Silently, we sit around in a circle as my co-worker picks up the first candle, speaking a name and a prayer as she lights the wick and sets the tiny flame down in the middle of the table. We each follow suit, one prayer and tongue of fire after another.
God, we don’t know where they are or if they’re alive…
Please keep her safe…
Please provide whatever he needs…
Just don’t let them be alone….
May she know that she is loved.
Each candle on the table represents a friend who has been deported. Each prayer is for a family or an individual we have accompanied through the process of making a refugee claim in Canada. These people have all failed to secure the protection they have asked for, often because their story was not believed.
We know that they came to us fleeing a life-threatening situation, and we have not heard from many of them since they were sent back to whatever particular terror they sought to escape in the first place: the war, the repressive regime, the abusive partner, the violent extremists, the threatened honor killing.
We continue our ritual of remembrance, grief, and intercession until the tears have finished; until the flames crowded together in our midst have grown into a strong blaze that somehow manages both to fill the room with light and to emphasize its shadows at the same time.
I work with a small, Christian non-profit in Vancouver that provides housing and settlement support to asylum seekers from around the world: parents, children, teachers, dissidents, doctors, journalists, activists, poets, and people from all walks of life who are running for their lives.
It can be soul-ravaging work to make a habit of getting to know and care about people who will struggle through the effects of trauma, cultural disorientation, and poverty, and who may very well be yanked out of our community and forced back into their worst nightmare.
In my role, I help these remarkably courageous and resilient people figure out how to start their lives over from scratch. Working together day in and day out means that I get to know them as friends, and so their hopes, fears, and frustrations weigh on me. I feel responsible to do everything in my power to open doors for families to access the resources and the opportunities they need to thrive.
But there are some doors that are not under my control, and when it seems that the refugee protection system has failed some the vulnerable people it was designed to defend, I feel a measure of my friends’ grief and bewilderment as my own.
Living with the knowledge that the worst can and does happen has forced me to learn how to tend to my soul in such a way that it can bear witness to suffering and yet continue to love without shattering or closing down altogether.
A lot of this soul care comes down to allowing space for both lament and celebration. When families suffer injustice, it’s important for me to express my grief and anger through tears, rants, and prayer, and it’s also important for our staff team to hold space for this expression as a community.
We need a way to move past the pain without denying it, so that we can face the future without illusions but—still—with hope. Without rituals of lament like the prayers for deported friends, it would be all too easy to let unacknowledged, untreated emotional wounds fester into cynicism. Protectively walling off our hearts from the risk of further pain is the temptation promoted by culture and instinct alike. And yet, diving headfirst into the hurt we would rather avoid is the only way we will be able to conquer our fear and find the courage to love again, even if it means more heartbreak.
This is exactly what we are doing when we speak honestly with one another and with God about our pain—when we dare to name our loss and we insist on remembering the members of our community who have suffered unjustly. Our communal lament gives expression to our sadness, disappointment, and anger so that they can be released and make space for new things to grow.
Yet celebration is equally important. Sometimes this comes in the form of birthday parties at our weekly community dinners, when I stand in the backyard of our transition house with an unlikely cast of new friends from around the world, eating home-cooked food from a country that isn’t mine. This community has been brought together by the chaos of displacement and trauma, but here we are becoming one other’s family.
We’re singing happy birthday to each other’s children and pantomiming across language barriers and learning what it means to belong outside of a bloodline or a religion or a culture of origin. The beauty of these awkward parties–these moments of kindness and kinship among strangers—gives me hope.
Other times I find celebration in spontaneous moments of grateful presence, when I slow myself down to receive goodness in the midst of chaos. A homeless family stands before me, and they are standing at the beginning of a journey longer and more difficult than they could imagine. But look at the strength and determination in this woman’s eyes; listen to the music of her children’s voices and their laughter as they play together in this dingy motel room as though it were their own living room.
See the generosity of this family who takes the time to offer me hospitality in a cup of tea or a hot plate of dolma, even though their life is in chaos; even though they are struggling to make ends meet on a poverty budget with four children. The beauty of their souls lends strength to mine.
Most days, in this violent, screwed-up world, anger and sadness are more than justified. But so is joy. And for me, soul care comes down to finding practices with the power to remind me of this truth.