Why do I love Cairo?

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During our recent visit to the States to see friends and family, we were asked many times, “Do you like it in Egypt?”  I always answered yes, which is 100% true.  Sometimes, though, its hard to explain just why I do like it.  A friend, also an expat who arrived just a few days after us last summer, is writing an article about expat life in Cairo.  We spent a good chunk of a dinner conversation trying to explain just what it is.

Cairo is loud.  It’s dirty and crowded.  Things rarely work as planned and people are perpetually late.  You are never entirely certain if you’re getting a straight answer from someone.  Arabic is hard, and though mine is coming along, I still get frustrated by the language barrier more often than not.

Both of us have been beyond blessed by amazingly smart, talented, funny, and interesting colleagues.  We have met people from many walks of life, and from many places, who have enriched our own stories by sharing theirs with us.  And at the end of the day, it’s the people who allow me to say, without hesitation, that I love it here.

We returned from our home leave at the very end of Ramadan.  On the last work night of the month, StARS hosted an Iftar dinner for staff and friends of StARS.  In preparation for over one hundred people attending, several staff members worked to set up chairs and tables in the courtyard.  As sunset approached, the tables were set with bottles of water, dates, and salads.  Food started to come in from a number of staff members and friends of StARS.  Huge bowls of rice, massive trays of bread. Chicken and meat.  Eggplant stuffed with meat.  Yemini, Iraqi, Eritrean, Sudanese.  At 6:54, the sun officially set and the feasting began.  Muslims who had abstained from food and drink all day guzzled down water.  The line represented our community–refugees and expats, Muslims and Christians–all together, laughing, chatting, looking forward to the feast we were about to share. 

As we walked through the line, our plates grew heavier and heavier with food.  My Arabic tutor told me it’s not uncommon for people to gain five kilograms during Ramadan (about 11 pounds) because even though they fast during the day, they make up for it at night.  After eating the meal we ate that night, I believe it!  We each had a piece of Yemeni bread, which is a huge flat bread (think BIG lefse griddle size for all you midwest Norwegian readers!), sort of like naan.  About halfway through the meal, I realized that I had been using bread to scoop up the various meat dishes and hadn’t even touched the rice that was hiding under it.  I made a valiant effort, but still couldn’t finish everything.  We all ate until we were stuffed (and then some) and no one went away hungry.  Anyone who wanted to take home leftovers could, and did.

And while the food was delicious, it was the conversation and laughter that made the evening so satisfying.  People sat around, chatting, sharing jokes, telling stories, speaking in several languages.  Kids ran around and played.  Our resident DJ played music and people danced.  At one point, a favorite Sudanese song came on and several Sudanese staff members rushed to the makeshift dance floor (a clear spot in the courtyard) to dance, pulling along friends from Eritrea, Somalia, the Netherlands, and the States to dance with them.

About a week later, we gathered once again, this time in the Guild Hall (built in 1920 with funds from the Scottish Presbyterian Women’s Guild), for the wedding celebration for one of the StARS staff.  Again, we laughed, we danced, we shared stories.  Babies were passed around.  Cake was shared.  The couple was welcomed and congratulated.  The groom beamed.  Once again, our resident DJ was on hand to provide music.  The joy was palpable in the air.  It was an absolutely delightful evening.  We returned home, after having helped to clean up, exhausted, but with overwhelmingly happy hearts.

These are the things that keep us going.  These people who make us laugh and pull us up to dance and allow their stories to become interwined with ours; these experiences that remind us that inspite of all the darkness and despair, there is still a lot of happiness and a lot of hope.  There are still a lot of things that bring us together–music, and dancing, and weddings, and food.  Though there are differences, there are more things that unite us.  And is this unity, this sharing, that keeps smiles on our faces, in spite of the layers of dust and sweat.  It’s the joy that makes our hearts happy, even as we collapse exhausted on the sofa.  It’s the warmth of community that makes up for the warmth of the air.

Why do I love Cairo?  For the same reason I love Chicago or Madison or Portland or New York or Stewartville or Vincennes or any of the other places I love to be.  Because Cairo is where my people are.  The people who make me smile and laugh and might even convince me to dance.  And with people like that, its hard not to love the city they’re in.

