Easter in Monrovia

A year ago I spent Easter Sunday in Bujumbura, Burundi as detailed elsewhere on this blog. My friends and I went to a mass in the main cathedral led in French. The children’s choir truly had angelic voices. Although I don’t speak French, there was an unmistakable, familiar rhythm to the service. A memorable day during a memorable trip. That was a year ago.

This year I fought jet lag and slept the latest I think I have ever slept – just before before 1PM – in Monrovia, Liberia. Not so memorable. We had intentions to attend an African service at a Lutheran church somewhere in town; however, our contact we met on the plane didn’t get back to us. Needless to say, the added rest expedited the jet lag recovery.

I’m writing this short post days after Easter. Since then I have begun to hear stories of the trials, tribulations, and hopes of the Liberians with whom I have met through TH. Each time I find myself on the African continent, I find myself struggling with how I talk about my experiences, but more importantly, conveying their experiences. I want to capture the oppression but not at the expense of the strength of the human spirit in a world with far less material comforts, essentials, and social recognitions of human dignity than in high-income countries, where there it is not perfect either. It’s an ongoing discussion for me, one that continues to be shaped by experience, discussion, and reflection.

I brought a number of books with me: The Roads of Man by Ted Conover, Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, This Child Will Be Great by Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, The Birth of the Clinic by Michel Foucault, and A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer. I also brought a stack of magazines, among them The Christian Century, a mainline theological magazine, which I have enjoyed for years. An article I read the night before Easter speaks to some of my thoughts on human expression in many of my African continent experiences. I’m excerpted a little bit below. Although it comes from the perspective of the Christian tradition, I think the theological dimensions apply widely for all readers regardless of any/no religious tradition.

“…On two mission trips to Haiti with undergrads, there was widespread agreement that the most disarming thing about the country was the laughter of the children, along with their raucous singing. How dare they sing when their life expectancy is so horribly short? Was their laughter an escapist respite from the tragedy of their lives, or a smart rebuke to our assumption that their lives were trapped in tragedy?…The insufferably earnest releases from our church agency presume that the morally attuned among us, the truly courageous, are the ones with the guts to admit how bad things are in this terribly flawed, fallen world… But those singing-through-their-tears Haitians make me wonder: a truly theological analysis suggests that we may be meant by God for music, destined for joy. Maybe our fitful good deeds are not the end of story. The church’s relief bulletins rarely include that theology along with its lists of sins and disasters. This is what you get when anthropology over takes Christology – it’s always Good Friday. What’s dead stays that way…” From “Now can we sing?” by William H. Willimon

There is singing. There is joy. Everyone should know. I’m not here to report on that solely, to downplay or overinflate it. Everyone deserves a lifetime to spend with their friends and families, to pursue their interests, to be treated with dignity. And by all indicators some societies are doing markedly better jobs healing and promoting health than others for a number of complicated reasons, including access to health care, health services, medical supplies, etc. That’s a reality, front and center with joy. But for this Easter in a country with dismal (but improving) health indicators, a country where in a report I read today that an infant mortality rate of 110 per 1000 births is “showing significant improvements,” if I’m honest to myself, I have to say “amen” to character and spirit of Willimon’s reflection after 6 years of experiences on the African continent. The needs don’t dissipate because of joy, but song in part reminds us of who we are and what we are to do.

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