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Utoya… (Memories and Hopes)

July 26, 2011

**Note**  I wrote this on July 22, 2011 – after hearing about the massacre that took place on Utoya that day.  Because I was at camp, and because I felt too raw to do anything beyond scribbling it out in longhand, the post didn’t make it here until today.  Much has come to light in the days that have followed, but this post does not reflect any of that information.

In 1999, the summer after my junior year of college, I was sent to Norway to represent the Council of Ecumenical Student Christian Ministries (CESCM) at a World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) conference held in honor of a milestone anniversary of the Norwegian Student Christian Movement.  Though I flew into Oslo and spent the afternoon finding my way through the city and its famous sculpture park, the event actually took place on a tiny island outside of the capital: Utoya.

It was the first time I traveled outside of the US completely on my own, the first time I was the only US student present in a large gathering of people from around the world, the first time I found myself in a position where there weren’t others who shared my assumptions, my norms, my cultural biases.  And it was the last time I traveled internationally before 9-11.  The experience was transformative…and it hurt.  

There were various speakers called in to discuss the concept of utopia and whether or not it has a place within Christian ecumenical dialogue/work.  The talks were fascinating, but not what I carried back with me when I returned home to Texas.  What’s stuck with me were the one on one conversations, the relationships formed in the in between times.

In between speakers and other scheduled activities, we had large spans of free time to mingle – time that turned into me fielding questions and accusations about the US government’s involvement in world affairs.  Whether I liked it or not, I was the only representative of the US on that island, so every question, every grievance fell in my lap.

In particular, a Serbian student named Lazar took every opportunity to lay into me for the NATO bombings in Serbia.  He’d never met an American, and I’d never met a Serbian.  We only knew what our respective news outlets and politicians were telling us – so it started off with some rough encounters.  There wasn’t much I could say because I was so ignorant of the situation, the history, the messiness of it all (on all sides).  He’d accuse, I’d listen.  He’d raise his voice as he recounted events I’d never heard of.  I’d quietly take it in, awash in disbelief or horror or anger or grief.    

Somewhere in those encounters, a miracle took place.  We became friends.  Noting my silence, Lazar started asking questions instead of lobbing accusations.  Together, we started wading through layers of propaganda, both Serbian and American.  Together, we discovered gray in the midst of black and white.  Together, we learned humility.

Transformation took place on that island.  Relational webs were woven from that point on the globe and stretched across borders, oceans, ideologies.  Dayanthi in Sri Lanka, Marcus in Finland, Thandiwe in Zambia, Lazar in Serbia, Moatlhudi in South Africa, Thorsten in Germany, Lara in the US…we (and many others) experienced a taste of what utopia might bring.  In those moments of listening, laughing, straining and stretching, we caught a shimmer of the Kin-dom of God.

—–

So much has changed in the years that have passed.  Though the world was never “safe” or “secure”, the specter of terror has crept into new markets.  That relational web still remains, but the ground beneath it has shifted and begun to crumble.  These last twelve years I’ve teetered between cynicism and hope – one moment knowing the hopes we shared on Utoya are a pipe dream, and another moment trusting that even in the worst of times the Kin-dom is still breaking into the world.  

And then, today, during nap time at our high school summer camp, I got word via Twitter of another attack.  Oslo is trending – a bomb has gone off in the city – and Utoya has also become a hashtag.  Today that island, upon which my life was changed, is stained with the blood of children – campers the same age as these teens sleeping around me.  Campers murdered by someone who would do anything to destroy these webs that draw us near to one another.

In the midst of this terrible news, and this consuming grief, I’m completely at a loss.  What can be done to counter such hatred?  What can be done when utopia is stained with the blood of so many innocent kids?  

I have no idea – except that I know the web must continue to be woven.  

Thy Kin-dom come…on earth as it is in heaven.

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