A thirteen year old boy is abducted from his home and for ten years forced to live and work with a gang of violent terrorists. To save his own life, he has to go along with atrocities. He will be brutalised and he will brutalise others. He will have to get used to killing – sometimes killing people he knows. He will be aware that return home is practically unthinkable, because he will be regarded as beyond redemption by most of his neighbours, even his family. He knows that there is nothing in front of him except the likelihood of an early death – a knowledge that he tries to blot out with the drugs that keep him more or less anaesthetised for a lot of the time from the reality of what he has to do.
In June of this year, I had the privilege of spending an evening with about thirty young men and women who had been through this nightmare experience. I met them in Bunia, in Eastern Congo; thirty or so youngsters, none more than the middle twenties, out of several hundred thousand across the globe who have been forced into becoming 'child soldiers.
I won't try and make readers wince with the details, though they are the sort of thing that you wish you could forget; the important thing is that they had escaped. They had been brought out of the bush, prised out of the grip of the militias that had captured them and reintroduced to something like normality. At twenty-one or twenty-two, some were completing their secondary school work. All had been assured of a safe place to live if they managed to get away from the militias. Many had been reunited with families. They had advocates and helpers in their communities, people who were willing to stick their necks out to support them when others looked at them with suspicion or even disgust.
How had it happened? They all had one answer. The Church had not given up on them. At great risk, members of local Christian communities had kept contact with them, sometimes literally gone in search of them, helped them escape and organised a return to civilian life. They had prepared congregations to receive them, love them and gradually get them back into ordinary human relationships.
It wasn't just a story of happy endings. The trauma of these experiences doesn't go away overnight. Drug use, conditioned behaviour, the deadening of emotions, all these take time and involve a fair number of failures as well as successes. The miracle is that any manage rehabilitation or perhaps the miracle is that anyone believes enough in the possibility of it.
Yet the message was always the same: 'they didn't give up on us'.
At Christmas – and at of all times of the year – we need reminding, believers and unbelievers alike, of what sort of difference can be made to the world because of that birth in Bethlehem. Not only can be made, but is made: whether in Congo or in the back streets of our country, plenty of people know that it's only because of those who believe the Christmas message that they have recovered hope for their lives.
And the message is that God has told us he is not going to give up on us: he appears to us in the life of Jesus, a life of complete identification with human suffering and need. And he makes it possible for us to identify in the same way with those who suffer and live in hopelessness and need. He makes it possible not to give up, even where there seems least chance of change.
Last summer, we watched in disbelief and alarm as disorder spread throughout many of our cities. People were swept up in chaos – arson, looting, threats and violence. The majority of people, as usual, were just baffled and angry, desperately wondering what could be done to put things straight again and to show that their communities could still work after all. Remember one of the real miracles of those days – when Tariq Jahan appealed for restraint after the killing of his son.
And one of the stories that hasn't yet been properly told from last summer is how often it was local clergy and local congregations who stepped up to the plate to respond to these longings to do something constructive. These were the folk who turned out to put themselves at the service of all that was best in communities. These were the people who were trusted to broker deals that let emergency services through where they were needed, to set up makeshift support centres offering refreshments. These were the people who were relied on to pick up the pieces in any number of ways. They could do it because they were trusted. And they were trusted because local communities knew they were not going to go away and give up.
'I'm not going away' is one of the most important things we can ever hear, whether we hear it from someone at our bedside in illness or over a shared drink at a time of depression or stress – or at a moment when we wonder what's happening to our neighbourhood and our society. This is the heart of what Christmas says about God. And it's the real justification for any local church or any national church being there. When people are pushed by all sorts of destructive forces into seeing themselves as hopeless, as rubbish, so that what they do doesn't matter any more, it's this that will make the change that matters.
Happy Christmas to you all; and remember when you can the people who think the world has forgotten them – the child soldiers in Congo and elsewhere who haven't yet escaped into the arms of a loving community, the men and women who sit in their rooms or houses in depression and loneliness, the elderly who feel that the world has left them behind and that their feelings and needs don't matter to anyone any longer, the refugee who has left behind a horrifyingly traumatic situation of rape and murder, yet who knows that he or she is looked on with suspicion and hostility in their new home...So many. You'll be able to think of many more, I'm sure.
Pray that they will find that someone hasn't forgotten – that they will find out that God and the friends of God are there for them.