“Next year in Jerusalem.” The words at the end of the Passover seder always give me chills. How many Jews over how many generations have longed to celebrate in the Holy Land. This past year, though, I was faced with a dilemma. I wouldn’t be celebrating Passover in Jerusalem or even, as usual, at the festive table of Nancy and Charlie Behrend in suburban Denver. I would be adrift, working half a world away in Kampala, Uganda. The possibility of Passover without family, friends and a seder loomed large.
Three colleagues and I were heading to Kampala to work on a series of videos about a Boulder, Colorado based non-government organization called BeadforLife beadforlife.org that is making a big difference in the lives of Ugandans suffering from poverty so extreme that it kills. It is a collaboration of cultures and compassion. Women in Uganda, whose lives have been crushed by the modern day plagues of civil war, HIV/AIDS, hunger and homelessness, make colorful bead jewelry out of recycled magazine pages. Women in North America sell them and the money goes back to Uganda for education, health care and housing. Until two years ago, the only way these women and their families survived was by working in a rock quarry, crushing stones for $ 1 a day. Each day was spent in the never-ending pursuit of just enough to get families to the next day. Babies were lost to disease or sometimes tossed out, children went to sleep hungry, parents succumbed to AIDS and left children orphaned and alone. Like the night of Passover in biblical times, death was at everyone’s doorstep.
We spent the trip in the slums of Kampala. Witnessing the way more than half of the world lives was life altering. Thousands crowd into the Acholi Quarter which is teeming with refugees from a senseless and brutal 19 year civil war up north. People live in a red dirt world without electricity, running water, sewage systems and in many cases, hope. Children have distended bellies and tattered clothes. Homes are made of sticks and mud that fall apart in the rain. Yet over the course of our stay we witnessed an incredible welling of spirit and generosity. What little there was, was shared. Smiles were warm and abundant. Everyone had light in their eyes. They sang and danced through their suffering. Women like Naiga Mary, Rose Namukasa, Achan Grace, Millie Grace and Jajja Josephine, who refused to be defeated by their poverty, were earning income by making beads and their hard work was blessing entire families and communities.
In this setting we celebrated Passover. Our hosts, Dr. Charles Steinberg, a noted AIDS doctor, teaching native physicians how to administer antiretroviral drugs and treat the disease which has killed off an entire generation of Africans, and his wife, Torkin Wakefield, the co-founder of BeadforLife, stepped up and put together a Passover seder in their apartment. Their friend, William, a former Catholic priest, who has spent decades ministering in Africa, joined us. Of the four on our production team, two had never experienced a Passover seder before. We lit candles and prayed we would heal and not harm. We could not find any matzah in all of Kampala so we improvised and ate the Indian flatbread called nan instead. On the cover of our makeshift Haggadah was “Escape from the Quarry.” The word Haggadah means “the telling” and recounts the story of the escape of the Jews from Egypt. In light of what we were witnessing the flight from slavery was a powerful tale of freedom and liberation.
In the preface to our Haggadah we were reminded to let the ritual inspire us to relieve suffering, work against injustice, recommit to our own spiritual awakening and leave a trail of goodness as we walk through the world. We reflected on what parts of our character we wished to wash away, and as our weaknesses became clear we completed the thought with an emphatic Kayn Yihee Ratzon- “so be it.” We discussed the nuances of the seder, asked the four questions and told the story of how God sent plagues to the Egyptians which finally forced Pharaoh to free the Jews. We prayed mightily to cast away the plagues of our modern lives:
Teaching of hate and predjudice.
Greed and avarice.
Abuse of Mother Earth.
Hunger. Especially here in Africa.
Corruption of justice and government.
Breakdown of families and communities.
Oppression of nations and peoples.
Making of war.
Apathy and hopelessness.
Mostly we talked about the incredible resolve we were witnessing and how a circle of compassion and connection was transforming lives. As we sat together we considered what we were thankful for. With the Dayenu we proclaimed “enough” and promised not to focus on what’s lacking in our lives but to be grateful for all our blessings. After witnessing suffering and redemption in the slums of Kampala it became so apparent that we have amazing blessings in our country, gifts that people in the Third World can’t even fathom. By remembering the bitterness of oppression we could savor the sweetness of freedom, a freedom we wished upon all the people of the world who are enslaved by poverty and chaos. We prayed for peace and opened the door for Elijah and welcomed him. Could any of the women who toiled in the rock quarry for $ 1 a day be Elijah fulfilling his promise to return as a poor person to see how he would be treated? Could we reach within ourselves and cast out the curses of our world that afflict hearts and countries like those in Africa and do our part to grant the troubled continent peace? At our table in Kampala we concluded with the words that are said at every seder in every part of the world. “This year we celebrate here, but next year in Jerusalem.”