It had been a difficult past few weeks in Nairobi.
One friend had been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. Two others had died of malaria. The recent bombings in the Congo had come down upon many family members of our French interpreter at the church. A young friend was so distraught with his situation in the Kibera slums, that he was contemplating sneaking aboard a ship at the Mombasa sea-port and trying to steal away to America and I had to talk him out of it.
I was thinking to myself that even though we had been witness to Jesus' hand affecting some miraculous work in the lives of those around us, the pain involved with watching many of those close to us suffer, was overwhelming. I was wondering if it wasn’t time for me and my family to also steal away to America, and leave these hurts behind. It had grown hard to focus on the eternal, when the temporal was screaming so hard at me.
As I sat alone in the living area of our home, my head bowed in my hands, Jesus reminded me of Mary. Mary, with the coke-bottle lensed glasses and funny accent. I had met her as a youth pastor in Spokane, Washington. Her granddaughter introduced me to her one day when I had come to visit.
She was just a wisp of a woman; thin and gray-haired, but there was a quickness to her step and perkiness to her speech that was so attractive and inspiring...I had no idea.
“So Patty, this is your grandma Mary. It’s good to meet you ma’am. How are you?”
“I am fine. It is good to meet you too. I have seen you at the church,” she said somewhat shyly. “Sorry for my accent. I don’t speak the English so well, you see I am Polish....”
“No problem, I understand you just fine. So how long ago did you leave Poland.”
“It was just after the war. I come and marry my husband. He was a U.S. soldier.”
“So you were in Europe during the war. When did you leave?”
“Not so long after I left Auschwitz.”
My mouth froze. It took me a moment to regain speech and then timidly, I continued.
“Do you mind if I ask you a couple questions?”
“It’s okay,” she said.
And so we sat down on the couch together for a couple minutes to talk. I didn’t want to push too much, so it was a brief conversation, but she seemed very comfortable in talking about this terrible event of her past.
“Would you be willing to come and share at youth group on a Wednesday evening with some of our teenagers at church?”
She nodded and we scheduled a date.
When the Wednesday arrived that Mary was going to share with the youth, I could barely handle the anticipation in my own heart. Really, I hadn’t asked for any details about the time she had spent in the camp. Patty had told me that her grandmother was a strong Christian, so I was confident that as long as the Lord bridged the generation gap it would be meaningful time for all of us. I prayed that He would help our group to be sensitive, and for Mary to be comfortable.
We had our usual time of fun, food and games beforehand and then I asked for the kids to circle the wagons for the devotional time. Mary had sat alone for the most part during the opening festivities. Occasionally she shook one of the kids’ hands that greeted her and smiled at their antics as we bounced around the room during the “ice-breakers”.
Now there were forty or so young people circled in chairs.
“Some of you here today probably recognize our guest speaker tonight, but I am going to ask Patty to stand and introduce her to us."
"This is my grandma...Mary Siple," she said with a quick smile and then sat down.
The kids all gave her a closer look for a moment. Some faces showed immediate smiles as they nodded that they had seen her on occasion at Sunday worship. Others couldn’t quite place her, as in a church the size of ours, it was easy to miss this meek, little woman during the hustle and bustle down the hallways at service times.
“Thank you Patty,” I continued, “Most of you probably don’t know some of the special things I discovered about her a while ago, and that’s why I invited her to share with you tonight. You see, in addition to being Patty’s grandma, Mary is special for some other reasons as well. She has lived through some pretty difficult situations in life. Situations that I hope none of you ever come close to, and I will now ask her to share some of that story with us.”
Everyone turned to Mary with kind of a quizzical expression not having a clue what would come next. She took a deep breath and lifted her face to meet ours. The solemn expression disappeared and her sweet smile returned.
“I am Polish,” she began, and for the next twenty minutes or so she outlined for all of us the story of a young girl growing up happily until the day war broke out in Europe and then moved on to how the Nazis had come into her city during World War II, rounding up all of her family and sending them off to various camps. She shared briefly about some of the brutal acts of the soldiers that she had seen or been a part of, but moved through that time very rapidly, and then on to how she had met her husband, married and settled in the United States. Then at the end of her sharing, her voice just trailed off, she pursed her lips and she looked down to the carpeted floor in silence.
For 30 seconds not a word was spoken. Then I looked to Mary and said, "I know that we didn't prepare for this, but would you be willing to answer some questions if they have some?"
There was another lengthy quiet.
Then one young lady raised her hand. "Do you have anything, anything at all to help remind you of your family?"
Mary reached into her coat pocket and pulled out something small, holding it with both hands, like it was fragile, or might escape from her grasp. Her eyes were focused downward to her lap at the object she was holding, and all of us watched her hands in anticipation, still unable to see what she cradled there. Then she raised her hands and we could all see that the small item she began to unfold there was a photograph, tired and wrinkled.
“This is picture of my mother,” she said, “It is only thing I was able to hide from the soldiers who take us that day. I hide it from them the whole time I was in the camp. There is nothing else left to remind me of family except my memory.”
She turned to her left and tenderly placed the picture in the hands of the teenager to that side, like she was handing them a treasured, glass sculpture. She sat silently for a moment, watching the kids who took the picture with equal care and passed it around the circle. There were audible sniffles and quiet tears that were rolling down the cheeks of several in the group, but no one spoke. Finally, another hand was raised in the silence. It was a young man this time. His question was simple, but his voice shook when he asked it.
"How...how did you do it?"
Since we had not rehearsed any of the meeting and I obviously had not told her what questions we would want her to answer, I had no idea how she was going to respond to this.
“When the soldiers come, they take everything, “ she said, “they take my mother and father that way, and they take my brother that way.” Her hands were pointing in opposite directions in the room. Her voice was shaky, as she was re-living the words that she heard on that day coming at this tiny young girl, from a dark-figured man with a gun, pushing people around like cattle. Harsh words that echoed in Mary’s ears all the way through the years to the room we were sitting in on this night.
Then the shakiness went away, she swallowed hard and when she spoke again, the words were strong and confident, “They can take away everything...But they can’t take my Jesus!”
I smiled at her, thankful for the conciseness of her words and the anointing of them by the Holy Spirit. There was something about the way she had said “my”, as in “my Jesus” that carried such a strength, commitment and perseverance that it washed away years of apathy for all who were there that night. I will long remember this simple woman of a simple faith who taught me about what is of true value in this life. Amidst pain unbelievable and ugliness unimaginable she held on to what mattered most, knowing that as long she had her God, she would make it, and when all else was taken, she continued to lay up treasures in heaven, where moth and rust will not destroy.
Now, years later, as I sat alone in the living room, I knew that whether it was in Poland, Nairobi or anywhere else; the truth that held Mary’s hope steady, was my truth as well.