An afternoon's walk down a gravel road, headed whichever way wound towards the sea. I pause to lift my face toward the sunshine, to admire a farmyard with orderly rows of cabbages and a whiff of manure, friendly goat faces staring back at me, the rusting turquoise curlicues of some former adornment now mending the fence.
And the tears come over the simple, homespun beauty against the wild backdrop of the sea - the sea in all its glory like a sapphire set in clay. The tears come with the memory of the day before, the force of the waves as I walked the pier, an old rusted anchor, an abandoned plywood raft of dubious seaworthiness, the desperation one must feel to put self and family in a so-called boat and brave the miles towards uncertain asylum. The tears come, too, at being reminded (as the sea always does) of the fierce, unfathomable love God has for me, for my team, for those we serve.
The brown-and-white setter has named himself my companion. He runs back and forth, impatient with my meandering, glancing hospitably over his shoulder to see if I'll keep up. I am glad for his company.
"We have this hope as an anchor for the soul," I'd thought as I snapped a shot of that twisted hunk of metal leaning against a white chapel wall like it was posing for a still life. ("Someone should put that verse from Hebrews and a cool filter on me and Instagram it," he'd surely thought.) Some hopes decay like that. The refugees come into the camps with eyes full of hope because they've survived the journey at all odds and now they're in Europe, blessed Europe where dreams come true. Have they read the news? Do they know about the walls, the protests, the politics? Do they know about the sexual assaults on New Years Eve, right beside the cathedral I've explored in Cologne, and how everyone seems to be calling foul on letting migrants in? (Although they were hardly the only perpetrators.) Did they see that sad sham of a cartoon, saying that sweet little Aylan would have grown up to grope women in Germany? How long before their hopes are rusty? How many will still be waiting for a permanent refuge?
"You have to be kind to me," one Syrian asylum-seeker said upon his arrest after the horror in Germany. "Mrs. Merkell invited me." And that's what makes the papers. Not Ani, the 15-year-old who sings us an Afghan song and wants to be a doctor when she grows up so she can help people. Not the young Syrian mother who needs help climbing into a top bunk because she's never roughed it a day of her upperclass existence - and yet she tells us that when the coast guard came to them in the water, she'd called out, "Just take my babies! Take my friend! Leave me!" Her husband is out working on their paperwork, though it's the middle of the night. I help her spread blanket after blanket across the top bunk, because all the mattresses are occupied. "What's your opinion, is it good?" she asks, and I don't know what to say because it's blankets over metal slats on a bunk in a dark, dank room that used to be a prison cell. I'm taller by far, so I lift her 5-year-old into the bed. Then I boost her in, too, and take the baby from her blankly staring friend to lift him up to his mother. Both women can't be much older than my students.
That same night another woman is carried in because she's in labor. Her mother and eight or nine other children come, too; I'm not sure whose kids are hers, whose are her mother's. But they rush her off in an ambulance, and there are her traumatized mum and those kids, all hacking and sniffling terribly and wondering if she's ok, with no translator to explain what's happening. We put dry clothing on the kids, try to get them to eat. "Take this, Honey Bunny," the British volunteer doctor says as he hands around cough syrup. They're clearly quite ill, and cough syrup seems like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound. Which is kind of how it feels to be giving blankets to people who are fleeing a civil war, smiling and telling them I'm glad they made it when what I want to do is offer them the Hope I've been given, the anchor of my soul. But they can't even understand that I'm trying to show them where to sleep. The British doctor pantomimes that the younger woman is going to give birth at the clinic. The matriarch lisps out her only English phrase: "Thank you."
At six the next morning I bring a bottle to the youngest, whose mother is still at the clinic. She's the only one awake, watching her sisters cuddled on the floor. I feed her, rock her to sleep, barely able to keep my own eyes open, murmuring prayers, and this, too, makes me cry. Then I lay her down next to her family.
The next time I look for them, they've left.
We drive home from the third night shift in a row on a grey mid-morning after a storm that's strewn the mountain roads with limbs and gravel. "This is the time of year when the sea regrets her life," I tell whoever is awake in the van. (The lack of sleep, or maybe the island itself, makes me fantastical. I've also told them that the twisted, silvery olive trees dance at night when we aren't looking.) "The white caps are proof of her resentment. She left her one true love and settled for someone whose safe and good, but she didn't love him. She's had a good life. She's not unhappy. But in the wintertime she remembers and regrets. She could have gone back to him and made things right. She should have. But she was too proud. Now she wishes she hadn't been so young and foolish." Later I decide that her true love must be the sky, grey and moody right along with her. She left him for the mountain. A solid, practical choice, but her heart was never the same.
That afternoon I walk down to join the sea in her brooding. The cold drizzle bounces off my hood, and I'm glad for my waterproof boots, glad and guilty, because I've seen what the refugees are wearing. There's a lifejacket bobbing empty a few yards out. I cry now, and pray: "God, I want to do more, do more, do more!" I dream of moving to Syria to rebuild. The war can't last forever. I dream of a life in Afghanistan, making friends and drinking tea and sharing Jesus. "I'll start a school, I'll adopt, I'll do anything, just let me go!" The lifejacket bobs on. I don't want to think about the precious lives that have slipped beneath those waves. I love them, too, the gentle whisper reminds me. He has not forgotten them. A bird swoops from a nearby tree, snatches up her baby midair, brings it to safety. I think of the snot-nosed child I rocked to sleep. A sparrow cannot fall without his notice. I sing, "From the rising of the sun to its going down, let the name of the Lord be praised."