“Love makes us inventors.” -Maggy Barankitse
Long drawn out committee meetings, endless conversations, lecture halls and planning retreats are not my best friends.
Practitioners tend to be the superheroes who inspire me. People who birth ideas into organizations, companies and programs that make a real and lasting impact in our world spark my sense of awe.
So Easter is more than a historical idea for me—more than a ritual to re-enact between a morning Easter egg hunt and a post-church ham supper once a year. In the spirit of the late management guru Peter Drucker, the practitioner in me asks: Does Easter still fulfill its mission?
Then I read a story about a Christian woman who builds a swimming pool for Burundian orphan kids in the middle of a former killing field—a place where Hutus and Tutsis butchered one another during their civil war. My curiosity is piqued. When she claims her motivation for building a swimming pool (besides giving poor children a place to swim) is to remind her country of the Christian ritual of baptism—and its power to bring healing, forgiveness and redemption—I’m really intrigued. She’s a theologian who builds swimming pools. That’s cool. I’m ready to buy a plane ticket to meet her.
So I apologize this Easter morning to take you down a disturbing path en-route to a more uplifting place. But that’s actually the Easter story, isn’t it? It’s the path to the Cross. The betrayal, suffering and death of Jesus is really quite disturbing. A sobering reminder of the evil human beings can inflict upon others. But stay with me.
Imagine showing up to work one day and being interrupted by men wielding machetes. Your first reaction—this isn’t really happening. Disbelief. But then those same men begin to separate people on the basis of their physical features. Once that is done, the bloodshed begins. Gruesome.
That’s what happened to Maggy Barankitse.
Burundi in the late 1980s to early 1990s was the epicenter of one of the most horrific manifestations of modern ethnic cleansing. Working for a Catholic service organization—an organization that did good work in her community—Maggy worked in a peaceful and nourishing place. One day it all changed.
The Tutsis had mobilized and began to systemically eliminate anyone belonging to the Hutus. Fortunately Maggy was a Tutsi, so she was passed over by the murdering mob. All she could do was watch the insanity and fervor of the moment while these crazed men executed her colleagues—nuns and priests—in front of her eyes. 72 human beings total.
Forgive me for oversimplifying and not sharing too much history. Tutsis were a minority group of Burundians who had held power over the majority Hutus. Tension and violence existed between the groups for decades. In 1993 this volcano of hatred erupted again. Tutsis organized and killed Hutus, followed by Hutu retaliation. Estimates of 300,000 were murdered in these cycles of revenge.
But the most personal moment was Maggy witnessing her Hutu friend Julia being murdered in front of her eyes. Julia’s last words to her: “Please educate my children. Love them like your own.”
It’s hard to know how any of us would respond to such a traumatic event—and how we would move forward with our lives. We might turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain. We might lapse into deep despair and live ineffectual lives. We might become bitter, cynical and angry and continue to perpetuate a cycle of revenge and violence. We might be disillusioned and turn away from our faith.
Maggy chose none of the above. She leaned into the Easter story. She chose to replace violence with forgiveness, revenge with love and fear with courage. A response deeply rooted in her personal faith.
So Maggy honored her friend’s request and took Julia’s children as her own—a subversive and dangerous act considering the national climate. Maggy didn’t stop with just those children, she started an organization called Maison Shalom, bringing thousands of orphaned Tutsi children and Hutu children together to be raised in a community of “God’s abundant love.” Maggy believes her country can only survive and heal by creating a community where Hutus and Tutsi orphans grow up as brothers and sisters.
I’ve always believed when people chose the path of love their lives become bigger, deeper and more purposed. Just watch and observe. People who love attract others. People who love with abundance have broader circles of friends, can live with the complexity of diversity and are not threatened by difference. And people who love are inventors. That’s what Maggy has learned in the aftermath of this genocide:
“Love makes us inventors.” Words I won’t forget.
Invent is what Maggy does. She’s invented a community to raise Hutus and Tutsi children under the same roof. She’s invented small businesses for youth—car repair, tailoring, and barbershops. She’s created a hospital. She had the audacity to build a swimming pool where blood once flowed. She had the presumption to build a movie theater. Because, in her words, “poor kids need more than our used clothes—they need to dream.” Oh, and she’s created a morgue so families can appropriately mourn their loved ones. Maggy is inventing a new future by creating tangible expressions of hope and opportunity.
When I witness Maggy’s work I think of one word: resurrection. I think of what this Easter day means for you, me, our world and its promise of new life and new beginnings for those who embrace this unique path.
