Where am I? What am I doing? Is this real life? We passed karaoke bars and massage parlors, and we knew exactly what happened behind those doors. We passed a house that my professor said was a brothel. We walked down these streets, and saw American tourists smiling and laughing. My group talked about going to a roti stand, relishing in the delicious Burmese dessert. This particular night, however, I had no appetite. I felt sick to my stomach and I was having trouble catching my breath. Here we were, walking through the red-light district in Chiang Mai, Thailand in spring 2013, as part of a study abroad trip. We were studying issues of exclusion and exploitation in the greater Mekong sub-region. We paid particular attention to the ways in which young women have been and are sexually exploited in and around northern Thailand, as well as look at grave injustices that are taking place in Burma (formerly Myanmar).
Later in the semester, I had an internship at the Burmese Migrant Center, which is an educational center for the children of Burmese migrant workers. Due to the oppressive military regime that had taken control of their homeland, these children were not able to attend school anymore and, therefore, could be several years behind. This center aimed to prepare them for Thai school. One of the most poignant experiences I had did not come from assisting the teachers in classroom activities or in learning Burmese phrases and teaching English ones. What elicited weeping — and frankly wailing — was watching these children at nap time. I held my fingers to the window, tears streaming down my face, considering the life they had been born into. What will their parents teach them about their homeland? All they have known in their young lives is war and violence. They have lost friends and family members because of the violence. What will happen to these children, I thought. Will they be okay? I wanted to hold them all in my arms and never let go.
It was there, walking down the streets of the red-light district in Chiang Mai, and in the eyes of precious Burmese children, where I began to understand that when I enter into the suffering of the world, I am entering into the suffering of God. It was there through the young women standing in front of karaoke bars that I saw Jesus. It was in the eyes of smiling, dancing Burmese children that I saw Jesus. I celebrate oneness with Jesus, the humble suffering servant, by being present in the suffering of my neighbors. I weep, I wail, I scream, I hold hands, I listen, I allow my heart to break in ways I never thought a heart possibly could. Jesus had never felt so real to me as He did in those precious moments in Thailand. I was given the opportunity to bear witness to the suffering of my neighbors, and in doing so, I began to understand, perhaps for the first time in my life, what it really means to be a Christ follower.
What does it mean to take suffering into our souls, and even celebrate it? What does it mean to take all the suffering, the pain, the joy, the mourning and simultaneous rejoicing of the neighbors and friends we walk alongside? There were times when it felt as if the pain of this world (or as I was learning, the pain and suffering of the greater Mekong sub-region) was too much. “I can’t do this. My heart can’t take this. It’s too much,” I cried out to God. And then I felt God speak softly and gently to me, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”.
Henri Nouwen describes this exact concept beautifully in The Road to Peace:
“When we come to know the interconnectedness between the world’s pain and God’s pain, everything becomes radically different. Then we see that in and through Jesus Christ God has lifted up all human burdens into his own interiority and made them the way to recognize his immense love. Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light,’ but Jesus’ burden is the burden of all humankind. When we are invited to carry this burden of Jesus, we are invited to carry the burden of the world. The great mystery is that this very burden is a light burden since it is the burden that makes known to us the unlimited love of God. The immense human suffering we hear about from all directions can only call us to a deeply human response if we are willing to see in the brokenness of our fellow human beings the brokenness of God, because God’s brokenness does not repulse. It attracts by revealing the loving face of the One who came to carry our burdens and set us free. Seeing the agony of the people becomes the way of coming to know the love of God, a love that reconciles, heals and unites.”
It is my heartfelt prayer that we will not try to escape suffering because of the pain it brings. My prayer is that we will choose to enter into it as a way to become unified with Christ. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “We always carry in our bodies the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our bodies.” May we enter into the suffering of our world, fully cognizant of the fact that at the very same time, we enter into the joy that is found in being present with someone else in their reality. And in the process, our friends and neighbors who have experienced more pain and trauma than we can ever know, enable us to come face to face with Jesus. This Jesus is found on the streets of a brothel, is found among our refugee and undocumented friends, is found in the children whose parents lives were taken from them, and is found in the woman who saw a way to keep choosing life again and again, even in the face of sexual violence. Jesus is in the eyes and feet and hands of our friends in the margins. It is through them that I have experienced the Jesus who has suffered for us.
Annie has been involved with Word Made Flesh for several years and has visited a few of our communities across the world. She lives in Newberg, Oregon where she volunteers her time to help our Oregon Field Director with community activities.
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