My friend, Tyler Watson, linked to a phenomenal story last week of a ninety-seven year old woman who was being honored by Poland’s Parliament for her role in rescuing thousands of Jewish children during the Holocaust. As I read her story, I was struck by the raw courage demonstrated by this woman in her lifetime, and also by her humility in seeing her actions not as worthy of glory but simply worthy of her humanity: “Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory,” Sendler said in a letter read by Elzbieta Ficowska, who was saved by Sendler as a baby.
So often today I hear people talk about how great our world’s problems are, how deeply the rivers of injustice flow, and yet so many of us sit by and do relatively nothing. We see the photos of Angelina Jolie in Darfur or we listen to Bono speak out about AIDS, and while our hearts resonate with their work, we keep our distance from actual hands-on involvement. The problems are too far away, too complex, and we are already overscheduled with our own life-commitments. We may wish that there were more that we could do, but what can we honestly expect of ourselves? We have homes to remodel, jobs to do, churches to plant, degrees to complete, children to raise…and the list goes on. And so we are left with our goodwill and maybe some prayer.
I remember sitting in a South African township in the home of a man who had spent more than twenty years in prison with Nelson Mandela. They were close friends, and this quiet, kind man was a strong leader in his community. My best friend and I were staying a few nights with him and his wife as part of a study tour with our University, and one evening after dinner we were ushered into the living room where a crowd of young male leaders in the township gathered around us. For the next three hours, these young men pressed us with questions about why the U.S. had not done more to dismantle Apartheid in their nation. We were there in the months leading up to the first free election in that country, and though tides were certainly changing and the end of Apartheid was in sight, for these men who had lost family and friends to prisons and murder and who had suffered the indignities of the Apartheid system, the questions burned with relevance.
Julie and I sat, stunned and largely ignorant. We later referred to it as our inquisition. And I remember our gracious host, sitting quietly in the corner watching with a slow smile on his face. He knew that what we were hearing and experiencing was good for us, and he was investing in our development as leaders just as he was with his own township youth. I am grateful that he cared that much about us.
As I read the story of ninety-seven year old Irena Sendler, I have to wonder where we are being called to enter the raging rivers of injustice in our world? The article states that Irena wrote the names of every child rescued on little slips of paper that she buried in glass jars in a nearby yard so that she could later help parents locate their children. I cannot shake that image: a yard filled with little glass jars, each holding the name of a child spared. Risking all, this woman claimed a shared humanity with those she did not have to see or acknowledge. So must we.