Guest post by Dave Eley
At 716 Ministries, we just finished an intense, 3-week training course designed to help 18 Afghan evacuees, recent arrivals in Buffalo, adapt and succeed within the American work culture. It was delivered in three languages – English, Dari, Pashto – to a diverse collection of farmers, soldiers, engineers, medics, professors, mechanics, government officials, taxi drivers. We heard their stories. Some came with their families; some, tragically, for their temporary safety, left wives and children behind. All left behind their material possessions, or at least what could not be carried in a small bag.
What is the one thing you’d take if you had to leave your home, your country immediately?
I asked several students what they brought with them; what they packed of their identity.
- One woman, a professor, had 15 minutes to pack and flee to the Kabul airport. Other than essentials, she took her perfumes. She told me, “My fragrances are part of me, they are part of how I think of myself.” I get it. Her colognes reminded her of her essence.
- One man – farmer, corporal, citizen-soldier – proudly showed me his laminated wallet-sized certificates of recognition from the US Army, attesting to his contributions to various military deployments. Operation Eagle, Operation Red Dagger, Operation Achilles. He played these cards out before me as if presenting a winning poker hand, a royal flush or inside straight.
- I am grateful for smart phones. A person with a smart phone can flee a country with the family photo albums intact. Children, moms, wives, husbands, handshakes with US military special forces. One man, a mechanic, showed me a short video of his fancy footwork on the soccer field, dribbling around two opponents. For some reason, this made me sad. The bright red and yellow football ensembles, the shouting and clapping, the joy of a peaceful summer afternoon on the field with friends in Afghanistan.
- On the last day of class, we conducted mock job interviews. We brought in eight potential employers and let the students rotate amongst them, practicing and refining their pitch. This is the highlight of all our courses, where students grow in confidence with each successive interview. One student, an engineer, forced to leave his family behind and currently disabled with a distressing and, as yet, undiagnosed nerve injury, told an interviewer, “I left much behind, but one thing I brought with me was a positive attitude, a strong work ethic, and a hope for a better tomorrow.”
There is a common thread amongst the things these Afghan evacuees brought with them from the Kabul airport to a US military processing facility in Virginia, and ultimately to Buffalo: a reminder of their personal dignity.
Did Mary take the perfumes (frankincense and myrrh) with her when she and Joseph fled with the baby Jesus to escape the wrath of Herod? (Thank you, Egypt, for your hospitality.) During his family’s exile, what did Joseph look to for dignity and hope to deal with the fear, anguish, sense of powerlessness, boredom, lack of community and meaningful work, heavy responsibility?
Pastor Acher Niyonizigiye, a former refugee from the Burundi civil war of the 1990’s, wrote, “We often see the Nativity (Advent) as a celebration of comfort and innocence. In Europe and North America, Christmas is often a time to think of coziness. Could Joseph or Mary ever fit in with these modern Christmases?”
Dona and I are big fans of coziness and comfort. But during this Advent season we are grateful that in our cozy little corner of western New York, we could be a part of one of the organizations providing some measure of comfort and safety for our new neighbors. I do not want to over-compare myself to Joseph and Mary, or even the strength and resilience of the Afghans I met, but I do pray that at life’s inflection points along the journey through this fallen world I will, like Joseph, ‘get up’ and do what the Lord commands (Matthew 1:24 & 2:13), or, like Mary, be the Lord’s servant and embrace the small role I am given in the Kingdom (Luke 1:38).
I read the paragraphs above to Dona. After appropriate encouragement she said, with the insight and clarity I depend on, “You are missing the most important part.”
Advent (arrival or ‘the coming’) is a season of expectation. There are some parallels between the Christian season of Advent and the arrival of the Afghan evacuees and their attendant expectations for a better life. But for Christian believers there is so much more. At Advent we look back at the birth of Christ and ahead to the return of Christ. Faith in the reality of the past and hope in the reality of the future combined. The Nativity is a big deal. But we, who embrace the Jesus story, see the return of Christ and our resurrection as the ultimate deal. With the Second Advent, poverty, missed employment opportunities, anguish, powerlessness, family separation, disease, terror, war, even death will be no more. We will be done with this fallen world.
As I reread the last paragraph I thought of our own uncertain future, Dona and I. This month, my brave and lovely wife entered her 4th year of struggle against metastatic cancer. Six different therapies to date, this last one the most draconian: chemical infusion each week, hair loss, nausea, fatigue. There are lots of tears shed by us both, but yet, and yet, we experience the joy of the reward of the ultimate deal. I can say confidently and without false bravado that Dona has a ‘peace from God that surpasses all my understanding.’ And I feel it, too. (Philippians 4:7)
Now, how to proclaim this good news, the Gospel, winsomely, humbly, and authentically to our Afghan neighbors, indeed to all our neighbors?
Wishing you a joyful, hopeful Christmas and 2022.