There have been a few historical events in my memory that left an unforgettable level of grief. These include the day United States President Ronald Regan was shot (March 30, 1981), the beginning of the Rwanda Genocide (April 7, 1994), the Oklahoma City Bombing (April 19, 1995), the day the Twin Towers in New York went down (September 11, 2001), and the Westgate Tragedy (September 21, 2013). I can tell you exactly where I was at when the news started coming. In each one I was dazed for a longer than normal period. With each one I could never be the same again.
As I’ve visited the last few weeks with other Americans it is obvious that my inclusion of Westgate in these tragedies is unique. Why?
Two writings have struck me as an answer to why the Westgate tragedy is so personal and the grief so deep. One was a missionary colleague, Cheryl Cash who wrote,
“We reside in Uganda (to the West of Kenya) but so much of our training, our renewing, and our strengthening traces East. Our family history is anchored in that land where we became missionaries and became parents... Stores and scenarios that we are familiar with and relate to. A very strong awareness that danger is no respecter of persons. Or days. Or locations. Very bad things happen. Tragedy reaches and takes.
Another Zain Verjee wrote,
"Westgate was like home to us," said my father to me… And he was right - the mall was practically our second home -- it's where we met our friends, did the household groceries, and banking…
Looking around now at our kitchen, the tea, coffee, white asparagus, beads, my favorite ice-cream (toff n'choc with nuts) wine glasses, mobile phones, are all from Westgate (http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/30/world/africa/kenya-mall-verjee-witness/index.html.)”
I concur. I looked in our home. Jana’s jewelry is from Westgate. Many of the colorful necklaces our American friends compliment Jana on are from Westgate. Also, there are 4 carvings in our home from Westgate that summarize why the Westgate tragedy is so troubling. We purchased them during our last Nairobi visit to mourn with our community the passing of missionary mentor and colleague, Berkeley Hacket.
THIS COULD HAVE BEEN ME
One is a carving of an African pastor in study. Westgate mall was comparable to most malls I’ve visited in the USA. Java House was like a combination between Chilies, Starbucks, and Baskin Robbins. The Art Café was like one of those trendy art side walk cafes in Chicago’s Loop. Nakumatt was our Wal-mart. There was a movie theater with current movies. International banks had branches. Nairobi is where we went in the early ‘90’s to shop when Uganda’s economy produced few basic staples. Nairobi is where missionary and African church leaders mentored us. Nairobi is where we went when we were sick. Nairobi is where we laughed and got a few Western frills. We walked the malls in Nairobi. We easily could have been in Westgate when the tragedy happened.
THIS COULD HAVE BEEN MY NEIGHBORS, FRIENDS, AND FAMILY
We were some of the fortunate ones. In our base moments we quickly checked phonetexts, email, and social media. No one from our intimate church, school, mission, or friendship base was killed or in Westgate when the tragedy happened. Yet, they could have easily been there.
Westgate attracted Africa’s middle class entrepreneurs. Those were the people we served with in our recent posts. Those attracted to Westgate included both Kenyans and friends from Uganda and Rwanda who were frequently in Nairobi for business and social events. Missionaries met there to trade stories, laugh, and cry. Westgate was one of the places on our earth our diverse community called, “Home.”
MY NEIGHBORS, FRIENDS, AND FAMILY ARE IN GRIEF
As YouTube began posting videos of Kenyan funerals I watched one. Everyone with an East African root knows someone affected by the Westgate tragedy.
A pastoral friend and staff performed one funeral. We had traded meals, notes, proposals, and ideas in the past. Yet, they also did something that was so typical of the best Kenyan church leaders. When we were in Nairobi in December 2011 with Gabriel Mugisha Jacobs being treated for convulsions they had called to ask, “What can we do?” We asked for them to sit with us in the hospital. When Mugisha went into a convulsion they held him with us and prayed. They were now pastoring the grieving in Kenya.
The video scanned the crowd. I recognized a Rwandan neighbor whose past refugee living included Nairobi. I don’t know if she was in Nairobi for business and saw it as a season to extend our common Great Lakes compassion. I don’t know if she made a special trip to grieve with friends.
Yet, I do know that in cars of parking lots of East African weddings and funerals the families from all our nations are deeply entwined in a community of understanding and love.
THE TERRORISTS COULD HAVE BEEN MY NEIGHBORS
Al Shabaab may be lying. It is a dangerous thing to trust the good will of cowardly and cruel terrorists. Yet their list of terrorists includes six from America. Two were from Minnesota. Their list included one each from Illinois, Maine, Kansas, and Arizona. A quick Google search will find many articles over the last few years of Al Shabaab recruiting Somali Diaspora youth in America. The whole truth may never be known. Yet it will include a story of immigration gone wrong. Evil was nurtured in my America. Had the terrorists once walked the Mall of America with me? Had one of the terrorists been raised a few blocks from my Chicago home?
A European missionary friend told me that radicalization frequently happens as second generation immigrants realize they can never acclimate. They idealize beyond reason “home,” and their youthful passions become depraved.
Immigrant friends have told me, “I always live in the hyphen. When I walk into a room people see a _________ - American.
Christianity has been on a 20 year decline in the United States. There are many wounds, stories, and documentation of the decline. Yet, the Westgate tragedy hits home in the strongest term possible to me that I must decide now to love all of my diverse neighbors as I love myself.
Thus from this grief that is both very personal and communal I resolve to hold fast to my missionary calling. This could have been me. This could have been my neighbors, friends, and family. My neighbors, friends, and family are in grief. The terrorists could have been my neighbors.
Here am I. Send me.
(For further missionary reflections on the Westgate tragedy that hopefully will bring some measure of healing to our community see http://www.hekimagreatlakesmessenger.blogspot.com/2013/09/walking-in-two-malls-missionary.html.)