From the time I was a small child my mother believed in my integrity and my worthiness. By this I mean she let her children know that it is necessary to grow into a person who is sensitive to the needs of other and ready to help those who are suffering. She lived that way herself, reaching out in kindness as a regular practice. On the day after Christmas when I was four years old, she took her three small children to visit an impoverished family whose children had received no gifts. Our instruction before visiting was that each of us would select one of our own Christmas gifts for the children with no gifts. The whole idea displeased me enormously. But grace broke through when my handing over of a toy telephone to another child set in motion a source of joy which has not ceased to grow with me. From that time I began to suspect that it really might be better to give than to receive.
My mother’s early trust that I would do what is right – if not now then at least later – has guided me towards a life of service although I admit to having wandered around for a few decades before getting serious about it. Not until my 40s did I understand more fully that service to the poor and attention to what people need is the best possible way to accommodate divine grace which strengthens and informs both giver and recipient. Living in London, Cairo and then Khartoum during this time of intense learning, I also came to understand that Muslims as well as Christians believe and practise the path to grace through service.
Among the most wonderful gifts of grace with can grow out of service are patience, humility and love for others. Although I cannot pretend to have advanced far along this path, I can now at least see the possibility that such gifts may eventually be given to me. At present my gifts are simpler, more mundane: an ability to listen to people in distress, anger against injustice and a desire to do something about it and, last but not least, “the gift of helps”, which, to put it simply, means facilitation. I have as well a particularly painful gift which involves openness to the suffering of others, animal as well as human.
This openness to suffering was first remarked on in my childhood in Taiwan when I was twice removed from the streets to the police station on a charge of attacking people who were abusing dogs. I suppose that the inability NOT to see the suffering of others is a common gift to people who have themselves suffered intensely – as I did when I was badly burned as an infant, later when I was sent to boarding school in Mississippi and refused permission to speak to my younger siblings and then as a teenager when I spent several months as the only child in a tuberculosis sanatorium. But the grace of seeing the suffering of others did not come on all at once. Visiting Istanbul early in my adult life, I was surprised when a friend with me suddenly cried out “O God! No! No!” Only then did I see the old man staggering by carrying on his back a refrigerator anchored by a strap across his forehead.
Several years later another friend suddenly turned to me in surprise and said, “You seem to see every wounded dog, overloaded donkey, exhausted woman and sick child on the road from the pyramids back to central Cairo.” Looking at me suspiciously she added, “Why is it that I don’t see all this but you do?” This statement came to me as a revelation because I had always assumed that everyone is able to see the pain and anguish all around us but most of us choose not to do anything about it. So I tucked my friend’s statement away quietly in my heart and began asking God to open my eyes wider.
All this is simply to say that divine grace works within us, particularly, I suspect, when we are willing to join forces with people of other religious beliefs and none, people of different races, tribes and cultures and people who need to feel that those who are more affluent care about them. Arriving in the southern Sudanese city of Wau with a group of fact finding diplomats during the eye of the great famine of 1998, I was surprised to find a Sudanese friend at work feeding the starving multitudes.
“Ahmed,” I cried stupidly, “Why are you here?” To which Ahmed gracefully replied, “Where else would you have me be?”
And I remember the reply of Sudanese ophthalmologist Dr. Nabila Radi when I told her of Together for Sudan’s decision to begin an Eye Care Outreach into the squatter settlements around Khartoum.
“If you are going to help the poor, you are going to suffer,” Dr. Nabila said joyfully. “I can start tomorrow.”
Lillian Craig Harris, June 2010