On Mar. 1, editorial assistant Olivia Whitener preached at Sojourners' chapel on Lent, lament, and holy community. Below is an adapted version of her remarks.
On my bus ride home from an Ash Wednesday service on Feb. 10, with ashes on my forehead clearly marking me as a follower of Christ, I looked around and realized that I in no way felt endangered due to my explicit display of my religion. And I was struck, sitting on the bus, with the religious privilege held in that realization. I treasure that ashen sign of the cross on my forehead, representative simultaneously of my humanity and my salvation — yet in that moment, I felt conflicted about my ability to display it so boldly and publicly on my commute home.
Feb. 10 also happened to mark one year since three beautiful, intelligent, and faithful Muslim young adults were murdered in Chapel Hill, N.C., by a neighbor who hated religion and owned thirteen firearms — one of which he used to kill Yusor, Razan, and Deah. Though still “officially” unclear whether they were killed explicitly because of their religion, writer and professor of Islamic Studies at N.C. State Anna Bigelow explained that the investigations into the motives of this case are also “peeling back layers of societal debates about Islam, Muslim Americans, and the culture of intolerance and violence taking root in the U.S.”
I was in my senior year of college, just down the road from the attacks. Our community gathered with our neighboring rival universities in mourning the loss of Yusor, Razan, and Deah last February. And we also stood with our fellow Muslim students, ensuring that they knew they are loved and respected in our community.
That one year later would be the beginning of a time for Christians to gather in penitence on the road to the resurrection, I felt a calling that for me, this Lenten journey would be one of reflection and advocacy for peace across borders — especially as three more young men were shot execution style in Indiana just last week. I cried on Ash Wednesday as I reflected on how much unrest exists in our country and world and yet what privilege I hold, meaning I am personally unscathed from the hatred. And holding my confirmation verse — the shortest verse in the Bible, from John 11 — in my heart, I wept, knowing that my God has experienced this sadness, weeping at the death of his friend Lazarus — and also, I feel, weeping at the state of our “union.”
In that passage, Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life...do you believe this?” And even knowing himself that he is the Messiah, he weeps along with Mary and Martha and those gathered at Lazarus’ tomb. Our God knows that grief is a hard battle, and shows us a way of community and grace through the very human act of crying.
For a teenage girl who cried a lot, that was comforting. And ten years later, the image of Jesus weeping beside Mary is the greatest reminder of the incarnation.
In a statement released on the one year marker of the tragedy in Chapel Hill, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, father to Yusor and Razan, and Farris Barakat, brother to Deah, used these words to encourage our nation in the wake of this tragedy and others:
“We know that we must not fight hate with hate. Instead, we will carry their legacy of love against hate.”
Moving forward from this darkness, the family has built a community center — The Light House — in order to try to move #ForwardWithFaith. While the nation’s judicial system tries the man who killed them, with a death penalty looming over his head, the family is choosing to encourage understanding across religious differences, and strengthening community where they died.
“Instead we will carry their legacy of love against hate.”
It is a communal effort they feel charged with, and one we are also given.
Further on in my favorite passage from John 11, after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the grave, he commands his friend to come out of the tomb where he had been lying four days. But if you continue reading, the final verse in that story from Scripture is not just marveling at the miracle that Jesus performs. No — it is a command for Lazarus’ community to “unbind him and let him go.”
Without his community of his sisters and family, who have been mourning his death and questioning God for not saving their brother and friend, Lazarus would remain entombed. Without community, we remain bound and entombed. I’m not saying that our actions are as great as Jesus raising someone from the dead. But I am saying that God entrusts us with living into community, so that we may welcome our brothers and sisters out of death and into life.
As we live the remaining four weeks of Lent in the penitence of the road to the resurrection, may we turn to all of our neighbors with peace and love, knowing that life awaits us on Easter morning, bringing a joy to share with the darkness of this world.