Baroness Cox described herself as a nurse and social scientist by intention, and a baroness by astonishment. Beyond the fact that she’s a peer who speaks out for oppressed, persecuted and voiceless people around the world, I didn’t know all that much about her when I went to hear her speak this morning at ChristChurch London.
She looked a good 20 years younger than she actually is and spoke with the eloquence, passion and confidence of someone who knows what she thinks and is accustomed to being vocal in the public arena. With the warm scariness of a woman of her age and background, she gave friendly yet brusque directions to the poor person doing the PowerPoint whose initial faltering was probably down to her somewhat daunting presence. Yet as she started painting pictures of hazardous bullet-dodging plane journeys, illegal border crossings, conversations with children, and photos she’d taken, she just was a regular person telling stories to regular people about things she’d seen and learnt along the way.
She spoke about entering Burma, exhilarated at the country’s beauty but with a heavy heart, where she spent time with Karen and Shan people who had been internally displaced and were now on ‘the long road to nowhere’. We heard all about the courage of D, a medic who risked everything to serve the wanderers on this long road to nowhere, choosing daily risks to his safety and life for the sake of others. Of S, who – motivated by a love for his people and a desire to see change happen – worked his way to India where he had to learn English and Hindi in order to take his A-levels, then made it to Armenia where he slaved away to study medicine in his 6th language, then came straight back to Burma where he trained up community health workers who are now regularly saving the lives of 8 out of 10 people who previously would have died. We heard of the forgotten and displaced Burmese people in camps on the Thai border, and of the resilience of those individuals who transformed places of limitation into places of hope. The words of Pastor Simon: “They call us a displaced people, but thank God we are not misplaced… What they see is temporal, but ours is eternal.” A nice take on displacement.
And then to Sudan, where Baroness Cox reflected on ‘the glory and the grey’: the hope and potential for that country (countries) in the light of the recent political changes, yet the ongoing humanitarian crises, and the reality and prevalence of slavery. Thanks to a large photo on the screen, we looked into the sad eyes of the child who had been freed from slavery, yet whose parents had been killed in the process. But at least he was home now, he’d told her, and he now had his name back; no longer was he addressed as ‘slave’ but called by his name which means ‘rain’, in a place where rain is a blessing.
Write to your MP, she said, let’s get our government to put pressure on the government in Khartoum to release the Southern Sudanese slaves. The words of St Francis of Assisi: “Pity weeps then turns away. Compassion weeps then puts out a hand to help.” Writing to an MP doesn’t really feel like an expression of compassion, but I suppose that in this case it’s one way of putting out a hand. “I cannot do everything but I must not do nothing” is apparently a well-used motto at HART – the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust – an organisation she has set up. A helpful one in the face of the constant pity-compassion challenge.
Then the story of a Nigerian couple whose response to incredible humiliation, targeted persecution and physical abuse was to cry out and pray together that this suffering might in some way be used for God’s glory. Who had then sent a message to Baroness Cox and indirectly, I guess, to us all: “Don’t you compromise the faith that we are living and dying for.”
“Doesn’t that make you feel microscopic?” she asked.
Yep, to be honest, stories like that do make me feel microscopic, and I feel acutely aware that my compromises come all too readily. In the face of faith that stands strong in context of horrific suffering and violation, I am acutely aware my own mediocrity. Discomforted by my comfort and complacency, I hear these stories and see these photos and again my heart tells me to go. I am on the edge of my seat and yet again I am saying “Send me”. But, yet again, I know that in my displacement I am somehow not misplaced, and feel compelled to keep figuring out what it means to live – really live… passionately, sacrificially, wholeheartedly – in a safe and comfortable context which seeks to cosset us from both the reality of global injustices and the reality of the eternal.
And I suppose that’s what I saw and respected in Baroness Cox – someone who is managing to navigate an intersecting pathway through many coexisting worlds. Someone who has simply loved and served others: expressing that love in equal measure by holding the leprous hands of a forgotten woman in Sudan, or weeping with former child soldiers in Uganda, or advocating for wider change through her place in the House of Lords. Who inspires me about the viability of this path I’m seeking to walk along; a path where ‘mission’ and ‘development’, ‘local’ and ‘global’, ‘grassroots’ and ‘advocacy’, and all the other buzzwords, are not mutually exclusive. Someone who has been faithful with what she had – the gifts, the skills and the influence – and to whom more had been given. Who stood easily on the stage yet who pointed not to herself but to the lives of unsung heroes and heroines around the world and to a real and good and miracle-working God. Who has seen horror and pain and injustice, yet who testifies to the possibility of hope and the possibility of beauty coming from the ashes of destruction.
On that note, I turn back to my reading (an incomprehensible article on the ‘Developmental State under Global Neoliberalism’) and psyche myself up for all the learning and questioning that this week has in store, confident that this is all somehow part of the training and part of the bigger picture.
Church ended with a song that is still going round in my head, and which I always associate with moments of reconnection and renewed commitment to this narrow path that along which I’m seeking to wend my way. Ponder it here (the least cheesy You Tube version I could find).
I can see a light that is coming for the heart that holds on
And there will be an end to these troubles
But until that day comes
Still I will praise You…