Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (2 Chronicles 28:1-15) transports me to a Charlotte restaurant, circa 2002, when I first met David Thon. Two alumni of Mars Hill College, Carl and Nina Phillips, had contacted me to tell me about David, a refugee from Sudan whom they had taken under wing through a ministry of their church. He showed great promise in his community college work, and they wondered if he might be eligible for our Bonner program, a full-ride service-learning scholarship. I confess that until that day I had never heard of Sudan and its long war, and I was completely blown away by David’s story. My colleagues and I came back to campus eager to get him in the mix of our next class of Bonners. We ran into one road-block, a student life staff member who had heard of the Sudan, and who feared that we were bringing a terrorist into the dorms, since Osama Bin Laden had used the Sudan as his home base for several years in the 90s. I don’t remember if I was able to hold back my screaming and pulling my hair out or not, but I, and my colleagues in the Bonner program, were able to convince the decision-makers that David was a safe bet. He had been on the receiving end of Osama’s terrorism, not the giving end. Many of his family members and village friends in the predominantly Christian southern Sudan were among the 3 million plus victims of the reign of terror brought on by the Janjaweed and other Islamic extremists. David became one of the most valued and treasured members of the college community, engaging in around 2,000 hours of service-learning activities, and opening all of our eyes to the realities of war refugees, both in the depth of their suffering and the depth of their resilience. He replaced a story of fear with a story of hope, a story that continues to be one of the core narratives I and others tell when we want to describe what an impact one person can have on a community.
When Jesus went about telling stories, he could have easily drawn from the long legacy of fear and terror and violence narratives that dotted the timeline of his faith tradition. Out of the long saga of continuing warfare that plagued his promised land, he chose to draw from stories like the one in today’s passage, an account of resilient hope that provided the back story to his famous Good Samaritan tale. The warfare part is the same old story, same old song. The northern kingdom of Israel (aka Samaria) is forever feuding with the southern kingdom of Judah, and neighboring countries are brought into alliances on one side or the other. The casualties of this particular campaign number in the hundreds of thousands. To the victors go the spoils, and two hundred thousand civilian prisoners of war, the widows and orphans of the slain warriors, are brought into the capital city of Samaria to be enslaved. Nothing out of the ordinary so far, until some Samaritan leaders step up and get in the way. The prophet Obed and four other leaders of Israel challenge the generals, telling them they’ve had enough terror; the cycle of violence has to stop, and the slavery has to be abolished. There must have been power behind their words, because the soldiers left their captives and their stolen booty with the assembly and went home. The good Samaritan prophets then became role models for Jesus’ main character. They clothed the naked, anointed the injured, fed the hungry, put the feeble on donkeys, and accompanied them all back to their homes. It’s an amazing story of transformation and radical peacemaking, not the kind of tale generally found the annals of war.
David Thon told an amazing story of transformation and peacemaking in 2006 when he won the G. McLeod Bryan Caring Award, the most prestigious award given at Mars Hill. In his acceptance speech, he recounted an experience serving over the summer at Jubilee Partners in Comer, Georgia, a refugee resettlement ministry. That summer, the majority of the refugees at Jubilee were from Somolia. At first, David was terrified, because these were Muslims. He had carried deep fear and anger and bitter resentment against Muslims for as long as he could remember. In his mind, these were the Janjaweed. These were the people responsible for the deaths of 12,000 of his fellow Lost Boys as they walked a thousand miles seeking escape from the war. At Jubilee, David’s job involved changing the diapers of Muslim babies, playing games with Muslim children and teaching them to read, helping Muslim war widows learn to acclimate to a new culture. Over the summer, the babies and the children and the mothers gave him a new face to Islam, a human face, a refugee face he could recognize as his own. He was Good Samaritan to these suffering people who in his mind had represented the enemy for many long decades. In the process, he was transformed; no longer did he he consider them enemies. David wasn’t the only one transformed by his experience. We all left the chapel that day a more hopeful people, with more faith in the possibilities of peace, with more trust in radical transformation, with a clear realization of the resilience of the human spirit.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.