This morning, I yearned for a Sabbath adventure in the great outdoors of Charlotte. I set out by foot to find Freedom Park, a popular spot for families to picnic on not-so-humid weekend afternoons. I walked in awe of the number of fathers teaching their daughters to ride their bikes, couples walking in step as they held hands, and friends just watching the river flow with fish jumping toward the fleeting breeze.
I traveled in hope to find solitude and a quiet place to write. It had been a long week of bus rides, encounters with strangers that have shared invaluable wisdom, and less than sufficient sleep. Trying to capture all the wandering memories in the safety of my journal, I sought a time of silence and stillness.
My feet wandered off the park paths into a winding set of backyards and playground sets. At some point, I came across a clearing with a heart-shaped ring of campfire stones. I felt it was a good omen as a place to write stories, so I set down my backpack, asked for the land to allow me to enter, and began to pray.
Within a few moments of sitting, I felt the trees encircle my thoughts and body like I had stumbled into the center of a family reunion, hugs and “welcome home” being sounded through the wind. I wondered why I saw myself as any less beautiful than the trees that surrounded me. I lay down on a cut of plywood, wiggled off the occasional fly, and settled into the silence with my eyes open.
First, I saw the expansiveness of the sky – how it encircles all the land, sends unconditional rays of warmth toward the soil. I saw the heart-shaped leaves drinking in light, their veins illuminated from within as squirrels echoed their ecstasy while scattering through the leaves below. I thought about how I often yearn for connection to human family while alone; yet in that moment, I felt connected to the trees as our common Mother and the sky as our Father. I felt my heart beat pulse through my legs, down to my feet, through to the soil. I prayed to better know how I can best serve life in this world.
My thoughts drifted further. I thought about the commerce and human corruption, how it will be difficult for our generation to sink back into our natural roots. I thought about my friend Ujamaa from South Sudan, how I missed his connection to nature and the way he sees all humans as his family. At one point, my thoughts were interrupted by a tug to look over toward the path, where I saw a dark-skinned boy ride on his bike. He saw me, waved hello, and returned down the hill.
I kept praying and thinking in a half-dream, half-conscious state. The tug returned for me to sit up and, simultaneously, the boy appeared again. This time, I felt frightened that he was coming for me (which was certainly grounded in a racist assumption, but also my programmed fear of being attacked as a young woman). I realized I had no cell phone or money – only my water, blackberries, and notebook.
The boy stopped his bike. “Are those Chacos?” he called to me, gazing down at my feet from a few yards away.
“No,” I replied, “Tevos from the ‘80s.” I had bought them at a thrift store recently and was pretty proud of the deal, but wasn’t sure how much he wanted to know. He wore almost-new Nikes and a beautiful blue braces smile.
He paused and looked down, as if hesitant to begin a conversation. “What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Rep,” pronounced reap. I asked him how to spell it. “R-E-P-D-I-M-O.” I assumed this also included his last name, and it was apparent to me that it was not a common name in the Southeast.
“It’s African,” he filled in. When I asked him which country it came from, his response stunned me. “South Sudan,” he said.
He was puzzled by my laughter-filled, overly joyful reaction. I scooted over on the makeshift bench, making a gesture of welcome. “My best friend from Canada is from South Sudan,” I explained. “I miss him terribly – his generosity, the way he taught me to pray. He wants to return to Sudan someday soon. He really misses his country.”
I told him a piece of Ujamaa’s story – how he fled the country at an early age, was separated from his family, and settled in a refugee camp in Kenya. From there, he earned a scholarship to Pearson College in Canada. I always remembered his hard-working spirit that emerged not in spite of, but thanks to all the loss and turmoil in his journey.
As it turns out, Rep’s story is similar. He left the country with his parents and two siblings when he was just two years old. His mother carried her children by foot to Ethiopia, where she had to pretend to be married to another man in order to immigrate with Rep to the United States. At the time, she could not afford for the others to come. Rep expressed that he feels stressed knowing his aunts, uncles and cousins are still in the country that is plagued by instability. He sends money back to them from his job at the sub shop next to Target. I told him that I admired his hard work.
Our conversation continued, and he was so overjoyed to share with me that he had received a basketball scholarship to a local state school, UNC Wilmington. He wants to study political science and psychology. With a dignified confidence in his words, he shared that his dream is to become nothing less than the president of South Sudan.
“It’s one of the most corrupt places in the world,” he said, with an air of regretful acceptance. “I think the corruption is ‘cause everybody is in survival mode there, you know, they just want to hold on to any power they can get and there’s no way to escape it.”
I shared with him that the difficulty of escaping poverty is also true in Charlotte, and perhaps people in Sudan, like those who experience homelessness here, have a stronger faith because they rely on family and God, rather than politicians or money. We spoke about how money can become an idol in our society. We also spoke about religious intolerance in Sudan, and how frustrated he is by the division between Muslims and Christian. One of his best friends, he said, is a Muslim and will go with him to UNC Wilmington in the fall. I told him that he should write about their friendship. “I’m not much of a writer,” he said. He continued sharing his story.
