeing?
A SHARED FAITH DOES not offer us quick answers to such threatening questions but does at least help us to face them without despairing. For us in Bosnia it was a reaching back to our deepest Christian convictions that enabled us to go on with our pilgrimage. It was the conduct of Jesus with the widow of Nain that helped in our encounter with two young mothers whose husbands had been killed in the war. It was the remembrance of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem that informed our ministry to a priest in agony over the devastation of his parish. It was the image of Jesus as patient and interested listener that inspired us to hear out the tortured story of a displaced health care professional.
Remembering those long days we spent in Bosnia, one can only wonder how people without a faith community can survive the darkness that threatens to prevail in many parts of the world. We in communities of faith must proclaim our conviction that death will not have the last word.
Communities of Christians are nothing if we are not Easter communities. We do not have more solutions than any other group of people, but what we do have is a conviction that a certain Human Being once descended into the depths of hell and rose again triumphant. In light of that, the despair—which is understandable—ultimately has no place because Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
We "pilgrims in reverse mission" returned with our eyes burned at what we had seen. Our hearts remained heavy for days and weeks afterward. We shall never be the same again. But while all of us felt utter frustration over the tangled mess in Bosnia, we covenanted with one another to take small steps to alleviate some of the agony there. What is more important, we will continue to walk with the message of a pastor in Rama, Bosnia, who told his ravaged and ravaging, violated and violating people simply to "remember your baptism into the death and resurrection of the Christ."
Joe Nangle, OFM, former outreach director at Sojourners, was executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C. when this article appeared.