Sermon by Roland Russoli

July 20, 2008

Good Morning my name is Roland Russoli

Michael announced last week that I would be giving a sermon on our time in Africa. I am uncomfortable with the word sermon, to me it implies order, you know three points and a poem and these last three years have been anything but orderly. My first draft of this talk could have been called Hannibal Lector meets Marco Polo, but after considering the Baptist ( or as close as you get to Baptist ) crowd in this room I left all the scary people, dark alleys, and knife carrying stories out of this talk.

College Park has changed a lot since we have been gone. Many of your faces are unfamiliar to me, but luckily there is enough of the old guard remaining, that it still seems like home. I have more grey hair then I had when I left here, but it has been a rough couple of years. Sarah and I have lost seven family members while we were away. Sarah’s Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Walt, who were dear to both of us, my Aunt Jody, my cousin Carol, my brother Henry, my mother Corinne, and my son Andrew who was killed in Iraq and who would have celebrated his 24th birthday on this very day of July 20th.

Frederick Nietzsche said “life breaks us all and we heal stronger at the broken places “, The Joker in the new Batman movie said, “what doesn’t kill me makes me stranger “both quotes have a strong element of truth connected to them. Andrew’s death was devastating to me, the mental pain was so intense, I couldn’t run far enough or fast enough to get away from it. and in the night streets of Ulanbaatar, Mongolia I often welcomed  an opportunity to inflict some justice on the unjust world that took away my son, but luckily the only thing that I found  was a certain calm that came from, the absence of fear in dark places.  Wendell Berry once wrote “To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark go without sight and find that the dark too blooms and sings and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings .”

Luckily time passed and the Buddhist idea of being in the moment began to sink in and I began to look for something positive to do. The orphanage run by the French nuns was a Godsend, even though my first job there was to be in charge of the homeless men’s shower, which was a community outreach part of the orphanage. Having at least 15 men on any given morning with at least half of them drunk and at least a third of those throwing up on themselves and always fighting to get in from the cold, was an experience I will never forget. The orphans themselves were magic, such incredible joy. I am talking about 12 boys and 12 girls who range in age from 4 to 7 that even though, one, such as young Joseph, who was pulled out of a garbage can as a baby where he had been left to die, can still display a zest for life that would put most of us to shame.

There was absolute joy that Sarah and I were privileged to experience, especially during the two Christmas’s that we were allowed to spend with them. We bought them new toys instead of  hand me downs they were use to getting, and actually got the opportunity to look into their eyes ( as I was dressed as Santa Claus giving them their packages) and see real magic, as their little faces lit up the room. We had given them candy canes, with the gifts and each one them sat down on the floor and ate the candy canes first before even looking at their wrapped gifts. Those children knew how to appreciate and savor every little  pleasurable moment that came their way. When the children of College Park  sent handmade valentines to them they each received a valentine and they made us read the cards and they laughed and showed each other this unusual treasure from a far away land.
We could all learn much from watching these children whose families gave them away.

The only thing that Mongolia and Mauritania have in common is the letter M.
The principal religion in Mongolia is primarily Buddhist Mauritania is only Muslim both the Arabs or White and Black Moors and the African tribes which include the Pular, Wolof, and Soninke all practice the same religion.
The lowest temperature that we experienced in Mongolia was 45 plus degrees below zero and the highest temperature in Mauritania was 140 plus degrees above zero.

Mongolia has four thousand street children who in the winter, live in
the sewers, where the heating pipes of the city are located, in order to keep warm. Try to imagine children 10 or 12 years old having to deal with all of the creatures that go bump in the night, who live in such places, and the horrors that must occur on every cold winter night.
As you drive down the streets of Nouakchott, Mauritania the center of the road where a medium strip ought to be ,instead is lined with beggars, many with gross deformities, that I can hardly describe to you. People crawling on the hot macadam on their knees with twisted hands and feet from a variety of birth defects that would have been taken care of at birth here in the U.S.  All of them begging for their daily bread each and every day.

In both Africa and Asia there are no enforced traffic rules. If traffic in the street gets too frustrating cars simply drive up on the sidewalk, leaving the pedestrians running for their lives. The drivers and I use the term loosely, consistently make right hand turns from the left lane or visa versa with no signals or regard for the other drivers. They talk on their cell phones and don’t even cast a glance to the street in front of them. (I guess that happens here too) I actually broke the horn in our car from pounding it in frustration at the idiots I would encounter every day. And the things that I was saying as I was pounding the horn, I won’t even attempt to relate, even though this is College Park and you have probably heard much worse coming from the pulpit.

