Sometimes, memories pop up from living overseas that surprise me. They aren’t part of my “normal” memories…they aren’t stories that ever made it in a prayer letter or a photo book. Usually they are stories that are hard to understand even for me, someone who lived in a Somali context for enough years to have some scaffolding to understand experiences in the Horn of Africa. For this reason, I don’t share them, lest people from my home culture grossly misunderstand my host culture. They are stories that grieve me, or hurt me, or scare me. Mostly, they are stories that I’ve put on the shelf to think about and grieve “later.” Later hasn’t come for many of these memories.
As I was cleaning under my couch, I found a page of questions I had written in red crayon. Maybe when my boys were coloring, I was praying in crayon. I don’t remember writing these questions and I have no idea why they were under my couch, along with 27 fly corpses, dozens of Legos, and my husband’s book that has been missing for days. But instead of crumpling the paper up and throwing it away, I smoothed it out to see if it was precious. In a way, it was.
My questions, directed in prayerful writing to God, included ones that sparked my memory: “What was it like to be surrounded by religious leaders? Was it like that day in Eastleigh? Were you ever afraid of them? Were you afraid that day?”
For some months, I taught in Eastleigh, the primarily Somali neighborhood (you might call it a slum) of Nairobi, Kenya. The streets and my classes were full of people who had just escaped different crises in Mogadishu and the surrounding areas. It was a time of powerful aggression by Al-Shabaab, and my students shared stories that are too raw and too private and not mine to share. Full of fear, full of pain, full of grief. Eastleigh is also home to many Kenyan Somalis and to a strongly Muslim religious community. If you’ve ever read any of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s writings, you might remember some of her descriptions of Eastleigh from her time there (which were by no means objective). Otherwise, unless you’ve been there, it’s probably not a place you’ve heard of or ever will.
I worked at a Mennonite Community Center that had been in Eastleigh for a long time, and had a decent enough reputation to remain. At the moment when I taught, it was understaffed and being boycotted by the local community. A short-term missions team from the States (bless their hearts, if you know what I mean) came in and in a fundamentalist, conservative Muslim community, tried to teach sex education. Like I said, bless their hearts. The class caused a ruckus, religious leaders instructed young people to boycott the community center and I arrived, ready to finish my grad school requirement for a teaching internship but with almost no students.
Thankfully, a regular teacher of ESL with an American accent and passport overcame a lot of the boycott, and I found myself with enough students to teach four mornings a week. I didn’t have a place to stay in Eastleigh and I’m not sure I could have convinced my bosses to let me live there, frankly. So each morning, my husband fought Nairobi traffic (again, if you haven’t experienced it, I probably can’t describe it well enough, so I’ll just leave it at that) and dropped me off in a sea of men leaving the mosque and insane matatu drivers and sewage running in the road and people yelling to me in Swahili until they realized I answered in Somali.
For the most part, I was welcome enough. I didn’t have the welcome I enjoyed in other Somali communities in my five years in the Horn of Africa but I was ok.
One afternoon, waiting for my husband to come and pick me up, I popped over to my local copy shop who had been printing all my lessons for me. Coming back out at the time that midday prayer dismissed left me in the sea of young men and several older, religious leaders. I was an anomaly–my skin shouts out that I’m not Somali, my head covering mumbles that I’m aware of being in a religious community that values modesty, my language skills defend my presence there but clearly show that I’m not a true belonger. The sea of men around me turned quickly from disinterested, to curious, to openly hostile. Again, in case it needs to be said, this is one of only a few incidents over years of living abroad when I experienced hostility on this scale. My normal days were full of welcome and hospitality and generosity and love.
The religious leaders started grilling me, ridiculing me, yelling at me. I didn’t feel completely out of control but also knew that, unlike my daily life in Djibouti, no one else in the crowd was defending me, or telling the shouters to knock it off. Quickly, I saw that I was at the mercy of a group of people who really didn’t appreciate my presence that day. It took a while, and involved some aggression on their part and a somewhat fierce standing of my ground. Soon enough I saw a small white Subaru bounce along the potholes and washboard road, and I thanked God for my husband’s arrival, and for His providential guidance out of a scary and potentially harmful crowd.
I’ve been, briefly, at the mercy of hostile religious leaders who would like me gone, or at least humiliated, and maybe hurt. What was it like for Jesus to live there, often, for the course of three years of public ministry? Was he afraid? When they surrounded him with the intention to kill him, to throw him off a cliff, he didn’t get to teleport away to a safe location. He had to look at eyes full of hatred and anger and listen for the voice of God, showing him his next steps.
He didn’t sit down and have a friendly debate. There were rocks picked up, and likely rocks thrown. I’ve had a few thrown my way too, and while a few rocks don’t kill, they do bruise. What was it like for him to live with the hostility of religious leaders in his community directed toward him every day, every time he worshiped? I don’t know the answers but I feel strangely comforted to know that he understands fully the quiet fear that can quickly turn to panic when you find yourself in the middle of a crowd, with palpable anger pulsing through the group, with men who believe they represent the Creator of the universe at the heart of this group, turning toward you, turning on you.
I wonder if my lack of trust for men in religious authority comes both from the stories of religious leaders that the Gospel writers share, as well as my own experiences. And I’m thankful that my Savior lived his life in the will of God, even when that meant dying at the merciless hands of those who were to be the leaders of mercy in their day. And I pray for those in religious authority in the places I worship, that they will know the true place of their power and use it in service, humility and grace.