Sittin’ on the Mourner’s Bench

Photo by wesmagruder

Everywhere Olga speaks, the reaction is the same.

She tells the story of her tremendous loss – six family members killed in Mexico – then narrates her involvement in the peace movement, which has introduced her to hundreds and thousands of other people with their own painful stories of grief and terror.

There are moments when she pauses to shed a tear, or wipe one away. Throughout her presentation, she nervously twists a small napkin in her hands.

When she ends, she asks if anyone has questions.

And there are always two main questions: first, “What is the American government’s role in all this?”; second, “What can I do?”

When I hear these questions, I realize that these are fundamentally spiritual, or moral, questions. We hear her speak about the devastating toll that the drug war is taking on Central America, and we instinctively know that we North Americans are somehow complicit. We know that we are to blame in some way, even if we can’t precisely pinpoint why or how.

Olga’s presentation is the pinprick of conscience. We begin to sense that her pain has something to do with the way that we live our lives. When she cries, the tears rise to our own eyes.

This feeling is incredibly uncomfortable, however. We don’t want to cause pain; we don’t want to be involved. We want to distance ourselves quickly from the grief.

And so we rush to ask the question, “What can I do? How can I help?” This is a good question; it is a necessary one. But we must not ask it too quickly, because it can be a clever pain-avoidance measure. We want to rush to do something to “fix” the problem, thereby absolving ourselves of our guilt. We want to run up to Olga and wipe her tears for her, to hug her and say something comforting.

Yet we are the ones who need to mourn. We need to weep ourselves. We must sit with the pain for a bit.

Back in the frontier days, American Methodists popularized the camp meeting, a weeklong gathering of neighbors who would camp together, and attend multiple worship services. The services were highly emotional and revivalistic, calling sinners to repentance and backsliders to return to their faith.

The first row was reserved for folks who knew they needed to mourn and lament their sins before they responded to the call of faith. This row became known as the “mourner’s bench,” and people would sit there throughout the service, sometimes visibly weeping as they reflected on their sins.

The psychological truth of this phenomenon is that we need to sit with our pain a little before we “get saved.” Repentance is a matter of turning one’s life around – and we certainly need that. We need to change our policy toward the drug war, we need to stop the flow of weapons to Mexico, we need to do this, we need to do that …

But first, we need to sit silently in the face of tragedy.

We can’t truly repent until we descend into the depth of our sin and really feel it.

I’ve listened to Olga’s story many times already. Every time I hear it, I pick up a different nuance, or a new insight. I still feel speechless.

I’m not ready to repent yet. I’m not ready to call others to repentance, either. Let me sit awhile longer and grieve.



  1. Jim Milam

    I believe we in the US are a large part of the problem in the drug trade. If we weren’t such a ;lucrative market, the traffic would dry up. We demand the product and the cartels fill the demand.

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