There are many things largely forgotten to history, one of them a horrendous tragedy that took place on June 15th, 1904, near “Hell’s Gates” on the East River, which would forever change one ethnic community in New York City, and that being the General Slocum ferry disaster.
What had started as an annual church excursion of German-Americans, mostly women and children, from their community in the city’s East Village to Long Island, ended with terror and over 1000 deaths. The poorly maintained boat caught fire, while underway, fire fighting equipment failed and the wooden craft quickly became an inferno.
Helpless mothers, unable to swim themselves, especially not in the heavy clothing of the time, put life preservers on their children only to see them sink like rocks into the river as the cork in the flotation devices had degraded. The Captain, likely trying to avoid causing a more devastating fire on shore, decided to head for some islands, into the wind, which only made the wooden ferry into a blow torch before it felt apart.
The result of this hell on earth was the eventual dissolution of the German-American community in New York City and one can only imagine the personal torment this left for the survivors and the fathers and husbands left behind.
My worse nightmare is not being able to help those whom I love. I had, in casual conversation with a psychiatrist, been told that I showed symptoms of PTSD after the unexpected death of Saniyah and judging from my current awful feelings and tears right now, from writing this, I would guess that they were right in their analysis.
If only seeing someone I loved deeply wail the loss of their daughter could rip the fabric of my being to such an extent, I can’t even begin to imagine what seeing them roasted alive would do. Lord have mercy!
My Covid-19 Mini-Crisis
Being raised in an American culture that too often confuses health and prosperity with God’s favor, the idea that someone that I love could be felled by a virus seems obscene. But, faith, right? Shouldn’t faith prevent my family members and loved ones from dying prematurely from a virus?
But it seems that the truly Orthodox have no such delusion. True, Fr. Seraphim expressed his belief that one cannot become sick through their participation in the body of Christ. However, even still, that does not preclude the possibility of our becoming sick during the fellowship and interactions afterward, does it?
It is was in the contemplation of father’s words that I ran across the story of early Christians who, unlike their pagan neighbors who fled, deliberately went into harm’s way to attend to their plague suffering neighbors. They attended to the sick, taking the illness upon themselves in many cases and succumbing in as much agony as anyone else.
How could this be?
Did their faith mean anything at all?
My own thoughts continued an ongoing internal discussion about the evidence (or lack thereof) for a God that actually cares. In my American-tinted perspective, they should have been protected from disease to prove God’s sovereignty over all of creation and show the truth of their Christian testimony, that’s only logical, right?
I can’t claim to understand. All I know is that many of them died, yet the stories of their extraordinary faith spread throughout the Roman world and you can still read of their testimony even in Foreign Policy articles published in our time. They died and yet they also demonstrated an example of love that has lived on to this very day and have defied my own logic in that.
We have but one life to live, all people die eventually, yet it is said that all people have two deaths: The first death being their physical death, when their body is put into the grave. Then a second ‘death’ at some point in the future when their name is said for the last time. And, I would argue that, in that light, those who, in faith, sacrificed their lives for their neighbor’s sake have actually outlived those who fled in fear.
It turns out that the Christ of Christianity only ever promised a life of suffering for others to those who would follow him. The ‘faith’ of those seeking health and wealth is shallow and will fall apart in times of crisis. But true faith lives for the good of others, despite uncertainty and fear, the proof is not in their own health so much as their faithful and lasting impact on the world.
No, your faith will not spare you, but if you live in love you will find God waiting on the other side of your suffering.
How I Have Seen God At Work
This may be a strange way to make an announcement of sorts, but I’ve never professed to be anything other than strange. I mean, I’ve tried to act normal, yet it never seems to work out for me. And so I guess I work with what I’m given, right?
Anyhow, I mentioned a bhest in past blogs, including my last blog, and haven’t really explained what bhest really means.
Right now, on the opposite of the world from where I am currently writing, lives a beautiful flower, her name is Charlotte. I found her in a moment of great faith, when my life remained consumed in my Mennonite identity and struggle with the father of a young woman, and had agreed to participate in her life as only an encouragement. She had moved to Taiwan, from her mountain home in the Philippines, as a means to support her son and secure an annulment from the father of her son.
Given her marital situation (along with my Mennonite and purity culture priorities) and my continued faithful pursuit of the impossibility, I told her that our relationship would have to remain platonic (which is something she allowed without any protest) and offered to be her encouragement. My commitment was to show her that someone still cared about her life, despite her being separated from family and not having anyone else to turn to at the time. At the time I was also on the road, away from home, so I understood the loneliness that comes with separation from family and friends.
There was a bit of a pattern that developed. I would be her faithful wake up call, to wish her a wonderful day, but later (with the stress of a high-pressure work environment and conflicts with coworkers) she would come back online with the crying puppy emoticon, which was my signal to get to work, and I would make it my mission to cheer her up again. Soon, by whatever miracle, I would have her laughing and smiling again.
At some point, pretty early on, she asked me if it was okay if she would call me “bhest” and (after a momentary hesitation to consider the potential damage of letting her use a term of endearment in our context) I decided to give her permission. It is a term that I had no idea what it meant really then and still am not entirely sure. But, eventually, it felt dumb to let her be alone in using that term, there was no term and thus she too became my bhest.
