Friday, March 08, 2013

Mothering after death

When my firstborn son, Ethan, died at birth, I was plunged into a long tunnel of grief that I wasn’t sure would ever end.  Because of the attentive presence of friends and family who were able to share in my grief, I never doubted God’s presence with me.  I knew that God, like my friends, was grieving over the empty space in my body and my life that had once been filled with Ethan’s life.  But I did struggle with what it meant to be a woman whose only child had died.  How could I still be a mother if I didn’t have a child to hold?  

For a few months, I found the presence of pregnant women almost unbearable.  Baby showers were excruciating. I went out of my way to avoid the infant section at stores and angrily tore up the junk mail that appeared in my mailbox, hawking life insurance for my newborn.  

And when conversation in groups of women turned to childbirth and mothering, I sometimes hovered awkwardly on the edges of the conversation, not certain how to join in as a childless woman who had both given birth to and buried a child.  Some days I wanted to wear a shirt printed with the slogan “I’m a mother, too, you know!”

But even deeper was the pain of wondering what to do with all the love that had grown in me during my pregnancy.  I had an urgent need to nurture life, but no life to nurture.  And I walked through my days with an open rawness to the pain of others, especially the pain of grieving mothers.  Mothers whose children died of prenatal conditions, like my son, but also mothers whose children died in combat, in the cross-fire of the drug wars, in car crashes and train wrecks.  Mothers whose children were separated from them by prison or war or brutal immigration laws.  I felt such a kinship with these mothers and yet was at a loss of how to channel this longing to connect my grief to something larger.

In 2009, I was helping to organize a gathering of East African Christian leaders committed to peace-making.  Just days before our team was scheduled to leave for Africa, someone told our director that we absolutely must invite a woman named Maggie, from Burundi.  Armed with nothing more than her first name and her country, we turned to Google.  And there she was - a tall, elegant, resplendently dressed woman who, in the face of terrible poverty and unspeakable genocide, declared with her words and her life that God’s love is limitless.

One year later, just months after Ethan’s birth, I joined a group who traveled for hours through the back country of Burundi to the village of Ruyigi, where Mama Maggie, as she is known throughout Burundi, has built a home for an extended family made up of thousands of orphans.

In Ruyigi, Maggie led our group through the church compound where she took refuge in October of 1993, along with many other people from the surrounding village, as the threat of ethnic violence grew.  Those seeking shelter were Hutu, and Maggie is Tutsi, but she refused to abandon her friends and neighbors.  When an armed group descended on the compound, Maggie’s adopted children, who were both Hutu and Tutsi, hid in the church sacristy.  Maggie helped to hide other children in the rafters of the church.

As the mob broke into the compound, Maggie stood with her friends, expecting to die with them.  The attackers stripped her naked, tied her to a chair, and told her that her punishment for trying to protect her Hutu friends was that she must watch them all be killed.  Maggie watched helplessly as, one by one, seventy-two people, including her best friend, Juliet, were hacked to death in front of her.  As the attackers set the building on fire, Maggie managed to bribe them with money in exchange for sparing the lives of the twenty-five children hiding in the building.  

For days afterward, Maggie stayed in the church courtyard, weeping over her dead friends.  She and the children who had survived carried the bodies to the cemetery across the road from the church and dug graves for their friends and family members.  

After the massacre, Maggie took in the children who had survived.  Over the months and years that followed, in a country full of children separated from their families by illness, poverty, death, and war, she began to take in more children who needed a home, regardless of their ethnicity or faith, until they numbered in the tens of thousands.  She set the children up in child-headed households that intentionally crossed boundaries of ethnicity, nationality, and faith so that they could live into a new identity as one undivided human family.  She taught the older children to care for the younger ones, paid their school fees, and started businesses where they could learn employment skills.  Her dream is to raise a new generation without hatred and bitterness, who know that they are all God’s beloved children.

Unmarried adult women are uncommon in Burundian culture, but Maggie has never married or had biological children.  But Maggie claims the vocation of motherhood as a calling that encompasses all of her work of peacemaking.  

The vocation of women, she says, is to give birth, to protect life.  And that’s a calling that goes far beyond the work of labor and delivery or of raising one’s own biological children. After the genocide, she says, the children have rebuilt her heart and her calling is to help them to shine like a light in the darkness of violence and hatred.  

On International Women’s Day, I am grateful for Maggie Barankitse, a spiritual midwife who taught me that out of the darkest grief and loss can come a calling to nurture life, and that a calling to the work of motherhood is one any woman can claim, regardless of whether she has a biological child to hold.  

For more stories of spiritual midwives and patron saints in honor of International Women's Day, see Sarah Bessey's synchroblog.