Our Defining Moment

Dear Will:

In March of 2020, my friends Khalil and Najia* said a tearful goodbye to family, bade farewell to home and homeland, and boarded a plane bound for the United States. It may have been the last flight out of Kabul before the pandemic brought a temporary end to international travel. What they now owned they carried in two large suitcases; everything (and everyone) else they left behind.

They had been married for barely over a year. With the assistance of the US government and various charitable organizations, the newlyweds made their way to California where they were welcomed (temporarily) into a two-bedroom apartment already occupied by a cousin, his wife, and two small children. Soon after their arrival, they learned that Najia was pregnant with their first child. So exciting. So terrifying.

This is how a new life begins: no job, very little money, almost no possessions, struggling with a second language and unfamiliar culture, surrounded by people and things you can barely understand. “Settling in” hardly seems possible, but you adapt and adjust and try your best to make do. So Khalil now works night security, and when he gets off at 4 a.m. he spends an additional four or five hours driving for Lyft. He and Najia have moved into their own apartment, and somehow they manage to cover their bills while trying also to go to school to qualify for something better. In December they added baby Camila* (so cute!) to the mix.

The outpouring of support from people from within our church and elsewhere has been overwhelming to them. Donations have poured in—furniture, clothing, appliances, gift cards—so many basic necessities that have helped them get on their feet. Still, the road ahead will not be easy. Given the odds and endless obstacles, you might wonder why anyone would even attempt it.

But then, you more or less know the answer to that question.

In this specific case, Kahlil spent several years working as an interpreter and cultural adviser to the US Army stationed near Jalalabad. His work with the Special Forces put him at the center of many combat missions and compelled him to interact frequently with enemy combatants from ISIS and the Taliban. Perhaps inevitably, he was wounded in battle, taking several rounds in the ankle and thigh. Were it not for impressive work by a US Army surgeon, Khalil could easily have lost his foot. He deals with constant pain to this day, but you will never hear him complain about what he’s lost or given up. Mostly he and Najia remain inexpressibly grateful.

Had he stayed in Afghanistan, Khalil’s life would surely be in jeopardy—now more than ever. The Taliban do not look kindly on those who assisted the Americans during their 20 years in the country—especially those as active and visible as Khalil. Although he was fortunate to get out, he left behind parents and siblings whose own lives are now threatened because of their association with him. It’s impossible to know what will become of them. For now, you can be certain that Khalil and Najia worry and pray and hope for some sort of bureaucratic miracle that will enable their loved ones to escape to someplace safer. Needless to say, these days they don’t sleep much.

Of course, there are thousands more in Afghanistan just like Khalil and Najia, full of fear, grasping for hope, trying beyond reason to believe that it might be possible to somehow, somewhere live without the constant fear that at any moment a knock on the door could change everything—irreparably—for the worse. All they want is what you and I want: to raise their kids, to dwell in peace, to laugh and love and live.

“This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.”

Patrick Kearon

Tens of thousands of displaced, hungry, frightened people will be arriving in the United States in the months ahead, and we must do what we can to welcome them. In the words of Elder Patrick Kearon: “Being a refugee may be a defining moment in the lives of those who are refugees, but being a refugee does not define them. Like countless thousands before them, this will be a period—we hope a short period—in their lives. Some of them will go on to be Nobel laureates, public servants, physicians, scientists, musicians, artists, religious leaders, and contributors in other fields. Indeed, many of them were these things before they lost everything. This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.”

If you can help, please do. You might start here or here. Or simply drop me a line and you can join me and Dana and many others in the effort to turn strangers into neighbors, foreigners into friends, refugees into fellowcitizens as they try to find a place that feels a little bit like home.

PW

*not their real names

Feeling the Joy

Dear Will:

We have this delightful, irresistible friend who likes to say that she is a “certified joyologist.” She’s kidding, but if you met her and heard her infectious laugh and saw the way she infuses a room with positive energy, you would have no reason to question her claim.

Given the chaos and disruption of 2020, we figure we could all use a little more joyology in our lives. A lot more, actually. As the poet Mary Oliver has written, “joy is not made to be a crumb.” Rather, she says, “if you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it.”

All right. We’re game. ‘Tis the season, after all, when joy shows up on billboards and t-shirts and any number of gift bags (shopping bags, for that matter). Looking back on this year-like-no-other, there have been plenty of things that have brought us joy in spite—and sometimes because—of all the rest. So in this season of giving, we’re giving in. To joy.

