Arundhati Roy’s haunting account of the massive trauma unfolding among migrant workers in her native India amid the Covid-19 pandemic.">
By: Dori Baker
April 10, 2020
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it. - Arundhati Roy, April 3, 2020
Vocation rarely unfolds in the abstract. It is granular, day-by-day, often emerging out of life’s bone-crushing losses and the grace-filled ability to create ourselves anew. I thought about this when I read novelist Arundhati Roy’s haunting account of the massive trauma unfolding among migrant workers in her native India amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Whether we are the ones experiencing enormous suffering or the ones empathizing from a perspective of less-intense suffering, can we ever go back to business as usual?
My colleague Stephen Lewis, the president of the Forum for Theological Exploration, writes about how we live into our vocations as a response to suffering in the new book, Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose.1 Stephen says that it is impossible to understand his vocational journey outside of three personal traumas, including his own rare birth defect, the mental illness of his mother, and the death of a very close friend in a parasailing accident.
As he dealt with these traumas, Stephen slammed into the limits of the faith that had formed him. “The dominant perception of my Christian upbringing that there is an all-knowing, all-powerful, sovereign, loving God makes no sense given that traumatic experiences rain down on some people and not on others,“ he writes. Stephen looked to wise guides and the world’s religious traditions, particularly African-centric indigenous worldviews, to find better answers. The ongoing communal work of “detoxing” from normative beliefs to create a Christianity that makes sense in light of suffering is central to his life’s meaning and purpose.
Finding a God who makes sense in light of human suffering may be never more pressing than in the midst of the global crises we are walking through this Holy Week and Easter season.
Countless wise, courageous Christian leaders I know are on the frontlines, evolving our faith. They offer solace in fearful times— not by focusing on glory in the hereafter—but by leaning into heart-pounding grief, creating alternatives to inhumane expressions of life, and embracing the mystery of our mortality. They’ve been doing the hard work of retrieving and excavating, lifting up sometimes buried strands of Christianity to tell a better story. In so doing, they directly confront the colonizing mindsets too often masquerading as Christian.
Luckily, we are not left to do this work alone.
Many of the leaders I follow are young, called into ministry by their own particular life’s trauma and suffering. They lead in existing churches, or they start new ones. Unsatisfied with triumphalist forms of Christianity that raised, harmed, or ignored them, they find ways to live out theologies of radical hospitality, liberation, and compassion. Ordained or not, seminary trained or not, paid or unpaid, they create new rituals that have deep continuity with the past but speak to emerging human conditions. They tend communities of prayer and action that embody Jesus’ ethic of care for those living at the margins of dominant culture.
The diversity among these leaders and their faith communities is astounding. Some of them lead beer-brewing, story-telling, poetry-loving, bread-baking, ancestor-honoring, or entrepreneurial communities. Some of them are part of larger networks linking food security activists, climate activists, education reformers, and subversive mystics. Some of them worship in the woods, some worship in bars, and some behind bars. They redefine sanctuary as they take worship to city streets alongside the most vulnerable or to storefronts of affordable housing developments funded by the sale of their valuable real estate.2
Amidst all this diversity, these Christian leaders and their communities share a common denominator: they are innovating ways of being the hands and feet of Jesus, incarnating love as they respond to the unique forms of suffering they experience on-the-ground, where they live.
Easter hasn’t looked like materialism and consumption in these communities for a long time, if ever.
As in Stephen’s vocational journey, these communities are doing the ongoing work of detoxing from normative beliefs to create a Christianity that makes sense in light of suffering.
You can visit many of them—from the comfort of your own couch—this Easter season.
As we at FTE facilitate young adults discerning vocation in less-troubled times, we use a guided meditation called “Walk into the Future.”3 The meditation invites us to close our eyes and cross a threshold, through a door beyond which we see ourselves responding to the needs of the world by living into our meaning and purpose.
What you will find there heartens me, as we walk into an uncertain future.
We imagine looking around that world, sensing what it looks like, smells like, feels like. Then we walk back through the door and open our eyes, more equipped to bring that future to birth. We don’t expect to be able to see very far into that world beyond the door. A whispered vision, received as a snapshot from the future to inspire the present, suffices. It can lead to a “next most faithful step,” the tiny actions that help us move forward, even when we don’t know exactly where we’re heading.
I wonder what a meditation like this might make possible through Christian communities this Easter season. When the pandemic recedes, might we be found using the Christian story—in fruitful conversation with our sisters and brothers of other faith traditions—to create a future we want for our children and our grandchildren? Might we walk through the threshold as Roy suggests “lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine (and fight for) another world?”
Amid this epic disruption, perhaps the world ceases to be what it has always been. Maybe this Easter, the tomb becomes a portal through which we walk changed, able to defiantly create the alternative lifestyle charted by the nomadic, young adult, child-of-immigrants who founded our faith. Maybe we are already on our way.
1. Stephen Lewis, Matthew Wesley Williams, and Dori Baker, Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose (Chalice, 2020)
2. All of the churches linked above have suspended public gathering in response to Covid19 and are following CDC safety recommendations if they provide food and shelter to those in need.
3. Another Way, 159