We are Tamils, and it was 1977 when a mob of Sinhalese people came down the street to my grandparents’ home and burned it to the ground. My father, 25 at the time, and his family escaped with the clothes on their back. In 1983 it was time for round two. Only my grandparents lived in the house they rebuilt after 1977, my grandfather fighting cancer in what would be the last weeks of his life. A mob burned their house down to the ground again. My mother, father and 17-month-old me lived in a different part of Colombo, and a mob came down our street. Our house and the one across the street were the only two Tamil houses on the road, and they were coming for one of us. We jumped over the back wall and hid in our neighbour’s house for three days.
By the end of that year, we were on a Korean Airlines flight the United States and the rest of my life would be spent as a missionary kid mostly in the Philippines and also in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
We didn’t talk much about the wounds of our racial history. We ate curry every now and then, but I grew up as a woman with no ethnic identity and with no understanding of the past other than these simple stories. I didn’t understand that there are more stories left untold, that the men and women who experience injustice need to know that their experiences matter.
Forty-nine people died half way across the world from us while my sons and I read and played our way through late Sunday afternoon last week in Australia. They were members of the LGBTQ community, targeted by a madman. Fifty-three others are injured, a city torn apart.
There is a fracturing around us, you feel it everyday in your bones. Maybe it’s not new or worse than it was hundreds of years ago. But it is more real. Where once we would only know about the suffering of our community, today we know what happens in the cities of Mexico. We hear the stories about huddled refugees on Greek islands. The plight of the orphan, the widow, the assylum seeker, the victim of human trafficking, it draws near to us from the corners of the world.
We know within hours of shots firing that there are dead bodies in a nightclub in Orlando. We take it in from one side of a lit screen, tweets, images, reactions, reactions to reactions. It will only take a day for the soapboxes to come out, for fingers to be pointed at guns, at people, at theology, at public policy.
I’m guessing you have beliefs. I do, too. But after people are ripped from the earth through violence – in Sri Lanka, Syria, Falluja, Venezuela, and Orlando – I find little comfort in my opinions. I want to reach for the truth that I teach my sons every day when they hit each other with fists and cars and trains. He’s made in the image of God, all people are made in the image of God, you are never allowed to treat him that way.
We need connections created, restored, renewed, where people are not photos we scroll past on social media, but living, breathing, sitting at our table, eating in our homes, churches and communities. Our shoulders are touching theirs, we are asking questions, listening, sharing our lives, we are offering our presence. Our one life in this window of history. These kinds of tragedies don’t happen all the time, and our response says something about our heart.
Will it break? Will it move? Will the blood pulse through our veins, into our hands and feet and make us move in the direction of community and people?
In my years of returning to Sri Lanka, we shared meals with Sinhalese Christians all the time, we still do. We were in their homes, we hugged their kids, on the vast majority of theological points, it is likely we agree, and in many ways it was like we were no different from each other. But never do I remember someone asking my parents, What was it like for you? What happened? I know we live in the same country, but what is it like to be here and be you?
It is easy to shy away from conversations about pain when it didn’t happen to you. We feign a lack of curiosity for the life that wasn’t ours, for the cost we did not pay.
It is not easy to reach for people whose lives are foreign to us. Our natural instincts will always be to surround ourselves with people who mirror to us a life we want to have or the life we have. It is easier this way, it requires nothing of us.
My little family of four has only been part of our community in Melbourne since December, and our calendar slowly fills with dinners, brunches and playdates. With people who believe what I do, with those who sound like us, where there is little translation required because we are speaking the same language and sharing similar experiences.
What am I telling myself? What am I suggesting to you?
Have dinner with a gay man. Invite a Muslim for dinner. Have a playdate with a family that does not resemble yours. Open your home to people who do not believe what you believe, share your food with a community you fear, let their children race through your home and make a mess in the playroom.
Not as a project, not to tick your outreach box. Just because you can.
Ask them questions. What does it look like to have your life? What did your family say when you came out to them? How do people treat you in the grocery store? What do you fear most? What makes you happy? What would you love to do when you retire? What do you do with your kids on the weekend? What are your traditions?
Listen. With your ears first, then with your heart. Resist the temptation to form an opinion when you hear the answer. Concentrate on the hearing, the absorbing, the receiving of their human heart. Let their stories sit sacred on the hallowed ground of shared humanity. Dare yourself to see the similarities.
Not your similarities of belief.
The similarities of life, the places where your humanity intersect with hers, the space of connection with his present.
These corners mean something.
You will carve it out one conversation at a time, one dinner at a time, one playdate at a time. The more your heart opens to let people in, the less interested you will become in winning arguments in part because you will see that winning arguments is not winning people’s hearts.
We keep ourselves from connection because we think it means giving up territory. We fancy ourselves as soldiers on some ideological frontline, guarding our boundary line, thinking that if it moves an inch, we have lost.
Winning and losing is the world’s idea, a system created to put us against each other, a scheme that keeps you buying more and padding your life with degrees, homes, clothes, work, communities, religions and people who will make you feel like a winner. Its promise is, Buy me, take this, believe me and I will keep you from losing.
Are we soldiers with a territory to lose or are we neighbors with people to love? Women and men, children and teens, babies and preschoolers cobbling a life together in a broken world, picking up the pieces of our own mistakes and failures of others, clay spinning on a wheel in the hand of a potter who is forming us, shaping us, creating a piece that will be unrecognisable to our eyes when he is finished.
We don’t get to decide what he will do with someone else’s life. We don’t get to decide what he will do with ours.
Making our table a place for all to gather and for all lives to be shared, acknowledged and honoured tells a better story: God is in charge. He is working his way through human hearts, he gets to decide how the clay spins, he picks where to smoothen out and where to stretch. He decides what needs to go and what needs to stay.
We get to open our homes and our hearts. We get to set the table, pass the peach cobbler, and raise our glasses. We get to bow our heads and pray, Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done.
As it is in heaven.
Now it’s your turn: How can you connect with someone outside your circle of comfort? What keeps you from doing it? Could you call or email someone today? What questions could you ask them?