Is Easter simply a historic event, or an event charged with the potential to transform broken hearts, broken lives and broken communities? If Maggie can invent a new future for the children of her country, rooted in the resurrected love of our risen Lord, we can as well. And that’s hopeful news for us all this Easter Sunday—Good News indeed!
Let Love make you an inventor—
PS. Check out this short inspiring video about Maggie.
“Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Ephesians 5:14
“How’d you end up working in North Camden?”
Cross-legged, shoulder to shoulder on a crowded office floor, sat 15 curious Princeton Seminary students. Their annual weekend retreat to UrbanPromise included visits to local non-profits and meeting ministry leaders. This particular Saturday—an audience with Father Jeff, the founder of HopeWorks.
“Just like you I was in seminary at Boston College,” chuckled my Jesuit friend. “One Easter weekend I came to visit some missionaries who worked in the city.”
He paused, looked at the wide-eyed students, and shared a story about a unique Easter tradition in North Camden.
“On Good Friday a number of the local churches re-enact the last hours of Jesus’ life,” he reminisced. “A big wooden cross is carried throughout the neighborhood streets and planted at different locations. Scriptures are read. Prayers shared. People dress up. It’s a somber, reflective journey.”
As the procession continued that particular day, followers slowly dropped away as the event drew to its conclusion. Our young seminarian stayed to the last stop.
“We end up at a vacant lot just around the corner,” he motioned out the office window. “The temperature was dropping, but a small circle of people continued to huddle around this big wooden cross. The moment hit me unlike anything I’d ever experienced.”
Father Jeff’s memory vividly recalled the details of the moment as if it happened, not a decade ago, but a few hours earlier. He recalled the broken glass, trash and needles under his shoes. A row of abandoned homes, a burned out factory silhouetted the afternoon sky.
“Even though everything around the cross suggested despair and decay,” he reminisced, “here was a committed group of people praying—claiming life, hope, peace, healing, restoration....resurrection. Seemed I was in the presence of something special.”
Jeff gave a contemplative pause, then ushered his final words: “I decided I needed to be around these kinds of people.”
After graduation, Jeff packed his belongings, moved to State Street on the north side Camden and joined that faith-full little community. He bought one of those abandoned row homes, restored it, created an oasis for youth and birthed a wonderful organization called HopeWorks—a group who continue to play a significant role in equipping youth with computer and life skills. “I knew nothing about computers,” he mused. “I just learned alongside the kids. That made us partners.”
This is what Good Friday people do. Good Friday people move and act in the promise of Easter.
For many, this has been a challenging year. There’s lots of reasons to despair, be anxious and retreat in fear. That’s why this day is so important in the Christian calendar—especially right now. Our story begins with betrayal, an unfair trial and a horrific act of violence. Good Friday people can acknowledge difficult stories, yet refuse to retreat and surrender to the caustic voices of cynicism and defeat. Good Friday people can absorb life’s pain, yet still choose to act in faith—even when the tomb is sealed and all seems lost.
For me, that’s why we still call this holy day good. I’ve witnessed the remarkable good that can arise from remarkably bad situations. Every day I’m awed by the extraordinary generous lives of ordinary people who compassionately embrace those overwhelmed by life-eroding forces. In our world’s most challenging communities I meet saints who labor with persistent Hope where many have lost hope. Ordinary lives, empowered by God’s spirit, huddled around the cross—claiming there’s a better story coming.
Easter expresses itself in new ways with each generation—birthed anew for all who say yes to the God of this day. As the prophet Isaiah beautifully reminded, “God is doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (43:19). Yes, a new thing is happening! Let’s be part of it.
Rise up, Good Friday Friends—
They were not words I expected out of the mouth of an ex-nun. That’s why I wrote them down.
This COVID era calls me to reflect on meaningful meals I’ve enjoyed over the years. Moments of good food and great company. (Or sometimes just great company and mediocre food—it’s the company that makes it memorable.)
So January 13, 2016, my friend swung through town and called to see if a last-minute dinner was possible. Since she now lived in Kenya, I only see her about every five years. Since she was in her late 70s, simple math predicted our remaining meals together were limited. So, of course.
Dinner happened at a local Italian restaurant, and she gave me a recap of her life story.
Early adulthood was spent living out her vocation as a nun. But strange things happen. Unexpectedly and serendipitously—in her 50s—she fell in love and married. She had ten beautiful years with her beloved. “That was a special season,” she recalled with a sparkle in her eye.
Yet life is full of cruel ironies. "When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, we knew we only had two years left together. Miraculously we got four. I did hospice care for him in the end.”
