Pain as Gateway of Transformation

By Joel Van Dyke

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

Genesis 21:19

Our Old Testament lectionary reading this week in Genesis 21:8-21 submerges us into a desert of pain for a woman named Hagar: “She went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, I cannot watch the boy die. And as she sat there, she began to sob.”

At Street Psalms we recognize our own pain and the pain of others as the primary gateway of transformation. We are wounded healers; we recognize that, as Richard Rohr says, “if we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” The way of the cross demands disorientation and loss on the way to renewal and life, both for individuals and communities.

In the “desert region” of Guatemala there is a men’s prison with a surprising group of residents. In what used to be the dining hall, a ragtag group of girlfriends, wives, sisters, and mothers of a hated group of Central American gang members sleep under and on top of cement slab tables. After an altercation in their previous “home,” the only option the prison system could find for the women was a converted dining hall in this out-of-the way facility.

One of the chaplains in our network began receiving requests from the gang members with whom he worked to please go and check on their “girls” for fear of their safety. After one visit, he could not stay away and started taking the three-hour ride every other week. On one of those trips he invited me to tag along, and I will never forget what I saw and experienced that day.

We entered the men’s prison and had to pass down a long corridor lined with shirtless, tattooed men looking out from locked cells. We came to a locked gate, and from the hallway could see several bed sheets hanging from the ceiling, visually blocking the former dining hall, now home to a couple dozen women – most of them guilty only by association to the incarcerated men they called brothers, boyfriends, or husbands.

We were allowed to enter and meet with the women. After a couple hours of small talk, we began a conversation centered in Hagar. The women quickly saw themselves in the story. They could relate to being unnamed and used as property by people who held positions of authority and power over them. They knew what it felt like to live in “deserts” of loneliness caused by rejection and marginalization. In Hagar’s story, they found their own, and they were captivated by surprise and wonder when they learned that Hagar was the first to name God.

A few weeks after our visit, the chaplain was able to complete the first phase of a prison remodeling project to build a cement block wall that physically separated the women from the men. Upon completion of that wall, the idea emerged to paint a mural. A discussion ensued as to what the women wanted to paint. They unanimously decided on the story of Hagar with the words, “El Dios Que Me Ve” (“The God Who Sees Me”) as the focal point.

As relationships with these amazing women have continued, it is clear that the desert of pain where these present-day Hagars find themselves has allowed them to see the great El-roi in a profound and unique manner. Ironically, the institutional church in Latin America often attempts to avoid pain – and in so doing, marginalizes the very people, like these women, who can provide the vision and sight the church so desperately needs.

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms partner in Guatemala City