I think Will was ten when I gave him the book, What is the What? by Dave Eggers for a birthday present, along with a few other books. Secretly, of course, I wanted to read that book, and that was at least a small part of my inspiration for getting it for Will.
Will loves books and relishes the idea of book shelves full of thick, classic books. He starts more books than he finishes, though, and many books get returned to the library or lost in the shelves without ever being opened.
Thinking back now, I’m confident he was far too young, at only ten, for exposure to the ideas in the book What is the What?, so I’m thankful he must have picked up on that, as evidenced by the fact that the book has sat virtually still, though displayed prominently, on his shelves since that time. I didn’t pick it up either, having never found the inspiration to choose it over other titles from my own constantly growing stack of unread books.
A few weeks ago, Will checked out the audio version of that book from the library, and I promptly borrowed it from him. After some serious negotiating, I agreed to return the discs to him as I completed them, so we could “read” it together.
What is the What? is written by Dave Eggers, but the story is a fictional account of actual events in the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese man who was relocated to the United States as part of a refugee resettlement program. Valentino asked Dave Eggers to help him tell his story.
Valentino was a victim of the Sudanese Civil War which escalated in the late 1980’s and consequently led to the deaths and uprooting of many civilians in that country. Valentino was one of what came to be known as the Lost Boys, thousands of boys and young men who were displaced during the conflict and forced to flee, on foot for hundreds of miles, to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.
As the boys traveled for months at a time, they were constantly bombarded, literally and figuratively, by dire, horrific circumstances and threats. Thousands of families, and Lost Boys, were killed as they fled, and Eggers relates stories of Valentino having to bury many of his own friends, as he struggled himself to overcome incredible odds to stay alive.
After finally making his way to Kakuma, a United Nations refugee camp in Kenya, founded upon land provided only because it was so nearly uninhabitable that no one else wanted it, Valentino learned to thrive amidst the hardship and became somewhat of a community leader among the youth in the 80,000-plus population over the ten years he spent there.
Ultimately, he was fortunate enough, having been able to avoid military involvement in the Sudanese conflict, and any other delinquent activity, to be relocated to Atlanta, Georgia as part of one of several programs attempting to provide fresh starts for the Sudanese refugees.
The book relates, though, how the trouble in Valentino’s life was far from over, though he had imagined a fairy tale existence with education and prosperity in this new and complicated country. As those of us who live here know, the United States has undeniable advantages and opportunities, but it is no Utopia. Hardship abounds, and for some, it seems almost as certain as death and taxes.
I finished the last of the 17 discs on my way home from work a few days ago, after shedding a few tears through the sorrow and hope shared by Valentino and his biographer, and I was inspired to offer some heartfelt energy seeking the comfort of God’s lap. I picked up a CD by Andrew Peterson, a long-time favorite songwriter and performing artist, and shoved the disc into the slot, after tucking away Valentino for the last time.
Andrew’s album is called The Far Country, and the sticker affixed to the jewel case carries the following quote from Andrew: “These songs are representative of what God’s been teaching me over the last few years; that believing in and longing for Heaven affects every aspect of our lives here on earth.”
At first, I wasn’t certain that this music would suit my post-Valentino mood, but after listening a bit, I was convinced it was not only appropriate, but the best possible fit. At the next convenient moment, I grabbed the jewel case again to check the order of the songs and when I opened the case, I found and read the quote included on the insert:
They did not receive the things promised, they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God. For he has prepared a city for them. –Hebrews 11:13 – 16
In some sense, though it’s hard to consider it without seemingly belittling the very real and very ugly experiences of those who have suffered the literal tragedy of such physical circumstances, I suppose we are all spiritual refugees, fleeing the onslaught of perils and finding temporary shelter in makeshift lives.
But this is a far country. This is not my home. Along with Valentino, and all of you, I continue to look for a country of my own, having had opportunities to return to where I’ve been, but desiring something greater, desiring abundant life; longing for a better country.
I’m overwhelmed, constantly, by the disproportionate and overcoming love and hope offered by my heavenly Father. He is not ashamed to be called our God. He has prepared a city for us. For me. This poor, pathetic refugee. I have a city. God built it. It’s a better country and my heart longs for it like nothing else, for God’s sake, and for all of us. Oh God!