Now I always imagined her decades of convent living, silent retreats and rosary beads might temper the tongue. Apparently not. My friend speaks honestly and colorfully. She’s been known to make me blush.
“One day, when he had withered down to less than 100 pounds,” she said, “I had just finished changing his diaper and I noticed he was crying.”
“Why are you crying?”
“You shouldn't have to do this,” he responded quietly. “I just feel bad you have to see me like this.”
And then the words I wrote down.
“So I kissed his bony ass, looked him in the eyes and said, ‘This is how we make love at this stage of our lives.’ ”
My cheeks reddened to match my marinara sauce. But that night her free-speaking truthfulness schooled me on what making love looks like for those who’ve cultivated a merciful heart. It is presence, patience, humility, and compassionate love when all the glitter is stripped away and the only thing remaining is a promise. Making love means changing diapers.
Anne Lamott writes, “I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human: the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I’m starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”
I think we’re all starving for mercy in a world that accentuates differences, celebrates convenience, and worships celebrity. Despite this opposition God offers a different path forward. “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” New hearts. A new spirit. This sounds really hopeful.
The year after her husband’s death was difficult for my friend—lots of tears and days when getting out of bed was near impossible. But as she gazed in the mirror one day, that “new spirit” ignited. She again saw herself as a woman with a heart full of merciful love.
So at the ripe age of 68, she jumped on her first international flight, headed for Nairobi and spent a year loving babies with HIV. New roots were planted in a new place, and I’ve witnessed the writing of one of the most fruitful final chapters of a life. That heart—broken, softened and opened in the crucible of watching the love of your life wither away—is now shared with orphan girls who lapped up mercy like hungry kittens around a saucer of milk.
That’s a story for another day. Today I’m just asking Christ to carry me a little closer to this kind of love.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Matthew 5:7
My friend was angry. He’s a pastor. Not so good. Anger can be an unwelcome house guest for those in the clerical world. Walking the line between prophet and priest is a dangerous dance. Amos or Jeremiah wouldn’t last a month in a local pulpit. Any opinion—about anything—can land a pastor in the ecclesiastical doghouse.
A contentious political climate would be an understatement to describe 2018–with issues dividing the country from LED lights to spotted owls. Another hot button issue, immigration, was making the news cycle. Front page headlines telling stories of families separated at the border. News sources confirming cases of children and families detained in less than humane situations.
But even after a decade of serving his church, Pastor Jacobs understood a sermon on immigration would be politicized and divisive to his congregation. On the theological spectrum, Ryan Jacobs is a little right of center. His command of the ancient languages—Greek and Hebrew—exceed the average pastor. Orthodox, biblically-centered preaching is his staple. He recites the Apostles' Creed with conviction and has memorized a swath of the Book of Common Prayer.
"So for the Old Testament reading I picked a few verses from Deuteronomy,” he confessed. “After all, I think everyone in my congregation believes in the Bible.”
So after the prelude, call to worship and invocation my friend stood: “God enacts justice for orphans and widows, and God loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.” (10: 18-19)
Pastor Jacobs took his seat behind the pulpit, listening to the choir’s ethereal rendition of “All Creatures of Our God and King” reverberate off the vaulted ceilings. Little did he know a few of the oak pews were heating up with each heavenly stanza. Whoever coined the phrase “words are more powerful than a sword”, certainly forewarned what happened next. Two prominent families left the church after the service, never to return. "They tried to convince a third family to leave as well,” shared my friend. If only my sermons had the dramatic mobilizing effect of a few obscure verses from an oft-overlooked Old Testament book, I thought.
But the third family decided not leave the church. When the abdicators cornered him, asking how he could possibly continue to attend with such a left-leaning pastor, he sincerely replied: "I've never met as godly a man as Pastor Jacobs. I may not see eye-to-eye on certain issues, but I respect his faith and how he tries to live it out each day."
So here’s the conundrum. What one man understands as a “merciful” response to a difficult and complex policy, another views as a threat to a nation’s laws and sovereignty. Both call themselves Christian, but they land in different places for different reasons. Is it an insurmountable relational hurdle?
What I find unique about this story—and hopeful—is the response of the third man. In contrast to the two other families, the third man doesn’t pick up his marbles and head home. He chooses to stay in the relationship. He may disagree with my friend, yet his commitment creates the elasticity to absorb the tension of difference and conflict. In the eyes of the third man, his pastor is not a caricature—he’s a man with a heart, a faith, integrity...a human being.
