The shot is true, a low laser, past an outstretched goalie, into the corner of the net. After he scores, Mr. Parker performs a joy-unrestrained airborne jig, and bumps torsos with another teammate as the fans dance and cheer, GOOOOOOAL!
What makes this story so special? Mr. Parker has only one leg. The other was amputated during Liberia’s 14-year devastating civil war.
Mr. Parker’s stride-with metal crutches and arm braces-is a cross between a gallop and a hop, a motion that is both graceful and athletic. It is extraordinary football (or soccer in our translation) to watch, because every player, including the goalie, is an amputee.
(This is not about sympathy. In the land of the one-legged, the rules require that the one-armed man is the goalie. The goal is half as wide as a regulation net. But the goalie can’t leave the box and he can touch the ball only with his intact arm, not his stump.)
Here’s what impacted me. The people watching no longer see defects. “Now,” in the words of one of Mr. Parker’s teammates, “people talk to me like I am a human being.”
I’m hooked watching the World Cup. (And I’m rooting for England.)
Anyway, it all made me think of Mr. Parker’s story. And of a day, some years back, while sitting in a pub expecting SportsCenter, when I watched an ESPN special on Liberian football. (It’s not good form to cry at happy hour in any pub. I don’t really know if that’s the rule, but somehow, I’ve internalized it. So, I pretend I have an allergy. Regardless, I can’t get the picture of Mr. Parker and his teammates out of my head.)
Mr. Parker likes the way strangers greet him on the street with shouts of “Big Player.” Which is a lot better than a year ago, when they used to jeer and call him “Killer.” Dennis Parker is not the only casualty of Liberia’s war. There are thousands like him. Amputees. And after the war, they became the burden and blemish of Liberian society. “A disabled man is useless here,” says one player.
Back then, people would see him–a beggar with one leg–and guess correctly that he had lost the other one fighting in Liberia’s civil war. In that conflict, boys were given an AK-47 assault rifle, and sugar-cane alcohol to make him brave enough to use it, and grew up thinking that the unspeakable was acceptable, in a world where boys and young men were routinely raped, robbed and murdered in a drugged-up frenzy.
Now, after the war (former President Taylor is now serving a 50-year sentence in The Hague for atrocities his men committed in neighboring Sierra Leone), the quandary is especially vexing when it comes to amputees. Deeply impoverished, Liberia offers no welfare for the disabled, who find the few jobs that do exist beyond their grasp. “They don’t even count you,” says one.
It’s worth pausing here. To remember that when we label someone, we dismiss them. Meaning, they don’t count. (We have scotoma, or selective blindness. Which we also apply to ourselves.)
Here’s the remarkable thing. In this world, the Amputee Football Federation of Liberia was born where hopelessness seemed the only option. Enter the Rev. Robert Karloh, one of the soccer league founders, who believes the sport helps make men like Mr. Parker, and Liberia itself, whole again. Unabashedly, the Reverend tells the men, “The amputation does not remove God’s purpose for you.”
I feel like I’m in church, because that sentence bears repeating. “The amputation does not remove God’s purpose for you.” And I say, Amen.
Amputee Football in Liberia is as much about reconciliation as it is about competition. Former fighters from enemy militias now wear the same uniform. Mixed among them are civilians who got caught in the shooting and slashing. Together they play, sing victory songs and share pairs of shoes, according to fellow amputees’ needs. “This is the time for us to reconcile,” says Karloh, “It’s not time to look at the past.”
Here’s the deal: we are all broken. We are all, in some way, amputees.
Somewhere. Somehow. And in some cases, it is self-inflicted… there are so many ways that we imprison ourselves, or at least are helplessly stalled.
And there are too many—like Mr. Parker—who have experienced the capriciousness of life. When life is not fair, and they (we) wear the scars. Not only the scars, but also the heaviness of being backed into a corner. And that is where we are given a choice. Richard Rohr reminds us that “if we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter—because we will be wounded. All suffering is potentially redemptive, all wounds are potentially sacred wounds. It depends on what you do with them.”
Yes. Compassion, healing, reconciliation and empathy begin here, from sacred wounds. And yet, in our Western mindset, we exacerbate any conundrum by seeing life—including its wounds—as a problem to be solved.
Once we use the paradigm where we believe we cannot live with our brokenness, it will mean that we spend all of our energy trying to fix it. Or make it right. And…
…we mistrust and apologize for unsettled emotions,
…we believe that life is something to overcome,
…we live stuck, focused only on what we fear.
I can tell you that in so doing, I’ve spent much of my life pretending to be someone I am not.
Lord knows we don’t enjoy vulnerability. Security is a whole lot easier to swallow. (And a whole lot easier to sell, by the way.) To embrace THIS life, this broken life–fully and freely–requires the price tag of risk. And that’s just too much to ask. So. We bring God into the collusion. You know, pray that He will make things better. Smoother.
This is all connected–oddly enough–to Sabbath. Did you know that Sabbath is fundamentally about liberation? In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, the Jewish people are told to keep Sabbath as a reminder of being freed from slavery in Egypt. Karl Barth said that what the human soul fears most is liberation. Go figure. No wonder we are so conflicted about Sabbath. Sabbath for us can be a time to break free from our burdens and responsibilities and everything that we may blame, and get our minds and hearts and spirits so far away from them that the child in us can come out to play, to wonder and delight in this day. To see the Kingdom right in front of us. Even with one leg.
Maybe it’s only about football. But the trickle down to other parts of Mr. Parker’s life is evident. He rents a room in a house (for $5 a month) on the outskirts of the city, where he lives with his girlfriend and four of his children.
He is no longer ashamed to ask his family for help.
And. Mr. Parker no longer begs.
Now that… that is freedom.
It has been a lovely Pacific Northwest July day, doors open to the outside. Birds at the feeder, our choir.
Quote for your week:
Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place.
That’s where the light enters you. Rumi
Note: Story adapted from Michael M. Phillips. For photos, Chicago Tribune photographer Kuin Takahashi
POEMS AND PRAYERS
Blessings from Chaos
Blessed be the wounded heroines and limping heros!
Blessed be the chaotic storms that move us.
Blessed be life’s wounds that stir us.
Blessed be Ghandi, for peace out of violence.
Blessed be Franklin Roosevelt for leading us from a wheel chair.
Blessed be Ann Frank, for a spacious heart
that shared from confinement.
Blessed be Ruth, for loyalty out of exile.
Blessed be Joan of Arc, whose spirit rose from the flames.
Blessed be Therese, a youth consumed by TB and love.
Blessed be the grit in our lives that reveal the gold.
Blessed be the garbage in our lives that’s recycled.
Blessed be our human storms that clear the air.
I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.
Then the knowing comes: I can open
to another life that’s wide and timeless.
So I am sometimes like a tree
rustling over a gravesite
and making real the dream
of the one its living roots
a dream once lost
among sorrows and songs.
Ranier Maria Rilke
To honor the Feast Day celebrating American Independence, I was reminded of this old prayer for our country...
Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage:
We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will.
Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners.
Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way.
Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues.
Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth.
In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer