It was so typical. And yet it wasn’t.
Last night a new friend came over for supper. He sat with my family and I for a typical meal. Typical for us in that we sat down at our dining room table, as we usually do, and ate a meal—some rice, chicken and veggies—that is common enough for us. A very normal dinner time in my house.
Except it wasn’t. My new friend has only been in Canada for 11 months. He came here as a refugee from a camp in Kenya. He arrived there as a young man, received some education, and continued as a worker for different NGOs in the camps he spent time in. He is a very sweet man and his heart is absolutely beautiful.
But as we get to know each other more details from his past come out. And more details of the current situation that he left behind.
He left southern Sudan in the late 80s/early 90s as a ‘lost boy’. Forces and groups from the largely Islamic Sudanese areas in the north were attacking mostly Christian communities and villages in the south. They murdered fathers and young men, raped and attacked mothers and daughters. These lost boys, only 8, 9, or 10 or 11 years old, fled for their lives. They started walking first for Ethiopia. They stayed at camps there until civil unrest turned to war and to avoid being drawn into battle, resumed their migration on foot. Kenya was next. Their story is told here.
My friend is gentle, calm, and well collected. He is wise and adjusting quickly to life in a completely foreign context. He appreciates that, for the most part, he does not feel like a stranger in Canada. He feels like he has been welcomed as one of us. And he is. He belongs here as much as anyone else. It was an uncommon grace for me to hear his story and share a meal with him.
The other uncommon moment came as he shared from his experiences as a young man trying to find life in Africa, and so often found death instead. His violent expulsion from his home could have so easily predisposed him to a life of vengeful violence. But it hasn’t. Since that early exposure didn’t taint him, any of the subsequent experiences could have. He has seen horrific acts of sadistic violence inflicted on one human by another. He has processed and helped others to process the traumatic impact of seeing such horror. To give me understanding, he showed me a video another worker shared with him. Once I realized what I was seeing, I could only watch a bit before I needed to turn it off.
It is taken on a cell phone camera and shows horribly gruesome—yet very real—murderous torture committed against a bound victim. And the crowd around the attacker is not in a frenzied rage nor in horrified silence. Somewhere in the middle of that, they pat the knife wielding man on the back, encourage him, and stand by as life leaves the body on the ground. That mother’s son breathed his last while onlookers egged it forward. It was certainly someone’s brother or cousin, whose greatest misfortune was to be the one figuratively caught up in the larger situation, and then caught up literally in the twine that bound him. The promise of his life, no different than the promise of my children or my brothers, was wasted on the ground, mixed into the soil to which we all will eventually return.
I know nothing of his life. Only his death through the recording. It is amazing that modern technology allows us to see something that should be disconnected from our modern era. The violence in the video is as old as Cain and Abel, back to the beginning. And while we can invent technology that is so microscopic it can be inserted in our bloodstream, we cannot solve the problems of hatred, vengeance, and violence. Typical, I guess. While his life is distant from me, his death has touched me.
While I think about preaching to our congregation this weekend, that man will be in the recesses of my consciousness. While I talk about the felt needs of the world my new friend has joined, I will be mindful of how far we really have yet to go. I realize that like the men in the video standing by and watching, so much of our lives renders us passive observers also to this horror and others like it everywhere. And sadly, it is all too typical.