There is a fear that nags at me. During my long life I have lived in troubled, dangerous places. I have seen, close up, both the terrible oppression and the courage of local people who resist it.
I have friends, in certain parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, where a person working for justice can be summarily killed, or imprisoned without trial, by a dictatorial government.
Right now there is one friend for whom I particularly fear. Our friendship spans thirty two years, much of his life. Three times now the leader of his country has publicly threatened to kill him.
When I first met him, he was a refugee and I a foreign worker in the refugee camp. He was young, skinny from starvation, bright, and already obsessed with the thought that his people needed healing after the horrors of the bombing, the civil war, the atrocities. I could understand that. His father had been publicly starved to death, locked in a cage. My friend was eldest son. The father had said, ‘Son, when this is over our peole will need healing’.
In the refugge camp he grasped every opportunity to learn the art of healing and hoped that this was what I could teach. I watched as he crouched down to the level of those who suffered most and I knew, even then, that he had the essential ingredient. Compassion.
“While you were still a refugee, held in a place where guards and officials could mock you, could demand that you show respect by walking on your knees, who could beat you if they pleased … while you were still a prisoner of those who controlled the camp, I managed to meet your mother in her small village inside your country. ‘Is he good?’ she asked.
I could answer with ‘He is strong in his heart and he speaks for justice for those who suffer most’. I remember her eyes. She knew you well. She knew then what I am understanding gradually.
It is this: you are who you must be; who you must be is more important to you than life.
If we could sit together today and talk this is what I would say.
‘You managed to go back across the border while your country was still at war. You chose to work among village people, walking, sleeping under their makeshift houses, sharing simple food, listening. Long suffering suppresses the spirit of people who have been rendered powerless. You helped them to stand up again, to be strong and brave. You know that. You gained a good education simply to be better able to help them. You long for to poorest of the people in your country to stand free and dignified. You long for peace and dignity for all. You didn’t expect this to be a threat to those in power, but it is’. ‘