“But how could you live and have no story to tell?” Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights
How many of our stories start with “I met a guy?” Just as this one will. We were in the backyard of my daughter’s home in California earlier this spring during a birthday block party and cookout in the cul-de-sac out front for a neighbor turning ninety. One of their neighbors drifted in to see some of the yard improvements completed to adapt to the needs of two small active girls during a pandemic. Rodney’s daughter came as well, and the three girls ran helter-skelter testing the limits of swings, water tables, trapezes, trampolines, and slides. While the children joyfully yelped and played, we became acquainted in the way strangers sometimes do in unplanned encounters.
He was a tall African immigrant with an open demeanor and a pleasant face well accustomed to an easy smile. In early remarks, Rodney told me he was a field implementer for a large software company who pre-COVID travelled frequently to help customers install their manufacturing and business controlling software. He educated owners, trained managers, and taught line employees how to get the most out of their expensive investment.
I told him I had worked with folks like him and been involved several times in my career with traumatic “go live” transitions to new company operating systems. We agreed immediately that the most vexing challenge was employee resistance to the whole trying process of redoing almost every aspect of how everyone does their job, accesses the data they need, and controls what they need to control. Even if their old operating system was obsolete and nearly useless, line employees and managers developed their own “work arounds” for its deficiencies and were comfortable with, proud of, and dependent on those accommodations. His is a tough job. A positive outcome, despite huge investment and commitment from owners, is not guaranteed and can fail, causing no end of unhappy employers and employees.
We struck a quick and mutual understanding with that short, comfortable chat, and he decided to open the door to a deeper conversation, for which I will be grateful for a long time. Rodney emigrated from the United Kingdom when he enrolled at Boston University, majoring in finance. After graduating, he took a job with Fidelity researching corporations and evaluating potential investments. He told me he was disheartened in an aggressive and highly competitive position; after three years of difficult paid post graduate education in the ways of business, he found a new job as a trainer and manufacturing software implementation project manager and enjoyed it. All a typical exploratory career path story — understandable given his laid back, sunny personality, and obvious strong communication skills. He relished engaging with real people and helping them.
Then came the rest of the story. He grew up in a prosperous home in Uganda, one of twelve children of three wives, and the son of the man who occupied the desk analogous to the one held by the Chairperson of the Fed in the United States. His father’s boss was Idi Amin, one the cruelest of African dictators and a murderous psychopath[i]. Complicating his position, his father remained grandfathered in his job from when his tribe and religion (Catholicism) had held sway prior to the coup and takeover by Amin’s tribe and Muslim religion. He precariously balanced there for a while due to his merit, experience, and profound understanding of the complexities of currency and finance.
Rodney explained to me that in Uganda, as in many African countries, tribe and religion were defining characteristics that established all relationships. If your tribe and religion were in power, your job, lifestyle, prosperity, and social position were comfortable. Corruption is a given, and to survive you must acquiesce in it. If you were not well connected to the current government, you were lucky to feed and shelter your family at a subsistence level. When politics and power changed hands, often violently, prospects could transform overnight, not just those at the head of the government, but everyone down the line.
Amin accepted Rodney’s father because of his reputation and skills, but incrementally ratcheted up pressure to increase the money supply and leverage in an inflationary, ruinous manner to fund Amin’s vision of power, armaments, and control. Rodney’s father advised, cajoled, and ultimately refused to ruin the country’s economy. Shortly afterwards, he was disappeared. Rodney never saw his father or two of the wives again. His own mother and all twelve of the children fled in the middle of the night with the clothes on their backs, running for their lives. He was ten years old.
They shuttled from sanctuary to sanctuary in small Catholic parishes, traveling on foot always at night for several hundred miles until they finally crossed into Kenya and found relative safety in a crowded refugee camp. For the next year, they met with authorities and worked to find a permanent home. Several times his mother was offered the option to split up the children – four to the UK, four to Canada, and four to Australia. Each time she insisted that they stay together. Eventually her determination won out, and they emigrated intact to England. From there he rebuilt his life, pursued his education, and began his career, eventually meeting his wife in the United States, and together settling with their children in California.
“Tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.” Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993
When next I am tempted to self-pity or whining about some petty inconvenience or slight, I will recall his story. Rodney’s inner joy, trust, and upbeat demeanor are not put on, nor is it a pollyannish denial of the cruelty and alienation inflicted so often on the defenseless. He has seen it in person. Not flimsy optimism, but hope, and hope as a virtue and a soul deep choice in how he faces forward each day.
We talked for another half hour or so. He remains a practicing Catholic, and his faith and trust is not just a Sunday habit; he has a devotion to the Eucharist that sustains and strengthens him. He and his wife volunteer at a local refugee center affiliated with his parish, ministering as best they can to the flood of immigrants, documented and otherwise, that live in Southern California. The distress and fear he encounters do not dishearten him; they ennoble him.
The previous week a Somalian[ii] man came to him for help pursuing a refugee status. Should he be deported back to Somalia, where persecution and murder of Catholics and other Christians is commonplace, he would most likely be killed and die in a prolonged and painful way.
Somehow the Somalian had cobbled together enough for an unorthodox plane ticket and managed passage to Brazil in an overcrowded plane. Once in Brazil and COVID desolation, he found no further aid or direction for a new life, so he started walking. And how he walked. He walked through the rest of South America to Columbia, crossing each perilous border. Pressing ever northward, he traversed the entire span of Central America: Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and finally across the heavily guarded border into Mexico. At every juncture, he risked prison, deportation, further exploitation, or death – foraging for food along the way – over 4,300 miles. Once in Mexico, there followed another 1,900 miles of dusty, hot roads through that dangerous country, always headed toward his dreamt about promised land of the United States. Rodney told me that after he and his wife heard the harrowing details, they arranged for another friend, an attorney, to try and help the distressed man stay, but his new friend’s security is far from assured. Rodney told me that he had to leave the room soon afterwards so his tears could not be seen.
Rodney told me if ever he ever went back to Uganda, he would necessarily have to adapt to living a corrupt life of bribery and kickbacks as the only means of survival, so absent unimaginable cultural transformation there, he will never again return to the magnificent geography and biological diversity of the land of his birth.
Remarkably, he carries no burden of bitter resentments over the murder of his father or the ordeal of hundreds of miles of fear filled night walking. He nurtures only gratitude for the strength and courage of his mother and the help given along the way of their desperate pilgrimage by poor rural parishioners risking their lives to provide shelter. The opportunity and promised freedom in the country that adopted him drew them ever onward, was real, and they made it[iii]. And our country is better for welcoming him.
Most especially, he treasures the miracles of his wife, his family, and the faith that saw him through. He is compelled by love to give back some of the love he received and serve those who are suffering similar calamities. He recognizes in them a yearning for freedom, a yearning with which he can empathize in his heart as few others can.
“The theological virtue of hope is the patient and trustful willingness to live without closure, without resolution, and still be content and even happy because our Satisfaction is now at another level, and our Source is beyond ourselves.” Richard Rohr
[i] Supreme Commander/President Amin assumed control Uganda in a military coup in 1971 when his military record of corruption was about to be investigated by the first Milton Obote administration. One of Amin’s favorite methods of “fraternal correction” was personally administered with a three-pound hammer, which he would wield with his strong arm until there were very few square inches of unpulped flesh left on the poor soul being disciplined. Or the screams stopped. Whichever came first. During his reign of terror, Uganda was appointed to join the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, joining China, Russia, Pakistan and other stalwarts of human freedom.
[ii] Persecution of Christians in Somalia: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/world-watch-list/somalia/
[iii] The latest Homeland Security data compiled through 2019 shows over 549,000 immigrants from African nations were granted permanent resident (green card) status in the United States from 2015 to 2019, and an additional 816,000 primarily minority green card holders from Caribbean countries like Jamaica and Haiti. At an average of 1.1 million total green cards issued per year, just these two predominantly black demographic areas account for about 25% of all new legal permanent residents in that five-year period. Apparently both the immigrants and immigration officials seem to be blissfully unaware of the “systemic racism” for which the U.S. is so often condemned in academic lounges and political rallies. https://www.dailysignal.com/2021/05/13/coming-to-america-africans-caribbeans-flock-to-systemically-racist-us/