The situation in Afghanistan has been heavy on my heart these weeks, for those who must stay and for those who must leave. For the uncertainty, the danger, the chaos. Perhaps it’s heavier for those of us who live outside of our “home” countries, for those of us who have experienced some level of uncertainty, of danger, of chaos. But then, we know these things can ensue anywhere, no matter your location. The shadows of this world are powerful.
A month ago, South Africa experienced the worst violence, the worst unrest, since the fall of apartheid in 1994. The bulk of it centered in our province, in which our city is central. At the height of it, Ben and I looked at each other, and realized that even if we felt like we should try to leave, how could we? Where could we go? Our highways were closed, all COVID testing centers were closed, most gas stations were closed. We had thrown our essentials into backpacks – you know, the documents, the charging cords, the single change of clothes for each of us, one stuffy per child. We looked around our house, our home of the past five years, and imagined the real possibility of just leaving everything if we must. It was disorienting, it was chaotic, it was awful. And we did not even need to leave in the end.
And even though we did not need to leave in the end, my mind and heart began the process of grieving our life of the past five years. I took photos of every single page in our family photo albums, knowing that an emergency evacuation would mean leaving those behind. Ben and I quietly decided which stuffed animal or doll each child would need most. We looked at our cat, our Turkish rugs from his parents, the quilts and guitar from mine. Of course, these are just material things, and yet they are the things that have made up our home. We thought of our friends here, our community here, the staff and students whom we love, this place that has become home to us. The fact of our citizenship and the privilege associated with it brought guilt; we could leave, but what about those who couldn’t? It was complicated. The idea of leaving it all, of leaving everything, was so overwhelming.
It was taste enough of the anxiety, grief, and trauma that can come with suddenly leaving your home, or suddenly losing your home, with the added complication of losing your country, your work, your community. We are still processing, a bit more fragile on this side of it, more compassionate toward those who live in the midst of this kind of uncertainty regularly, and deeply moved for those who have had to leave like this.
A few days ago, as I sat with my children during our daily morning time, we discussed this idea of home. One said, “South Africa is my home, this is where I have mostly grown up and where my cats are,” always the animal lover. Another child replied, “but I love America, that’s where I was born. I think that is where my home is.” I explained that the answer to that question is not even straightforward for me, even though I’ve spent most of my life in one country. We ultimately agreed that home is where our family is, that even the little farmhouse we occupied for a month during our home assignment felt like home while we stayed in it. “And,” I added, “I think there is a part of us that will never feel completely at home anywhere in this world. We will always feel a bit split between the people and things we love here, and the people and things we love in America, because neither of these is our true, forever home.”
Our true forever home. We sat a minute in that thought, the glorious idea that one day we will not have this longing for one place or another, that one day all things will be made new, that tears will be no more, that death will be no more. Some days, it’s hard to reach for the hope through the fog, isn’t it? We remember what Tolkien’s loyal and wise Sam Gamgee once said, “But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.”
On some level, we all know the pain of loss and longing for home. Perhaps those of us who’ve lived in worlds unfamiliar feel it a bit more strongly, yet it’s part of our human experience. We all seek to make our place in this world, our house into a home, our acquaintances into friends, our own little communities of which to be a part. But to keep our hearts rooted and grounded in Christ, rather than in a particular place, is to be at peace wherever in this world we find ourselves.
And so today, I am opening my hands again to this life we have here, this community and this home. I am hugging my children close, snuggling under quilts and soaking up our calm, keenly aware that it is fleeting, and this is not all we have. I am asking God to give peace to those who find themselves in the shadows of the world. And as been my habit these years, I turn my face upward toward the light, to be reminded that even the darkness must pass.