Today, I had planned to write about a gathering at my house last Friday among people interested in partnerships with colleagues in Northern Ireland. The conversation was a vibrant and lively conversation that centered on best practices for taking young people out of their own context to learn about another culture, in part to help them have insight into how their own cultural experiences have shaped their identity and understandings about life. I hope to still write about that (maybe I’ll add an extra post this week!). But I feel the need to write about an experience I had today.
Earlier today I attended the funeral of a 19 year-old young man, who was murdered over the weekend. I didn’t know him, but Cierra did. I have written before about the volunteer work that she has been doing at a nursing home close to our home. The young man that was murdered also worked there and though she didn’t know him well, his friendliness, engaging personality, but most of all, his sparkling smile left quite an impression on her.
Before I share my impressions of today, I should share a little about his short life, based on what news accounts have shared. Aung Thu Bo was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, one of the thousands of people to flee Burma because of the oppressive regime there. When he was six, he and his family came to St. Paul, sponsored by a local church. Within just four years, Aung was volunteering at the nursing home where he continued to work until his death last week. By the time he was fifteen, he was working part-time as a dietary assistant, giving most of his earnings to his family. His supervisor lauded him as a mentor of young workers and, as he had seniority at the age of 19 over all of the other dietary assistants, one of his responsibilities was to train new employees. Aung was also a gifted student and when he graduated last year from high school, he received academic and financial scholarships to Hamline University. He was the oldest of four children and the only son. The death of any young person is tragic, but the senseless murder of this young man leaves a huge whole in his family, his community and forces me to ask many questions that are seemingly unanswerable.
As I sat with Cierra at the filled-to-capacity-and-then-some room at the funeral room, pondering some of those unanswerable questions about why? and where is God when something like this happens? . . . I drank in all of the activity around the room. As I sit now and think about today’s events, there are a few things that struck me as I took it all in.
The service was both a Christian and Buddhist service conducted in English and Burmese. The beginning of the service was a Buddhist prayer meeting, which was very moving and though I didn’t understand the language, I clearly understood the pain and sorrow and the cries of lament offered up to God. There are some things that bridge all cultures and religious boundaries. The lament of loss is one of them.
During the service we sat next to one of Cierra’s middle school teachers. This teacher had taught both the young man who was murdered and the man now charged with murder. The contrast couldn’t have been more striking; a young man born into difficult circumstances, surrounded by a loving and supportive family who thrived and succeeded against many odds; another young man who turned to violence and allegedly shot someone over two cell phones and a wallet. I am plagued by all kinds of questions about the role and responsibility of parents, neighborhoods, communities and society in general to nurture and support our children. I am not naïve enough to think that we can prevent these kinds of things from happening, but I can’t help feeling that we could do more to be present in young peoples’ lives.
During the Christian part of the service, three of Aung’s friends spoke, one was his girlfriend, with him the day he was shot. They each shared their own personal memories and what they would miss most about him. It was clear from their testimonies that this young man had a charismatic personality and that he practiced showing kindness and friendship. Each one shared how Aung had gone out of his way to strike up a friendship—a friendship that had immeasurably shaped and changed their lives. I know that we sometimes romanticize people and relationships after a person has died, but a common thread in each one of these young people’s stories was how Aung was not primarily concerned with what he received from their friendship, but with what kind of friend he was to them. The gospel writers often note that when Jesus met crowds of people or someone suffering and in pain, he was ‘moved with compassion’ and immediately responded to their dilemma, whatever it was. The image in the Greek in these passages is of one who is hit with such anguish and commiseration with the other’s suffering that one physically feels it in the gut and is therein compelled to act to relieve the person’s suffering. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, I think that is what we are called to when we pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’ – to have such intense longing to see suffering alleviated that we begin to act. In our cries of lament, in our friendships, may we be empowered to be instruments of shalom.