“We may be culturally different and even messy, but there are some things, such as art, that unify us in a way that can’t be denied.”
Peacemaking through Art
by Susan Brooks
It’s incredible how impactful a few hours of interaction with someone from another culture can be! Our State Department sponsors various cultural groups to visit the U.S., and sometimes those groups come to our city, Louisville, KY, through the local chapter of the World Affairs Council. Because of my husband, Martin Brooks, and his work with Peace Catalyst International, one such group visited my school on August 26. The group included 12 Iraqi high school students and their sponsors who had come to the states to explore “peacemaking through art and sports.” Our students were so friendly and gracious to them! I began to wonder if the angels had taken the souls of my eighth graders away and inhabited their bodies for that afternoon. We broke up into groups of 4 or 5 and discussed questions about culture, family, political struggles, hobbies, school, etc. Then when the principal asked what my students had learned, one of our boys shouted, “Iraqis are awesome!”
The last class period of the day, half of the Iraqi students participated in my art class. Doing art together turned out to be a fantastic, fun time that exceeded all my expectations and brought about the perfect ending to our great day of peace building. At one of the tables, two Iraqis and two of my American students decided to work together in such a way that their tile paintings became more than just individual designs– each tile was an important part of a larger whole, making a more beautiful and complex design when placed together. I like to call it the “unity” tile. One of our students said it well in a tweet she sent out that evening:
“We may be culturally different and even messy, but there are some things, such as art, that unify us in a way that can’t be denied.”
The next day, my eighth grade writing class processed the experience through blogging, and they had some great comments:
“By the end of our time with them they felt like friends, even one of us started crying.”
“They also came over here to let people know that not all Iraqi people are terrorists; and they don’t want war; they just want peace. The experience of meeting our guests yesterday changed the way I think and react to stories on the news and to life in general. I think this time with the Iraqis was very inspiring.”
She was a refugee from Syria, a beautiful young woman, dressed in black from head to toe. A patterned scarf was tied around her head and tucked into a lightweight double-breasted suit coat that skirted the floor. She spoke passionately in a language I couldn’t understand, and her young interpreter had to stop a time or two to choke back tears.
The refugee was a young mother, and she told of her struggles during her recent pregnancy in Syria. Her country was falling apart. As her time drew near, she scheduled a c-section two weeks before her baby was due—she needed to make sure the baby would not be born in the middle of the night. A night time trip to the hospital would have been too risky. When the time came for the c-section, the soldiers stopped her family on their way to the hospital. They detained her husband for no apparent reason, leaving her to deliver the baby without him.
Upon her arrival at the hospital, the warring factions were bombing the area, and her heart was racing. Because of her condition, they couldn’t give her the medicine she needed to relax, so she had to find a way to calm down without medication.
“I can do this; I can do this,” she repeated, realizing she had to be strong for the baby.
In spite of the horrific conditions, she delivered a healthy baby, and some time later the husband was released. The family returned to their home, but the situation in the area only worsened. Soldiers harassed the husband when he would venture out, until one day they beat him with sticks so severely he feared for his life. By the time the baby was 4 months old, the family decided it was safer to flee the violence than to stay in their home. They had no passports and no birth certificate for the baby, so they would have to escape across the border illegally. Their best chance to survive the journey was to race through the forest under the cover of night. It was extremely difficult to see their way through, and at certain places they had to run, or the spotlights would expose them. If caught in the spotlights, border guards would shoot them on sight. The young father carried his two-year-old son, and the nursing mother carried her four-month-old baby. It was nearly impossible to keep the children quiet during their flight, but somehow, by the grace of God, they made it. This young Syrian family is now living in the states, building a new life.
I heard this story at our most recent peace feast, and I had the privilege of hugging the young mother who had been through such trauma. She wants everyone to know about the suffering of her people. Her story reminded me of another flight by a family of refugees. They too fled under the cover of night to a neighboring country. They fled to Egypt, to save the life of their child from a murderous ruler. The child’s name was Jesus. I wonder who helped that refugee family. Who took little Jesus in and provided diapers for him and food and shelter for his mother and father until Joseph could find some carpentry work and an apartment? Mary, Joseph, and Jesus stayed in Egypt until Herod died. I wonder if the Egyptians resented Joseph coming into their country and taking their jobs? I wonder if the holy family feared being put in jail for illegal entry? Einstein once said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” I’m finding that to be true.