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World Refugee Day

Today is World Refugee Day.  For most of the refugees living in Cairo and around the world, it’s just another day.  Another day of being far from the place they long to call home.  Another day of looking for a job or standing in line for water.  Another day of dreaming of a new home.  Another day of wondering where friends or family are and if they are safe.  Another day of waiting, hoping, dreaming.

As of January 2014, there were 253,268 registered refugees in Egypt.  As of June 17, there are 137,916 registered Syrian refugees in Egypt.  The numbers of Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Sudanese, South Sudanese, Iraqi, and other refugees are not released as often, but the total number of refugees in Egypt has certainly grown since January.  When we think of refugees, we often think of camps–places where, though meager, food, shelter, and water are provided.  Education is offered for the children and health care is available.  For the nearly 280,000 refugees living in Egypt, this is not the case.  Here, urban refugees must find a place to live.  They need money to buy food and pay for health care.  Tuition is charged at nearly all of the schools.  They face different challenges, as they struggle to find a place in a strange land.  Many speak Arabic, but even then, the dialect is sometimes different.  Though there are many NGOs in Cairo serving the refugee community, there’s never enough money, time, or space.  We all have our wish lists.  We all have dreams about what we could do, if only there was more time, more money, more space, even as we fervently wish that peace would come to countries ravaged by violence and war.  We listen to horrific stories and it’s sometimes really hard to see hope.

Which is why the World Refugee Day celebration last night was so important.  Held in the garden of one of the private clubs in Cairo, I watched as refugee children sat in the grass and ran their hands through it–a rare treat in this (broken) concrete jungle.  I watched as children ran and played together, seemingly oblivious to the cultural differences that might threaten to divide them.  When music started, a group of Iraqi men joined together to dance and were soon surrounded by Somali, Sudanese, Eritrean, and other refugees who clapped along and held up phones to take photos.  Soon, they traded places with Eritrean dancers.  And then a group of South Sudanese children took the stage to perform a play they had written together.  Handicrafts from the different communities were available for sale.  We sampled delicious Somali and Eritrean food.

We don’t get a chance to celebrate all that often.  A lot of the time, it feels like there isn’t anything to celebrate.  But last night was a respite for all of us–refugees and those of us who work with and for refugee organizations.  It was a celebration of the beauty of the cultures that refugees here in Cairo treasure.  It was a celebration of the ways that people can set aside differences and laugh, dance, and play together.  It was a celebration of the beauty that is in the world, despite all of the things that threaten to divide us.

We keep our eyes open for these little things, signs of hope, promise, light in the midst of darkness.  We dream of a day where there won’t be a need for World Refugee Day because peace will reign in every land.  Until then, we listen to stories, we learn from one another.  We work for justice and pray for peace.

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Dreams of a son

Below is the reflection I shared at Joseph’s memorial service last week at St. Andrew’s (with a few tiny revisions).

Joseph Michael F.K..  A name that was held in hope for a long time.  Before we knew we would be living in Egypt.  Before we knew we would have a son.  Even before we decided to start a family, we had chosen this name.  Joseph—a family name, Justin’s grandfather and cousin; Joanna, the feminine form, his aunt and sister. Our Joseph would be the fourth generation to bear this name.  Michael—my father’s name.  Each of our last names so that there would be no confusion that we were his parents.  Joseph Michael F.K.  A big name for a little boy, but one filled with meaning for us.

I love that Joseph is the Biblical dreamer.  Joseph in Genesis with his dreams of grandeur.  Joseph in Matthew with his dreams to reassure him and protect his family, particularly the infant Jesus.  And then, when it became clear that our son would be born in Egypt, we loved that this name had so much significance here.  Both Josephs, both dreamers, spent time here in Egypt.

Many of you know that this pregnancy was not an easy one.  We learned fairly early that our first child would be a son when some early tests were recommended after an unusual scan.  We would have been happy with a boy or a girl, but as soon as we learned that we would have a son, we dreamed of raising a little boy.  We dreamed of him playing at the lake with his cousins, Rocco & Jeffrey.  We dreamed of what he would look like, whose features he would have.  What would he love to do?  These day dreams carried me through the long days of bed rest and filled me with hope in spite of the frustrations that came with things not going perfectly well.  I rested and I dreamed, in hope that I would carry this child to term.