I believe the third man demonstrated mercy as well. Mercy to stay in fellowship. “How do we accompany others in mercy, a quality difficult to define and even more difficult to live authentically,” writes Kerry Weber. “The answer, perhaps, can be found in a wonderfully invented word from Pope Francis: Mercy-ing. In turning the noun into a verb, a sentiment into an action, Francis calls us not only to have mercy or to show mercy, but to embody mercy, as a force that binds us, compels us, and enables us to love one another more fully.”
Mercy-ing is an act that can bind us. Perhaps mercy is the super glue to hold us together, despite our biases, differences, opinions and personalities.
What’s the lesson? “Mercy-ing” is a practice worth attempting. Susan Meissner eloquently writes, “I used to think mercy meant sharing kindness to someone who didn’t deserve it, as if only the recipient defined the act.” She continues, “The girl in between has learned that mercy is defined by its giver. Our flaws are obvious, yet we are loved and able to love, if we choose, because there is that bit of the divine still smoldering in us.”
Keep stoking the embers.
PS. If you’re interested to learn how UrbanPromise is creating hope and possibility for youth in Honduras and Columbia, please click here: https://urbanpromisehonduras.org/
A Month to Mercy
“Let the little children come to me...”
So I was intrigued when Reverend Hedgis walked into my office—wearing her clerical collar—to share her desire to volunteer. I’d known Sarah tangentially through friends. This was our first official meeting.
After the normal introductory musings, I asked her about her faith journey—and how she decided to become a priest. I was curious.
“We were raised Methodist,” she began.
“That’s odd,” I chuckled. “How did you end up an Episcopalian?”
“We grew up in Georgia and attended a very large church,” she continued. “Generations of my family were members. We even had a pew with a plaque on it.”
One day her father announced that he had taken a job in a little town 5 hours away from the city. Population 400. The local Methodist Church had only 20 members—on a good Sunday. Overnight Sarah went from a community that knew and loved her—a place where she was an insider—to a place where nobody knew her.
“I heard my first sermon when I was nine,” she reminisced. “At our new church there was no youth program, no Sunday school. We just sat through the whole service. I claimed the front pew.”
During the service Sarah took notes on the back of the church bulletin. While most children draw and play tic-tac-toe—as I did during my childhood—Sarah really listened.
“I remember thinking it was so cool to see someone stand in a pulpit, talk about God and have people listen.”
So Sarah jotted notes every week: “Pretty boring sermon today.” “I didn’t know the Bible said that....” “Doesn’t that contradict what Pastor said last week?” “This is really confusing?” “Swallowed by a whale, really?” After service Sarah discarded her comments on the pew.
What Sarah did not realize is the pastor’s wife collected her notes, accumulating a small pile. One day she delivered the pile to her husband.
“Sarah,” beckoned Pastor McNeil Sunday after service. “Can we talk for a moment?”
“Now Pastor McNeil was a towering figure,” recollected Sarah. “He really seemed like a giant. I couldn’t imagine why he’d want to speak to me.”
For the next hour Pastor McNeil flipped through the stack of old bulletins and Sarah’s comments. Intently he listened, even asked more questions and took notes himself.
“Would you be interested in critiquing my sermons after church each Sunday?” he asked as they concluded their initial conversation. "Your feedback is helpful to me.”
And so for the next few years Sarah scribbled notes and shared them with Pastor McNeil. If he missed the point, she told him. If the message really connected, she affirmed him. If she had questions or doubts, she confided.
“There were a lot of voices in my community claiming that women had no place as pastors,” reminisced Sarah. “I could have easily listened to those voices. Had I listened, I would have never studied religion. Never become a priest.”
And so Sarah’s calling and vocation is birthed by an alternative voice: a pastor who took the questions and comments of a nine-year-old girl seriously. In an era of megachurches, social media, and pastors who keep their professional distance from those they lead—time to take the unfiltered truth of a child seriously seems...rare.
In his listening this pastor did what pastors are actually supposed to do: help people identify their God-given passions and gifts. Help people find their voice. By simply listening and validating Sarah’s questions, he awakened a thirst to dig deeper into those questions. It’s made her an amazing preacher and teacher today. It’s helped her become a priest who listens and discerns God’s path for others' lives.
I believe that the meaning of certain words are best understood with the context of human action. We often call those actions stories. A word like “mercy” can be debated, parsed and defined. But when we see merciful behavior displayed by attentiveness to a child’s scribbles and opinions, there’s something to notice.
“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy,” writes James.
I think James may have been describing Pastor McNeil.