Helping people mattered. Seeing the unique, the beautiful – call it a soul, spirit, the hand of “God” – but finding something special in every human being became the raison d’etre for my life. Obsession with theological conformity and liturgical niceties simply didn’t seem very important, as you discovered “God” in the Somali bush, or in a totally Islamic culture.
We lived for several years in the Middle East. When our second son was born there, I became very friendly with a local Italian missionary who baptized him. Fr. Ruffino once told me that as a young priest, he would measure his success in his first Chinese mission by the number of baptisms he would perform in a year and he would happily send an annual report back to the Vatican. After decades of this satisfying service to the Church he was sent to Egypt where proselytizing for a non-Islamic religion was strictly forbidden, and converting and baptizing were grounds for expulsion. He had to change his criteria; he would give witness by simply being there, but all his other ceremonial roles as a priest were over. There was but one God, and Mohammed was his Prophet. Gradually Fr. Ruffino came to accept that his Arab neighbors were his family, no better, no worse than those he once washed free of original sin in the sanctified waters of Christ.
So where does this leave me in my search for “God”? A poet – who happened to be a Jesuit priest – once wrote of the odd manifestations of the Almighty. Gerard Manley Hopkins discovered Christ, not in vestments, or on an altar, but in everyday life:
Glory be to God for dappled things - For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings; Landscape plotted and pieced-fold, fallow,
And plough; And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
I think that is where I come out. After many years of medical practice,
long periods of loneliness and reflection in what some would call the God-forsaken deserts of Somalia, or the swamps of Sudan, or working all over the world amidst refugees in the chaos that follows war and natural disasters, I found my own spiritual strength.
I can identify with the Christ who came down to wash feet, know rejection and die on a cross. Hidden in the humble, sacred pockets of life are the good thieves who will go to paradise, the trusting leper who will be cured.
The Resurrection, to me, is reflected every day in the tenacity and nobility of sick people, and the remarkable resilience of men, women, and children, often against overwhelming odds.
For many years I have devoted much of my non-clinical energies in trying to identify workable bridges between medicine, public health, and the softer discipline of diplomacy. One only has to work in conflict zones for a very short time to appreciate the dehumanizing effects of fear, injury, rape, or even of survival under appalling refugee conditions. No avenue can be left untried in the search to heal the wounds of war and build a new peace.
When combatants can agree on little else they sometimes – not always – will cease killing and maiming only for a humanitarian effort – one that can often help both sides. Using this respect for health projects, we established “corridors of tranquility, neutral areas in bitter civil wars.
These pauses allowed for discussion and dialogue; no matter how brief, they can provide the foundation blocks for eventual reconciliation.
It is sometimes difficult to talk about “God” to those intent on destroying their enemies, and formal religions have had a pretty dismal record in the search for peace. An inordinate amount of people still die because of differences over what is considered “the true faith,” surely an odd justification for the slaughter of neighboring innocent civilians. In the former Yugoslavia, both Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen tried for three years to find a compromise to end the killing. They told me, in deep frustration, that none of the religious leaders –Muslim, Orthodox, or Roman Catholic – ever found the courage to move beyond their parochial concerns.
At The Center for International Humanitarian Cooperation we have recently initiated a project that will try to identify universal values, the common spirituality that seems to exist in all cultures, even during wars. All over the world different civilizations have developed methods — sometimes positive, sometimes negative —to prevent the worst excesses of war. These strands of humanitarian decency must be emphasized, and woven, not only into Geneva Conventions and legal documents, but into some commonly accepted fabric so that we can learn to survive together, not threatened by, but actually celebrating the diversity of, mankind.