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The Episcopal Center for Embodied Faith
Theological Reflections on Embodied Faith: Body Talk
Seeing Clearly the Second Time
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Mark 8:22-26
As a writer, it’s my job to know a good story when I hear one. I heard a great story in 2010. I was teaching theology when I heard the story of Kibera Girls Soccer Academy. Abdul Kassim was raised by his illiterate grandma in an urban slum outside Nairobi, Kenya. Wanting to honor his grandmother, he coached a girls’ soccer team in a place where soccer was a man’s sport. Once those girls started beating the boys in soccer, they realized they deserved everything the boys did. In Kibera many girls drop out of school because they can’t pay tuition. They start families as soon as they start menstruating. But Abdul’s girls wanted to go to high school. Knowing nothing about education, he started a school for his 11 soccer players. It was meant to be an informal place the girls could go during the day to stay safe. That was in 2006. Today, Kibera Girls Soccer Academy is a two-story building where 130 girls are educated. They have sports teams, arts clubs, a health clinic, and will soon have a dormitory. Today, they are sending girls to college.
This is a great story.
Abdul invited me to the slum in the summer of 2012 to write the KGSA story. I spent the summer at the school, gathering oral histories, interviewing folks and observing. The days in the slum were grueling. I had never before felt quite so white, quite so rich or quite so American. I didn’t belong. I questioned if they wanted me there, and if I was the one who should write the story. At times I felt dizzy with guilt and paralyzed by the distance between my reality and theirs. My life had been so clean, so “aristocratic,” so easy. At times, all I saw was barriers.
Despite these feelings two women in particular invited me in. Asha grew up sharing a bed and blanket with her sister. The family had no toilet or water. She and her siblings would sift through the neighbor’s trash for fruit rinds to suck on always hungry. Wanting to be a writer, Asha asked to be my intern. I helped her with her writing and she became my translator in every way. Zakiya, Abdul’s wife, invited me into her home and cooked for me often. She opened up to me about how women in town shunned her as barren and put pressure on Abdul to take a second wife. After nine years of trying, she was finally pregnant and bursting with life.
With hundreds of pages of interviews, I returned home to New York City to compile my notes and start crafting a manuscript. It turned out to be quite a year. I got pregnant. My spouse and I were so excited, filled with giddy anticipation. Then a few months later, I started bleeding and didn’t stop. I tried to reel back in all those hopes and dreams we had put out into the world. The loss felt insurmountable.
Two weeks later, my mom called to tell me that my dad was leaving her. After forty years of marriage, at age sixty-three, my mom was on her own, facing a life she never imagined. She was angry, sad, lonely, and scared. Cautiously we navigated our new normal.
I got pregnant again. We let ourselves hope again. A few months in, the doctor found the baby on the ultrasound screen and just said, “Oh. Oh no. I’m sorry. The baby stopped growing a month ago.” I watched her reach down, grab the automatic ultrasound image print out, and throw it in the trash. “We should get it out so it doesn’t cause an infection. Are you free tomorrow?”
I was free. The next day I walked in, got put under, woke up, and walked out not pregnant. And two weeks later I got on a plane heading back to Nairobi. I got my period in a bathroom in the Amsterdam airport on my way to Kenya, proof that I was really alone in my body again. My uterus was empty. Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, it is at times like these, bleeding in a bathroom in Amsterdam, that I pray to the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel. It is stories like today’s story that give me hope.
Four chapters into Mark’s Gospel, we have a story where Jesus is a little cold to his friends. Jesus is sleeping on a boat while his friends are petrified. When they wake him, he ridicules them for being afraid, rebukes the storm with his voice, and then questions their faith. He evokes awe, yet his disciples continue to not know him.
Things start to shift. He hangs out with folks he’s not supposed to, and we see a compassionate and vulnerable side to him. In Mark 5, he heals a woman seemingly without him knowing as power seeps from his cloak. In Mark 7 he lets the Syro-Phoenician woman change his mind about the dog eating the scraps from under the table. Then in Mark 8, half way through the gospel, when we know Jesus is on his way to the cross where he will take on the form of a slave, Jesus has this intimate exchange in healing a man who cannot see. As the gospel goes on, his growing compassion makes him more porous; his boundaries are dissolving, making room for relationship and solidarity. Jesus’ healing power seeping out of his spit and leaking out of his cloak is kenosis in action—Jesus’ self-emptying of privilege. People far from power respond with faith and love.