Rep has two families: a white family, who he currently lives with, and his African family. His African mother is currently living back in South Sudan. He misses her, but he said that he and his siblings are some of the most fortunate ones of the Sudanese gathered in Charlotte. Some people just got stuck in their jobs, but he felt that he and his mother had found stable ground and vision for the future.
Rep has many dreams for college, like traveling the world while playing basketball. When he said he wants to visit Spain, I encouraged him to go on a spiritual pilgrimage called the Camino there. We talked about the meaning of pilgrimage and he referenced the hajj to Mecca in Islam. I told him I was impressed by his knowledge. Our conversation was interspersed with silence, but journeys and family formed as continuous threads.
“My mother walked all those miles, and since I was a little kid, I knew how much she went through to get me here. That’s what prepared me to go to college. I wouldn’t trade any of the experiences I’ve had in my life, and I am so grateful to have been raised in America – all the things I’ve been given, I can’t imagine growing up anywhere else.”
This statement took me by surprise. Usually, I see the rags-to-riches in America story as a great myth, and I turn the immigrant’s journey into an unjust struggle. Yet Rep’s voice was dripping with gratitude for his experience in America as he shared with me, especially when he spoke about his mother. “She’s the strongest woman in the world, my greatest inspiration,” he said.
I offered him some blackberries, while he continued to ask questions about my life and studies. “You seem educated,” he said, “Where you go to school?” I explained that I study religion at Davidson, and he recommended a few seminaries for me to attend. His white mother is a Baptist minister; his church is eclectic, in his words. He was also interested by my love for poetry and he asked me to share some writing. I flipped to a few pages, read aloud, and he liked them. I told him to give me three words. Looking over toward the path, he said, “Bike, dirt, hand.”
I tore a piece of notebook paper and, thankfully, had an extra pen. I said it was his turn. “Wood, mother, walk,” I told him.
We wrote poems based on the three words that we had given to each other. Sitting in silence for four-or-so minutes, we finished at the same time. He read his first.
Wood, mother, walk
“I walk around in this beautiful
forest and see that everything has
a mother everything came from something
even wood can come from a
mother oak tree nut and a mothers gift is life which gives
you hope that someone loves
you no matter what you do.”
I didn’t want to read mine after hearing his. It contained all the wisdom that needed to be said. We wrote copies of our poems for the other, and I told him I would hang his on my wall.
“I’m glad we talked. I like makin’ connections to people. It’s life giving,” he said. I nodded in agreement and told him how silly I felt for being afraid of him earlier. He chuckled. I asked if I could give him a hug, and soon, we parted ways – I walked on foot, and he pedaled on his bike homeward.
Although I may have traveled all the roads,
crossed mountains and valleys from East to West,
if I have not discovered the freedom to be myself,
I have arrived nowhere…
Although I may have seen all the monuments
and contemplated the best sunsets;
although I may have learned a greeting in every language;
or tried the clean water from every fountain;
if I have not discovered who is the author
of so much free beauty and so much peace,
I have arrived nowhere.
If from today I do not continue walking on your path,
searching for and living according to what I have learned;
if from today I do not see in every person, friend or foe
a companion on the Camino;
if from today I cannot recognize God,
the God of Jesus of Nazareth
as the one God of my life,
I have arrived nowhere.
– The Pilgrim’s Prayer, the Camino
Rep shared with me that he speaks three languages – English, Dinka, and Arabic. I wish I had told him that he spoke a fourth – the language of the heart, the one that can only be discerned as gentle whispers in a forest. Looking back, it seems strange that I was initially intimidated by Rep’s visit, but perhaps at first we are all afraid of angels.
Rep’s presence reminded me that we, as humans, are all pilgrims that need roots. We need to be connected to family, to our culture, and to our heritage. Rep knows where he comes from and how he came to be here, and that is what propels him to love. I hope he continues to write poems. And I thank God for his wisdom, and for his courage to stop and talk with a stranger during her upside-down prayer. I thank God for these fleeting moments of connection, when the Body of Christ is in our very midst and we realize, thanks to fellow pilgrims, that even the forest is crammed with the Kingdom.
I returned home with my fingertips alive with a smile-tickling joy, walking in the door just moments before the downpour of rain began.
bike, dirt, hand
“This is my hand,” she said,
“etched in the crevices are hidden
pathways where the blood carries
dapples of fragrant bliss and
sips of dirt fire rings. There is no reason
not to sing when traveling through these channels,
by bike or by boat, hell, flood, storm,
these hands are made with etched edges,
a roadway to remember I am forever blessed,
a pilgrim on a dirty street, headed toward eternity –
This is my hand, it guides my feet.”