“Life’s a long song… if you wait then your plate I will fill.”
I just had dinner with the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray.We’ve had all our meals together as a group this week– tonight was down time, we were on our own. Went to the restaurant and found the pastor sitting alone, and I joined him. What an opportunity to have dinner with the Rev. Murray. We talked shop – about the ministry. He’s been retired for the last two years and working at USC. I know his record – he brought around the Black Church in Los Angeles with an echo that has been heard around America. As readers know, I think we as Armenians have so much to learn from the Black Church experience in America. The Martin Luther King Jr. retreats that we’ve organized through the In His Shoes mission have always used the Black Church as a paradigm for our survival as a religious entity and ultimately as a people. Need I mention that the Civil Rights movement in America, during the 50’s and 60’s ushered in an era of ethnic pride which lent itself to a ripe climate to have monuments and commemoration of the Genocide.
I remember those years, it was then that we began speaking about the unspeakable. And God had brought us together to minister on this trip. And tonight – it was less grandiose, it was a sandwich for him and spaghetti for me, in the middle of Africa. Rev. Murray is a preacher. He’s a poet. He has a way of stringing words. This morning he preached at theWednesday morning service at Solace Ministries. It was a gathering of genocide widows and orphans. He was powerful, talking about pain and suffering. He was on target, helping to ease the sadness and raise their spirits. He is the preacher’s preacher. It was a type of support group, and at the same time a type of religious service, where some 200 men and women gathered in a cement structure. The slab walls had some large open holes – glassless window spaces –open to the outdoors. The women sat in front because they were the target audience, it was a gathering of widows – the men there, were also in pain as their expressions betrayed them. Many were widowers. A young man on a keyboard and another on an electric bass began some background music for us. A group of five girls came up front to sing, one of them stout, a bit heavier than the others, was the lead singer, bringing a synchronization to the group. (An Aretha, or Gladys in the making… )
The group sang to the audience who by this time was packed into this area, sitting in tight proximity. They would be in this position for the next two hours. John introduced us to the congregation. I looked to my left, down the hallway that brought us here, it too was now packed with people. The hurt was tremendous and everyone needed to be healed. Sadly, it was their hearts that were broken. No need for John Hopkins, no need for trained surgeons, just some old-fashioned love and attention.
Once again, John made the proclamation as he spoke to us, “These are people who have been told they are cockroaches. What do you expect? They have heard they are cockroaches for so long and then they are treaded like cockroaches, killed, raped, crushed. Many people thought God had forgotten about them, but today you show us that God never abandons, he never forgets his people. You are here doing God’s work by giving these people value and dignity.” It was the bottom line to these experiences – it was being with the people, to hug, touch, cry and laugh with them – that was the bottom line on this expedition. We were sitting in front of these widows and orphans, many HIV/AIDS infected who were isolated and stigmatized.
In his concluding words, Rev. Murray took a 5,000 francnote and showed it to the people. He asked them to identify it. Then he went through a process of wrinkling, crumbling, and even stomping it. He asked them how much it was worth then? The answer, like their lives, was obvious – no matter how bad the struggle, the value of life would never change. A few members of the congregation gave their testimony. One young man – early 20’s – though his face and stature would make you think he was 15, began to tell his story. He’s an orphan head of house. He lost his parents. They killed his father in front of his eyes. He watched the rape of his mother. He lost everything. He talked about his father’s killers – they lived down the street from him. He even confessed that he was tempted on several occasions to pour gas on their home and kill them, but he knew he would end up in prison. He did spend some time in jail for an altercation with the killers. It is the ultimate injustice if you think about it. How much is a person to endure, to live next to his father’s killer?
He said at this time he’s learning to deal with the pain. He’s thankful to Solace Ministries for giving him the support, becoming his family, to make it through. He concluded his message with another confession – this one was very painful, coming from this little-boy-turned-man. He said to this day he hasn’t been able to cry. There were two other testimonies this day. Each one very graphic. Each one causing women to break out in strong and loud wailing – as a chord or nerve in their own life was strummed. Like the young lady, who was 11 years old when the Genocide took place. She watched her sisters be macheted. And watched as they ripped her mother’s head off her body and in some ancient practice, the perpetrators drank her blood! And here she stood, dazed and confused with only the family provided to her by Solace.
After each testimony, before and after each service, the crowd went into a echoing of “Halleluiah.” It was a word I heard my grandmother use when I was kid. I never knew what it meant, only that she would blurt it out whenever she was excited by the thought that she was alive by the Grace of God. I saw my grandmother many times here. She was in the singing. In the painful reflection. In the young girls-turned-mother. In the orphan head of household. She was sitting in front of me. She was saying“Halleluiah.” She was a child when her childhood was robbed from her. She was sitting there not knowing that her next 60 years would be filled with bruises, pain and shame. She would laugh and smile one day, but it was only a temporary cover to the deep pain of losing mother, father, sister, brother.
Today, was the first day we felt the heat of the equator. The morning was hot and during this service it started to shower, in fact, it rained so hard that the splashes were reaching us on the inside of the structure, through the window-space. It was a reminder of our position on the globe and a reminder of the need for a cleansing – a shower type. The noise of the raindrops and the thunder drowned out some of the wailing. Though we all know the sun will be up tomorrow, for today, it was an end to this service and these bizarre stories of inhumanity.
© Fr. Vazken Movsesian 2006