Healing

Ground Operation

IT’S A MAY evening on the farm. My husband’s planting tomatoes and our son needs a bedtime story, but I’m completely occupied with pictures of war. I’ve cleared the piles of laundry from the kitchen table so our friend Adam can spread out his albums. There are photos of Adam in his tidy platform tent, of brown mountains in the distance, and dozens of pictures of children grinning on the other side of razor wire.

“This is an Aardvark,” he says, pointing to a gargantuan armored vehicle as he describes the flails that detonate buried mines. “What does that do to the soil?” I ask, because this is what you wonder when you and your family have been Mennonite farmers since the Reformation. There are a few more photos before I finally get it. Adam is showing me Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military hub in Afghanistan, surrounded by minefields and littered with burned-out tanks and planes, the wreckage of war from the Soviets. No one farms here, or has, or will for a long, long time.

FOR THE PAST three seasons, Adam McDermott has come to our farm in Central Pennsylvania’s Stone Valley every Friday morning to harvest vegetables for the food bank. We always chat while we bunch beets or pick green beans, and now I wonder why we’ve never talked about his years in the Army.

“This farm has definitely been part of my therapy,” he tells me, while offering a brief sketch of his months in Iraq: taking heavy equipment down unfamiliar roads to set off hidden explosives, being promoted to sergeant, and then losing three friends when a bomb shattered their Humvee. Adam came home in 2008 with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and an alcohol addiction. “A lot of guys struggle with alcohol,” Adam says. “In the military you have camaraderie and a sense of purpose. But when you get back, there’s just this big void.”

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'Punk Jews' Highlights Judaism's 'Myriad Flavors'

"Here's how you bring light into the world," says a scruffy-bearded man in shirtsleeves and a knit cap on a Brooklyn rooftop. "First, you get up in the morning and you scream!" His mischievous grin melts into something more ethereally content as he screams. At length.

He's had plenty of practice screaming — he does it for a living.

The man is Yishai Romanoff, lead singer of the hassidic punk band Moshiach Oi and one of the half-dozen artists, activists, and culture-makers profiled in the documentary Punk Jews.

The phrase can seem like an oxymoron: The essence of punk is to challenge inherited convention, yet adherence to rich traditions of convention is the common through-line of all of Judaism's myriad flavors.

Letting Go—And Its Complications

FORGIVENESS IS wholeness, Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Anglican minister Rev. Mpho Tutu, write in their newest collaboration,The Book of Forgiving. Scientific research shows that forgiveness has the power to transform us in spiritual, emotional, and even physical ways. That evidence is paired with the Tutus’ collective experience in counseling, studying, and teaching and their personal stories about the difficulty of forgiving. Archbishop Tutu writes about learning to forgive his abusive father. Mpho, who writes about learning to forgive the man who murdered her housekeeper in her home, is pursuing a PhD in the topic of forgiveness.

The book lays out some simple but critical truths: Everyone can be forgiven. Everyone deserves forgiveness. You must be willing to forgive. Forgiveness is not a weakness, nor a luxury. Forgiving others is a way to practice forgiving yourself. Through forgiveness, we all become whole again. Unconditional forgiveness is an act of grace that frees all parties from further indignity, and from self-blame and corrosive hatred.

The path to forgiveness seems simple enough when you can navigate it in four easy-to-follow steps: Tell the story. Name the hurt. Grant forgiveness. Renew or release the relationship. The path is also—sorry—a bit pedestrian. That doesn’t mean the route map isn’t useful. But the book will be most applicable if you have struggled to forgive or feel that even contemplating forgiveness is an impossible burden weighing heavy on your heart and soul. If you’re carrying a load you can’t seem to gracefully shrug off or leave by the side of the road, the Tutus can help you chart the course.

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The Power to Heal

Daniel Beaty in "Through the Night"

“I AM A storyteller,” says Daniel Beaty, “and my purpose in the world is to inspire people to transform pain to power.”

He was first inspired to share his stories when his third-grade teacher showed a videotape of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Now as a writer, actor, singer, teacher, and motivational speaker, his storytelling is expressed in a dizzying array of different forms and outlets. The week in April that Sojourners’ editorial assistant Rebecca Kraybill interviewed him, Beaty was doing daily performances in Los Angeles of a one-person play he wrote on the life of performer and activist Paul Robeson, “The Tallest Tree in the Forest” (in which he plays 40 characters and sings 14 songs) and, during the day, taping for a Ford Foundation-funded documentary on work he does with children of incarcerated parents.

This was just a fortnight after Beaty finished a six-week speaking tour in support of his memoir, Transforming Pain to Power: Unlock Your Unlimited Potential (Penguin-Random House). He’s also the author of a children’s book released in December 2013 by Little, Brown and Company, Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me, with graphics by award-winning illustrator Bryan Collier, which is an adaptation of a poem Beaty wrote about his experience growing up with an incarcerated father. “Knock knock down the doors that I could not” is one especially poignant line the father in the book writes to the son; it carries a call to healing and liberation that is found in all of Beaty’s work.

Kraybill talked with Beaty about the effects of mass incarceration on families, the power of a “theater sanctuary,” and how the arts call us toward “the capacity to do better.”

Rebecca Kraybill: Many people were first introduced to your work through a YouTube video of the Def Poetry Jam performance of your poem, “Knock Knock.” What inspired that poem?

