I like documentaries. I’ll admit it. I’m kind of a “doc” snob, actually. But when I finally sat down to watch All God’s Children about the horrific MK abuse in the 1960s at Mamou, a Christian & Missionary Alliance boarding school, my heart just wasn’t prepared to be that broken.
First, there was the obvious realization as I watched, that all missionaries in the 60s still dressed as if it were the 50s–whether Baptist missionaries in Bangladesh or C&MA missionaries in Africa. (It’s as if there were a missionary dress code back then, right?) So these pictures and images along with the hymns being sung on the documentary’s soundtrack, instantly transported me to the far away place I spent my own childhood. Where time sometimes seemed to stand still, in part because people often dressed, so charmingly and with admirable innocence, just a few decades behind American fashion.
But for me, the soundtrack of All God’s Children was one of the hardest parts. Music is like my time machine. And maybe there is just something about the sound of 30 to 40 American missionaries singing hymns in a brick building with a tin roof and a concrete floor and a badly tuned piano that pushes me over the edge.
Memories that should be beautiful, songs that should be sacred, are tainted for me, because quite often the man leading us in my mind, the man singing the best and the loudest in the chambers of my little time machine … is not someone I want to remember.
But more than that little trip in my time machine, when I watched All God’s Children, and I heard the stories of horrible abuse at Mamou, I was struck with the repetition of an awful phrase: “No charges filed.”
These crimes happened on foreign soil, you see. And so even those abusers who have confessed their guilt are seemingly immune to real justice, because our laws have not yet (not yet) been altered to protect little American children on foreign soil.
In contrast to All God’s Children, I recently sat down to watch Witch Hunt, about the wrongful child abuse convictions of about a dozen or so parents in Kern County, California. These people were victims of ambitious prosecutors and investigators who did not know what they were doing in the 1980s–investigators who would interrogate 6-year-old children for hours on end, until they got the answers they wanted. Innocent people were sent to prison on outrageous charges of child molestation for as many as twenty years in one case, before convictions were finally overturned and these individuals were set free by these same children (now adults) taking a stand for truth.
I began Witch Hunt as a skeptic, thinking I wouldn’t feel much sympathy for the accused. But by the end I was weeping, just as I had in All God’s Children. There are several parallels between these documentaries. One is this: Little children are powerfully influenced by the adults in authority around them. The other follows closely and logically: Little children must sometimes grow into adults before they are able to speak the truth and seek justice, speaking out against the authority figures of their childhood. And, speaking of truth and justice, both documentaries contain the same third painful reality: That justice in this life is sometimes just out of reach.
You can’t give people back years of their lives. You just can’t. And you can’t give someone a new childhood.
So where is the victory for all of these people? Truth has finally been spoken, but will justice ever really be in their grasp?
I admit I was torn for a while, pondering these thoughts about truth and justice and victory in my head. And then an old hymn began to echo in my mind this morning, by John Yates and Ira Sankey: “Faith Is the Victory.” I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I can’t even begin to guess the last time I heard it sung, and yet there it was … stuck in my subconscious, like a little splinter in my heel. I couldn’t get it out.
And then I began to realize that maybe right there in that hymn lies the answer: That sometimes the only victory in this life is our faith — being able to hang onto it, no matter how much injustice we see. I’m not sure that’s what Yates and Sankey meant, but it’s how I hear that chorus this morning:
Faith is the victory!
Faith is the victory!
O, glorious victory,
That overcomes the world.
As I looked up the hymn in my old hymnal, my eyes were drawn to the song that followed it, just below the chorus on the page. It’s one I was not familiar with, called “Peace, Perfect Peace.” So I read the lyrics.
Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin?
The blood of Jesus whispers peace within.
Peace, perfect peace, by thronging duties pressed?
To do the will of Jesus, this is rest.
I have much on my heart today, but oddly enough God sent calm through these hymns, which are, to me, unlikely messengers. But they are there in my heart and right in front of me despite my sometimes adverse reaction to the worship music of my childhood.
I do think that holding onto faith is our victory, and I do think that doing the will of God is our peace. For me, I intend to work toward justice, as I believe that is the will of God. And I will not let injustice crush my faith along the way.
There is still work to be done, to protect the children of American missionaries, to get justice for the children of American missionaries who are now grown adults.
And I hope that you will stay with us through this journey, no matter how long it takes or how many times we must remind each other again and again to hold to the balance of justice and mercy and to cling to our faith as we do the will of God, wherein our own peace may be found.
And maybe living in — make that thriving in — that continuous pattern, in all it’s tiresome redundancy and beautiful simplicity, will be our sweet victory.