by Naomi Krueger
Dan's Note: Naomi Krueger is the final editor and developer for the writing I do for Sparkhouse, the ecumenical division of Augsburg Fortress, a church resource publisher. I write for the 3rd- and 4th-grade level producing curriculum for Sunday School. You'd never figure that in my midst there was a master theologian, a deep thinker, and a fabulous writer just on the other side of the Dropbox where I submit my (often) messy manuscripts. But here you have her.
I was deeply moved the multiple times I read her submission for Transformation is Real. You're in for a treat. Perhaps you can find a word of hope with your own "problem of pain." After all—pain, injustice, and suffering are a part of the human condition with which we all have to ponder…and take action.
When I was in college I decided to study abroad in Lithuania. Why Lithuania? Because I wanted to go someplace unexpected. I wanted to be challenged. I thought I was prepared for a life changing experience, but I really had no idea how significant this change would be.
In Lithuania, and in my visits to Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Russia, the deep pain of the world seeped into this Midwestern, small town girl. At first I thought it was the gray skies, the damp air from the Baltic Sea, the long dark nights that were getting to me. I thought maybe it was the forlorn looking Soviet-era apartment buildings that hunched themselves around Klaipeda, the city where I lived. I thought maybe I was homesick, that I missed my boyfriend and the familiar faces at my private, Christian university. I was alone. And I was lonely.
But that’s not really what the problem was. The problem, was that I was walking the cobbled streets where Nazis and Soviets had terrorized the Baltic people, stripping them of their culture, their religion, their individuality, and their hope. It had been just seventeen years since the fall of the Soviet Union and the scars of that oppression were etched into the spirit of the city. The problem, was that nearly 120,000 people were deported to Siberian gulags or other remote areas and thousands more became political prisoners during Stalin’s reign of terror in 1944-1953. More Lithuanians died after WWII than during it. And this was repeated in the other Baltic nations and other countries in Eastern Europe occupied by the Soviet Union. What happened in the former USSR was another holocaust, largely ignored by the West.
I traveled to Poland and visited Auschwitz. It really did feel haunted. The despair, the evil of the place pressed into me and it was hard to breathe.
That spring semester abroad wasn’t all gloom and doom. I made some really wonderful friends, I had some really fun times, I had more spiritual revelations than I ever had before. But through it all, a dark cloud of sadness followed me around. I couldn’t shake it.
When I returned home, I couldn’t escape the thinness I felt.
Like Bilbo Baggins says in The Fellowship of the Ring, I felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
It was October of my junior year when my roommate suggested to me that I might be depressed. She was probably right. I slowly emerged from the cloud, but there were still valleys to conquer.
A few months later, sitting in a Western Humanities class, I felt the weight of sadness sharply again. I realized it was because we were studying the Holocaust and reading Elie Wiesel’s Night—a beautiful book about Wiesel’s experience with his father in Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. In my journal that day I wrote down this quote from the book:
“Some of the men spoke of God: His mysterious ways, the sins of the Jewish people, and the redemption to come. As for me, I had ceased to pray. I concurred with Job! I was not denying his existence, but I doubted his absolute justice.”
That’s when I realized what I had been wrestling with for almost a year. I had been grieving that the God I believed in was not just. That God was not good.
A week later, I embarked on a weeklong journey during my spring break to visit several Civil Rights sites in the South. The spring break trip was called Sankofa. It’s a word in the Akan language of Ghana that means, “to reach back and get it” or “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” During that week, our diverse group of students, staff, and faculty were reaching back into American history to get at the roots of racism so we could take steps toward reconciliation.
I had found some footing recently and I was a little scared that this trip would push me back into despair for humanity. What a sick species we are, we this human race. We who subjugate, oppress, enslave, torture, and kill fellow human beings. How can this be? Are we worse than the animals?
Our journey took us from Saint Paul, Minnesota to Birmingham; Memphis; Atlanta; Selma; Montgomery; Jackson, Mississippi; and back again. We watched documentaries about the bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist, about the murder of Emmet Till, about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. We walked across the bridge in Selma in remembrance of Bloody Sunday. We participated in a slavery simulation at a slavery museum. We spoke with Civil Rights activists who had marched and collaborated with Martin Luther King Jr. We sang along with gospel choirs and took turns standing behind a podium where both Dr. King and Malcolm X shared their visions for the future. We cried together. I learned for the first time about white privilege. I felt angry. I felt horrified. I felt inspired by the courage of so many men, women, and even children.
By the end of those eight or so days, I could feel something in the depths of my soul start to flutter again. It was this thing I thought I had lost in Lithuania. It was a thing called hope.
The tipping point for me was our visit to the John Perkins Foundation in Jackson, Mississippi.
We talked to several people there, including John Perkins himself, who had been a part of the Civil Rights Movement. We met a man who knew Dr. King and Medgar Evers, and other leaders. And then we went to Tugaloo University and sat in the chapel to hear from a man who was a part of the first nonviolent resistance to segregation. He was a student at Tugaloo University in the 60s and had heard Dr. King preach from the pulpit in that very chapel.
As we were sitting there listening, it suddenly hit me. The Civil Rights Movement was a movement of the church. Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor and a theologian. He and the other leaders organized congregations and community members, and they met in churches to strategize. The Civil Rights Movement was fueled by the conviction that all people were created in the image of God, were equal as a part of humanity, and therefore should be treated and respected as such.
I realized, that God had not abandoned me. God had not abandoned humanity. It was God’s intention, all along, to bring hope and peace and justice to the world through the body of Christ—the church. So if there was evil and pain in the world, it wasn’t God’s fault. It was ours.
This was incredibly freeing to me. Empowering.
My transformation began during my semester in Lithuania and turned into over a year’s worth of soul searching, inner turmoil, and ultimately a transformation to a person of hope and action.
I will never look at the world the same way again. I will always notice those pockets of pain, that soul-crushing feeling of despair, always question the motives of my fellow humans—and even my own motives. I know why people riot in Baltimore and Ferguson—there’s a lot to be angry about. Racism is real. There is hatred in the world. Yes, there is pure evil. Those 244 years of slavery define our nation. Those deep, horrifying scars across Europe and Africa that mark the various genocides by the powerful define our world. Other forms of slavery, oppression, violence, and genocide continue today. I understand that I have my own role to play as a bystander to injustice.
But that is not the end.
My experiences confronting the problem of pain forced me to notice and internalize the horrible realities of our shared humanity. And on the other side, I found hope, empowerment, and a fire in my belly to be an ordinary change-maker in this world. This is my transformation.
About the Author
Naomi is a writer and editor in Minneapolis-St. Paul. She works full time as a developer of Sunday school curriculum, and does freelance writing, editing, and book publicity on the side. Learn more about Naomi on her blog about being an ordinary change-maker at www.naomikrueger.com.