It had been several years since I'd visited New York City. The sun collapsed into an orange ball behind the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan as my flight swooped by them, over the Statue of Liberty, and on past the Empire State Building to LaGuardia.
I can't view that skyline without experiencing a flood of memories from my time in East Harlem as a college student. Nostalgia and a little sadness overcame meand regret that the passage of years has dulled some of my enthusiasm. I actually believed then that I could change the world.
Twenty-two years later, I was feeling weary. There's always a danger to agreeing in July to lead a retreat in February on hope. But I had assented to spend a weekend with Pax Christi Metro New York leading a retreat on "Hope for the Long Haul." As the plane touched down, I whispered to myself, "I hope these folks are prepared to be vulnerable this weekend." Not much was going to happen if it all depended on me.
My text that Friday evening was Genesis 32:22-31, the story of Jacob wrestling all night with the angel. I reflected that we seem to be in a wrestling time these days, a time requiring persistence and patience. Most of the people in the room had been to Central America in the '80s during the contra war; they had resisted nuclear weapons in the '70s during the Cold War; many had been active in the '60s in the civil rights struggle. Those times seemed like eras of high energy for resistance.
Often these days it seems that what is most required of us is a lot of waiting and serving and being presentto refugees and homeless people, to prisoners and battered women, to troubled children and dying folk. The people gathered in that room nodded in assent when I reflected that it's easy to feel isolated in our wrestling.
In the Jacob story, the angel put his hip socket out of joint, then asked Jacob to let him go. But Jacob refused to release him until the angel blessed him. A truth leapt out at me as I read the story: That which wounds us blesses us, and that which blesses us wounds us.
I offered two questions for reflection and invited the retreatants to share with the rest of the group their thoughts: With what are you wrestling? Where do you feel invited to know wounding and blessing? I hoped someone would share.
THE FIRST PERSON to speak said, "I shouldn't be here." He explained that just months before he was in a coma he wasn't expected to come out of. He shared about his ongoing struggle with AIDS and cancer, and of his search to understand why God had spared him for more living.
Then a sister of Charity spoke emotionally of her week working at St. Vincent's Hospital. She was caring for a couple who were among the eight people who had been shot in the incident at the top of the Empire State Building just days before. She was deeply touched by the spirit of forgiveness she observed in her patients, who prayed for the gunman and his family.
Others added their stories. A chaplain at Riker's Island was courageously confronting gangs within the prison. A school teacher daily faced children wielding weapons. A nurse was caring for young children who had been shot by their father on New Year's Eve; the youngest, a 5-year-old, hoped that he wouldn't go to jail because, "After he did it, he said he was sorry."
A married couple shared a profound anguish that had just entered their lives. The man, who suffered from a neurological disease, had just lost his capacity to speak. They were learning in new ways how to communicate and care for one another.
One woman, who works with troubled youth, offered a comment that brought smiles and assent from around the room: "I don't know about hope for the long haul; I'm just looking for some hope for the short haul."
The weekend was a poignant reminder to me of the desperation of our situation in this country. Our presence and our service are much needed. So is our hope.
A sister who works at a shelter for survivors of domestic violence spoke of her love and concern for the children who pass through her life. Earlier in the week a young girl had hovered near her with a friend, until the girl worked up her courage to ask a question.
"Are you what they call white?" she asked bluntly.
"Yes, I guess I am," the sister answered.
Turning to her friend, the girl said, "See, that ain't so bad."
Glimpses of hope are everywhere. Indeed, those people who wound uswhose suffering breaks our heartsare also a source of great blessing. And shared vulnerability will keep us all going for the long haul.
Joyce Hollyday, the author of Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us, was a Sojourners contributing editor and was in the master's of divinity program at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta when this article appeared.