As we know all to well, though, not all dreams come true.  Joseph, our little dreamer, was held for all of his brief life.  We were able to kiss him and tell him we loved him.  He had Justin’s chin and the beginnings of blonde hair.  His tiny little feet and hands held long fingers and long toes.  Everything about his tiny body seemed perfect.  But something wasn’t right, something happened to make him come so early that his life could not be sustained.  Early that morning, as we held our tiny son, we knew that our dreams of this son would die along with him.

We don’t know why it happened.  Our doctors assure us that it was nothing that we did.  We just had bad luck.  And, for the most part, it’s awful.  We’ve cried more tears than I knew were possible to cry.  I wish that I still carried this child inside of me, that he could be healthy, that whatever went wrong wouldn’t have.  And yet, in spite of our grief, we have felt support come from all over the globe.  You all have been a source of comfort and hope for us, in being here tonight, in your hugs, messages, visits, food, and flowers.

Although I feel that so many dreams have been crushed–dreams of an easy pregnancy, dreams of a healthy baby, dreams of raising this son—I have felt God’s presence in the midst of our grief.  We cling to Christ’s promise of resurrection.  We cling to the promise of a communion of saints.  We lean on our friends—on all of you—to remind us that we are not alone in this journey.  To remind us that we, and Joseph, are loved.  By friends and family around the world.  And by a God who loves us all more than we can begin to imagine.

A little over a week after Joseph died, I read this quote in a daily devotion I receive.  A young Jewish woman, dying in a camp in the arms of her sister, said to her, “No pit is so deep that God is not deeper still.”  The God in whom we take comfort in the throws of grief is one who stops at nothing to catch us when we fall.  Who promises to walk with us through the dark valleys of the shadow of death.  Who hears our cries and can handle our questions, questions like the ones asked in Psalm 13, one of my favorite psalms and one I have turned to again in these past weeks.  My faith has carried me in my grief, and I trust in the promise proclaimed in Revelation, that “the home of God is among mortals,” that “God will dwell with them as their God,” that “they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them,” wiping every tear from their eyes.  I trust in the promise proclaimed for Joseph and for all of us that there will be a day when “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”  I trust in the promise of a God who says, over and over again, “do not be afraid” and “see I am making all things new.”

After Joseph’s dream, Matthew reports that it all took place to fulfill what had been spoken and that the name of the child would be “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”  This dreamer, this Joseph, the one who must have held the sleeping Christ child, God-with-us, looked down with love, as so many parents have, at the tiny child in his arms.  Surely he dreamed of what this child would grow up to do.  Knowing that this one was the one he and his people had been waiting for so long.  Little did he know that this child would grow up to suffer and to die, so that we could have life.

It is this child, grown up, the one who lived and died and rose, Christ in whose promise I cling in these days darkened by grief.  It is in Christ that I now place my hope for Joseph–that in Christ he lives, a member of the great circle of saints, experiencing God’s dream for a world where there is no more pain and suffering, where tears are wiped from eyes and where death is no more.  While most dreams for our son will not be, this is the one, God’s dream for God’s kingdom come, that brings us comfort, that refills the hope that was sucked from us as we held our dying son in our arms.  As we commend our son to God, we dream of God’s kingdom come, for Joseph, for us, and for all of God’s people of every time and place.

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Easter is a season

Easter is a whole season.  I think we forget that sometimes.  We celebrate and sing and shout our alleluias on Easter Sunday, with the smells of Easter lilies filling the sanctuary.  And then we go back to the grind of daily life and, sometimes, we forget that Easter is not just one Sunday, but a whole season.  Fifty days when the resurrection promise is set boldly before us.  Because Christ lives, we live.

