A few months ago, a young American woman named Kate Eberstadt got it into her head that she should organize a choir in a refugee camp. So many of us were too focused on presidential politics or immigration policy or other matters of national debate to spend much time thinking about refugee camps. She, meanwhile, knew there were human beings in those camps, with hearts that could be irrevocably crushed in the midst of people fleeing ISIS, poverty, oppression — whatever it was they were leaving behind.
And so she got herself to Germany, as a visiting guest artist at the American Academy in Berlin, where she established the Hutto Project, named after her late music teacher, Benjamin Hutto, who was based at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. She first headed to the old Nazi airport, Tempelhof, where she had read that upwards of 7,000 people were crammed in. That didn’t quite work out, which was perhaps for the best. She wound up somewhere more manageable (albeit not by her design, the sky is the limit for this gal’s capacity to love): around the corner from a Red Cross building, and perfect for choir practice. Her camp is a gym with about 200 asylum seekers, most of them from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Moldova, or Vietnam.
Oh, to see the faces of the children she is working with! (Follow the work on Facebook and Twitter @thehuttoproject — where you can, in fact, see those precious faces.) Whatever else is happening around them — whatever else has happened in their young lives — “for the course of a song or dance,” as one visitor put it, “for a few minutes when she has them thoroughly engaged, Kate and her team make them laugh and smile, and you can actually see that for those minutes, and maybe only those minutes, they are forgetting everything else.” Beauty, in the midst of so much that could blind everyone to it.
An Iraqi priest, Father Douglas Bazi — a “living martyr,” as Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus has described him — tells us what he has learned along the way in exile, his people having fled ISIS in Mosul: Focus on the children. If a community focuses on them — if someone loves them enough to see a future for them in the midst of the utmost uncertainty — then the adults can see their way to getting out of bed in the morning. Think about the agony of not being able to provide materially for your family. Soon you may even forget your own capacity for love and just how valuable that is.
#share#I’ve heard so many stories about how Kate went over there with limited resources but some connections that would give her a starting point and a base of operations. Never mind language barriers. Friends — including her sisters — went over with Notes and Keys, the a cappella group Kate had belonged to at Columbia University (and the oldest such group on campus), all volunteers for the cause of hope. Her stories remind me of stories I’ve read all my life of founders of religious orders who simply answer a call God has put in their heart, without full regard for how to get from point A to point B, never mind having the luxury of thinking about Z. But the resources come. And the people come. Translators and musicians and videographers and additional generous adults. And in this one place, a peace is sown.
I’m thinking of her as I write during some of the holiest days of the year. Some of Kate’s family is in Berlin now visiting her, seeing what they can do to improve the lives of those families. Being with the children and loving them is a big part of it. As Easter approached, I happened to be with about a hundred religious sisters just hours after almost 200 sisters were gathered outside the Supreme Court in Washington as the religious-liberty case brought by the Little Sisters of the Poor was being heard. The sisters I am with this Holy Week are the Sisters of Life, who are celebrating their silver-jubilee year: 25 years into the life of their community, founded to cultivate a culture of life. They pour their hearts out to women who find themselves in what could otherwise seem to be impossible situations — alone and pregnant with all the pressures put on them by our society to end the life of their child. The Sisters of Life love them and give them the support they need to build a new life for themselves, one now including this new, beautiful, needy element.
The Sisters of Life also care for those who have been hurt by the culture of death. Abortion, yes, but so much more. Pope Francis often talks about people on the peripheries in a throwaway society. We cast aside people who seem not to be of sufficient value. If they are even on our radar screen, it may be as a statistic or as an unfortunate instance of collateral damage cited in a news story.
The Little Sisters of the Poor, meanwhile, care for the elderly poor — talk about those who could easily be forgotten. For Americans caught up in headlines about Obamacare politics, stopping for a moment and considering who these sisters are and what they do and why they do it could be a great consolation and a boost at a time when people are doubling down on fear and anger. We need to know that people like the sisters exist. They are leaven, and they help us see joy.
Whether it be my young friend Kate Eberstadt, or Sister Constance of the Little Sisters, who has become a master communicator during this unexpected national media moment, or Mother Agnes Donovan of the Sisters of Life — none of these women are what most people would normally think of when they think of mothers. And yet, they are exactly the mothers we need, at a time when too often women feel barren, despite the new life within them, in the fear and anxiety of circumstances. At a moment when so much seems impossible, when the future is so unclear, if someone hands a little girl or boy a musical triangle, it can be just a little bit of a miracle. When the sisters show love to a child who has known too little love, a reawakening happens.