The old saying is that all politics is local. That is probably not true, but it is true that for some of us all news is local. Once a person has worked on five continents, there is no news story that can be dismissed. Friends and coworkers are involved in some way with almost everything that comes over the wire. How can a person adjust to unremitting tragedy in this day of 24-hour news? And why should they? Caring is painful.
Because I have worked around the world, and have friends who do, I am connected to far-flung places. I consulted with officials about Kashmir and visited the area. Then came the earthquake that flattened villages in the region. Email helps, allowing me to check on my friends and colleagues there, but the connection is too strong to turn away from this local terror. People are really suffering, and knowing them and the territory makes that suffering real.
The tsunami in Indonesia didn’t just devastate a place I have read about. Friends and colleagues are the ones responding to the needs it created, and telling me about their experiences. Mount Merapi, the volcano a few miles north of our former home in Yogyakarta, on the island of Java, has been spewing lava and ash clouds for weeks. We have been where the lava is flowing.
Now there is a 6.2 earthquake just off the coast of Java near Yogyakarta. We lived in Yogyakarta from 1999 through 2001, and a co-worker’s family lives in the hardest-hit area. The village has simply ceased to exist, and his parents live there. We received word a week later that the family was safe, including pictures of them sitting under a tarp amidst the rubble of their home. My Indonesian administrative assistant emailed to say that she, her husband and their new baby were safe, and homeless. Their home and his parents’ home were destroyed. The Indonesian Mennonite church we attended in Yogyakarta is at the forefront of relief efforts.
Trouble in Pakistan and Afghanistan is a local issue for me ever since I worked in Pakistan and traveled up the Khyber Pass, walking into Afghanistan. Refugees are a local issue for me since I have worked with so many in both North America and Asia.
The AIDS epidemic in Africa was easy to dismiss until I spent time in Zimbabwe, and was in the rondaval home of a person who has since died of AIDS. I visited a man in Zimbabwe who takes in AIDS orphans. They keep coming, and he keeps adding lean-to shacks around his house.
When I was in Laos blowing up cluster bombs and other unexploded American ordnance I was given a list of the names of all the people who had been killed by these hidden explosives. Every family in the province had lost someone long after the war ended. I visited some of these families. In one house there was rejoicing. The oldest daughter had been disfigured by a cluster bomb a few days earlier, but she had been married two weeks before. She would not have been able to marry in her current state. Fate had dealt well with her.
The world is a small place. Everyone is connected. When one suffers, we all suffer, but many of us can shut it out because we have no personal connection to the people in the news. Those of us who work in relief and development cannot shut it out. We know the names of people affected.
For those who specialize in peacebuilding and trauma healing it is important to be there without walls—but it’s important for the rest of us, as well. The only way anyone will be fully free, fully at peace and fully human is when we all embrace our need for one another and our responsibility to our neighbors everywhere in the world.
I have chosen to accept the pain rather than build a wall around myself. When people I know hurt, I hurt with them. When I can help, I do. When my Internet news picker shows me fresh images of suffering in places I know, I try to figure out how to be useful. Sometimes prayer is all I have to give, and I give it.
In July we will be in the tsunami area of Aceh, and the earthquake zone on Java. Join us in thoughts, prayers and contributions. Keep in touch, and do what you can.
Duane Ruth-Heffelbower directs the graduate academic programs in peacemaking and leadership at Fresno Pacific University.