This column has been difficult to write.
On Dec. 26, 2004, a giant tsunami smashed through fishing villages, towns and resorts around the edge of the Indian Ocean, killing more than 170,000 people and destroying the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands more.
One friend lost her mother and an aunt in Sri Lanka. Other friends talk about going to the worst-affected areas to bring aid and solace. Many children, they say, have not spoken since the tragedy, hiding the terror deep in their souls. Adults return to what is left of their homes, to try to salvage what they can, but quickly leave because the sounds of the waves splashing against the shoreline create feelings of panic they cannot endure.
I lost no close friends in the tsunami, but that seems to bring little comfort. I know I must write something about this terrible tragedy on the land and people of Asia and Africa, but it seems I cannot find appropriate words to do so. It is best, perhaps, for me to allow Asian friends to share their own sadness and hope. This is the time we can learn from them and gain strength for the long task ahead of rebuilding lives and property. Below are some of the messages friends have been sharing with me.
A friend in India visited Tamil Nadu, hit hard by the tsunami. Among his reflections was this description of the rush of water that tore through villages all along the coast:
It was the Sabbath. The festivity of Christmas was over, the more devout among the community had gone to mass at church, and the others rested. But not for long. A survivor described the wave as a "huge black wall," the height of a Pannamaram (palm tree). In fact, very few of those trees remain on the ground today. The "black wall" lashed against people, trees and buildings, carrying the hapless two or three kilometers inland. "Flying boats" was how one woman described it. Destination unknown. And in a matter of hours, the decimation completed, the ugly waters receded.
Another friend from India was spared because he was in school some distance from the coast, but his town was almost totally obliterated:
By God's grace, I am alive, but I have lost my relatives and my neighbors in this quake. The huge sea wave completely destroyed so many villages. So far, 1,000 dead bodies found in my place. So many people are still missing. Three villages were completely destroyed. Please pray for this.
Some friends were spared simply because their homes were high enough to escape the onrushing waters. They watched as people they knew were swept into the sea:
The Christmas went off well. But the next day morning, we could hear people screaming and running hither and thither for help. The tidal waves were of 10 feet high and just one wave took a toll of more than 200 people in our small town. Some wounded people went to a hospital nearby and the next wave took away another 200 people there along with the doctors.
But amidst the carnage, people in many places came together to pray and to console each other despite differences in faith, ethnicity or social standing:
Last Friday, the Government [of Sri Lanka] organized a national memorial service for the dead where Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim religious leaders offered prayers. Our President gave a very inspiring speech and said that, Phoenix-like, Sri Lanka will rise again from the ashes with greater strength and unity. She said that Mother Nature did not distinguish between races and faiths, as people of all ethnic communities and religions were affected. "Can we treat each other similarly if nature has treated all of us alike?" she asked.
Also from India came this message of God's constant presence with us:
I remember watching a film, Out of Africa. After much hard work of getting all the crops in the place to be dried, there was a huge fire that burned all the crops to the ground. The Muslim servant gently touched the owner of the plantation to awaken her and said, "God is here." It is at these moments when disaster happens that all the hearts of people bond together and we all feel that ache deep within us. We are all interconnected and what hurts one of us hurts us all.
On the Sunday following the tsunami, the pastor of our small church in Hong Kong brought two challenges to us:
Two things should concern us about the otherwise wonderful public response at the moment. First: Will it last? How can the church help the wider community resist the inevitable donor disillusionment and compassion fatigue a few months down the track?
And second: Where is the balance? While affirming the world's compassion for these victims, how can the church gently remind people of the larger scene and bear witness to the fact that every life everywhere is precious, every death everywhere a tragedy? How can we remind the world that the suffering of the people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and so many other places is just as painful and in just as much need of our compassion?
A further challenge came from a young Indian man living in Hong Kong:
Finally, along with everything that we do now and in the future, we have to always keep on praying for the life and healing of those who have lost everything and those whose whole lives and future have been torn asunder by this disaster. The wounds of this tragedy, like every other tragedy, will go deep and into the decades to come. As a church, especially you and me, we need to remain for and with the peoples who have been affected even when the music stops.
I hope these messages of pain, hope and challenge will continue to flood my e-mail box. We must never forget how much God loves the world which God so lovingly created and watches over. This creation is now our responsibility, and we must never tire of the work required to heal it and to bring peace and justice to it.
A friend in the Philippines sent me the following prayer, which I think summarizes very well our need to let God give us guidance at times like these.
MAY GOD BLESS YOU
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, superficial relationships, so that you will live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people so that you will work for justice, equality and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you will reach out your hand to comfort them and change their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with the foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world, so that you will do the things which others tell you cannot be done.