It’s hard to believe that the Easter season is almost over.  We’ve been planning the Pentecost service at St. Andrew’s and I’ve seen lots of Facebook posts about brothers and sisters planning theirs in congregations near and far.  But we’re still in the Easter season, which is good, since I have yet to write about the Easter Sunday festivities at St. Andrew’s.

The day started with a lovely English service.  We sang all the Easter favorites, accompanied by organ and surrounded by gorgeous arrangements of white gladiolas, daisies, and Easter lilies.  After the service, we feasted with an potluck that reflected our international community.  Indonesian noodles, pancit, sushi, Egyptian sweets, potato salad, and corn casserole, just to name a few.  It was fun to see what people brought and, of course, even more fun to try dishes from around the world!  I loved the way our international community was reflected on the banquet table.  It was a delicious and delightful celebration of Christ’s resurrection!

The Nuer congregation’s tradition is to baptize on Christmas and Easter.  They had invited me to be a part of the Easter Sunday baptisms so after I had eaten and visited, I headed back into the sanctuary for the second service of the day.  When I arrived, they were calling the names of those who would be baptized and they gathered around the font, some holding hands of parents, others held in their arms, still others playing or standing obediently next to their moms.  With eighteen children and a mom to baptize, it was quite a crowd.  Once everyone had assembled, they were asked questions and the congregation recited the Apostle’s Creed in Nuer.  Pastor John baptized about half of the children and I baptized the other half.  In English and Nuer, we said the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” with water dripping down foreheads and bright eyes looking up at us.  It was an honor to be a part of the service and to be present to welcome nineteen new brothers and sisters in Christ.  I love the way cultural and language barriers are broken down and with simple words and water, we are united as brothers and sisters in Christ, made one by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Later that afternoon, I participated in service #3 of the day with the Dinka congregation.  At the beginning of the service, they sang “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” in Dinka.  It was so neat to hear the familiar melody and have a sense of what was being sung, even though the only word I understood was alleluia!  They sang and sang and sang, celebrating the resurrection promise in Dinka, Arabic, and English.  After the service, Pastor Ayad invited me to join them for dinner.  By that point, I HAD to get home and get my feet up, but he insisted I at least come at “eat with my eyes.”  The Guild Hall tables were set with take out containers and the banquet table was covered with huge pots that held several different types of meat.  They sent a box home with me and Justin was delighted to find that there was even a tripe dish!

I love that it is my job to join in worship with brothers and sisters in Christ.  This was an Easter to remember, filled with hope and promise.  It was clear throughout the day that, even though we so often feel that we are walking in darkness, our faith and hope are in Christ, and in Christ there is light and life.  We cling to the resurrection promise, no matter where we come from.  Because Christ lives, we live, and we are united in that promise, here in Cairo and throughout the world.

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Some thoughts on Good Friday

I certainly did not set out to do this, but through pure coincidence in the past week or so, I’ve been reading a lot about caves.  The most recent New Yorker had an article about exploration of very deep caves and in her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor works up the courage to enter into a wild cave and spends some time sitting in the deep, deep darkness that one experiences inside the earth.  Last summer, when Justin and I visited Wind Cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota, at one point in the tour, the guide turned out the light and we experienced a darkness that I have never experienced anywhere else.  It was so dark that we could not see our hands when we put them on our noses.  No metaphorical darkness there.  It was pitch black.

Though John doesn’t include this detail in his Passion Narrative, Matthew, Mark, and Luke do.  From noon until three, darkness covered the whole land.  Darkness covered the whole land.  Not metaphorical darkness, although that certainly filled the hearts of those who stood by to watch Jesus die, but real darkness, covering the land while the Savior hung on the cross to die.

There is darkness about this day.  It is solemn and somber.  It seems funny to me when Good Friday dawns bright and sunny (as it has on this 90+ degree Cairo day).  It should be rainy and dreary and dark.  This is the day when we remember that our Lord died.  Really truly died.  Breathed his last.  Bowed his head and gave up his spirit.  It is a dark day, and though we know that the story is not yet finished, still, our hearts are heavy on this day.

