One of my favorite passages in the entire Bible is the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel. I don't know why I love it so much, but I think it's something about the flow of the words; it's very lyrical. The point of it is so beautiful too - even things that are dried up and decayed can be made new again by the power of the Almighty. In fact, it's not just possible, it's His promise.
The past six weeks that I've been living in Lesotho have been really challenging for me. The reality is that daily life in Mantsonyane is hard. The third world problems like no running water, no heat, iffy electricity, and lack of modern conveniences like a shower or a washing machine or even a flushing toilet take their toll on you. Fresh healthy food is scarce. Most people can't afford to buy meat or chicken or fish regularly. Fresh vegetables don't grow here during the winter (Well, nothing except cabbage. There is lots of cabbage). The staple food in Lesotho is pap, cornmeal porridge that is sort of like grits. That's what most people eat every day, their main (or only) source of nutrition. Many people walk two or three hours to go to their nearest health care facility, and when they get there they often find one overworked nurse and not enough medications to go around. It's a reality for many families that one parent lives and works somewhere besides the village where the family resides, often all the way in South Africa, so far too many families are split up for months at a time. Nearly one in four adults is HIV positive. One in four. That statistic alone would cause a major crisis, even in a country with way more resources than Lesotho. Here it's not just a health care problem, it's absolutely devastating to every aspect of life. Since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, Lesotho has, according to some sources, suffered an 18% population decline solely due to AIDS. 18% of the population just gone. 18%! Can you even wrap your mind around loss like that?
When you're looking at all these problems put together, how can you not start to feel that the situation is hopeless? Lesotho can at times seem too far gone, beyond help. I'm not proud of what I'm about to say, but I will be honest. After just six weeks in rural Lesotho, I'm exhausted. There were many moments during my time at St. James that I felt totally bewildered, not even sure where to begin. The stream of patients is never ending, new people are being infected with HIV every day, more and more kids show up sick and malnourished, and nothing seems to improve. What could I possibly offer that would make even the tiniest bit of difference to these people? What on earth am I even doing here? I really wish I could say that I came to Lesotho and dove right into work and made a huge impact and wasn't bothered by the conditions at all. But that would be a lie, and it would be incredibly unfair to the people here who do work so hard and so cheerfully and with such little reward.
Yet, Lesotho isn't a hopeless place at all. St. James Mission Hospital has been providing care for more than fifty years. I wonder how many children have been born here, how many people have been started on ART, how many cases of TB have been cured? I have so much respect for everyone I met at St. James. They all cope way better than I do. They give their time and talents selflessly, often living away from their spouses and children, all to better the lives of their patients. I admire the attitude of the residents of Mantsonyane, too. No one complains about the difficulties they face every day with lack of water or bitterly cold temperatures or no electricity. Well, no one except me anyway. When I go running in the afternoons, local kids see me and come racing up to follow me, sometimes for 15 or 20 minutes, chattering away in Sesotho and so excited just to see me and run around and get out their energy like kids everywhere do. No, Lesotho isn't a hopeless place, and I don't believe that it is too far gone. I don't think Ezekiel would believe that either.
The grace of God is sufficient for any situation. That's a promise, and that's a fact.
'"Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”'
And that happened. Ezekiel commanded the winds to come give breath to the dry bones, and they did. To put it another way (and yes, I'm going to quote Marilynne Robinson AGAIN):
"It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance - for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. But the Lord is more constant and far more generous than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?"
The work that is being done by the many faithful people in Mantsonyane is this breath of creation, turning an ember to fire and restoring life to something dry. The entire staff of St. James has the courage to see. About this I have no doubt. And it is my great privilege to bear witness to these things, to share this story with you, even as I am humbled by my own shortcomings which have become glaringly obvious as I watched those around me give their all while I barely found the strength get out of bed in the morning. My time at St. James has not been easy or fun, but I believe it was one of the most powerful learning experiences I've ever had, and I will look back on these few weeks many times in the coming years of my life and know how blessed I was to have had the opportunity to see.