Along the Desert Highway
Yesterday The New York Times did something extraordinary.
It published a photograph that took up four whole pages, one of the largest photos the paper has ever printed. The picture above is of the special section spread out on my living room floor.
The photo was taken along a highway in Niger that literally goes nowhere – it was partially built and then abandoned by a Chinese oil company. The people in the photograph are a handful of the thousands of refugees fleeing the militant group Boko Haram. They have made their way to live in crude huts by the highway because it is one of the only safe places left. The photographer interviewed many of the people pictured, and snippets of their stories are above and below the photo. (In the online version, you can scroll through to zoom in on each face and read their words.)
I’m pretty sure The New York Times doesn’t keep up with the schedule of weekly readings the Episcopal Church uses, but their feature is coincidentally timely. This week we have been reading one of the Bible’s most bizarrely vivid passages.
In it, the prophet Ezekiel recalls encountering a valley of dry bones, and receiving instructions from God to “prophesy” to the bones. As he does, the bones begin to rattle and reassemble into human forms. As Ezekiel continues to prophesy, the bones grow flesh and skin and begin to breathe and live again. The bones represent the exiled nation of Israel, restored to life.
God says to Ezekiel: “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”
As I looked at The Times’ epic photograph, I realized I was looking at a modern-day illustration of Ezekiel’s vision.
In less than two years, over 100,000 people have made their way to this desert highway in Niger. They are all fighting for scraps of sustenance and what water is left in the wells. Every person in this photo has suffered unspeakable tragedy, losing their homes and most of their loved ones. Their lives and their world are dried up, their hope is lost, and they are cut off completely. They are waiting to return home.
Of course, as I pondered these faces staring at me from my living room floor, my first question was: ‘How do I help?’
The Times, notably and probably purposely, doesn’t give any of that information. It asks us as readers only to see these people, to hear pieces of their stories, and then to sit uncomfortably with those stories for awhile.
It seems this is the first task of a prophet. In Ezekiel’s vision, before he can bring life back to the bones, God leads him to walk among them: to see, to notice, to question. Only then can he hear God’s instructions for how to help.
We know that the youth we serve have walked through their own dry valleys and moments of hopelessness, and our mentors have done the hard work of walking into those desert places with your youth. And we know that – while you might not describe themselves as prophets – Braid mentors have all signed on as mentors because you want to restore hope and life.
At the quarterly mentor gathering on Sunday, we will be talking together about our role as prophet-mentors. We will share what we have seen and noticed and questioned when we have allowed ourselves to be present with our youth. And we will discern together some of the instructions that have emerged for how to facilitate opportunities for re-creation. As always, we will benefit from each other’s wisdom. We hope you will be part of the conversation!