I have a pretty hard bent towards justice, always have. Even as a child -- in fourth grade, I read The Diary of Anne Frank. Not only did her life inspire me, it solidified my stance for those who hurt, for the oppressed, for the vulnerable, for the marginalized. Now, when I think back on it, what’s interesting is I didn’t associate the justice bent to my faith. I grew up Catholic, which has a great tradition of social justice and serving the poor. My family doesn’t have this bent at all. As a matter of fact, they are directly opposed my work.
As a young girl, I idolized my grandmother; she was tough as nails, had many interesting hobbies, and survived two marriages to raise my dad and uncle on her own in the 50’s. She had jet black hair, lived on a farm, and once, in front of me, killed a snake with a pitchfork. Solidifying her hardcore status. When we moved to Denver, I rarely saw her. She came for a visit once when I was a teenager. At the time, I was in full-on rebellion mode. I had shaved off most of my hair and dyed it hot pink and green, purposely put holes and safety pins in every article of clothing I owned—what can I say, it was the 80’s. It’s almost comical when I think of how strongly I was rebelling against my very easy suburbia life. I would sneak out in the middle of the night even after I was grounded (and I was grounded my entire Sophmore year) just to party in the park. #suburbiateenagelife I imagine that I looked spoiled and ungrateful to the outside world, but in reality, I was standing up to the dysfunction and abuse in my family.
When my grandmother visited, I can’t even tell you how excited I was to see her. But, I found out that my memories of her didn’t fit the reality of who she was. During that visit, she made several, ok, MANY comments around African Americans. It turns out my grandmother was a racist! I was crushed -- how could someone I admired so strongly talk in ways I never remembered? The sad truth of our relationship is that it never recovered. Years later, when I took my first mission trip to Africa, she called me and told how dare I send her a letter asking for money to help “those kind of people.” She used much more colorful language. She cut our relationship off after that and even had a lawyer send me a letter after she died detailing why I was left out of her will.
The good news is that despite my family, I would even say, because of them, this passion grew stronger in me. So, this bent in me wasn’t conditioning from my family. I’m not sure why I am so different from all of them. I’m also not sure how my environment as a child didn’t form me to be like them. It also wasn’t teaching from my faith. Until I had cancer. When I was 27, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. It was summer, and I had surgery and radioactive iodine treatments. I was on short-term disability with lots of bed rest. It was that that point that I decided to finally read the Bible. Growing up, we had this beautiful white Bible with gold pages. I wasn’t allowed to touch it, let alone read it.
But, at this point in my life I was in so much pain, so much fear, so confused, and had felt up until this point that my life was meaningless. Not a good position to be in when facing cancer. I needed to know what this God was all about, and what this Christian faith was, and what was important to the very heart of this Almighty God. I read the book of Isaiah first.
“Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.” Isaiah 1:17
Isaiah just hammered away at the idea of how tender God is towards the vulnerable, and how bent He is towards justice for the oppressed. It was almost like a lightbulb went off in my head. This is what life is all about. This is the most important way to live life…for others. I found life in those words. It’s almost like my soul had been starving and I literally feasted on every word I read in Isaiah.
I was looking for meaning in my life. I found it. Nothing has given me more fight, more meaning, more love, or more dignity than working on behalf of someone else. Yes, 20 years ago, I had to fight for my health. But I made a promise to God and to myself, that if I had my health, I would base my life on joining those found in the margins, where I saw God standing.
I often wonder how Christianity could mean anything else. I do realize (and believe to my core) that Christianity is about knowing your worth and value and identity fully in Jesus. Next step is living that out and seeing God in the person in front of you.
“And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31 (NLT)
Who is my neighbor? Palestinian refugees. Syrian refugees. Rohingya refugees. Dreamers. Israelis. Muslims. Republicans. Democrats. LGBTQ community. Catholics. Baptists. Agnostics. Illegals. Incarcerated. Homeless.
Every single human on the planet right now--all are my neighbor. All reflect the image of God. What’s my responsibility as a follower of Jesus? Love them as myself. Because in the end, they are me and I am them. That’s the key; to see yourself in each person and to have empathy and compassion for the beauty and pain in their lives. To me, that’s the beginning of having a justice bent--putting yourself in others’ situation. Fr. Greg Boyle talks about having compassion for others’ suffering, standing in awe of what people carry instead of judging how they carry it.
My bent towards justice is zeroed in on the Palestinians. I would argue that Palestinian refugees face one of the greatest hidden injustices of the last century. Which is why I am committed to them, not a as cause, not a as plight, not as a political agenda—but committed to them as my neighbor. In 2004, I walked into Bourj Al-Barajneh Palestinian Refugee camp for the first time. I was angry. Angry that I didn’t know Palestinians were generational refugees. Angry at the injustice. Angry for their suffering. Angry that there are 70-year-old refugee camps in the world.
Anger is a good motivator in the beginning but to be stuck there is death. I have found over the years that love is the real motivator. To fight injustice or be with those in the margins out of love is the real power. Love holds power. Love holds life. Love is what we are all craving. Paul even talks extensively about love. From the famous 1 Corinthians 13, which is always read at weddings--without love, you gain nothing, without love you are nothing. Because love always wins. Without love, this justice bent means nothing. Without love, this neighbor command means nothing. Without love, working and fighting for others means nothing.
Maybe this post is checking the state of my own heart--my own motivation. The past few weeks have been discouraging, to the point of wanting to give up. To write out what I really believe about what I do and why I do it maybe gives you a peek into who I am. Maybe it was more for me to speak truth to myself. A reminder to my heart and a refresher to my soul. The interesting part of this blog is I wrote half of it one week, the rest a week later. I went to Santa Fe in between to see a movie. Yes, just to see a movie. And if it weren’t for that movie, this post might be very different.
The Santa Fe International Film Festival screened “Soufra” which means “feast” in Arabic. It follows a Palestinian refugee from Bourj (yes, the same camp that changed the course of my life) and how she started a catering business out of the camp. It is a beautiful film and I highly recommend seeing it.
I sat in the dark theater with tears streaming down my face and my hand clutching my chest—as if I could hold my actual heart. It’s a weird thing to see a place you are very familiar with on the big screen. It made me homesick for Beirut and for my Palestinian friends. This film had a great impact on me—it portrayed Palestinian refugees, Lebanon, and the camp as I know them. It was accurate. The camera saw what I have seen and known to be truth. It mirrored my own reflection.
But, maybe the biggest impact was that by the end, I realized the audience was cheering on a Palestinian Muslim refugee heroine. They saw her, understood her situation, and were rooting for her to reach her dream. An American audience cheering on a group of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon--I thought my heart might burst. This is something I haven’t experienced before. It made me feel a little less alone; others were cheering them on too…with me.
That’s the power of story. It can transcend language and culture and religion. To help you see your neighbor, know your neighbor, love your neighbor, and fight for your neighbor.
Once you know, you have a responsibility, or at least that has been my experience. The only option for me is to move forward with my neighbors to make a more just world for us all.
Maybe at the core, that is walking in justice. To realize our worth…together