Dang it, I was going to have to practice what I had preached to my Bible class girls, “social anxiety” or not!
I heard a lady say the other day that she suffered from “social anxiety.” That’s me! I thought, and now I have a diagnostic-sounding word to describe my reluctance to go the mosque! Doesn’t that make it okay to stay home? I wonder if Jesus suffered from “social anxiety.” If he did, he overcame it, because he went anyway. He went to the synagogue, to Levi’s house, to the sick and needy, and to the well to talk to the enemy-Samaritan woman. He was often surrounded by clamoring crowds.
My amazing husband claims to be an introvert, but I don’t believe it for a minute—he certainly doesn’t suffer from my “social anxiety” disease! Somehow he has managed to become good friends with many of the Muslim leaders in the city, including the imam at the big mosque downtown. Martin told me earlier in the week that the imam had invited us to a dinner and celebration for his newborn son on Friday night at the mosque, so I bought a cute little outfit for the baby, and hoped that it would be the rare occasion at the mosque that allowed men and women to be in the same room together, letting me be with Martin that night.
By the time Friday rolled around, as usual, I was exhausted. I love my teaching job, but after being surrounded by one group of students after another all day for a week, I needed some down time. I confess that I was really grumpy getting ready to go; and I wasn’t sure I would know any of the women there, so I was suffering from that “social anxiety.” But here’s the thing: all week I had been teaching my girls’ Bible class that Jesus was always eating and socializing with all kinds of people, often defending and honoring those that the majority didn’t like or approve of, people that were different.
“Ugh! I have to find something that covers from head to toe, try to tame my thick mane and make it stay under a scarf, make a salad to take, and they probably won’t let me stay with Martin, and I might not know anyone, and I’m tired, and I just don’t want to go!” I grumbled to myself, all the while thinking, “But this is just the kind of thing that Jesus would go to, and he would love the people that the community may be tempted to reject right now….”
So I put on a long dress and stuffed my hair into a scarf, and I grudgingly went, a very poor excuse for an ambassador of Jesus.
As we drew close to the mosque, I panicked! Oh man! “I forgot about socks!”
You have to take your shoes off before you go into to the mosque. I was wearing boots, and my hidden socks looked awful— you know how dark socks grab those little white lint balls in the dryer somehow— these were droopy and lint-balled, short, disgustingly ugly, and didn’t match the dress.
“So go barefoot?” said my husband.
“My legs are hairy! And it’s freezing cold!” May sound pitiful, but my sisters get it. This was an emergency!
“Okay, we’ll find a store and buy you some socks,” said my patient husband, who wasn’t letting me get out of this.
After spending a ridiculous $16.00 on socks at the nearest pharmacy, I was on my way, grumpier than ever.
We pulled into the parking lot and saw no one else carrying food, so we decided to leave the salad in the car for the time being, along with the gift. It was a dark night, and Martin started to walk me around to the women’s doorway when a man flagged him down and said,
“Men enter back here!”
So he couldn’t even walk me to the door. I walked up to the door that I thought was the right one. No one was around. I tried the door—it was locked.
“Maybe I’ll just go sit in the car,” I was thinking, “I’ll just go listen to my audiobook”—but then I noticed some women being dropped off out front, and I followed them into the right door, resigned to facing my social anxiety crisis all alone.
It’s awkward, or I’m awkward; the ladies at the mosque are welcoming, but they don’t know what to do with me. One lady is excited about what we do with Peace Catalyst, and we had a great conversation. Others ask if I’m a Muslim, and I say, “No, I’m a Christian,” and I try to explain.
They introduce me to the American convert, and I feel like a project. (Forgive me, dear Muslim friends, if I have ever made you feel like a project!) No one else has brought food; it’s catered, but they graciously say they will serve my salad, so I go out to the car to get it. I’m trying not to be, but I’m a little nervous as I walk out to the dark parking lot in the back of the building. The other women were dropped off at the front door—
I get my salad and the gift, and as I’m walking back up toward the front of the building, a truck passing by on the main road out front yells,
“Go home, you #$%^&* Muslims!” They yelled at pasty-white-blond-American-Christian me!
They didn’t know whom they were cursing, and that would have been true, even if I hadn’t been at the mosque that night.
