Yesterday I was in Lebanon, and somehow today I’ve packed up everything in Oxford and moved out of the community house I’ve been living in and into a new place. I’m excited and hopeful about a new start and new people to get to know, but it’s not where we as a community expected to be. It’s been painful over the last few months to see our hopes and dreams of living together and welcoming in the people around us who are living on the edges seeming to be lost after being battered by many different circumstances, until we’ve had to accept that for now it’s not happening, and we are all leaving. It would be easy to wonder what the point was, and at times it has certainly been hard to understand what’s been going on.
This feeling of being battered by storms reminded me of my trip to the Philippines just before I moved to Oxford. Despite the fact that the purpose of my trip there was to evaluate the response to a previous typhoon, it hadn’t even remotely crossed my mind that I could be on the island of Samar when another storm hit. Yet a couple of days into my trip we started to hear that another severe typhoon was on a path straight towards us. This meant that despite plans for a packed schedule of meetings and interviews, with a week in the city evaluating the work of a big international NGO, most of my trip was in the end spent in a remote part of the island either waiting for the (very slow moving!) typhoon, battening down the hatches, and missing the whole second week of plans through not being able to travel in the aftermath.
This may not sound like the makings of a great trip; I was meant to be spending my second week with an American colleague who in fact never made it onto the island at all because the typhoon was already approaching by the time she was due to arrive, making it too dangerous for her to get there. From the outside it might look like she was lucky to miss it, but in fact, in the end I actually felt that I was the lucky one because I had the chance to be there in the midst of it.
Preparing for and experiencing the typhoon with the amazing family I stayed with and was able to encourage and be encouraged by, the children I met when families came to shelter in the house I was staying in, the sense of togetherness singing songs the night before the typhoon and at daybreak as the typhoon passed, and in the days after where it wasn’t safe to travel and I spent time visiting families, and sat out under the stars listening to stories and songs, are memories I treasure as a gift I didn’t ask for, expect or deserve. A sheer gift where I was in a specific place with particular people at a moment in time that I could never have planned for but is something I will always be grateful for.
I feel the same way about the last 9 months at 244. It’s been a complete gift – something I didn’t ask for, expect or deserve. I know I’m not the same person I was when I arrived; simply being around people who are brave enough to be who they really are and share that has helped me get a little bit closer to the integrity and authenticity I long to live with; living with children has helped me remember and practice the way that who we are is so much more important than what we do (as well as provided many happy hours of lego construction); rhythms of doing life together have given me structure and grounding in what have been uncertain and changing times, and have often been filled with laughter and sometimes with shared tears; it’s been freeing to be given permission to care deeply for people and know that I’m also loved; and more than ever before I have felt that I’ve had roots which are deep enough to mean that coming back from a place like Iraq or Lebanon hasn’t been hard but has genuinely been a real coming home. I’m deeply grieving the loss of these things as the community in this form has come to an end far sooner than we hoped, and when I had it so briefly, and when there seemed to be so much potential for reaching beyond ourselves into the community around us.
But the things that have changed in me and in each of us, the friendships we’ve formed, the dreams we’ve dreamed, haven’t ended; and the gift of this time and this place and these people is something that endures. I believe that we’ll still see the things we hoped for emerge in different ways in the future – but for now, it’s enough for me to choose to recognise this time as a gift and value all it’s been and all it’s given. In this storm, and the others I’ll go through, I hope I can choose to recognise the gifts in the midst of grieving for what’s been lost. Thank you fellow 244-ers for being home, and for being a gift to me by being who you are.