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When Pain & Joy Collided in Congo

In the fall of 2003 I found myself standing in an open area wedged between two buildings with a young boy who had a fierce case of the giggles. I would simply look at him and he’d crack up. I will never forget the sound of his sweet laughter or his dark almond shaped eyes. He wore faded and worn pink overalls and his bare feet danced around the concrete floor as he laughed.

The memory and sound of his joy-filled laughter is forever etched in my memory. His playful laughter and the culmination of so many emotions and thoughts this particular place, triggered something within me. His joy and his circumstances were in stark contrast.

On either side of the open area in which we stood, was overt pain. The contrast of the laughter in the midst of such pain is something that stirs deep in my soul more than 13 years later.

You see, this young boy was an orphan, left for dead at birth. By God’s mercy he was taken into the care of the Sisters serving at a Mother Theresa home, located just outside the city limits of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. The home was paradoxically named House of Peace.

While he resided on one side of the compound with several other orphaned children and babies, across the quad sat a hospice for those dying of HIV AIDS.

Never have I witnessed the joy and laughter of sweet children and felt such great sorrow over the pain and sting of death simultaneously. The collision of innocent laughter with the reality of death was almost too much to withstand.

And while the children laughed and played in the quad, it was clear they too experienced a deeply rooted pain. 

The collision of life and death in the House of Peace has left me banged up and bruised. If I’m honest, I have never recovered from the experience. 

Once inside the hospice, I was asked to pray for a few individuals dying before my eyes. As I looked into the tired eyes staring back at me, I couldn’t muster up the strength to pray.  All I could hear was the sound of buzzing flies and while the eyes of the sick begged me to look at them, I struggled to even keep mine opened.

I choked up and froze. It’s rare I find myself speechless. And yet, there I was, overcome by the dichotomy of the environment in which new life and passing life collided and I couldn’t get one word out. Instead, I stood with my feet planted to one spot as if my shoes were glued onto the cold concrete floor.

What do you say to God in such a place? I had no words but I thought my heart might explode right out my chest with emotion.

I will never forget the day I witnessed such pain and joy of orphaned children on one side, the sick and dying on the other, and the laughter that echoed smack in the middle of it all.

While I may never understand all I experienced this memorable day, I’ve come to realize the profound reflection the little House of Peace is of the greater world in which we live.

The world as we know it is clearly fallen, broken, pain stricken and yet sprinkled and woven throughout there is beautiful peace and joy for those who put their trust in Jesus Christ.

The New Testament writer Paul knew a thing or two about experiencing joy during difficult times. He spent time in prison, was beaten more times than we likely know, was shipwrecked, and dodged death on numerous occasions. Yet, he had joy and peace, contentment and gratitude.

To the church in Corinth he said, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

And to the church in Philippi he said, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus...I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

I know I have a lot to learn when it comes to understanding all I witnessed in Congo. And I’m grateful to have God’s Word, His community of followers, and His Spirit to help me understand and use the experience for His good purpose.
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I drink coffee, read books, and travel. I’ve been able to drink coffee and discuss books with friends all over the world, simply because someone built a bridge and I made it east of the Mississippi and beyond. For this reason, I love bridges.