Bhest, according to Charlotte, meant this: “the very best best person, who is my friend, who is always beside me, to pray for me, advise me, cheer me up and who really shows care for me.”
Bhest, best explained, is a word mystical in meaning, has become a sort of joint identity and not something my words can easily explain. But I do know that it stands for a commitment to care. And, when my own road reached an end in the Mennonite church, like hitting a brick wall, it was the hand of my bhest reaching through, telling me in a moment of suicidal darkness, “if you go, take me with you,” and demonstrated a level of commitment to me even greater than my mother. It was then that I decided to stay to serve this lost sheep that I had found and if only for her good.
Charlotte’s happiness, I decided, was worth my suffering through another day of this life. The seed of faith that I gave to her months before, in my pure concern for her, grew into a limb that I could hold onto until my own feet again. She was the one who told me to “be strong for her” and gave me the courage to walk through the doors of Holy Cross, in Williamsport, on the road to my Orthodox conversion. And it was Charlotte who finally gave me that reason to no longer be “thirty years old living in Milton” (as the faithless alternative explained) and compelled me, months later, to board a Boeing 747 headed for the other side of the world.
Bringing This to the Present
There is so much I could say about Charlotte and her son. So many moments, from profound moments of sadness together (after the murder of her uncle Roland) to those of our greatest joy and many others somewhere in between. Her family has embraced me, reposed uncle Roland especially, welcomed me with open arms, and made me feel right at home twelve timezones from my current residence. I honestly felt like I had experienced a taste of heaven in Baguio City and in our various excursions.
Now that country, like my own, is experiencing the same Covid-19 lockdown (albeit stricter than my own) and our hopes for the future are overshadowed with even greater uncertainty than before. But at least Charlotte is stranded, for once, with her son Y-dran, whom she loves deeply despite being separated from him for years. He’s a real handful, a biter when I met him (who learned quickly that, unlike his grandma and aunts, I bite back), and has since matured to a bright (while still completely energetic) eight-year-old. His wide smile always welcomed me and I’ve missed him since our first meeting.
More recently, due to his history of illness, and a recent bout with pneumonia (he’s still coughing), along with the spread of Covid-19 worldwide, along with my own struggles due to some history of my own mentioned earlier, it has been exceedingly difficult for me to rest easy and trust God in this moment of chaos.
In one of my silly, more romantic moments, after Charlotte watched one of my favorite movie classics, “The Last of the Mohicans,” I recited to her the words of Hawkeye, “You be strong, you survive! You stay alive, no matter what occurs, I will find you! No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you!” Which was a promise said with a little smile and laughter, nevertheless pretty accurately represents the commitment that I’ve made to her. I’ve nearly had to make real on that once when she called me after almost being abducted by two men, while in Taiwan, and our current situation has left me wondering what extreme measures might be necessary to bring her here to my side, with her son, our son, Y-dran?
As of today, upon the request of Y-dran (a shortened version of his full name, pronounced yid-run) himself, that I will begin to call Y-dran my son. I had worried a few months ago whether or not a young Igorot boy, with his own biological father, would ever accept this goofy overwrought religious refugee American. But we hardly even speak the same language yet (although he was actually using sign language today and will likely learn English far quicker than I learn Tagalog and his tribal tongue) and yet he has asked me if I could be his father. *gulp* I really didn’t know how to express all my excitement, he had completely pre-empted all of my preparations for the future where I would need to explain this, where I would have to walk gingerly to avoid undermining the man that is his biological father, and now I do not have to worry about that.
And, speaking of prayer, unprompted, Y-dran, after all that, requested that I lead the prayers before he went to bed. So, being as Orthodox Christian as I know to be, I gathered myself and my phone, we went to the prayer corner of my house and led in the Lord’s prayer before praying for our future together, that it may come quickly and that he can remain healthy until then.
Dreams and Prayers
I have big dreams of what to do as a father with his son. But I also have a fear that hangs over me. My own life has been full of hopes ripped away from me right at the time when I thought things were in the clear. Now, before I can have my happy and simple life, with a little broken and repaired family, there is this monster called Covid-19 lurking in the darkness. I have full awareness of the terrible tragedies that have cut down the faithful and heathen alike, sometimes on a bright sunny day, like that day those German-Americans boarded General Slocum before their final hellish terror.
However, come hell or high water, I am determined, as determined as I am to pursue impossibility in faith, to not live my life in fear. I believe that God exists and that God is good because I have not alternative. I believe in God because without God there is no good. Logic and reason cannot explain away the feelings I have for my precious bhest and her livewire son. Even if we are cruelly kept apart for many more years, due to legal nonsense or plague, I know we will be together again and someday soon.
May God have mercy on us!
Only will tell if my dreams for this life will ever come true. It is easier for me to predict a global pandemic than to know if my next few days, weeks, or years on this planet will be happy or harrowing. Maybe my battered faith will finally meet it’s match, in something awful yet to come, and my hopes finally drown in a seas of despair. Nevertheless, as long as I’m alive, let my hymn be this: “Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have set our hope in Thee.” And, in the perilous days ahead, may I cling all the more to the words of St Paul:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39 NIV)
P.s., Y-dran, like his father, is also a fan of Dunkin donuts, which they do have in the Philippines, so the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree!