A Reflection from the Rev. Kirk Brown
I write this reflection in the comfort of my home, as dawn breaks on another beautiful morning in western North Carolina. There is a tranquility in these mountains, one I am thankful to enjoy every day. But I am aware that the line between tranquility and complacency is too easily blurred when our own comfort insulates—then isolates—us from our fellow creatures. So this morning, surrounded as I am by natural beauty, my heart is being drawn elsewhere, to Rome, where just weeks ago I wept.
How many experiences in life do we chalk up to mere chance and coincidence? Last June my wife, Shelley, and I celebrated an important wedding anniversary by doing something we had long dreamed of doing: taking an educational cruise through the Mediterranean. I serve as Chaplain at Christ School, a small Episcopal boys boarding school near Asheville, North Carolina. One of the great joys of that vocation is teaching religion. So to go to Italy, Sicily, Malta and the Croatian coast and walk through layers of history was one way, I imagined, to bring to life so much of what I teach. What I was not prepared for was what I would learn along the way that would change how I view the world. Nor did I understand then that the same beautiful seas we traveled in such comfort, were also the place of such hardship and anguish and death for others struggling to find a new home after being displaced.
We arrived in Rome two days earlier than our fellow travelers, giving us opportunity for a reunion with our friends Austin and Jill Rios, and their daughter, Aja. An enchanting evening spent with them started with a tour of St. Paul’s Within the Walls, and it was there that we first heard about the work Jill was doing with the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center (JNRC), situated in the parish. The plight of political refugees was something—I am now ashamed to admit—I had never really considered. Later in July, after we had returned from our tour, we reconnected again with Jill, who had returned to Asheville for vacation, and who was also leading a workshop at Trinity Episcopal Church on the work of the JNRC. Later Jill and Aja came to visit at our home. Something had begun to stir within me: I had begun to wonder what role Christ School might have in a partnership with the JNRC. Initially, the dream had little shape, but that changed when Jill came to Christ School and met with our Director of Service Learning, Olga Mahoney. To my surprise and astonishment, a very tangible project was beginning to take shape. Before I knew it, ten boys from Christ School, Olga, Shelley and I were booked for a trip to Rome, this time during our spring break in March. Our plan was to work in the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center, while also taking in the sights of Rome. In the weeks leading up to our departure, we prepared as best we could, but the truth is that we really could not imagine what was about to happen, what would transform us.
“Welcoming the Stranger” fits well with Christ School’s strong belief in the importance of hospitality. Loading up all the extra clothes we could stuff into our luggage, along with games for the JNRC, we went with the idea of extending our brand of hospitality. What actually happened when we arrived, though, demonstrated just how much we had to learn: from the first moment, we were the guests being welcomed by the JNRC. After a delicious lunch at which we wrote on postcards what images occurred to us when we heard the words “Rome” and “refugee” mentioned, we were off on a two-hour walking tour of Rome, as seen through the eyes of a refugee. Maiga was our tour guide, taking us to Termini, the bustling main train station, pointing out where he had slept for months after his arrival in Italy (and where hundreds of his fellow refugees still sleep at night); taking us to the fountains where a refugee might take a cold bath or wash clothes even on such a cold day as this; telling us how it feels to walk down the streets of a strange city and see the look of distrust or disdain or disgust in the eyes of fearful citizens, many of whom resent the presence of refugees in their midst. Maiga pointed out the realities we would never have seen. The walking tour ended at the JNRC where we reflected on our experience. Our guiding prayer for the week was to be the Prayer of St. Francis, one we say regularly at Christ School, so one we could recite from memory. But as we held hands and joined our voices together, each of us was aware that these familiar words were already taking on new meaning:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy…
What we still could not know was how each day that prayer would speak even more eloquently to the transformation every one of us was undergoing.
Our days at the JNRC were spent dispensing supplies; playing chess or pingpong with the refugees; teaching the new game of beanbag toss we had brought with us to an eager group of young men; helping teach English; laughing with joy (its own language when we could not communicate otherwise); but most importantly, awakening to the awareness of new friendships beginning to form among people from around the globe whose paths might never have met. Very different roads had led all of us to Rome. Here we found our own prejudices or preconceived notions challenged and changing; we were confused at the feelings emerging. Here we were discovering newfound brothers; and most confusing of all, we were the guests welcomed to the table—quite literally. One evening we were treated to a traditional Afghan meal, prepared by refugees who wanted to give us a taste of their homeland, who extended to us true hospitality. And afterward we learned about the incredibly powerful and healing work of the Artisans Together program.
On Friday, after a basketball game played in the shadow of the Colosseum (several of the Christ School students were members of the varsity squad who were joined by new friends from the JNRC), we made one last trek to the JNRC, this time for a special liturgy to reflect on the week spent there. The postcards we had filled out on our first day were returned to us; Jill invited us to add to what we had written just four days earlier. So while “Rome” had initially conjured up images of ancient history, a holy city, pasta, pizza, magnificent art and architecture; it now elicited a darker, more complex and confusing set of words. One student referred to Rome as a city of masks, behind which the unseen horror of life as a refugee lurked. As for “refugee,” on our first day we had used words such as crisis, or camps, or ghost ships; now the words that flooded out included resilient, friendly, misunderstood, my brother, my friend, solidarity and hospitality. When asked what difference we had made during our week at the JNRC, all of us fumbled for an answer. But when the question turned to what difference the week’s experience had made in us, there was no stopping the flow: we had been changed, one student replied, and would never forget this experience or hear the word “refugee” and not be deeply affected. We are committed to raise awareness of the crisis in our school, another said. Yet another spoke what we were all feeling: we feel personally connected to something that before was just a news report, to fellow human beings who before were mere statistics. In short, we had been changed. But the sense of leave taking was difficult, not knowing when or whether or under what circumstances we would meet again. Maiga, who had been our guide the first day, guided us through this moment, too: “Those who have loved us have left footprints in our heart.” As we prepared to leave, Maiga gave me a huge hug, and I felt tears welling up in my eyes. He looked into my face and with one hand reached over to gently brush the tears away. In that moment, I was at once grateful and humbled, and the words of the Book of Revelation, so familiar yet now so fresh, seemed to shout: “And he will wipe away every tear.” (Rev 21:4) Once again, we joined our voices and now our hearts, in the Prayer of St. Francis:
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.
As we departed from Rome we knew we were so much more than consoled; as we had sought to understand we knew we were better understood; as we had extended love, we now knew we were loved beyond anything we deserved.
For it is in giving that we receive….
We thought we had gone to give. We returned having received more than we could have dreamed. We had been extended hospitality by those who have experienced so little themselves. We returned home, changed and now charged to act on behalf of all of God’s children everywhere, all because we had been welcomed not as strangers, but as friends.
- Do you remember a time when you experienced welcome as a stranger? How did it feel?
- How do we best communicate what we have learned and experienced in such personal relationships with persons who have had to flee family, friends and country, to those who have had no such contact?
- Having had such transformative experiences, how do we keep the fire burning once we return to our busy lives?
About the Author
The Rev. Kirk Brown is the Chaplain at Christ School, an all-boys Episcopal School located in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina. He has been with Christ School since 1995, and graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1992.
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