The Mongolian Buddhists have a love of the earth and nature.  They are accepting, friendly, engaging, and a joy to be around.
The Mauritanian Muslims are serious.  Many of them complete fatalists in their attitudes about the world and how man can impact his society.   And joy is missing from their lives; the word “amusement” seems to be the closest thing in translation of fun that they can understand.
Mongolian holidays are about family, food and presents. They eat mutton dumplings called ” bootz ” and boast about how many they made and consumed, they eat horse, camel, and curds and they drink airag, which is fermented mare’s milk and even though it is slightly alcoholic even the children love it. When you serve slightly alcoholic horse milk to children you usually have quieter children some of you might want to look into that. The adults consume vodka like it was water. Once you open a bottle of vodka you do straight shots with plenty of toasts until the bottle is finished or you are face down in the dirt. We attended a picnic one day and there were 20 people and about fifteen bottles of vodka which by the end of the picnic were all consumed. One van did have to stay behind and wait for several of the revelers to wake up.  Mongolia was very hard on our livers.

Mauritanian holidays are primarily religious. Their holidays all include praying at the mosque and in some cases eating mutton and drinking sweet tea. In Mauritania you are served tea three times a day, five times a day both men and women go down on their knees, face Mecca and pray. The only time of the year that dancing is common is on Mauritanian Independence Day but the men dance with the men and women with women , there isn’t any public touching between men and women not even holding hands.
Mongolians hate the Chinese, they say they smell funny, they walk like Charlie Chaplin, and they are always taking Mongolian women back to China. The Mauritanians who are Arabs hate the Africans and consider them low class, the Africans say that the Mauritanians don’t wash and they don’t take care of anything they run their cars into the ground and let their houses go to waste and then simply move. Mauritanians don’t think much about nature, plastic bags and bottles are just thrown all over the streets and the streets are continuously being used as a toilet. I worked for the Finance Ministry for  six months and the only inside toilet was stopped up all that time even though it was used every day, the last month I was there the air conditioner was broken and even though I complained about both of these issues daily the repairs never took place.

Mongolia had street cleaners out every day with brooms sweeping the public streets and Mongolians had almost a fetish for scrubbing the floors and steps of the buildings.
The Arab women wear mulafas, which are long bolts of cloth that covers them completely; in fact if a single Arab woman wanted to be more alluring to a prospective suitor (who was first approved by the family) she would show a little more wrist of a hint of ankle. (And that’s it so don’t wonder why the Muslims always seem angry at everything)
The African women wear bright colors and over the shoulder dresses that only accentuate
their jet black skin and are quite stunning.
The Mongolian women wear tight western clothes; enjoy karaoke bars and dancing and even when there is ice on the ground wear leather boots with four inch stiletto heels………………..mercy.
The men both wear men clothes except in Mauritania where the men clothes are covered with a Booboo which is basically a bed sheet in either white or blue.

These three years have truly been a journey that included the Great Wall of China, climbing the temple steps of Angkor Watt in Cambodia, the markets of Saigon, the breathtaking beauty of Thailand, and the intrigue of the back streets of Morocco.  Moments like coming out of Mongolian ger in the middle of the night and having to walk through a herd of horses (watching where I stepped of course) and seeing a sky so huge and full of stars that they seemed to go on forever ….made this a journey that I will always remember.

Sarah and I will always remember your generosity with the orphanage and the encouragement, thoughts and prayers from you that sustained us daily. I must give a special thank you to Michael who sent us books and videos at least once a month for the three years we were gone. And I would also thank Mark File for the hard work and faithfulness in doing that incredible blog site that allowed us to share our experience with the whole church.

Michael asked me to relate what I learned in the last three years:
I learned that life is pain and if you don’t hold on to the pain most of it will pass through you given a little time.
I learned that the Buddhist practice of staying in the moment will allow you a measure of joy that you would never otherwise experience.
I learned that you should never pass up an opportunity to share a moment with someone you love because when those moments pass they are sometimes gone forever.
And most importantly I learned from some movie that ” life isn’t about the breathes you take it’s about the moments that take your breath away.”
Never let those pass you by, keep the faith…………..thank you.