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To the Dying Church: Offer Us the Hope You Once Did

GlebStock/Shutterstock.com

Offer us the hope you once did. GlebStock/Shutterstock.com

My Dear Friend,

It breaks my heart to be the one to tell you this, but I figured you might be more receptive hearing this from me. I think you already know what I'm about to tell you — it's nearly impossible you couldn't know with how loud everyone's whispers have become.

Something is terribly wrong! You are sick.

I know this isn't the news you were hoping for, but it's the truth. With this in mind, I feel now, it is more important than ever that I lay things out for you — no matter how much it pains me.

To the Dying Church: Sharing our Wounds

Andrea Danti & Skylines/Shutterstock.com

Andrea Danti & Skylines/Shutterstock.com

To the dying church,

Sometimes you have to get worse before you get better. You are dying because you’ve been applying band aids for a far deeper problem. You are consistently doling out superficial remedies for surface wounds when the source of pain lays untreated. 

Church, you have confused biblical hope for optimism. When hurting people walk through your doors, you play the positive thinking guru and dispense quick fixes with inspirational quotes. You provide cheap grace and empty promises that are driving people out your doors.

You have mistaken confidence with certitude. When people come with authentic questions, you forsake healthy dialogue in exchange for a veneer of harmony. You post your doctrinal statements at your gates and demand unsure people to come in or stay out. The resulting homogenous bubbles you’ve created are sure to burst. 

Part II: Semblances of Hope

Next to a glass casing displaying neatly stacked skulls, Rwamasirabo flipped through the pages of a dusty notebook holding the church’s paperwork. He pulled out a church program. On it, was a photo of his former friend, Father Athanase Seromba, a 31 year-old Roman Catholic priest who was responsible for killing 3,000 of his Tutsi congregation members. The priest wore a black oxford with a white clerical collar accessorized with a distrusting mustache and a toothy smile seething betrayal. Rwamasirabo stuffed the program back into the notebook.

Rwamasirabo’s thin stature commands respect and the lines in his face convey tragic sorrow. His careful, soft-spoken voice expressed feelings of loss. With worn hands, Rwamasirabo searched through a pile of salvaged rubbish to find the chalice from which communion was served.

It reminded him of his daughter.

VIDEO: How to Build a Memorial Prayer Altar

From graffiti memorials and ghost bike displays to crosses on the side of the road, public memorials serve as visible reminders of the fragility of life. In “'We Will Never Forget You'” (Sojourners, May 2014), Brittany Shoot explores the “public nature of grief” and the sacred act of remembrance offered through public memorials.

Watch this Sojourners video to help you create your own memorial prayer altar in remembrance of those you love and will never forget.

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Holding On and Letting Go

I WAS PRESENT when my uncle died. I didn’t plan to be, but once I understood his end was near it felt right. I had been the flower girl at my aunt and uncle’s wedding, the ritualized beginning of their life together, so witnessing this milestone event of my uncle’s death seemed appropriate. And I wanted to support my aunt, I told myself.

My aunt is my father’s youngest sister. They are the last living siblings from nine brothers and sisters; both their parents are also long gone. My aunt wears this fact like a veil. Sometimes it’s barely noticeable; sometimes it’s the only thing she sees. While my parents’ divorce had kept me apart from my aunt for much of my life, it seemed important, the fury of those old family dramas now covered with dust, to offer my aunt support in her husband’s last days, hours, then moments. She was hardly alone. My aunt has three grown daughters, and my uncle comes from a huge family, most of whom were packed into the hospital room where he died at 2:20 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2013.

My aunt told me she was happy to have me, a representative from her side of her family, present. So I was there. For her, I said.

But to tell the truth, I was there to learn. I have plenty of information about the beginning of life. People in my generation received hours of tutoring, lecturing, indoctrinating, and warning about puberty, childbirth, birth control, and “safe sex.” Although we were actually not given much information about sexuality—I had to learn that on my own. But I knew even less about death.

In those days during my uncle’s passing, I felt the need to understand what some call the great mystery, the last journey, the final frontier. When my uncle died, would there be a bright light, a cold shudder in the room? Would time stop? Speed up? Would angels descend on clouds of harp music? Would there be someone or something to lead him from his physical body when he passed? Where was he going? Was he ready?

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Wounded Souls

WHEN CHIEF MASTER Sergeant Harry Marsters returned in 2008 from his time in Iraq, he knew something wasn’t right. At 54, the 32-year veteran of the Air Force—with 27 years full time in the military and the remainder as a reservist with the Air National Guard—felt that as one of the “older folks” he knew what to expect upon return from his assignment with the communications squad at the Kirkuk Regional Air Base in northern Iraq.

Marsters’ squadron trained Iraqi forces in the operation and maintenance of aerial surveillance equipment on the base, which housed 1,000 Air Force and 2,500 Army troops. As first sergeant he acted as a liaison to the Air Force troops and ensured the well-being of those stationed there. It was a job he relished, pouring care into building connections with the airmen and women, spending time with the chaplains, and coordinating recreation and morale-building activities.

Though Air Force personnel never left the base, they were subjected to the ever-present threat of randomly timed mortar rounds launched by insurgents. They also took part in nighttime “patriot details” in which Air Force personnel and soldiers lined the base’s runway as the bodies of fallen soldiers were loaded onto planes for transport back to the United States. But Marsters says he was most upset by what he felt was harsh treatment of the Iraqi nationals who came to work on the base.

“They were treated like criminals,” he says of the extensive searches and intimidation Iraqis received when going through base security. “Everyone in Iraq is not evil, bad, and nasty. It’s a very small group of people who are raising hell and trying to hurt the country. The average person is just trying to make some money and take care of his or her family.”

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