There were many moments during 2020 in which we suddenly, unexpectedly felt joy. Moments like these:

  • When hundreds of my co-workers agreed to voluntary pay-cuts so that no one would be laid off or furloughed (not a bad place to work, right?)
  • Before: 90-mile commute on the 405. Now: 30-foot stroll down the hall (pants optional)
  • Working with a puppy asleep at your feet (panting optional)
  • Hearing the sound of neighbor children lost in imagination on a cool, summer evening (love that)
  • Knowing that many doubters wear masks anyway for the sake of the rest of us (love them)
  • Sitting together—just the two of us—on the patio outside of Rubio’s (first night out in months)
  • Making new friends of old neighbors while walking Nacho, the least-disciplined dog in Orange County (work-in-negligible-progress)
  • Eavesdropping while Dana tutors one of her students (who knew math could be so fun?)
  • Texting with Seth during the Lakers’ Championship in Quarantine (perhaps even better than the championship itself)
  • Watching more movies AND reading more books (how is that possible?)
  • Trading in Dana’s two worn-out knees for a couple of state-of-the-art titanium numbers (to match her titanium hips)
  • Cheering in the early dawn as our beloved Brentford Bees came THIS CLOSE to the Premiership (best season ever)
  • Sunday evening Facetime Poetry Hour with Bryn (how else would we know about Mary Oliver?)
  • All of us avoiding COVID-19 (so far)
  • Seeing a resounding affirmation that democracy still works (so far)
  • First tour of Luke and Tyler’s first house (quirky and delightful, just like the house)
  • Spending a distanced weekend with Bryn and Seth at Silver City Mountain Resort (before they were chased out by the fires)
  • Celebrating the Dodgers’ first championship since before any of our kids was born (catharsis)
  • Looking on as Nacho disembowels yet another squeaky toy (no blue dragon is safe)
  • Studying Engineering from home while enrolled at UCLA (correction: no joy in that for Seth whatsoever—he’s moved back to Westwood)
  • Eating Guerilla Tacos during the Worst Drive-in Dance Concert of the COVID Era™ (Date Night!)
  • Witnessing the selflessness of medical personnel and other essential workers (angels and superheroes)
  • Meeting the brand-new baby of our brand-new friends who arrived only a few months ago as refugees from Afghanistan (you’d love them too)
  • Sitting down to compile this list (and there’s more where this came from)
  • Thinking about friends like you (corny, but true)
  • Celebrating the birth of Jesus (Joy to the World!)

Here’s hoping for even more joyology in 2021.

PW

Photo by Anthony Asael

To See and Feel and Witness

Dear Will:

Last week I drove north on Veteran Avenue en route to my son’s apartment near the UCLA campus. As a Bruin myself, I’ve driven that road countless times, but it’s been a while. The drive was thus made new again by the morning view it gave me of the Los Angeles National Cemetery, with its silent rows of gravestones, standing at attention to honor the veterans who lie in rest there along the avenue—90,000+ as I understand it.

The sight will hush you into an urge to turn off the radio. Which you should do.

During the first few years of our married life together, Dana and I lived in a duplex apartment just south of that cemetery. I can remember one Memorial Day pushing a stroller through its hallowed rows and talking to my firstborn about what made those grounds so sacred. He could not have been more than two years old, so his dad’s discourse was surely incomprehensible. But you do not need language to convey the feeling that lingers in a place like that. As a new father, I felt it was important that Luke have that experience—that even as a toddler he have the chance to see and feel and witness.

I still feel that way. Perhaps it is because of the impact of my first visit to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. I was there in February of my senior year in high school, and there was snow on the ground. When it’s cold like that, they change the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every half hour, but what gave me chills was not the weather. It was the image of one member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, assigned to stand guard while I watched in reverent silence. I can still picture the face of that stoic soldier whose every step reverberated through the grounds. He did not vary his 21-step cadence as he marched in the morning chill, the physical effect of which could be plainly seen streaming from his nose, across his chin, and onto the front of his otherwise impeccable uniform. And yet he did not sniff nor flinch nor waver. I was awestruck (still am!) by the respect and honor he showed on our behalf as we gathered in grateful tribute to the nameless soldiers represented there.

How many thousands more like them have given what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion”? And how many others have similarly sworn to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” an obligation they have taken “freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion”? It’s a remarkable choice given the possible consequences. I have a nephew, a newly commissioned West Point grad, who just a few weeks ago took that very oath. I watched the scene play out via video. And I wept.

These men and women, both living and dead, represent the very best in us, modeling the very best that we can be. Among those of us who have taken an easier, safer course, they have no equal. In fact, the very best of all has himself declared: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). It bears repeating: You cannot love more than that. May no one ever doubt their convictions, question their devotion, or denigrate their service. Such women and men deserve and have earned our greatest respect and (given the nature of their sacrifice) our eternal gratitude.

And so, if I could, on this Veterans Day I would write to all of them these words which cannot possibly convey the depth of what I feel: Thank you for your service.

PW