The cussing out was obviously meant for the Muslims, and I wonder if they would’ve yelled those caustic words had they known I was an American Christian; or maybe they would have been even angrier and would have cursed me even more since I chose to be there making friends with Muslims because that’s what I think Jesus would be doing if he were walking in my city today— and I’m terrible at it, and grumpy because I’m tired; but I really do love my Muslim friends, and I want to be like Jesus, even if it means stupid sock issues and head scarves, and occasionally being the victim of a drive-by-cussing-out at the friendly neighborhood mosque.
Hebrews 13:2 …some people have entertained angels without knowing it.
Some days are better than others. Other days are just stinkin’ hard. We’ve had a few of those hard days in recent months. Many days I feel like my mind is blown, and I have trouble grasping the fact that my husband has cancer again, just when we had reached the 5 year mark after the last cancer. My concentration isn’t always what it should be and I make mistakes— I forget things. Sometimes I forget important things, like the other day.
On the way home from school, I had to stop by the art store to buy some supplies for my art classes. I shouldn’t say had to; I always enjoy stopping there. It’s inspiring for me to breathe in all of the colors of paints, pastels, and pencils lined up in neat rows just begging to be squeezed and splashed onto a canvas to create a masterpiece, and I look forward to the big smiles that will splash onto the faces of my students when they see the brand new materials….Ahhh! the pleasures of the art store…
Right next to the art store is the Rainbow Blossom health foods store. With this second diagnosis of cancer, we’ve started seeing a biochemist, along with the regular doctors. He has us on quite a regimen of healthy eating, so I thought I’d stop into the store to see what organic foods they have available that our local Kroger might not carry. I struggled for a few minutes with choices and asked myself, “How much is too much to spend on these organic veggies?” Finally resigned, I got in line behind a pleasant looking African-American lady. She paid for her groceries, but then she lingered behind to watch me check out.
“What are you going to do with all that?” she asked sweetly. I began to explain that my husband has cancer and is on a very strict diet.
“Yes,” she said. “I know what you’re going through.” I got the impression that she had first hand experience with cancer.
“But what are you going to do?” she asked.
Exactly what I had been thinking to myself, but not saying to anyone. “What am I going to do? How am I going to handle this?”
But who was this woman and what gave her the right to ask me such a personal question? Yet there was something in her manner that was so kind and so endearing that it made me want to open up to her.
“Well,” I answered, “I’m going to pray and trust God to take care of him. That’s all I can do.”
“Yes, that’s all any of us can do; trust God,” she replied slowly, thoughtfully, and with such caring, such sincerity, that the next thing I knew we were hugging–this lovely stranger and I in the front of the Rainbow Blossom! There we were, having a intense moment in front of the whole store in the check out line surrounded by organic veggies!
After that mystifying encounter, I stumbled out of the store thinking, “What in the world just happened? Who was that felt-hatted lady?”
Her words and her gesture toward me touched me in deep, raw, vulnerable places. I felt blessed, but at the same time the concern for my husband was still there. I drove home pondering all these things, and wondering at the love and sovereignty of God—my God who allows cancer, but sends a word of encouragement and a random hug from a never-met-before-or-since grandmother at the health food checkout counter.
Ruminating on all of these things, driving home and then—
Woahhhh! There’s a car turning in front of me!!! Screeching of my tires!! I tense up, straining with my muscles as if I could pull the car back and make it stop with the strength of my arms!! Can’t quite stop in time, and I crash into the back side of the car in front of me! A man gets out of his car, upset….
“You had a red light!!” he fumed.
“I got nothing.” I’m thinking to myself. “I guess I forgot to pay attention to the traffic light.”
Quietly, and I think rather meekly, I said, “Did I? Are you okay? I’m so sorry and I’m so glad you’re okay and I really couldn’t tell you what color the light was but I’m so sorry and I’m so glad you’re okay and I have insurance that will pay for it I was just driving on autopilot.…”
(I KNOW, RIGHT? THE STORY WASN’T SUPPOSED TO END LIKE THAT!! AFTER THE ENCOUNTER AT THE RAINBOW BLOSSOM, I WAS SUPPOSED TO GO HOME AND HAVE A BLISSFUL TIME SHARING WITH MARTIN HOW GOD ENCOURAGED ME THAT DAY….)
