Hard Work for the New City


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It’s hard to imagine newness in the shadow of destruction.

In the days after 9/11, we suffered disorientation. How could we think beyond the pile of smoldering rubble, the loss of life and the new insecurity that riddled our national psyche? It was like that after the destruction of the Temple, no one had the capacity to imagine newness in the wake of such catastrophic loss.

We feel this sensation more than we realize, more often than we dare to name. I know we’ve experienced this loss multiple times in our ten years of development work in Burundi, where losses keep coming like waves on the shore of Lake Tanganyika.

After the marketplace fire, after the flood waters devastated low-lying neighborhoods, after the coup attempt that reset the political terrain and sent the economy into free fall … how do we move forward? I felt it again the day after the U.S. election—all darkness and no light, a disorientation that kept me stumbling around for days.

Our loss leads to lament and then to hope, if Isaiah is to be believed. But hope isn’t the final word.

The defeated, deported and demoralized Jews wept at the shores of Babylon—until the word of the Lord came and announced that their time of weeping had ended and they could return home. The match was struck. Hope segued into work—the work of rebuilding the burned out city.

The final section of Isaiah, what scholars call Third Isaiah, is about how to build the New City. The failed urban economy of Jerusalem, riddled with corruption and injustice, was gone. In its place they could construct the city of God’s dreams—founded on justice. So the prophets help us imagine what the New City might look like—who would make the city home, what the new Temple would be like, how they’d structure the economy and think about immigration policy.

I want to share my own experience with the work of the New City.

In 2012 we began a community development project in Bubanza, a community north of the capital city in Burundi. My husband Claude would travel to the community a couple times a week to meet with leaders and plan the initial project, which involved securing identity cards for all the adults so they could experience the full benefit of citizenship

But each time he visited, he noticed processions over the brown hills. He saw the small coffins. They were burying their children. How do you help a community that is burying almost 40% of their newborns? Did we have the capacity to imagine trouncing infant mortality in this community of nearly 700 families? Safe to say we did not … at least not just yet.

We began with naming the loss and then lamenting it.

We also began to make tiny moves toward better health for the youngest and most vulnerable for the community. While we worked on the identity cards, Claude’s team identified the weakest babies and worked to get their birth certificates, allowing the families to get government healthcare for their infants.

We built an elementary school with a feeding program and a small health clinic to serve the students. Claude instructed our nurse to pay special attention to any weak babies, to make sure they got some porridge. And then she began identifying pregnant women, giving them prenatal vitamins and inviting them to the morning feeding of fortified porridge. She followed up with the women, and reminded them of the importance of drinking enough clean water from the wells, and made sure they were prepared for the births. This was informal but intentional.

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Claude never forgot those small coffins. Even though we couldn’t build a birth center or train midwives yet, even though we were a young operation still learning our way around development work, we tried these simple things alongside our other projects in the community. Maybe we could prevent some deaths as we tried to strengthen the whole community.

This past summer I sat with our nurse, Lydia. We were compiling statistics for a report I was writing about this community, now boasting over 3,000 families. “Zero infant deaths,” she said. I asked her to repeat that sentence, in case I misunderstood her English. “Zero infant deaths in the last twelve months,” she said. “And what about the mothers?” I asked. “Zero mothers died giving birth in the last twelve months,” she reported. I repeated those numbers to her, and she repeated them back to me until we realized what had just happened.

I ran out of the room and upstairs to Claude’s office. I didn’t bother to knock. I burst into his meeting and started talking. “No babies died this year in Bubanza! No mothers died!” We began crying because that’s what happens when you catch your first glimpse of the New City.

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All our little efforts, none of which seemed to be close to enough, felt like band-aids. But the memory of those small coffins kept us working, adding unofficial services “on the side” for mothers and infants almost like seed for the future. No one thought we were close to overcoming the 40% infant mortality rate in Bubanza yet.

No more shall there be in the New City an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” —Isaiah 65:20.

In the New City that God imagines, health policy overcomes infant mortality and it defeats maternal mortality. In the New City, even the disadvantaged have access to health care and they see their children live.

This is what we are working for in Burundi—more glimpses of the New City founded on justice. It is this desire to construct the New City that funds our imagination and keeps us working. We just broke ground on a health clinic that will include a birthing center and a pediatric wing. We are imagining a community where we stock more birthday candles and fewer small coffins. We believe the New City is possible, even if it comes slowly.

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I share this story because I don’t want you to stop at hope in these troubling times. Hope is the match. What comes next is the hard work of rebuilding the New City. Maybe it’s the new Bubanza, the new Vancouver, the new Baltimore. It might be better health policy that energizes you, or it might be better immigration policy, a better local elementary school, or the end of mass incarceration. But get to work! We need New Cities now more than ever. We need those willing to do the slow, steady work to construct them in the years to come.

This is our script for troubling times, according to Isaiah: Loss, lament, hope and much hard work.

Photos provided by Communities of Hope.

This is the fourth and final installment in the series on “Jerusalem and the Aftermath of the Election” by Kelley Nikondeha. Click here to read the first installment, here to read the second installment, and here to read the third installment.