Pastor Erik asked me a few weeks ago if there was a time in my life that I felt like a foreigner or a stranger that I might be willing to share with St Luke’s as part of the season of Epiphany — where God shared His light to “the nations.” I immediately thought of the year I spent deployed to Afghanistan while I was in the Air Force.
I spent most of the year of 2010 at Bagram Airfield, just north of Kabul. At the time, the base the size of a municipality, about 30,000 soldiers and civilians from all over the world. It was large enough to have a Lutheran church service held by Lutheran chaplains. Even though I was 8,000 miles from home, I felt such power at being able to share the liturgy and sacraments each Sunday, just like my church and family back home was doing.
Not long after I arrived, I remember hearing a sermon that seemed to frame my time there. The Pastor’s message centered on our shared humanity. He reminded us that nothing we had done had put us on “this” side of the fence and that we were no different and definitely no better than our Afghan brothers and sisters whose country we were in.
This message may seem obvious to the congregation of St. Luke’s; however, it was an important reminder in a place where the food, language, customs and cultures are so different than our own. And where there was such intense conflict. Where both Afghans and Americans were dying and in danger on a consistent basis.
I have many memories of my time there when the Pastor’s voice echoed in my head and heart.
Sunday mornings I usually spent a few hours at a free clinic run by Egyptians for the local Afghan women and children. I would help out by handing out numbers at the Pharmacy and other minor tasks, but mostly I was entertainment for the women and children who were waiting. I was trying to learn Dari, one of the two national languages, and it was extremely amusing for the patients to see this American lady soldier struggling with their language.
One Sunday, I was speaking to a young lady using my standard memorized phrases:
“What is your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“How old are you?”
“How many children do you have?”
“How old are they?”
I especially liked asking questions that involved numbers since I had memorized those first.
The lady I was speaking to on this particular morning was in her early twenties and had four children. She humored my questions, but then she turned them right around on me.
“How old are you” …um, I’m 27
“How many children do you have” … None
“Are you married?” …No, but I have a boyfriend (by the way, this word does not translate very well).
She then she stopped and looked at me with intense compassion. She was concerned that I had no family of my own and that I was working…that seemed like a terrible existence to her. Her reaction was to try to help me — “I have an uncle who needs a second wife. I’ll see what I can do.”
And just like that, I realized that I had not been listening to the Pastor’s message. I had forgotten that my Western ego and privilege are really worth nothing. The compassion the young Afghan woman had for me, and I had for her, reminded me that there really aren’t “nations” in God’s eyes. That we are all in this together, as humans.
I know that my “epiphany” and the message of the Lutheran Pastor in Afghanistan may not be so relatable to the congregation of St Luke’s. Y’all have an amazing capacity for empathy and for understanding of our shared humanity. But it is easy to create borders and bubbles. Sometime the Suburbs can feel like another country and US soldiers might feel like foreigners to many of us. But Suburbians, and Afghan women, and American soldiers are really all part of the same human nation. And when we treat each other with compassion without creating borders or boundaries, we are sharing the light to the nations.
And I think that’s a message I personally can’t be reminded of enough.