Reach Out Your Hand – April 18, 2021

When we adopted Pax, we had to take two trips to Korea.  The first trip was to be the longest.  We would be staying in Seoul for nearly three weeks.  During that time, we would meet Pax for the first time.  We would be allowed two one-hour visits, and during those visits the social worker for the adoption agency would observe our interactions to report to the Korean court.  Also during this visit, we would have our hearing before the court for the preliminary adoption order.

The first few days we spent in Seoul after surviving the brutal 14-hour flight were consumed with sight-seeing.  We visited palaces, shopped a big marketplace, and began our collection of toys to present to our new son.  We knew that there was a Korean cartoon called Pororo the talking penguin which was very popular, so I searched high and low for a Pororo stuffed animal to give as my first gift.

About one week into our visit, the day finally came to see Pax for the first time.  We arrived very early at the adoption agency because we did not want to take the chance of getting lost since the agency was about a 25-minute cab ride from our hotel.  When we arrived about a half hour early, we anxiously bided our time in a Dunkin’ Donuts, watching the minutes slowly tick by.

Before we met Pax for the first time, we had some paperwork to fill out at the adoption agency office which was located on the first floor of the building.  After they had taken sufficient numbers of copies of our passports, we were to go to the third floor where there was a playroom for us to meet.  Up until this point, we had only received monthly pictures of Pax with updates as to how he was doing.  After years of waiting, our caseworker told us we would now be taken up to the playroom and his foster mother would then bring Pax in.

Some of you may have read my “From the Pulpit” article which came out last Friday where I used the text from John which I read this morning.  I used this text as it relates to the value and importance of embracing doubts in our faith, exploring them as a means of growth.  But the more I reflected on this passage, it struck me in a new way.

This passage describes Jesus’s second appearance to a group of disciples after his death.  Just as had happened the week earlier, Jesus appeared in their midst.  But unlike the first time, Thomas is present.  Thomas had struggled in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Jesus recognizes this struggle.  And Jesus meets Thomas where he is.  Jesus says, “Put your finger here and see my hands.”  He tells Thomas to “reach out your hand and put it in my side.”  He urges Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe.”

As I thought more about this passage, I saw a metaphor which speaks to us today.  I recognized the courage it took for Thomas to reach out his hand and touch those wounds.  To understand what Jesus endured, to believe the pain that he had experienced.  While Thomas is often criticized for what he does, for expressing his uncertainty, his doubt, I have come to admire him.  I admire him for being fully present in that moment.  To be able to fully understand who was standing before him and what he had endured, Thomas was authentic about his lack of understanding.  He bore witness to the wounds of the one who stood before him. And in bearing witness, he believed Jesus’s experience.  Saw him for who he was.

I saw this as a metaphor for how we engage with the wounds of others.  Just as Thomas could not believe until he reached out his hands, until he could experience the wounds of Jesus, we must be willing to reach out our hands to understand the wounds of those in our midst.

An important part of being willing to feel another’s wounds is being willing to put yourself out there, to be in meaningful relationships with those whose wounds we struggle to fully understand.  I think of seeking to understand the wounds inflicted by the systemic racism which pervades our society.  To understand those wounds we must be in relationships with people of color who will allow us to hear of those wounds.  I have gained much from listening to the experiences of friends.   A close friend who is African-American shared with me how he is always cautious in public places around white people, especially white women.  As a black man who is tall and has a large build, he was taught that for his own safety to not get physically close to a white woman he didn’t know.

While I cannot begin to know the manner in which this wounds a person, raising a child of color I can begin to relate to the fear which can come from being a black or brown person today.  With the recent rise in violence to AAPI Americans, I find myself fearing for my son’s safety both now and in the future.  I can begin to understand on some level the pain that comes from hurtful words.  Shortly after our adoption was completed, someone asked me why I would adopt my son when “there were good American children who needed homes.”  He has listened as strangers come up to his parents and ask, “Where is he from?”  In his first school, he was singled out among his peers by his teacher for “not being American.”

To feel another’s wounds, we must believe the pain that they have experienced, when we have never shared a similar experience.  When black people talk to white people about the pain of racism, about the trauma of living as black Americans in the wake of killings by police officers, in living the experience of being a black person in a country which a terrible history of racial injustice, understanding can only begin as we reach out our hands to touch those wounds.

This need is not limited to how we engage with those who have experienced racial injustice.  To truly be an ally to the LGBTQ community, to immigrants and refugees, to be an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, or childhood abuse, requires a willingness to reach out our hand.  To bear witness to their experiences, the pain they have endured, to see and acknowledge the wounds they carry, to listen and be present.

I began to learn how to do this during my time working as the chaplain for the emergency room.  I encountered many people experiencing the worst moment of their lives — being in the room with them when they find out someone they loved most in the world had died, often suddenly and sometimes unexpectedly.  Their experience of being in that moment was always different.  Some people screamed at me, others fell to the ground, some were simply silent, others wrapped their arms around me weeping.  To do something to alleviate that pain, it is natural to want to say something or do something to try to make that person feel better.  But as time passed, I realized that what they needed most in that moment was to know that they were not alone.  That I was sitting with them in that pain and despair.  That I was listening to their screams, their cries, witnessing their tears.  That I was there to listen to whatever it was they had to say, to let them give voice to their anger, their sorrow, their fear, their hopelessness.  In those times, they needed someone who was willing to reach out their hand, bear witness to their wounds, and by bearing witness to attest to the validity of them.

While we may never be able to fully understand the pain another is enduring, we can tap into our experiences of shame, humiliation, fear, and despair.  And we can use that shared experience to create a bridge.  In his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen writes,  “Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers. . . . When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.”

We may feel reluctance to tap into or even share our own experiences of woundedness.  Being fully present with another in their experience through sharing in that experience may feel risky.  As Nouwen writes, “Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind?”  But through a shared experience of, through a shared confession of our hurt, we are able to begin to create community and a shared hope.

I was filled with excitement as I left the adoption agency office and made my way to the elevator to the playroom where I would meet my son.  But as soon as I walked up a flight of stairs to get on the elevator, I saw him.  Pax was standing in front of the elevator with a little green coat on waiting to go up to the third floor as well.  He turned around as I approached, and I immediately knew it was him. My son that I had been seeing pictures of for months came to life in front of me.  And I will never forget the first thing that he did.  He reached out his hand for me to shake it.

When I saw my son for the first time, I was overcome with emotion.  What I wanted to do was tell him that I was his dad.  I wanted to grab him and run to the airport so we could finally have him at home after years of waiting.  I wanted to eliminate all of my doubts that something would go wrong.  But I had to exercise restraint.  I had to introduce myself as Bryan in case things did not work out as we hoped.  I could not burst into tears and scare him.  I could not grab him and run away.  All I could do was reach out my hand and take that first step into the relationship that would change my life forever.

When I walked up the stairs to the elevator, I had no idea that I would see my son in person for the first time.  But even though that moment is one I will remember for the rest of my life, that did not mean everything was resolved.  We still had months of worry wondering whether we would be able to bring Pax home.  But even though there were many hurdles to overcome, the relationship between me and my son began when I simply reached out my hand. May we be willing to do the same, to reach out our hands in our woundedness and embrace relationships which will change not only us, but begin to bring the change we seek.