On a Sunday morning one January in 2013, the central marketplace in Burundi exploded into flames. By the day’s end the hub of the local economy melted, ending the livelihood of too many. Dozens of mothers waited at the front gate of our little bank the following morning. They cried, lamenting their loss and fearing their future without inventory or income. My husband opened the gate and mourned with them. It was a day when only lament seemed appropriate.
Claude and I wondered how our young bank could survive this devastating blow. Almost 80% of our clients worked in that marketplace. They’d lost everything—and so did we. We felt the weight of the loss and prepared for the worst to happen to our own economic endeavor, because how could our bank survive this catastrophe?
I remember staring into a flickering candle—a lament practice. Jubilee. The word circled back more than once— jubilee. Jubilee economics had been the theological cornerstone of our bank. We wanted to be jubilee to impoverished families and facilitate fresh economic potential for distressed communities. Our dreams seemed so impossible now as we stood on the brink of losing the bank.
Jubilee. The word was insistent, refusing to relent. I could have swatted it away like an annoying fly. But instead I finally gave in. “What does jubilee look like now?” I asked. Pictures of the charred marketplace circulated. Women continued to cry on our doorstep. Other clients complained of unrecoverable loss with no prospect of repaying loans or restarting business. I kept asking myself, my husband and the Spirit—what does jubilee look like now?
The Spirit breathed, “Jubilee means everyone gets back into the economy. Create a way back in.” This is something I knew in my head, but the Spirit was pushing me to believe with my body, to enact in the most dire circumstance. And so, while the pile of rubble in the center of the city still smoldered, we clung to the jubilee imperative. We began working to create on-ramps back into the economy for the most at-risk women and the more successful business people alike.
For me this wasn’t just a lesson about jubilee economics, though it forever changed our practice of jubilee. I learned how hope comes to us amid crisis. It is the phoenix that rises from the ash. Hope is the unexpected idea that nearly blindsides you while you’re still deep in lament. It is the spark that ignites action.
In Lamentations we meet Daughter Zion, inconsolable in the throes of lament. The poetry testifies to her heartbeat; None to comfort as she sits in the ruins of Jerusalem, the once great city. There’s hardly a hint of hope in the midst of her sadness. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel.
But Lamentations isn’t the last word about Jerusalem. Isaiah returns with force after 140 years of silence: “Comfort, comfort my people!” At long last God speaks. The words are gentle and generative, the words welcome the exiles home.
Do not fear, for I am with you …
Assemble yourselves and come together …
Depart, depart, go out from there!
For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace …
The prophet summons the exiles home from Babylon. It’s time to depart captivity, for survivors to assemble and return home in joy and peace, not in fear. This is a message of hope! Captivity ends, isolation ends, fear ends. Now is the time to imagine homecoming and new possibilities you’d given up on during the dark days of loss and lament.
Think about what it was like for the exiles to begin their journey back to Jerusalem, to begin remembering what it was like to be free and what it might be like to start again. I bet there was a fair amount of dreaming—I will plant a garden, I will build a home, I will start a business of my own selling handmade clothes, I will study Torah. I can almost hear them singing as they walked the many miles home.
Hope meant departure from all that held them captive, families walking home together. Hope challenged them to reimagine their world and consider how they would contribute to the construction of a new city. Each step cracked them open to fresh possibilities.
On that brisk but sunny Saturday in January, I assembled with abuelas, Muslim mothers, brown girls with mounds of ebony curls and 20,000 other women for the Women’s March in Phoenix. There were fathers of every ethnicity and clergy of every creed, some carried placards and others simply wore a bold smile. I stood on the Senate lawn with my new friend Sheri amid this mighty crowd, and for the first time since election night, I didn’t feel alone in my grief—or potential.
As I linked arms with my dear friend Sarah, we joined the march. I took my first feeble steps of hope. Each stride felt like a departure from darkness, an assembling with fellow survivors, and a joyful commitment to solidarity in the season to come. This is the spark of hope—when we can begin to see a way forward.
I didn’t watch the news coverage of the inaugural events. Instead I made homemade placards. I wanted to march for a few reasons, but mainly, I wanted to make myself available to hope. It was my personal demonstration of readiness. In the end, I had to go alone and risk disappointment. But my hunger for hope compelled me to go.
Lament prepares us to hope. Next comes some measure of risk, be it a new idea or a new step—making us available to believe that the God we trust will do a new thing. Maybe all the women will get back into the Burundian economy. (They did, by the way.) Maybe we will learn to how to love our neighbors, end the death penalty, or stop modern slavery represented by mass incarceration of black men (and women.)
Hope isn’t sitting home and wishing it. Hope is our openness to the likelihood that God will enlist us in the work ahead. Risk might be the match, the motion that sparks hope.
There is a moment when, like President Jed Bartlet, we say, “What’s next?” We feel a surge of energy behind our idea, like momentum cresting and we are ready to take the next step. That’s when I know I’m in the grip of hope!