The Wisdom of an Actual Breakdown

In September of 2005, Deena Metzger and I were traveling from Voinjama, in Northwest Liberia, to Monrovia, the capital. Under the best of conditions, it is an interminable, bone-jarring 8-hour drive over dirt roads that turn to slime during the rainy season. Though the rains traditionally come in the summer and end in late fall, the demarcations between seasons have long become blurred. That day, though it was mid-September, the monsoon continued unabated. In 2005, the 15-year civil war had only recently ended and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had yet to be elected. Liberia was somehow managing in spite of the precarious and corrupt transitional government of Gyude Bryant and Liberia’s roads were in notoriously bad shape.

It was late afternoon when the cars in our convoy got stuck in the thigh-deep mud, along with everyone else who was traveling that day. There were fifteen of us in our group, and we had only been able to travel a handful of miles, though we had set out before sunrise. By the time we got stuck, we were tired, dirty, hungry, and tense – the hardest time to be cheerful, let alone peaceful. It was Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish new year, the Days of Awe, during which time one reflects deeply on the year that is ending so as to make amends for bad behavior by apologizing to those we have hurt and asking their forgiveness. Based on this, we seek to be ‘inscribed in the Book of Life for another year’.  

I am ashamed to admit that, in our misery, Deena and I had begun to feel frightened. The road was closed in both directions and it seemed that our corner of the world could come to an end, and we with it, and no one would know. After about an hour of walking through the beautiful rainforest, mercifully silent except for frogs and birdcalls, we suddenly arrived at a village. It was twilight. Kerosene lamps had been lit, illuminating the smiling faces of the boisterous circle of people who had gathered to receive us. Someone handed each of us an infant to hold - two smiling, plump baby girls who were twins. It was an immense sign of trust. In the traditional way, the town chief came to greet us, saying proudly, “You are OUR strangers, and we welcome you!”

That generosity changed us. Instead of feeling afraid, we felt deeply honored, relaxed, and excited to be with these extraordinary people. After all, we weren’t just any strangers, we were THEIR strangers! In spite of the fact that we were the only white people, the only Jews, we weren’t defined by our nationality or our gender or our religion. We were simply strangers who belonged where we had happened to arrive. The community’s way of welcome made us feel so much less helpless, so much less of a burden, though undoubtedly it was a challenge to feed us, given that there were still food shortages.

In the gathering darkness, we had a fine meal of ‘country rice’ – home grown, freshly harvested brown rice, with a delicious sauce. How those folks managed to fill fifteen extra hungry tummies I do not know. Likely someone in the community volunteered to go hungry so that we could eat. It is a rare privilege to receive that kind of hospitality.

The following morning, after spending the night on the cement floor of the local clinic, we awoke to find that the drivers of our vehicles had miraculously managed to get the cars out of the mud and we were ready to roll. We thanked our hosts and continued on our way. It was a Monday, the day that the Liberian women faithfully continued to demonstrate for peace. In every village, every major junction along the road, they stood with their white T-shirts and lapas – long bolts of cloth wound into skirts – carrying peace signs, singing, praying, and holding Liberia’s leadership accountable to their promise of peace. If we hadn’t gotten stuck in the mud, we would have missed them.

When I read about refugees these days, and the idiotic, ongoing shouting match about immigrants (refugees are barely in the conversation), I often look back on that beautiful afternoon and wonder… What might happen if we welcomed Syrians, Haitians, Puerto Ricans, Yemenis, Salvadorans – in fact, all people fleeing war and starvation, in that same beautiful way? What if we were to apologize for our country’s past policies, responsible for much of the havoc these same refugees are facing? What might it be like for someone who has lost their home, their livelihood, and beloved family members, to hear those same words: “You are OUR strangers, and we welcome you!” and to be fed a simple meal?

Generosity comes from love, and love is powerful medicine. A sincere welcome is like a clean slate, a reprieve, a second chance. Who among us hasn’t needed that now and again, perhaps more often than we’d care to admit? Of course, a warm welcome is just the beginning. There are layers upon layers of conversation to unpack here – about apologies, forgiveness, and making amends, starting with the countless Native and Indigenous peoples who have been decimated by centuries of Colonial greed. Those conversations are essential, and long overdue.

But for now, it is enough to remember the night that Deena and I and our traveling companions were in need and were received with kindness and sincere words of welcome. To be clear: I am not advocating that known criminals and terrorists be encouraged to come  – no one is. I am speaking here of ordinary people like us in need of refuge.