Every time I hear a news report about casualties of war, my mind travels back to the early ’90s. Twice in two years I traveled with a humanitarian organization to Croatia and Bosnia as those countries were being ripped apart by war with Serbia. It was a vicious war. When entering a village, soldiers routinely raped the women and took captive all the men and boys over 13, most of whom never returned.
In Croatia, we visited refugee centers filled with women who had lost everything: jobs, husbands, homes, country, and their planned-for future. In Bosnia, we visited schools where social workers tried to help grade-school kids who suffered so severely from post-traumatic stress that they sat all day silently chewing their nails to the quick. It was the first time I had seen war up close, and I was stunned by what human beings do to one another.
On my last day in Croatia, I climbed to the top of a hill that overlooked the countryside of Bosnia. I sat there for hours and wept and prayed for the women and children I’d seen. While I prayed, an unbidden question repeated itself: “Am I my sister’s keeper?” And the repeated answer was, Yes, yes, yes; you are your sister’s keeper.
“God, then who is my sister?”
They are all your sisters, I sensed God saying. Croatian Catholics. Bosnian Muslims. Serbian Orthodox. They—and every other woman you will ever meet—are all your sisters. And every man you will ever meet is your brother. Whether they know it or not, they are all part of the human family I have created, and I love them.
That’s what happens when you open your mind and heart to God and the world God created: You end up with a huge family. And you realize that every single member of the family is as important to God as you are.
This changes everything. It changes the way I listen to the news, the way I think about war, global poverty, HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, refugees—everything. Distance doesn’t matter, race doesn’t matter, and religion doesn’t matter. If there’s tragedy in the world, it’s touching my family. I have to pay attention. I have to care.
A year ago, I stood on a busy street corner in downtown Cairo, confused by the chaos of an incomprehensible traffic pattern, overwhelmed by the cacophony of unfamiliar music and language, and uncomfortable as an obviously Western woman. But in a split second, as I began to cross the street in a noisy parade of pedestrians, I felt it, undeniably: These are my people, my family, my sisters and brothers.
Months later, I listened as a mother of eight, living in the destitution of a refugee camp in a war-torn region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, described her brutal rape by rebel soldiers. When she showed me the beautiful, two-week-old child born of that rape, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that her little boy meant every bit as much to God as my adored grandson does. This beautiful Congolese baby’s health, safety, and future matter as much as my precious Henry’s health, safety, and future.
On a recent trip to the Holy Land, I met with Palestinian women—Muslims and Christians—who are trapped in the economic despair of the West Bank. Thanks to funding for a beekeeping collective, a soap-making business, and a needlework shop, these mothers are now able to feed, clothe, and educate their children. On the same trip, I met with a group of Israeli and Palestinian women who have lost children to the violence of the ongoing conflict. In their shared grief, they have inspired one another to become activists for peace and justice for all people in the Holy Land. What a privilege it was to enter into the pain, the hard work, and the hope of all these sisters.
I cannot possibly meet the needs of every member of my huge global family, but neither can I thoughtlessly dismiss their suffering. I have to pay attention. I have to care. And I have to pray, “God, what is mine to do?”
Lynne Hybels, co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, is author of Nice Girls Don’t Change the World.