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
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
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
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.