It was a strange event to be sure. Successfully strange. As I stated in my last post, the ONE interns organized an film screening and happy hour event at the Pour House bar in Washington, D.C. that occurred last night. It also coincided with my last day of work at ONE, a happy coincidence, ending my time on a high note. The evening transpired without a hitch: interns from Capitol Hill, and from around D.C. poured into the bar, enjoyed the complimentary food and drinks, networked, listened to a brief speech, watched a short documentary, and went home. Several ONE staff members commented that it was the best and most well attended event that ONE has held in DC for as long as they could remember, and we commemorated our success at the end of the evening with a group picture and a toast. Good clean American fun. To anyone in attendance, it was a success. To the ONE staff, it was a success. Not only was it enjoyable, we generated over 200 new ONE members and signed up more than 15 students to take ONE’s message of advocacy and action back to their college campuses to start new ONE chapters. But it was, as I have mentioned, strange.
Two particular aspects of the event struck me as strange. On a macro level, the concept behind the event was slightly bizarre. From 5:30 to 7 p.m., interns from all over DC enjoyed appetizers such as macaroni and cheese and crab dip and beverages ranging from Shirley Temples to white wine. We lounged in cushy leather chairs, socialized, and listened to a playlist with crowd pleasers such as Don’t Stop Believin’. Promptly at 7, ONE’s CEO David Lane engaged with crowd with a brief speech about the mission of ONE and some statistics about the gravity of the situation in Africa. Though less light hearted than the hour and a half drinking and talking, the speech was jovial and pleasant. Right after David finished speaking, all the screens in the bar began to play the Lazarus Effect. Talk about sobering. The atmosphere of the night turned a virtual 180 degrees in the opposite direction, from light hearted chatter to serious discussion of HIV/AIDS and lack of access to medication in Africa. Without even looking, I could feel a certain intensity and discomfort settle over the crowd. Some people walked briskly for the door, while others set down their drinks and watched Zambian men and women discuss their decent into the bed ridden hell provoked by AIDS. Though the documentary ends on a hopeful note and demonstrates the life giving power of antiretrovirals, the abruptness of the change in atmosphere lingered over the crowd throughout the film’s duration. In retrospect, it seems as if the night was set up to ease viewers into the film. It is strange how the suffering of others was juxtaposed against a lighthearted atmosphere, as if the later somehow lessens the first, or at least makes it bearable.
The second element of strangeness occurred at the micro level, as the event was coming to a close. After the film, one of my fellow interns stood up on a table with a microphone to convey a brief anecdote about his experience as a ONE volunteer, and to relay information about starting a ONE chapter on a college campus. Right at the beginning of his speech, the televisions that once played a heart-wrenching documentary returned to their usual station, ESPN. The ESPN announcer’s voice clamored over that of my friend and fellow intern, making it impossible to hear what he was saying. Instead of hearing a message of advocacy and action, the crowd was informed of Brett Favre’s indecision concerning his retirement. This news, given Brett’s history of indecision, was not so shocking. What was shocking to me was that the announcer’s message was literally drowning a message of hope and action in a sea of tiresome gossip. It is strange how often cultural snafus overshadow our attention to more serious issues, such as extreme poverty and suffering.
That being said, the event was largely successful. For an advocacy organization like ONE, the addition of 200 new members is no small accomplishment. However, it also illustrated the strangeness of the way that humans attempt to cope with uncomfortable issues, such as the suffering of others. Christians and non-Christians are equally guilty of letting gossip divert our attentions elsewhere, and of making human suffering as comfortable as possible. My best friend Courtney Quiros, recently wrote a letter in the Daily Princetonian to this effect, claiming, “The God of the Christian tradition does not explain to us why there is suffering. Part of suffering’s horror is its very unintelligibility. Our attempts to give it reasonableness often end up looking trite, simplistic, or chillingly insensitive.” Our unintelligible response to suffering is generally to make ourselves feel more comfortable, which often comes across as painfully insensitive. It also can manifest itself, like it did last night, as a message of suffering mitigated by an atmosphere of pleasantries.
Again, my point is not to downplay the effectiveness of the event last night in terms of awareness raising and membership acquisition. Overall, my time at ONE has been extremely enjoyable and full of events with similar processes and outcomes. I feel privileged to have been surrounded by so many individuals who work tirelessly to advocate on behalf of those with HIV/AIDS and other preventable diseases. But as Christian, I must ask myself, and anyone else who claims the same: Are our attempts to respond to suffering sullied by our need for comfort? What can we do to be more proactive and less insensitive? How do we address this strangeness?
I want to close with the intention of addressing these lingering questions more adequately in my final Lived Theology paper, and with the promise that I, as a Christian, will cease to pursue comfort, but rather solutions to the many causes of suffering.