But instead, I had to call Martin, because the insurance cards were not in the glove box like they were supposed to be, and the sticker on the license plate was expired, and the officer was writing me a citation…. A couple of hours later, exhausted, we arrived at home together. As I was scrounging around in the kitchen throwing together a late supper, I got a whiff of something foul. After some investigation, we discovered that Martin’s shoe had found a dog pile that was by this time spread around the house and onto a couple of the throw rugs. This was getting ridiculous.
Finally sitting down to dinner with Martin, I apologized, “I’m so sorry to add to your stress, Honey!”
“I’m not stressed!” he replied, at which we both exploded with hysterical laughter.
My laughter was mixed with tears, but it felt good to laugh and to cry; and as I sat with the love of my life and told him about the angel at the Rainbow Blossom, I began to feel that this crazy, painful, wonderful, stinky, messy, beautiful story that I’m living in will somehow, one day have a happy ending. And in the mean time, I’m watching out for the next angel, and I’m taking all the hugs I can get!
“Mindless slaughter of innocent children! Gotta get outta here!”
Daily choice—no choice really. Try to stop the killing and get killed myself, knowing they would just go ahead and kill the babies anyway. Or I can try to get out and let the world know what is going on. Sneaking around, making arrangements to leave, must be careful or they’ll find out and kill me first. Pretending to go along with this sickening status quo while trying to find a way to escape.
I woke up distraught and horrified with a crippling load of guilt on my chest. It had been the worst dream ever! Everything was just gray and bloody. Why am I dreaming such a horror story?
Then I remembered. The Kurdish Peace Feast. I stood face to face with a woman who had lost three family members to ISIS. What does one say to someone who has suffered so much?
I didn’t know what to say except, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!” and I hugged her. Multiple times we hugged that night. We reached for each other, and it was no polite-keep-some-space-between-us-because-we-just-met kind of hug. No, we grabbed and held on, almost desperately—what else could we do or say?
I tried to share in her suffering, and now I’m having nightmares too; but at least I get to wake up from them.
Recently, I wrote, illustrated, and published my first children’s book. It was about my granddaughter and her favorite stuffed toy, and also about goodness, beauty, and talking weeping willow trees. I published it myself through an online publishing company. I was talking with a friend about it a couple of weeks ago.
“It seems a small thing.” I mused, “The world’s falling apart, and I’m drawing pictures of stuffed animals for my grandkids.”
“Yes, but you see them!” she said to me. “You really see them.”
“Wow, I never thought about it like that. I hope that’s true!” said I; and though I hadn’t thought about it before, those words have haunted and challenged me ever since.
Now, the concept of really seeing people is popping up everywhere! We went to the movies the other night, and in one of the previews, a young girl who was forced into the entertainment industry is about to commit suicide by jumping off a balcony. A policeman rushes in to rescue her, and as she’s dangling from the balcony, slipping away to certain death as his hand desperately grasps her fingers, he says to her,
“I see you! I really see you!”
Being seen by this handsome officer, she, of course, chooses to live and is pulled up into his strong, safe embrace.
Then this week as I was tutoring a high school student, the teen fiction book we were studying referred to homeless people sometimes being “invisible” to the people who walk by, choosing not to really see them.
This concept of seeing people is meaningful both in our pop culture and in our spiritual culture. Each one of us wants to be seen. I love the story of Hagar in Genesis 16. Hagar has run away to the desert after being mistreated by Sarah. The Lord finds her and gives her a promise for her future. She is so moved by the Lord’s love for her that she gives him a special name in Genesis 16:13:
“You are the God who sees me.”
God sees every one of us. He sees the Palestinians and the Jews. He sees the immigrants and the Americans. He sees the Syrians, the Ukrainians, the Russians, the Iraqis, the Kurds, the Nigerians, the Liberians, and all of the people suffering at this time in history.
Jesus came to show us what God is like. He had a way of seeing people that others either didn’t notice or chose to avoid. Included in this long list were diminutive tax collectors up in trees, Samaritan divorcees hanging around wells in the blazing sun, unclean women hiding in a crowd reaching for just the hem of his garment, beggars, little children, lepers, and prostitutes. Lately, it has been my prayer that God will help me truly see people as Jesus did. Maybe I can’t see people in other parts of the world as God does; but I can pray to the God who does see them, and I can ask Him to open my eyes to really see the people around me in my family, my church, and my community.