I remember 13 years ago I was sitting on the porch of my house in Rwanda, East Africa with my husband and our neighbor. We sat for hours in the damp darkness of the night as he shared with us such vivid recollection of how the genocide unfolded in his life.
As his heavy words filled the air, I felt the deep wounds of his heart, and then I watched his hand point to the scars of the machete that sliced through his flesh on his face and arms. Each scar symbolized such darkness and hatred.
I couldn’t fathom such horror much less understand the indelible marks left on his soul.
I was left speechless and experienced a form of significant helplessness that was actually quite traumatizing to me. This was not because of what I heard, as hard and graphic as it was, but because of my inability to knowledgeably help this man. In that moment I came face to face with my own inadequacies. My young, naive, and dedicated fervor for the mission field wasn’t enough, and though I felt the Holy Spirit nearby, guiding and comforting and bringing healing and hope, I knew I needed to do more.
I knew God was asking me to do more.
After nearly 20 years working with people on the margins, my heart is more broken and tender than ever. I have heard more horror and pain than I would care to recollect. I am continually humbled by the courageous invitation of my friends to come and sit with them in the ashes of mourning of their lives.
However, with each invitation, there is a moment of pause before I accept, wherein I consider the cost.
When one willingly walks alongside those in deep pain, inevitably one bears the scars of anguish as well. And yet each time Jesus says, “Come. Do not fear. Walk with me as I walk with them and with you. In lament you will find much hope and through death there is resurrection.”
The path of our journey in ministry led us from the urban poor of traumatized Rwanda through to the concrete, row homes of violent Chicago housing projects to rural, war-torn Uganda to the shotgun homes of broken Miami. At each turn, I have come to the same conclusion — I have a responsibility personally to be equipped to love and serve my neighbors beyond any personal knowledge I have gleaned from my own experience.
So after settling into our Afro-Caribbean neighborhood in Miami and our family growing by three kids, I went back to school to get my Masters in Mental Health Psychology. It took me nearly six years because I didn’t take a break from life — I was still engaged fully in our neighborhood.
Staying engaged, though academically it took me much longer, was exactly what I needed to do. My professors, books, articles, and research papers taught me a lot, especially as I focused much of my course work on trauma, but my neighbors taught me the most as they continued to invite me in while courageously fighting through addiction, trauma, grief, and family brokenness.
Now, on the other side of education, though I am officially a therapist, I continue to be taught and stretched more than the classroom ever could offer me. However, I do experience a new confidence and know-how to walk further into the trenches of brokenness than I possessed before. God the Comforter weeps next to me as I listen, and his tender touch heals most profoundly. I am grateful to be asked to be a companion of the poor and broken.
To me there is no greater calling.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Erika Philip and her husband, Michael, and their three children have lived in communities of poverty in Chicago, Rwanda, Uganda, and presently in an Afro Caribbean neighborhood in Miami. Erika also works part-time as a trauma therapist with survivors of severe sexual abuse and trauma.