Because of the storm in Mark 4 we know Jesus is capable of healing this blind man in Mark 8 with a simple voice command. Instead, he chooses to take the man’s hand and leads him away. Thoughtful with a man who cannot see, but we can also imagine that human touch would be so important to him. Seen as a sinner, he was likely hungry for some human connection.
Then Jesus pulls a mom move- you know the one, when a mom comes at her child with saliva on her finger to clean the peanut butter or spaghetti sauce off a cheek. He uses his spit as his healing agent. Saliva is not meant for strangers.
Then Jesus asks the man for feedback, which is a little unexpected, and the man has the audacity to tell the truth! “Actually, Jesus, I can see, but I want to see clearly.” Like with the Syro-Phoenician woman, the minor character speaks up and in so doing becomes the unexpected teacher. To see clearly is no small request. It’s easy to look out into the world and see it through our own desires or our own insecurity. Thousands talk for one person who can see. Think of the seers of history—Galileo, Socrates, Martin Luther, Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela. To see clearly is to transform the world. Jesus honors the request, and touches the man again.
I find it comforting that the miracle didn’t work perfectly the first time. Healing, even for Jesus, took communication and teamwork, time, a second effort. Restoration is not a quick fix and cannot be one sided. It requires humility and listening. His vulnerable, relational, embodied ministry brings with it real transformation.
So broken, bleeding, and on my way back to the Kenyan slum, I prayed to Jesus to help me see more clearly the second time. I got off the plane in Nairobi feeling raw, but ready. I was welcomed like family. “You came back,” students remarked. “Foreigners never come back!”
I sat with Asha and we caught up for hours. Eventually she said, “My dad left my mom this year.” My breath caught. I said, “Mine did too.”
I sat with Zakiya and we talked for hours. Her baby boy died seven months into her pregnancy. She told me about her pain and loss, and I told her about mine.
The first time I went to Kibera, my sight was stunted by the human made lines that divide us- the color of my skin, my socio-economic class, the country I was born in. The second time Asha, Zakiya, and I allowed our brokenness to connect us. Standing in vulnerable solidarity, in messy relationship, allowing love and mutual respect to flow in, we could see each other more clearly, listen more fully and work toward lasting restoration.
Today, in a society where power is hoarded, hatred is visceral and lines are clear, like the blind man, we must dare to ask Jesus to help us see clearly. Humans make distinctions between the sick and the well, men and women, rich and poor, righteous and sinners. Our church can get caught contributing to the walls instead of proclaiming a new vision. If we are not busy dissolving the scaffolding that assures some thrive and others falter, then what are we busy doing? Our world needs more seers. What better time than now to beg Jesus for irises of grace.
Jesus will take us by the hand and offer us his spit. He will remind us who we are and whose we are. He will work with us in tearing down walls and dissolving boundaries, eager to fill the space created with irrational grace and abundant good news. If we get out into our communities and get busy, Jesus will meet us there. It won’t be easy or clean, but Jesus never promised us that.
1) What is hindering you from seeing yourself and your neighbor as God sees you?
2) Think about a time when letting yourself be vulnerable allowed for more authentic relationships to form. Who is someone in your life that would benefit from your willingness to be vulnerable?
3) If you as an individual and you as part of a community committed to seeing the world more clearly, what tangible steps could you take to inform your sight?
For Further Exploration
1) If you’d like to hear more about Asha, Zakiya, and the KGSA community, read the KGSA story in my latest book, Play Like a Girl.
2) Read through Mark’s Gospel, noting whom Jesus is with, how he treats them, and what the reaction is. What role do bodies play in each story? What does healing look like?
3) Go back to a place you have been before, sit down with people you have spoken to before with fresh eyes and an open heart. See what happens to your relationships and your work when vulnerable listening and collaboration move us toward restoration.
4) Read David E. Fredrickson’s Eros and the Christ, which looks at the original Greek word for love in Paul’s writing in terms of longing and the loosening of boundaries.
About the Author: Ellie Roscher writes, edits and teaches at the crossroads of faith, simplicity, gender, sexuality and justice education. Author of Play Like a Girl and How Coffee Saved My Life, she lives in Minneapolis with her spouse and two sons.