I think about Pete Seeger in the early 1950’s, who adapted the spiritual, “We Shall Overcome,” an old gospel from the Deep South during the civil war, and arranged it for contemporary times. …Seeger introduced the song to…Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks…(Lily) tells the children about Martin Luther King, JR.,…and says that there was a song that strengthened (him ) and others in their struggle for equality…In John Bosco’s living room, seven children, a mother and father, aunts and extended family members, and four barefoot artists sing “We Shall Overcome” together.(Finding Beauty in a Broken World, page 248)
The first time I read "Finding Beauty in a Broken World" I anticipated a story similar to Red or Refuge, the other books by Terry Tempest Williams that I have read. These books tell a story about family, life, death, and love interwoven with reflections on the wilderness of Utah, themes close to my own heart.
You see, Terry Tempest Williams and I have some things in common. For example, we both share the same first name, although we spell it differently. We both were born in Salt Lake City into Mormon families. We are only two years apart in age. From there though, our commonalities end. She is a compelling story teller with a passion for how we care for the world and one another.
Finding Beauty in a Broken World however was not like the other books. The story is told in prose that is broken and dissonant, like shards of glass. A story that moves from the art of creating mosaics in Italy to a prairie dog study in Bryce Canyon, Utah to the rebuilding of Rwanda following the genocide of 1994.
The first time I read the book I was intrigued as Tempest Williams describes the art of making mosaics. I was confused and bemused at her decision to include, verbatim it seems, her notes from watching prairie dogs for a study in Bryce Canyon, Utah, some 100 pages of notes taken over two weeks. (I have to admit, the first time through I skimmed that section). And I was completely captivated by her story of working with Lily Yeh on the creation of a genocide memorial in Rwanda. Captivated enough that I decided to reread the book, this time understanding the mosaic metaphor that connected her disjointed paragraphs to the prairie dogs to the bones of those killed in the genocide with the incredible grace that comes from creating beauty out of the brokenness.
I offer here some of her words:
Page 90: Most people are not comfortable making a connection between racism and specism or the ill treatment of human beings and the mistreatment of animals. We want to keep our boundaries clean and separate. But isn’t that the point, to separate, isolate, and discriminate? We create hierarchies, viewing life from the top down, top being of course, God, then a ranking of human races, and so our judgments move down ‘the Great Chain of Being’ until we touch rocks. This is the attitude of power, and it hinges on who is in control. Who has power over whom? How does this kind of behavior infiltrated the psyche of a culture? And what are the consequences of scala naturae?
Page 87: The amused officials assured the Navajo that there was no correlation between rain and prairie dogs and carried out their plan. The outcome was surprising only to the federal officials. The desert near Chilchinbito, Arizona, became a virtual waste land. Without the ground-turning process of the burrowing animals, the soil became solidly packed, unable to accept rain. Hard pan. The result: fierce runoff whenever it rained. What little vegetation remained was carried off away by flash floods and a legacy of erosion.
Page 18: I believe in the beauty of all things broken.
Page 6: A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken.
Page 225: I look up at the ceiling of the church. Holes from grenades appear as stars. Light is streaming down onto the pews. Empty pews. Rooms full of bones. Bags of bones, bulging, closed. Sacks full of skulls. Piles of faded clothing. The altar cloth, once white, is now brown with blood. Ten thousand people were murdered here.
Page 227: The eyes of these killers were on the eyes of those they killed. By hand. One million Tutsis were murdered in one hundred days. Their killers were neighbors with farm tools, machete, hoes. Hundreds of skulls, shelves of skulls, thirty thousand bodies – here at Nyamata.
Page 239: How does a phrase like “Never Again” uttered religiously after the Jewish Holocaust, after Cambodia, Rwanda, and now Darfur, translate to “again and again” – the mantra of our collective denial? Code terms like “Civil war” and “tribal conflict” give us license to not get involved. The masterminds of all genocides count on our complicity.
Page 238: I came to Rwanda to step over my fears and find out for myself how a people who carry the history of genocide in their hearts not only begin to heal but move forward in the name of forgiveness and acceptance. This collective crime of cruelty and complicity resides in all of us.
Page 264: Over and over again I am reminded to live and work out of my strength, not my weaknesses, to stand in the center of my most generous self and trust what is good in humanity. More often than not, we will draw the generosity of others toward us. But here in Rwanda, all these platitudes of what one believes and how one behaves evaporate on the dusty red roads. Neighbors murdered neighbors. Priests called the machete bearers into their churches and allowed them to slaughter their congregations. Nothing makes sense. Everything and everyone becomes suspect. My heart trembles. I become my own darkness. At night in Gisenyi, the only buffer between me and the haunted streets of Rwanda is a torn mosquito net.
Page 265: Because Jean Bosco is attending a Red Cross meeting, his associate, Habumugisha Michel, recounts our history:
Everyone is an ambassador of Rwanda, to build pride in our country, to forgive, to forget. This is the message Paul Kagame presented last year to the people of Rwanda. So, when Jean Bosco attended an international meeting in Barcelona, he was our ambassador, telling the people present about our past, our pain, our beauty. Lily Yeh, who was sitting in the audience was very moved by John Bosco’s story. Lily asked, ‘How can I help?’ Jean Bosco said, ‘Come to Rwanda.’ And she did. She heard President Kagame speak. Jean Bosco took Lily to the Genocide Memorial Site in Rugerero. She was very touched and asked it something beautiful could be created.
Page 270: Lily looks down and folds her small, strong, hands. She continues, ‘It is really through the depth of living, the chaos the brokenness that I find peace. Joy is rooted in the depth of our suffering. It is out of my own brokenness, and the brokenness of others in the darkest places, that I find that sense of joy. This is my special gift – to build sacred space out of the chaos of forgotten places. I feel it. The need to create beauty. We all have it, and we’ve lost it. The vehicle for joy is Beauty. Beauty is a right – an angelic quality that heals.
Page 248: I hear William Coffin’s voice: “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”
The story about Rwanda is personal for me. In my former parish we had an outreach ministry to refugees through Episcopal Relief and Development and it's local affiliate in Chicago, Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministry. One of our families was from Rwanda. If you are interested you can read about it in a sermon I preached on Pentecost, 2008: sermons that work. I hope that one day it will be true, what Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about and Lily, and Terry, and the people in that house in Rwanda sang, "We will walk hand in hand...We will all be free...Oh deep in my heart I do believe, We Shall Over Come."
Questions for our discussion:
If we believe that the mission of our congregations, even our lives, is to be the hands and heart of Christ, how might the stories in this book and its message of love, broaden our understanding of who we are and what we are to do?
Do you have an example of how you have witnessed the creation of beauty out of brokenness? If so, share in the comments or link us to a reflection on your blog.
Might it be possible, in this country, to implement a judicial process similar to the Rwandan gacaca (ga-cha-cha) inspired by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose goal is to bring restorative justice in order that communities can live in harmony (page 321)? Or do you think that our judicial process of a trial by one's peers does this?
I'll be around all day to moderate the discussion, which I hope will be lively even if you have not read the book. Terry Tempest Williams has been invited to stop by and join us. Her Literary Assistant tells me she has not been feeling well, so she may or may not. (prayers for her healing can be offered as well). - Mompriest