Sitting in a windowless office and staring at a computer all day is not exactly the most glamorous or exciting way to try and “live out love.” It’s also not exactly what I had in mind when I moved to Washington, DC, to begin a graduate degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. But here I sit, in an office papered with maps of the Middle East and a calendar detailing all the meetings and due dates occurring this month.
I moved to DC in August 2012, scared to leave behind everything I knew and loved but excited to embark on a new intellectual adventure. Finally, I was going to combine my Quaker values of pacifism, social justice, and equality with my interest in the Middle East, current affairs, and global politics. Two years went by quickly, and next thing I knew my friends and I were graduating with Master’s degrees, ready to be unleashed into the world to change how governments and organizations address conflict.
But the reality of finding jobs that seem meaningful is more harsh and difficult than we imagined. I was one of the lucky ones who found a job quickly, and for a little over a year I’ve worked as part of the humanitarian team at InterAction, a coalition that represents American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and advocates for better responses to conflicts and disasters. While I’m immensely grateful that I have a job and a steady paycheck that allows me to live in one of the most expensive cities in the country, the past year has seen me struggle to find meaning and value in what I’m doing. Sending e-mails and taking care of administrative tasks often doesn’t seem to make a difference to the people our member organizations (Mercy Corps, World Vision, the International Rescue Committee, and more than 185 others) are trying to help on the ground in places like Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, and Pakistan.
Working in humanitarian response means being confronted daily with the worst of humanity—barrel bombs in Syria, militias wreaking havoc in South Sudan, atrocities committed by extremists in Iraq and Libya, attacks on civilians in Yemen and Gaza. In four years of war in Syria, more than 240,000 people have been killed and 7.6 million displaced from their homes; more than 3 million people are now refugees in neighboring countries. As many as 650,000 people live in areas under siege, some subjected to the daily terror of barrel bombs dropped from helicopters by the Syrian government. The sheer scale of the crisis is enough to baffle the mind and create feelings of powerlessness. Political stalemates and a lack of will at the highest levels of governments and the United Nations combined with the presence of groups seeking to gain from the conflict result in escalating violence and displacement.
Living out love is hard. Often it feels like we’re not making an impact or changing anything. Living out love through my work is more complicated, more difficult, and more bureaucratic than I ever imagined. I sit in my office and read the latest news out of northern Syria and feel incredibly helpless in the face of the horrors of war. Sometimes I am so frustrated with dysfunction in my workplace, in the political system, and in the world that I write everything off and want to quit. Sometimes a glimmer of hope makes it bearable for a day or an hour. Often I have to remind myself that I’m contributing to the work of others, making it easier for them to do their jobs and implement programs that save or improve lives all over the world. Most days it is hard but necessary to pray the words of David: “I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27: 13-14) And so we wait, in hopeful expectation.