There is darkness covering the land today, on this strange paradoxical day we call Good.  Darkness of violence and uncertainty, darkness of illness and unemployment.  Darkness of despair and hopelessness.  Darkness that comes along with waiting for word from family and friends stuck in the middle of fighting in South Sudan.  Darkness that comes with not knowing whether your three missing nephews are alive or dead, as is the case of one of our South Sudanese friends.  And though the sun shines this morning, there is darkness in our hearts.  The kind that comes from fear and dread and grief.  The kind that comes with facing our own mortality, even as we contemplate the death of our Lord.  Sometimes it feels as though this darkness cannot, and will not, go away.  Cannot and will not give way to light.  There is darkness, if not literally, certainly metaphorically, in our hearts and in our world.

Jesus entered the darkness.  He entered the darkness of this world and hung on the cross when the sun refused to shine that afternoon so long ago.  In Christ, God entered the darkness of death.  And though we might be afraid, though we might despair, we can find some solace in the fact that, in Christ, on this day, God entered the darkness.  God has been there.  God knows.  As Andrew Root writes,

It is when we are up against death, when we find ourselves in despair, that the God of cross is near to us.  It is through suffering and despair that God is made known to us, for God is found on the cross. (1)

This is a day that is full of paradox, when God-with-us, the one in whom we have life, dies.  It is full of questions and it should be.  It isn’t a day that we understand readily or easily.  And yet, it is truth, deeper than we might be able to comprehend.  In the darkness of the day, God finds us, for it is on this day that God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the one who “stands over and against nothingness,” who speaks “life and possibility out of darkness,” takes darkness within Godself and allows it to come between Father and Son, becoming part of God’s story, and, consequently, our story as God’s people, forever. (2)

We have a God who dies.  This is a central tenant of our faith.  One that many find strange and weird and heretical.  But, as Christians, we believe that God takes on human form, really truly human form, and God dies.  And though we know that this story is not yet over, for today, we sit in the darkness, in the shadow of the cross, bearing witness to the darkness and despair that are so very real in our lives and in this world.  And God promises to meet us there.

At the end of the day, after Jesus had declared, “it is finished,” and bowed his head and breathed his last, Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus, who had first come by night, take Jesus’ body and laid it in a fresh tomb.  It’s quite likely that that tomb was a cave.  We learn from the other Gospels that it was sealed with a stone.  Jesus’ dead body was laid in a dark tomb, one that matched the darkness that filled the hearts of his disciples and those brave followers who had stood by to watch him die.

As we ponder, as we wait and watch and pray, consider this, written by Barbara Brown Taylor:

Everyone who saw the risen Jesus saw him after.  Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark.  As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part.  Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light.  But it did not happen that way.  If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air.  Sitting deep of Organ Cave, I let this sink in: new life starts in the dark.  Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark. (3)

Though we sit in the shadow of the cross, in the darkness of this day, we live in the paradox, this in between place, where we grieve, and yet we know that new life can and will and does start right here, in the darkness of this day.

1 Root, The Promise of Despair, p. 72
2 Root, p. 115 & 87
3Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Kindle location 1436
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Grief is real…and so is resurrection

Several weeks ago, I attended a funeral for the husband of one of the members of the Nuer congregation. Pastor John came into my office a few days before and told me there would be a funeral on Sunday afternoon for this man who had died in South Sudan. While the fighting continues in South Sudan and many members have lost loved ones, or are waiting to hear from them, my first thought went to that. It turns out that he died from natural causes related to high blood pressure, which is still very sad. Death is sad, no matter the circumstances.

His wife is one of the women who regularly attends the Bible study, and one of the first women I met when I started working with the Nuer women. She has a wonderful sense of humor and is fiercely proud of her eight children. When the day of the funeral came, she sat in the front row, with tears running down her cheeks and her shoulders slumped. There were several eulogies and a powerful sermon. All through these, she cried and cried.

And then the youth choir came forward to sing. I don’t remember the words exactly, but they were something along the lines of “At the name of Jesus, there will be life.” And there was life, indeed. It wasn’t long before she was standing up, with a huge smile across her face, singing along and dancing with the members of the community who were moved by the Spirit at work through the song of their children. I felt like I was watching resurrection play out right in front of me. Her grief was still raw and real, but the hope that she clings to was resurrected and made plainly clear before her, and before the packed congregation of people–from several tribes and congregations–who had come to pay their respects and show their support for her.

