When I was missioned in Kenya, one my principal responsibilities was ministering to the Rwandan refugees who lived in our parish. There were about 1,000 children, women and men. It seemed to me the majority of them were children. So many. And too many of them were orphans having lost parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins, and more in the genocidal killing in their homeland located 750 miles away and a lifetime ago. It was a time Death seemed to hold such a firm grip in our part of the world.
We lived in this small compound in midst of a large slum on the west side of Nairobi. Within in the compound were three small buildings. One where I lived with the parish priest, another where several Little Brothers of Jesus lived, a French religious order, and the last place was home to three Rwandan orphans. We gave them nicknames because they won’t give us their names. Even here in Nairobi, the wrong name could still get you assassinated because of something your parents did or failed to do during the genocide. So we called them Felix, Françoise, and Fidel. They were great kids. They were good students. They were occasionally teenagers. They knew how to slaughter, cook and serve a goat. And they had to find their way in a very complex world. They were orphans. They were yatima.
When someone first described them as yatima I did not know the word in Kiswahili. Mama Shushu explained that when she was a child that there was no word nor even concept for orphan. It was ridiculous to think that a person would be without family. Even if there were no parents, there were aunts and uncles, and cousins. Even if there was no family in the way we would think, there was the tribe. There were always people to watch over and love you. You were never left alone.
Of course, there was deep sadness to lose a parent or parents. Those children were called yatima – lit. the “sad one.” But the word was reserved for the kind of sadness that hurt in the marrow of your bones, that left a hole in your life, or a void in your heart. It was the same word for widow or widower – the same word that could be used of you or me if we lost a close friend. Yatima, the sad one.
Shushu explained that when the Europeans came they insisted on a word to describe children whose parent had died – an orphan. So they borrowed a word from the Turkish language: kiokote or mfiwa. Those words describe children without parents or families – children alone in the world. So while you might find older British colonial papers documenting someone as mfiwa, everyday Kiswahili continued to call the children yatima – because the problem was that they were sad, not that they were alone in the world. They were always loved. Cared for and loved. Always. So it was with the three amigos – Felix, Françoise, and Fidel. There were moment the amigos felt the full force of their loss, when sadness stole the joy of the day. When they were cut to the quick, pained by the loss of someone they loved. They were bereft. Which means they were deprived of, lacking, stripped of, robbed of – all of which is the meaning of the Greek word orphos from where we derive the English word “orphan.”
It is a feeling the disciples knew well. Their hopes and dreams were ripped away in the scourging, the crucifixion, and the death of Jesus. They were yatima, they were bereft, they were orphos. They were Felix, Françoise, and Fidel. They were so many of us who lost a parent too early, lost a child, a spouse, or lost someone so close to us that their absence is felt deep in the marrow of our bones.
The disciples experienced that loss and then suddenly Jesus walks among them once more. So imagine their despair when they realized he was leaving again, ascending to heaven. But Scripture does not record such despair; surely it existed because they wanted their friend, Lord and Savior to be with them. But Scripture describes their hopefulness. They believed the promise that because Jesus lives, his disciples would live in him. He promised them coming of the Holy Spirit who would be with them forever. “I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you.” That was the Hope they carried.
If you have not been yatima, you are blessed. But live long enough and we all know the sadness of abiding loss. The sadness will linger – appropriately so – you do not mourn for the things you do not deeply love. But will you find the Hope? Felix, Françoise, and Fidel were able to find hope in Jesus, their community, church, their education, and the desire to return home to Rwanda and build a new country. The disciples knew Hope and shared it with anyone who would listen – all the way to the ends of the earth. How about us? Can we name the Hope that stands along with the sadness and grief?
Our second reading, the 1st Letter of Peter, 3:15 tells us that we must always be ready to give the reason for the Hope that we have within us. A part of my answer is that while from time to time the memory of my loss reminds be, in part I am yatima, the sad one, I know I will never be mfiwa – alone. I have my family, my Franciscan brothers, I have you, the parishioners of this good and holy parish. I have Jesus. I am always cared for, always loved. You all give me Hope. You give me Hope.
Sometimes, I remember the three amigos and I think about the lessons we can learn from loss and grief if we are open enough – or perhaps wounded enough – to receiving them. Lessons that the disciples learned from our Lord and passed on to us. Lessons that we are now called to share with anyone who will listen; lessons that lie at the heart of evangelization: Death has no power, Love endures. Hope transcends. Look around. We will not be left orphans. Jesus promised.