“Someone has said, ‘Virtue in distress and vice in triumph makes atheists of mankind.’ This is undeniably the single greatest barrier to belief in God.” –Ravi Zacharias
A refugee camp looks a bit like the aftermath of a tornado. Scattered about in the open grass are clothes and pots and people. The stuff of many otherwise organized lives, and the very lives of those who have fled, look as though they are littering a hillside with nowhere to cook their dinner, nowhere to lay their heads. The refugees now living under plastic tarps on the mission hospital compound here in Oicha, Eastern Congo, had walked more than a hundred miles through a forest to reach this safe place. I had just flown in with the mission’s relief coordinator.
More than one month ago, on September 5th, the beautiful hillside town of Nyankunde awoke to gunfire. An estimated 7000 soldiers, rebel fighters of a neighboring tribal group, descended rapidly upon the place with guns and knives and a drug-induced rage set out to enact some sort of ethnic retribution. The militiamen came without a military cause, no agenda but the blood of those they purposed to kill, no vision but the loot of war. Fellow missionaries at the compound in Nyankunde gave us initial reports and after that only a silent radio. We could do nothing but launch a late night flight, positioning an aircraft to a town nearby. It was already too late for an evacuation—the slaughter had begun and continued for days.
The reports were disturbing. People of one particular tribal group were singled out and murdered indiscriminately—men, women and children—in their homes and in their hospital beds. Others were abused and robbed at gunpoint, their houses looted down to the last piece of kitchenware. After a few days, a mission airplane risked a flight into Nyankunde, and following precarious negotiations with rebel leaders, the pilot secured permission to carry out the missionary families. Only the missionaries were allowed to go, leaving behind the many Congolese Christians, friends and co-workers, to an uncertain fate. The killing and looting continued, and on the morning of September 12th, over 1200 hospital employees and other mission personnel, old ladies and little kids, gathered together and escaped into the forest. Weeks later, they arrived in Oicha.
Walking with our relief coordinator through the camp, I recalled some of the stories and accounts I had heard regarding what actually happened in Nyankunde. The reports had put me through a range of emotions… anger, sadness, disbelief, insomnia. I thought about those who were tortured, and about the poor woman and her four-year-old child (who was probably very much like my four-year-old child) who was brutally killed before her eyes. I wondered, “where was God when these people prayed for help?” The madness of the situation was all too real in the sober faces and the swollen feet of the refugees I now greeted. I felt like a fool, being received with smiles and handshakes and having nothing to say—nothing but a meager “I’m sorry” while I searched for an explanation why God had failed these good people. Occupied by my own emotions and thoughts, I followed through the camp and half-listened to the conversations around me. My Swahili isn’t very good, but what I could translate was surely meant to fall on my wayward ears. Over and over, from the people who had suffered more than I could know, “God has helped us.” “God is our strength,” and “God knows. God knows. God knows.”
That night I lay awake thinking about my anger and the faith of those who had a reason to be angry. Where was God? I realized that perhaps now I had an answer. He was there in the unceasing, and seemingly unanswered, prayers of those destined to die. He was in the enduring hope of those who lived. He was in the strength of the brave souls now willing to forgive the evil brought upon them. He was in the beautiful brown eyes of a baby I held for only a moment, but who I will never forget. Baraka, a few days old, was plucked from the side of his murdered new mother, and somehow overlooked by her killer. He had become a symbol of the grace that saved all those who escaped, and a reminder of the mystery in the fact that not everyone did. He was a testimony that God was there, in the chaos, and through it.
It seems there are too many broken hearts in Africa—like an epidemic. The sad stories never fail to pierce my own heart and give me restless nights. My faith is always tested by them, and I always fall short of an explanation. In the face of evil, the question will always be “why?” And through the many dark nights the answer will always and only be, “God knows.” What’s remarkable is not the answer, but the lips that utter it. This was my lesson from the refugees at Oicha. Virtue in distress may speak of a godless world. But what can we say of virtue which shines through?