“Ha luh a ghay!” I call into the microphone.
“Good Afternoon,” Eh Kaw echoes into his mic next to me.
He launches into a rapid Karen explanation of the petition we are asking everyone to sign for Derek Mitchell, the ambassador the United States recently appointed to Burma subsequent to Hillary Clinton’s visit. People are spread across the gymnasium like a fan, decorated with multicolored garments, many red, blue, and white, the colors of the Karen flag. Around the edge of the fan, the remaining space is packed with standing spectators. It is the Karen New Year celebration in Clarkston, and this year, the year 2750, the turnout is larger than ever before, with five hundred or six hundred people in attendance.
“…Tablu,” Eh Kaw finishes his speech and walks off the stage, leaving me standing by myself, hoping that I tied my longyi tight enough that it will not fall off as I stumble through this unanticipated bout of public speaking.
“The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Burma for some time now, but following Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to the country, we appointed an ambassador by the name of Derek Mitchell. A Karen woman in Washington, D.C., created a petition charging him to meet with ethnic minority leaders and not only the central Burmese government and in spite of reforms, to respond to the unceasing violence in the ethnic areas. We have the original version of the petition designed for resettled refugees from Burma to sign, with copies in Karen and Burmese, as well as a modified version for American citizens to sign over there at the table on the side. Thank you.”
The words flowed from my mouth with only one or two interruptions of “umm.” With no preparation or warning that I would have to mount the stage to speak about this, I am amazed that I did not stammer through the whole thing with a mess of nonsensical phrases. I descend the temporary stairs to the hardwood gym floor feeling the weight drop from my chest as I flee the spotlight. My shoulders relax and I know a deep peace. “The words came as I needed them,” I realize.
One of the most important things I have gleaned from Karen culture is intentionality submersed in the unpredictability of experience. There are few certainties in the lives of many Karen, and so decisions are typically made quickly. Structures are built within a day. Marriages take place after less than a year of courtship. Deliberation takes on a different shape when you are not in control of your own time.
I come from a culture where planning is essential for survival. Your planner quickly fills up with appointments. People have lengthy meetings to discuss future possibilities. With the luxury of stability and infrastructure, we tend to think of these plans as concrete realities rather than visions for the future. But it is precisely in vision: anticipation rather than expectation, that intentionality finds its proper expression. Vision is the coalescence of collective values and circumstances. It unravels our sense of entitlement, whether to pleasure or suffering, and transforms our present reality.
Vocation finds its place only within the realm of vision. The word “vocation” when it first came into usage in the 15th century referred to “a spiritual calling.” It came from the Latin verb, vocare, which means “to call” and shares its etymology with the word “voice.” To find one’s vocation is to find one’s voice in the choir of creation. However, this concern becomes largely irrelevant if vision, or corporate vocation is neglected. Cacophony quickly takes over if everyone is using their voices in service of themselves and fails to engage in the larger vision. Culture collapses because there is no longer a cult in which it can be cultivated. Isolation and despair wave their batons to conduct the dirge of fear. We are left with the challenge to listen for overtones of hope in the discord.
I stand behind the long folding table as people pour over to sign the petition. Eh Kaw and I spread sheets across the table so that four people can sign at once. The petition for American citizens to sign receives some attention as well with the surprisingly large number of gaw lah wahs in attendance. Several people ask me what organization I am with or what kind of work I do.
Eh Kaw leans over and tells me, “You work for the Karen!”
“I am with the Karen?” I reply hesitantly, and then go on to talk about my work as a tutor, my “freelance social work,” and my background at Jubilee Partners. I wish that I could have an easy answer to this question, but it seems as though my answer is becoming more and more complex.
What do you do? This question is thrown around so much and I am as complicit as anyone in this, but how often does it become a bastion of performance-based esteem? We must recognize this as the demon of despair, which is forcing us to define ourselves in convenient categories as though to show our resume to each acquaintance. Vocation takes on a different connotation when many of your close friends labor tirelessly in poultry plants in support of our abandoned sense of vision. Vocation is indeed what we do, but it is what we do with our whole lives, not out of concern for financial security.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt. 13:44 NRSV). We recover the fullness of vocation when we give the entirety of our livelihood in pursuit of an ordinary field, its grasses waving wildly. Such a field would be perfect for grazing, but without any leftover money with which to purchase livestock, we must simply lie down beneath that ancient Oak standing strong and lonely in the pasture, and rest in the quiet joy of knowing we have found treasure.