Advent is a time when Christians practice the discipline of waiting. For many people in the world, however, waiting is more ordinary, the stuff of every day and not just special days. Waiting shapes who they are and how they see the world. For many who wait, impatience simply isn’t an option, perhaps because it’s a privilege of class unavailable to them. The poor learn to wait, often in vain, from the moment they are born into an unjust world.
Waiting certainly doesn’t come easy to me, though living in Latin America for two decades took the roughest edges off my impatience. And I’ve always liked Advent. In Central America, Advent includes celebrating the Posadas during the nine days before Christmas, when Jesus and Mary are taken through the streets each night in search of a place to rest. Although they finally find a place to sleep at the end of each procession, they are refused at the first several houses where they seek refuge. It’s an experience the poor know well. Thomas Merton reminds us of the theological significance of this when he wrote in Raids on the Unspeakable:
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ comes uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.
Being forced to wait for my knee to heal from surgery in mid-November, I’ve thought about the people I encounter who are forced to wait. People like this Palestinian man, waiting with resignation while Israeli soldiers stop him from entering Jerusalem. Or Nathmeya Abdel Fattah, an old woman in the Daheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, who is holding the key to the home she lost more than 60 years ago when her family was displaced by the establishment of the state of Israel. She clings to it, waiting still.
And here’s a woman waiting for her son to recover from cholera in a hospital in Montrouis, Haiti. Cholera is a disease of the poor, a symptom of an unhealthy political culture. And in Haiti’s largest post-earthquake tent city, another woman sits waiting dejectedly in the Petionville Camp. After her rented home collapsed in the quake, Remilliene Morris sent two of her four children to live with relatives in the north of Haiti, and now she struggles to find the school fees for her other two kids. She lives in ragged clothing and sews together her family’s shoes with scavenged string. Morris told me, tears in her eyes, that she gets depressed by the daily struggle to survive.
In the wake of Guatemala’s long nightmare of repression, many families of people who were murdered or disappeared by the military still wait to learn what happened to their loved ones. Although the recent election of General Otto Perez Molina lessens hope of that happening soon, courageous people in Guatemala continue to work to clarify what happened in the past. These include Shirley Chacon, an investigator with the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, who here examines human remains her team dug up in a rural village. The Foundation, whose staff remains under constant threat of death, exhumes victims and compiles evidence about their killings in an effort to help communities rebury their dead in an appropriate fashion and begin a process of demanding justice for those responsible. Similarly, staff of the Project to Recover the Historical Archives of the National Police of Guatemala sort through and catalogue 80 million pages of records – recovered from an abandoned office complex – that detail the Central American country’s history of repression and violence.
In neighboring El Salvador, some wait in prison, including a woman inmate in a prison worship service and a former gang member who crochets to make money. Both are in the prison in Sensuntepeque. Some Salvadorans still wait to learn what happened to their loved ones during the civil war. In Huisisilapa, Teresa de Jesus Dubon and Moises Guardado are still waiting for news of what happened to two of their daughters, kidnapped by the U.S.-backed military in 1981. A church-sponsored group is investigating.
In South Sudan, where despite independence the poor still wait for peace, a girl waits for water near Yei. And in Darfur, still suffering repression from Khartoum, the poor wait, in the clinic of the Ardabba IDP camp near Garsilla, for medical care, not to mention peace.
In the Philippines, where the export of people is one of the country’s largest sources of income, Josefina Marcos waits for news from her daughter, Griselda Ramirez, at her home in Pangasinan. Griselda left for Hong Kong to work as a domestic servant in 2007.
A big part of daily life for refugees involves waiting. Because they’re usually unable to work at farming or whatever they did to earn a living before being compelled to flee their home, they’re forced to accept help from humanitarian agencies, a process that inevitably means waiting, as with these Somali refugees in Kenya.
You don’t have to be a refugee to wait for food, you simply need to be poor, especially in a resource-rich country where the rapacious greed of a few, with the colaboration of international superpowers, condemns the poor to wait for their next meal. Witness the Congo.
I don’t want to romanticize waiting. It can get damn tedious. Cue the clowns. Here’s Rahman Aidi Mashoof, a member of the Happy Family Team for Childhood Peace. He’s helping Iraqi refugee children have fun while they and their families wait to be registered at an intake center of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria. Mashoof and two other members of the Happy Family Team are refugees themselves, having fled Iraq when some fellow clowns were killed.
There are other ways to cope with waiting. In the Dominican Republic, people of Haitian ancestry are systematically discriminated against, and in recent months some of the country’s elite have argued to remove legal status even from Haitian-Dominicans who already have Dominican citizenship, provoking a situation of statelessness that leaves several hundred thousand people in limbo. But while they’re waiting, many prefer to sing, in this case in an evangelical worship service near Barahona.
Once a year during the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims voluntarily experience hunger as a way to sensitize themselves to the suffering of the poor. In my travels during Ramadan I’ve found that some do better with waiting for sunset than others. And at the end of each day, they break their fast by sharing the iftar, the evening meal celebrated just after sunset, often in community. The iftar also demonstrates hospitality, and faithful Muslims often offer the meal at no cost to anyone who comes, as an act of charity. Here’s iftar being served by families on a narrow street in Cairo.
Speaking of waiting, pregnancy has its moments. Here’s a Haitian woman getting a pre-natal exam at a church-run hospital in Pere Payen. Waiting is easier with good health care for the mother, a factor which simply isn’t there for many of the poor.
And at the end of that long wait comes birth. Just as Jesus was born to poor parents who soon became refugees, so are many babies born today to families suffering from violence. Yet there’s always love worth waiting for.