A Lesson Before Going on the Air: Regret, Empathy, and Rescue

STL Public RadioIt was already a busy week, but this was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.

Through her school, my daughter submitted a story last year to The Grannie Annie, a foundation that inspires students to give their family stories a voice. Her great-grandfather rode the Orphan Train from New York City to a Kansas farm, and Kharis had recorded the loneliness and fear of what a child might have felt on that ride. “Abandoned” was selected to be published in Grannie Annie, Volume 12, and we went to cheer her on when she read it at the 2017 Family Stories Festival held at the Missouri History Museum.

It was quite an experience for Kharis in June of 2017, but the opportunity grew even larger last week — Thanksgiving week. We would be hosting 10 relatives and three dogs for a few nights, but when I got a phone call last Monday inviting Kharis and I to appear on St. Louis Public Radio with a co-founder of the Grannie Annie, of course I said, “yes.”

We were to be in the studio at noon on Wednesday but were told a breaking news story could possibly delay our segment until 12:20pm. News story? I search my memory but couldn’t think of any possible breaking stories in St. Louis. I was quickly consumed again with cooking and prepping and making our house feel like a home for out-of-town family members.

On Wednesday morning, the station informed me they would indeed be delaying our interview due to covering the Ratko Mladic conviction. Ratko Mladic? I quickly googled the name and discovered he was a general responsible for the genocide in Bosnia back in the 90’s. The ethnically rooted war spanned almost three years in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a former republic of Yugoslavia with a multiethnic population comprising Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs, and Croats. Mladic, the “Butcher of Bosnia”, was responsible for the deaths of 7,000-8,000 male Bosniaks in two days, and on November 22, 2017, he was convicted over twenty years later.

Bosnian Cemetary editedOf course our interview would be delayed — St. Louis is home to the highest population of Bosnians outside of Bosnia. After living in South St. Louis during 2001-2005, I experienced this melting pot first hand. Our neighbors across the street were Bosnian, and their preschool-age girls would interpret for us. My hairstylist was Bosnian, too. She had given my now teenage son his first haircut as a toddler.

I was in my late-twenties, and I was consumed with being first-time homeowners and starting our family. Both of our kids were born when we were living in that adorable brick house with the arched front door. I was trying my best to be an incredible mom, leaving only enough energy and passion to be an adequate neighbor. I remember being so tired those years as I cared for my baby and toddler. My fatigue brought self-absorption, for I interacted with my neighbors — American, Bosnian, Albanian, and more — only when it was convenient for me. I even later carried this worldview and lifestyle to the suburbs.

If you’ve read Repurposed for a while or know me personally, you know I choke on regret often. I surrender this pattern to the Lord over and over, and I promise, I really do believe the Holy Spirit brings healing as He reminds us “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1 NIV) But the Lord does convict also, sometimes gently, and my heart began to break as “breaking news” surfaced.

We arrived at St. Louis Public Radio and were escorted to a small waiting room, separated from the actual studio by a glass wall. A woman was seated and smiled ever so slightly before we were introduced. As she spoke, it was obvious — she was from Bosnia and would be soon reliving her family’s trauma to thousands of listeners. Yes, she was there to respond to Mladic’s conviction and the genocide that stole her cousin’s life. Her studio companion revealed on the air he had lost his dad, grandpa, uncle, and cousin to Mladic.

Just moments ago, I was reminding my daughter to speak in complete sentences while on the air. And now I was silent.

We heard everything the listeners heard that day, but we could see the guests in front of their microphones through the glass. They spoke of the pain that lingered despite Mladic’s conviction. They referenced an entire population of Bosnians suffering with PTSD and the impact it’s having on a younger generation being raised by those parents. They spoke of trauma and mental illness and coping mechanisms like keeping busy.

They were right there across the street, and I shut myself in my Tudor bungalow with my babies…

Did my neighbors sleep at night?

Who had my stylist lost in the war? When our chit-chat paused, what was she thinking about as she cut my hair in that salon?

Just recently, I wrote about the importance of looking around instead of gazing ahead. Oh, to go back fifteen years and look beyond my four walls and around at my world — oh, to have engaged with that community of Bosnians. I knew about a war. I knew about their ravaged cities. I was kind, but I lacked empathy. I was consumed with stretching our one income, and getting my son and daughter on sleep schedules, and introducing the right baby foods to my kids at just the right time. I ignored the battle of my neighbors’ hearts and failed to reflect on their ravaged lives.

And there they were behind that glass, speaking of brokenness but sounding so strong. Alluding honestly to pain while attesting to moving forward. Referencing loss and grief and wrapping themselves in a vulnerability that was beyond anything I had ever dared.


I think of my King, my Protector, who Himself became a refugee at the age of two while fleeing from a ruler’s massacre. He escaped Herod’s insane wrath only to hang on a cross 31 years later. He’s the One who wrapped Himself in my shame and desolation and sacrificed Himself to rescue me.

