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Nathan Palpant on Living the Questions

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This speech was given at the Krista Foundation 10th Anniversary Celebration Breakfast in Spokane, WA on September 30, 2009. 

Whitworth graduate Nathan Palpant, grew up in Spokane and he and his wife Darien were among our early group of colleagues. Nathan served in Kenya and in the Southern Sudan in 2001 and joined the first medical teams to enter this war-torn territory in four years. So distressed by what he saw, he chose to use his KF grant to return and videograph this devastating war zone. Their film premiered at churches throughout America and at the Amnesty International Film festival. Then, in 2003, he became the managing editor of our first Global Citizen Journal. Nathan recently completed his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in Molecular and Integrative Physiology. His outstanding scholarship led to the publication of 5 senior author scientific journal articles. A father of two, he and his family recently resettled in Seattle where he is a senior fellow at the University of Washington doing stem cell research in heart disease and cardiovascular tissue regeneration. Nathan and Darien return regularly to our conferences where they lead workshops mentoring younger colleagues.

 

One of my favorite poets, Ranier Maria Rilke wrote, in his book On Love and Other Difficulties:

You are so young...and I want to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything...Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

This quote resonates with me as I consider my service work as a Krista Colleague. I spent my year in Africa, primarily in Kenya, with trips to Uganda as well as Sudan. When I returned from Africa, I was given only a 30 minute debriefing session with my host organization. To say the least, this was insufficient to address many deeply rooted questions that had arisen from my service work. During my Krista Foundation weekend debriefing session at the Hearth I was given room to breathe and talk with others about these questions. In one session, gathered around the fireplace, we were asked who you would carry in your heart forever. For me it was clear. It was the Sudanese chaplain Judith Zande.

In June of 2002 I took a 9 day trip to Sudan, funded by the Krista Foundation, to a small village called Amadi in Southern Sudan. The war in Sudan is entangled in problems over religion, culture, and perhaps most significantly issues about land and oil rights. During this trip I spent time filming and performing interviews for a documentary including what you saw in the video and Linda mentioned in her introduction.

For the entirety of our time in Amadi, the Samaritan's Purse organization sent one of their Sudanese chaplains to translate for us. Her name was Judith Zande. Towards the end of the trip, I took some time with Judith just to listen to her story.

In the course of our discussion, I learned that about 15 years ago, when Amadi had been a thriving community, she had lived a normal life with her husband working at a Training Institute, doing work on the farm and having her first and only child. However, as she reflected on what had transpired over the course of time, such remembrances were fragmented by the devastation of war. In all, the toll of this war on Judith has cost her home, her job, her father, her husband, and she has become separated from her only daughter who has been isolated in a government controlled area for the last 12 years. She tells me
....and when I start thinking about this it really hurts me so much but what I always do is to pray that God can give me that strong heart to endure....And every time we pray in the evening and in the morning I have really seen the hand of God working because really I don't expect ourselves to be alive this day.

As our discussion progressed she talked about her work at Lui. As a chaplain she goes bed to bed throughout the hospital listening to people's struggles, fears, and pains. She listens to the burdens of people's hearts - to all that they have lost. And then, from a posture of compassion she brings to them a message of hope. Judith is a woman who understands deeply, more than I could ever know, the pain of people's hearts because she has lived her own fragmented story. Out of this sympathy and love I saw her servant heart.

These stories and images, and many more like them, have been with me in the course of these last 8 years since I returned from Africa. They are compelling to me because they have planted seeds... questions...questions that cause me to pause and consider how I ought to live because I have heard these stories.

Since my year in Africa, I have gotten married to Darien, also a Krista Colleague, and we have been given the joy of two children, Elias and Clara, in the process of completing my graduate school. During this time, living the questions has taken two forms for me. First, vocationally, I long to understand where my passion can attend to the brokenness of our world. Immediately upon my return from Africa, this was very unclear to me and I considered a wide range of possibilities from medicine to student life. During this formative time, discussions with members of the Krista Foundation and others helped shape my vocational aspiration. It has taken the form of biomedical research studying the basis of human heart disease and investigating potential therapies.

The second component of living the questions has taken the form of my family. For Darien and I, having shared this common experience of service in Africa, we struggle with how we ought to raise our children. This struggle is based on our awareness of people like Judith and many others we know personally who cannot provide for their children, whether food, education, or otherwise. In our own home, our children wake up groggy in the morning and toddle out of their bedroom asking for breakfast. And we are so pleased to say, yes, you can have as many blueberry pancakes as your little heart desires. Yet, we serve them with an underlying tension. On the one hand we hope that our dear children will one day also pause to consider the gift of being able to provide for those they love most. On the other hand, we hope that they will come to know and be changed by the compassion, sympathy, gratitude, and generosity we have witnessed in friends like Judith Zande and many others whose stories are woven into the narrative comprising our year of service in Africa. We hope that in the unexpected moments of their lives, people will come to influence our children in these ways.

This brings me to my final point. Living the questions requires community. For this reason, the Krista Foundation has played an indelible role in my life during the course of my 8 year tenure as a colleague because it has created a space for me to live these, as I see them, communal questions. The Krista Foundation has come to be a continual source of people I know understand the struggle of living these questions. From my standpoint, the Krista Foundation is unique because it recognizes the truth that living the questions starts well before you begin your service work... and it never really ends. For me, this involvement in the Krista Foundation has included a debriefing retreat at the Hearth, mentoring and being a contact person for colleagues carrying out service in east Africa, involvement in the journal "The Global Citizen", and returning to lead several conference seminars. I look forward to continuing my involvement with the Krista Foundation because it is an intentional and ever growing community of people with a common heart for service.

To finish, T.S. Eliot has written in his Four Quartets, a truth about living these questions.

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled

 

 —Nathan Palpant

Link to Sinead Harris-Jones' speech

Link to Rachael Novak's speech