From the Section Editor: Hope in the Dark
Dawn Xiana Moon, originally published on RelevantMagazine.com
"But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." - C.S. Lewis
By now the images are familiar: blue street signs peeking just above water. Thousands of cots in tight rows, surrounded by all the meager possessions their residents have left in the world. Crudely painted signs on rooftops begging for rescue, the mass of misspelled lettering more a commentary on an educational system than the individual writers. Refugees. We're calling them refugees, as though they were in the Third World, escaping from some horrible disaster. But we're in one of the wealthiest nations in the world - yet the photos could have come from Africa. Dark-skinned people half covered in gray blankets, filling the dome so completely the floor is barely visible. Children reaching for packages of food from armed men in camouflage. Corpses still in their wheelchairs or lying in front of doors, covered in white sheets. A half-naked baby napping on the sidewalk, next to a garbage can. And faces. Men in baseball caps covering their noses with shirts as not to breathe in the stench. Elderly women in pink muumuus, shocked beyond despair. A grim man reaching for bottled water over a fence.
The situation with Hurricane Katrina has raised a number of issues, but the one that has been most on my mind is that of hope. In times of trial or pain, how do we respond ourselves? How do we respond to others who are suffering? As a musician, my first instinct is to turn to song, but when I first saw the coverage of the Superdome, I had to wonder if music could bring hope in such circumstances or if it was utterly irrelevant. When you - and thousands of others - don't have food and water, much less a home, is melody rendered trite?
Then I stumbled across a paragraph about Samuel Thompson, a hurricane refugee, in an article online: the LA Times reported that the 34-year-old man had little left but his violin, so he played. He played Bach's Sonata No. 1 in g minor, saying, "These people have nothing. I have a violin, and I should play for them. They should have something." Bach's lament became a gift, an emotional release for a community that could no longer call anything their own. A people without hope cannot sing; in spite of the despair on so many faces in the photos, this was a symbol of the resilience of New Orleans and its citizens. It's like the haunting scene in Wiesel's Night where Juliek, a Jewish violinist, plays a Beethoven concerto for "an audience of dying and dead men." The German composer is forbidden to him, but Juliek plays anyway in a final act of defiance. And then there was the much-publicized Hurricane Relief concert - admittedly, I'm not a fan of New Orleans native Aaron Neville's voice, but I heard from a number of people who caught the show on the air that he gave an incredible performance of "Amazing Grace." Blogger Steven Vincent wrote, "It was one of those performances in which I felt the singer was going down into the deepest depths of African-American history, simultaneously rendering its immense suffering and its prayer for release. I am sure I was not the only one moved to tears - the performance spoke so deeply to the anguish of those dead, dying and barely surviving, hiding above flood waters among attic rafters in New Orleans." And what is "Amazing Grace" but a song of hope?
But this hope has a source, and we who are Christians have a calling to impart that to those around us. This doesn't mean preaching at people, but it does mean that if Christ is central in our lives, He will affect how we approach the world around us both in word and deed. The two are inseparable. It's encouraging to see how many churches and individuals have taken this to heart and are physically providing relief. But although natural disasters have a way of shaking us from stupor, this responsibility doesn't end when the floodwaters are driven back. It doesn't end when homes and cities are rebuilt (even though that's a process that will take years). Those in need of hope are all around us - sometimes it's a friend who just ended a relationship, sometimes it's a freshman who wonders if he can survive his new environment, sometimes it's a father alienated from his son. And if New Orleans chastises us about anything, it's that we have failed to serve the poor - even though I imagine most of us aren't exactly rich by American standards, by world standards we are wealthy. How many of us (and I'm indicted in this too) have given sacrificially of our resources on a consistent basis to help those who have less? Do we even pray for the poor? Or do we pretend they don't exist?
One caution: once we start "doing," we so easily get wrapped up in giving or running around trying to make things happen that we can lose sight of the hope we're trying to convey. I've been haunted by CNN.com's interview of a clearly exhausted pastor - he went to New Orleans to provide comfort to the people there, but in the process has somewhat lost himself (fortunately, it seemed like he knew how badly he needed a break and had made plans to recharge). When the reporter asked him his response to age-old questions on why God allows pain and suffering, questions that he himself brought up as examples of what people asked him in such times, he was at a loss and said, "There are no answers." While it was an honest reply from a tired man, hope implies that there are answers, even if we never actually find them this side of heaven. But we need strength from a community and close communion with God in order to seek those answers, in order to make a lasting impact. As Helen Keller once said, "The world is full of suffering; it is also full of overcoming it."