I can’t find one word that captures this past year. 2021 has been too much for that. I have certainly experienced anger and frustration, sadness and worry. At the same time, I have felt gratitude and love. My country is breaking with racial hatred, an intense desire for power, a disdain for knowledge, a gross insistence on one’s own rights. The world still suffers from Covid-19 and many of our self-inflicted wounds make deepen the suffering from this virus. Refugees continue to flee violence and poverty, often finding nothing but indifference among those of us who already have refuge. I wish I could say I am hopeful as this year closes. But I cannot. I am determined, but not hopeful.
If hope means an attitude that suggests: “I think it’s likely that people will do the right thing regarding…” then no. I am not hopeful. I think this year has revealed a shocking selfishness in my country. That’s clearly my own blindness. Nothing this profound comes about quickly. The selfishness has been here. I just couldn’t see it, or I chose not to see it. As I have written in this space recently, there is a deep racial hatred in the United States, a fear of others, an indifference to others’ suffering. There is also a desire for political power for its own sake and a dangerous disdain for facts and knowledge. None of these realities came about quickly and none will heal quickly. These problems are serious and require honest and sustained work. I don’t know that we have many leaders who are prepared for these challenges. But we do have many people doing good work in small settings and maybe that work, those people, will lead us.
Here are a few people and moments that hold some insight for me. I hope they might hold some for you too.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived a life of radical service, truth telling, and joy. Among church leaders everywhere, he was a unique blessing. He worked with anyone he thought seriously wanted to promote justice and peace. He told the truth about South Africa’s brutal apartheid system, he led his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which pleased no one but offered the country its only hope to avoid a retributive blood bath. He became a powerful voice for LGBTQ rights around the world and he did all this with a joyful spirit, a willingness to laugh and dance. We were blessed to live at the same time he lived. All of us can learn from the example of his generous and rich life.
The student-poets at my school consistently move and challenge me with their commitment and their generosity. They take on hard topics and then write and share their work in ways more mature poets would not dare. They immersed themselves in a serving/friendship with Bishop Walker School, a tuition-free school in Southeast, D.C. serving underserved boys, and embraced it with joy and passion. They let themselves learn and teach at the same time. These are sixteen and seventeen year-old boys. But they show a capacity to care that is beyond their years. These young people humble me and teach me. I am grateful I spend time with them every day at school.
For the last year, I have tried to do some small advocacy work on behalf of LGBTQ refugees in Block 13 of Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. These vulnerable people suffer consistent violence in a place where they should find refuge. These people have left their home countries because of violent homophobia and they largely face indifference from the world. I spent nearly a year trying to get U.S. Senator Ben Cardin’s office to act in some small way on behalf of these suffering people. That effort turned into nothing. I have emailed, written, called, reached out to various refugee advocates and agencies. It’s hard to see any tangible progress. I continue to write to anyone who will listen. I continue to email Department of State personnel to try to move the resettlement process along but it’s hard to see any real movement. The only positive step I saw in Kakuma over the last year was the availability of the Covid vaccine. I thought the refugees there would be the last in the world to get vaccinated but this month, the people I know there received their vaccines. And they are the sign of hope to me. I am in regular contact with just a few people in Block 13 of Kakuma Refugee Camp but these few people are resilient, hopeful, spiritual, and good. While they have every reason to be angry and bitter, they are not. They have suffered terribly. They continue to suffer. But they maintain a positive and upbeat spirit. They teach me with every email, every message.
When I look back on 2021, I have to be honest. The world is broken. There is no great, hopeful light on the horizon. We have only ourselves to blame for the world’s state. But we do still have human creativity and compassion if we choose to employ them. We might choose to be small and tribal. We might choose to be big-hearted and generous. I don’t know where our cumulative choices will take us. I know I will continue to teach and write. I know I might not be hopeful. But I am determined.
Photograph: Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C. Taken by J. Ross, December, 2021