I’ve been working through the lectionary texts for this week. David Lose’s commentary on John 11 lends an interesting perspective to this familiar text. In it, he writes,

I think it’s significant that after Jesus calls Lazarus by name to come out, and even after Lazarus does indeed hear Jesus’ voice and come out (note the similarity of action to Jesus’ promises in the previous chapter), the miracle – or, in John, sign – is not over. For after commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Jesus then turns and issues a command to the waiting crowd as well: ‘unbind him and let him go.’ The community, in other words, is commanded to participate in God’s action, to bring it to its desired end and outcome, to join in completing God’s redemptive act.

He goes on to write,

Yes, the raising of Lazarus from death to new life is entirely Jesus’ work, and yet Jesus invites the community to participate; that is, to do something, something essential and meaningful and important.

There is no question that the promise of resurrection was clear in the eulogies and in the sermon that day.  Jesus’ promise to raise James, and all of us, from death to life was clear and that message was proclaimed loudly and clearly. But it was also clear that day that the community–particularly in the form of twenty or so 8-18 year olds and the gathered community who joined in their singing–was invited to participate and what they did was essential, meaningful, and important, not just for the grieving wife, but for this pastor, and for all who gathered that day.

Grief is still real and raw. But the promise of resurrection, along with the work of a community coming together to do the important work of lifting up and supporting those who grieve, was also very real that day. It’s the strange paradox of the promise of resurrection in Christ. It’s the strange paradox we’re preparing to proclaim in just a few short weeks. Death will not and does not get the final say. The last word is life, proclaimed in Jesus’ name.

PS The meal served after the funeral was fried chicken. It was delicious. It turns out that comfort food is comfort food. And there’s grace in that, too.

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Blessed are the … playmakers?

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  I don’t think it should come as any surprise why this particular blessing stands out among the list we’ll hear in churches around the world this weekend.  Cairo saw a surge in violence over the weekend as Egyptians remembered the 3rd anniversary of the beginning of the revolution.  Our brothers and sisters from South Sudan anxiously await news from family and friends still in the country.  One friend has missing twelve-year-old nephews, a few others have heard confirmation that family members or close friends have been killed in the violence there.   We long for peace and pray for it, for Egypt, South Sudan, Syria, and so many places around the world.  We need peace makers.

I’ve been working my way through the book The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa, after I learned about Maggy Barankitse and Maison Shalom.  Several stories of peacemakers throughout Africa are told in the book, and after reading Bishop Paride Taban’s story, I’ve been doing a little more research about him.  He started the Holy Trinity Peace Village in Kuron, South Sudan, after seeing Neve Shalom in Jerusalem, where Christians, Muslims, and Jews live together in harmony.  “Wow!” he recalls in an interview, “I will retire from the administration of the diocese and start the peace village as soon as the peace is signed.”  Now, members of several tribes live, play, and learn together in peace and harmony that was previously unheard of.  While young men had previously stolen cattle from neighboring tribes, these former cattle raiders now play football together.

Today, I watched as young men played football (soccer) in the makeshift pitch that we usually call the courtyard.  The youngest is probably 10, a bright young man whose smile lights up the room and who grew about 4 inches over the Christmas break.  I watched as he made a fantastic header, impressing even the coolest older boys.  The young men come from Somalia, Eritrea, and South Sudan.  And while the competition is fierce, the laughter is contagious.  Younger students gathered around watching.  It becomes a community event when they play after lunch.  I’ve learned that dodging footballs can become a means of grace.

I know I’ve said it before, but it’s so true.  I see hope in the courtyard pitch.  I see hope in the faces of these young people, taking a break from their learning to play.  And I wonder, maybe there’s something to it, blessed are the playmakers.

Maybe the world has something to learn from these young men who come from so many places, whose stories could go so many ways, and yet, find themselves together in our little courtyard, laughing and playing.  From the former cattle raiders who let the cattle be so they can play football instead.  Blessed are the playmakers…for in their play, we see glimpses of peace.

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