Ferial: 18 July 2012
Last night, I couldn’t sleep.
I counted my ribs, and wondered how much more weight I would drop during my final weeks in Africa. The diet here in this part of Uganda is very different from back home.
It is very different from the Congo and Masisi. And in my insomnia, I switched on my laptop and listened to podcasts of lectures and discussions from the BBC, from the Kennedy Center at Brigham Young University, from the London School of Economics: on topics ranging from the fabrication of environmentalist histories about Tibetan Buddhists, to Wikileaks and the state of contemporary journalism, to the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church of the Nineteenth Century. Nothing helped.
I then read cover-to-cover the latest issue of The East African, and somewhere past the middle,I read of a young man, a man the article called ‘Jackson’, a man of 25 years of age, in Nairobi, a heroin addict, a young man who had wanted to quit, who sought help and a means at redeeming his troubled life, and who checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic. The clinic was raided by the police on a (anonymous) tip, and Jackson was charged with trafficking even though he wasn’t possessing. And waiting trial, he was confined to prison for seven months, without counseling for addiction, and without access to treatment for the HIV for which he tested positive. He waited, and the disease festered, and the addiction went unaddressed.
[In Kenya, intravenous drug users “have an HIV prevalence of 18.3 percent”. And: “Globally, an estimated 16 million people inject illegal drugs, of whom three million – nearly one in five – are living with HIV.” And: in a new release form the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the authors state “The public health implications of HIV treatment disruptions resulting from drug law enforcement tactics have not bee appropriately recognized as a major impediment to efforts to control the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.”]1
Jackson got his day in court, and he was acquitted of the charges on lack of evidence.
But his stint in prison sentenced him to death.
He has advanced HIV. He has no access to treatment for HIV, and he is now too scared to seek help for his addiction.
He is on the street again, all alone, and using. And he knows at least that when the end comes it will come quickly and he will be high as a kite and unaware. The drugs will kill him long before the AIDS-related illnesses even begin to get hold of his weakening body.
I read this and I could not sleep.
I read this and began to pray.
I prayed to see the mercy in all of this judgment and justice.
I prayed to see the face of God in all of this.
I was called to one particular passage near the end of William A. Barry’s finding God: in all things:
“Deep within many of us sits an image of God as one who does exact an eye for an eye. So we give lip service to the idea that Jesus, the Messiah, is a suffering servant, but it does not much impinge on our lives.”
And to Abba Anthony out in the dessert, who said:
“Our life and our death is with our neighbor.”
And I wondered:
How often do we who confess to ‘hate the sin but love the sinner’ ever give pause in our declarations to really cover the sinner in enough succor and support to show fittingly the love that our God holds so dear? How often do the sinners only feel only the scorn from us, in our ever-present fear of those we deem lepers and outcasts?
And I wondered:
How does one effectively bring the Good News to people whom one is unwilling to acknowledge, or to sit side-by-side with, or to share one’s daily bread with? How does one challenge the shortcomings of one’s all-too-human nature in order to truly imitate Christ?
And so I found myself reading Psalm 37 instead of sleeping. And verses out of Chapter 8 in the Gospel According to Saint John, centering on Christ and the woman caught up in adultery.
And I found myself, after Mass and the morning meal, typing out the following…
… projecting, imagining, placing myself in what I imagined to be very real footsteps of a very real stranger, a fellow traveller I may never come to know…
… predicated on an article I had read in the middle of the night…
… and I found myself wondering:
How am I first person singular guilty of all of the above and more: of shutting the door, in haste, on the sufferings and the cries for help from a neighbor or a stranger or even a friend, when I knowingly at the time should have done more?
Somewhere, on the streets of Nairobi,
some mother’s son, some say poor boy,
some say young man, is dying now, and has been so for years.
He’s dying from fever and pox and from wasting to bones.
He’s dying feeling he’s dying, but pretending with every fiber
twisted up into every sinew that he’s dreaming one
of those bad dreams about the fate of someone else.
All on account of a large self-indulgence and a thin innocuous little jab…
His days have all disappeared into that dingy darkness, the residue
of refracted light:
… Just down the street, and around the corner
from the vegetable market he never gave a second thought to
during earlier years, healthy years…
Is really already dead.
From a momentum, mangled in the moment(s) of a
need: a compulsion(s) to continue an unsustainable urge.
From false promises from Negritude poets long dead
by their own hand.
From a family history, and vain attempts to escape it.
From a death wish, no one’s fault, ‘rationally speaking’…
He shot all sense right out of his brain. And welcomed the devil himself
into his heart.
And only then could I pass the dragon…
along my way…
and whistle it out of slumber…
marching up to its yawning maw…
and sit myself between its teeth.2
And he sat there, satiated…
waiting for my world to clamp shut.
And all the while he knew better. He was raised better.
Now, he’s dead.
He may look alive to the casual contact, but there is
nothing inside. Some straw, some bits of broken pottery.
Evidence of a long string of pursuits attempted.
And a solitary life thrown away.
The infections soon will lay siege and the parents will prepare
to bury their only child. Only a matter of time. And then,
they’ll be free.
But God might have His Own plan:
Beyond the hypocrites and their Ubuntu:
And He might snatch the wretch,
and blow into his failing lungs,
right down to his spleen.
And a cool persistent wind will promise
to fill everything, inside and out.
And this wind will silence all else.
And sons of other mothers,
in other cities: in Shanghai
and Teheran and Los Angeles
and Chicago and Rio and Rome
and Paris and Durban:
all will be the same,
in uniformity and
… dead men shall live… slain shall rise again:
awake, and give praise, ye that dwell in the dust…3
Come to me, all you that… are burdened,
and I will refresh you… because I am meek,
and humble of heart: and you shall find
rest to your souls.4
1 The East African, week of 15 July 2012
2Flannery O’Connor, quoting St. Cyril of Jerusalem
3Is. 26: 19
4Mt. 11: 28-9