And I am the one trying to hold together brokenness, but He’s holding out strength. I’m the one with pain unspoken, but He beckons me on and reaches for me, lifting me out of myself when I just can’t move forward. I’m the one replaying loss and grief, but He bottles up my tears and washes me into wholeness. (2 Cor 12:9, Ps 40:1-2, Ps 56:8)

All of it — it all lays in the shadow of the One who offers abundance.

      The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that
     they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. John 10:10 NKJV

God, open my eyes to the fullness You’re holding out. And open my heart to the stories that come with the people I interact with every day. Send grace to me, the one who follows You but fails to mirror You so often.

I love how He works. The last-minute invitation to be interviewed on the air, the re-lived joy over my daughter’s published article — my Maker’s story for me that day was so much bigger than our own experiences. He does it for all of us — He invites us all into a something bigger than ourselves and our own dramas. He sends perspective just when we get a bit too inward, calling us to more.

He rescues us from ourselves.

Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff via WikiTribune

 

The Orphan Train: Our Story

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I married a Kansas boy back in 1996. “The 1900’s” my daughter likes to call it. 🙂 I knew he was Italian and German in ethnicity, but he was oh, so very American in culture. Through and through. People were intrigued a boy from the heartland and a girl from New Jersey found each other.

But we did.

As a girl, I lived between Philadelphia and the shore until we moved north into New York City’s shadow. As I mentioned, I knew my husband’s paternal ancestors were from Italy, but I never gave much thought as to how they landed in Kansas. I guess I assumed they traveled west in search for land like all determined pioneers – by their own choosing, their own power, their own sheer will.

But they didn’t.


Pause and identify a real, live six year-old in your life right now. Picture her face. Say his name.


He was just six years-old and the son of Italian immigrants.

His parents had made New York City their home, for I imagine they didn’t have the means to continue their journey beyond the City That Never Sleeps. Oh, the irony of that nickname, for it reflected the tension within his parents’ hearts. I’m talking about the fear that keeps you up at night and doesn’t let you rest.

Jim Perona’s father died shortly after he was born. And his mother was left a widow raising six children. An immigrant in poverty. Grieving. Desperate. Confused that this new world hadn’t delivered like she had hoped.

I ache as I write this, for little Jim, my husband’s grandfather, never knew his dad. Never knew the man with hope. Never knew the man who took great risks to start a new life. Never knew the man that walked right onto the path of the unknown.

Jim’s path looked very much like his dad’s, but it wasn’t his own choosing.

You see, at the age of six, his mama hugged him tight and put him on the Orphan Train, never to see him again. I’m not sure how I got through 13 years of school and four years of college and never knew about this era in U.S. history. But, I kid you not, the first time I heard of the Orphan Train was while watching Samantha, an American Girl movie, with my own daughter when she was six. She was so tiny and fragile and needed her parents so very much at that age…

But it’s true. Over 100,000 children sleeping on the streets of New York were placed on the Orphan Train from the 1850’s and the 1920’s. And some parents in poverty who couldn’t possibly feed their children led their tiny sons and daughters to that boarding platform, too. The goal was to rip these kids out of hopelessness and place them into new lives in rural America.

But still… Jim was only six.

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Have you ever judged people in poverty for their decisions? Have you ever measured someone’s choices by looking only through your lens of comfort? Yeah, me too.

Jim’s story ended well, for after staying at an orphanage in Atchison, Kansas, he went to live with a family in southwestern Kansas. It was common back then for orphans to be indentured on contract to work for families. But these people eventually became Jim’s real family and the rest, I guess is history… a history we’ll never really fully know.


And here we are, resonating with parts of Jim’s story…

Some of you don’t feel a day wiser than six, and you’re begging God for wisdom to navigate this mess.

If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking. James 1:5

Some of you have been ripped from your norm and placed into a new story whirling with risk and fear and mystery.

When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
    you will not be burned. Isaiah 43:2 niv

Some of you feel rejected. Or forgotten. Or not known.

The Lord your God is with you,
    the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
    in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
    but will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:17 niv

Or maybe you’re living like an indentured servant — striving, striving, striving — trying to earn your way into the family.

Are you so foolish? Do you think you can perfect something God’s Spirit started with any human effort? …Now it is absolutely clear that no one is made right with God through the law. Galatians 3:3, 11

(And why — when we need wisdom, when we’re forced into something we didn’t choose, when we feel rejected and betrayed — why do we feel shame? But that’s another post for another day…)

I titled this post “The Orphan Train: Our Story”. And by “our” I meant the Peronas — my husband and my children, and therefore me, for I’m somehow grafted into it all.

But really, it’s all of our story, yes? For we all need wisdom, and we’re all living stories we didn’t write, and we’ve all felt unknown, and we’re all tempted to live motivated by others’ approval and acceptance.

But I promise you, we are not alone in the deep, deep water that taunts of drowning. We are not consumed in the fire.

I see your stories. And I see your wounds. But you are absolutely not identified by your brokenness, for we are His sons and daughters.

He endured the breaking that made us whole.
    The injuries he suffered became our healing. Isaiah 53:5

Pierced for us. Crushed for us. And by those very wounds, His wounds, we are healed.

Known. Chosen. Welcomed in as adopted children.

photo source | Wilson Lau

Find more details about the Orphan Train online.