In 1971 I moved from the West Coast to upstate New York and began working for a literacy organization in Syracuse. Later I travelled to Latin America to document literacy work the organization was doing in Colombia, Panama and Mexico as part of a fund-raising initiative. My job was to describe the organization’s work for its North American donor base.
I remember taking along a book by a popular evangelical writer, thinking to use it as a devotional. But I heard stories, saw poverty and injustice that left me numb, and I found myself unable to read the devotional or to pray. Rural families sent their daughters to the cities ostensibly to find work as maids and nannies, but they became trapped instead in prostitution. Coal miners worked in primitive mines, their skeletons permanently deformed by the heavy sacks of rock they carried on their backs. Children as young as 8 were sent to work the smaller mines– mere holes in the ground– and everywhere smoke poured from mines that had combusted. Workers in sugar cane factories high in the Andes fared no better. Those who participated in the literacy work—and could then read the laws that established safety standards and guaranteed them a minimum wage—lost their jobs. Electricity to their homes was cut off. The company store refused to sell them food and milk. Catholic priests who advocated for their parishioners found themselves transferred or disappeared.
How do you pray about these things? My devotional did not speak to this reality, and I felt very much alone.
I returned home to New York but continued to feel far from God, unable to pray. Some weeks later I remember sitting alone, reading from Psalms. Scenes from Colombia came to mind, and I started to cry. And that’s when I became aware of God’s presence, aware that God’s Spirit was drawing me into a deep grief, crying in me, through me. I became keenly aware of a God who suffers in the midst of human suffering. God was there, is there in the midst of suffering whether or not we can sense that presence.