'Everyday water-walkers'


They're all around, Spiritual Life Week speaker says

BLUFFTON, Ohio—Instances of water-walking still happen in the world—and Jonathan Larson says he has found some.

Maybe not exactly parallel to what Jesus and the apostle Peter do in Matthew 14, but nonetheless what Larson called “real ‘water-walking’” deeds of moral courage in examples he provided Oct. 27 at Bluffton University.

And Jesus’ words to Peter—“Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”—echo in every story, taken from the work and travels of Larson, Bluffton’s Spiritual Life Week speaker.

Two of the stories came from India and Sri Lanka, the island off India’s southern tip, and entailed deeds that saved the lives of persecuted ethnic minorities. The other was from Botswana, where his wife, Mary Kay Larson, also worked to save lives, as a public health official fighting the AIDS epidemic.

On a bus in northeast India—where he grew up—Larson overheard how, three months before, Christians there had sheltered Muslim Bengalis from interethnic violence, then harvested their rice fields, during a bloody storm of communal fighting.

As his fellow passenger told the tale, “I could tell how extraordinary this seemed to him and others in this part of India,” said Larson, a pastor, writer and storyteller who now lives in Atlanta.   

The Sri Lankan story was similar, only involving a young Tamil school teacher who was saved from a mob of majority Sinhalese on a train by a stranger, a woman whose dress identified her as a Sinhala.

Here’s how the man, J.D. Immanuel, described the 1977 encounter to anthropologist Valentine Daniels:

“As the thugs were climbing the steps to our compartment, this woman suddenly gets up and comes and sits beside me. I have my hands on my legs to stop them from shaking. She puts her hand on my left hand. She does not say a word. I do not say a word. The mob come and stick their heads through the window. Three young men get in. Look at us. Turn around and say, ‘No Tamils here; go on to the next compartment.’”

When the train pulled out of the station, finally, a few minutes later, other Tamil passengers were still being chased, beaten and stabbed, Immanuel said.

“This woman did not let my hand go until we reached Gampola (35 minutes later). She didn’t say a word. Not one word. I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. Life passed through my head like a reel. ... At Gampola, she gets off the train and leaves. She doesn’t even look at me. I don’t even know her name. I reached Nawalapitya an hour later. Still alive, thanking God.”

Larson, who retraced that story on a train trip in Sri Lanka last February, gave his third example of water-walking from a firsthand perspective.

When he and his wife were teachers in the Congo, Mary Kay Larson was spurred to pursue a degree in public health after learning one morning that carpenters in a shop adjoining their home were making a coffin for a child who had died of measles.

“To Mary Kay, this was intolerable,” said Larson, whose wife went on to do doctoral work at Johns Hopkins University.

After they returned to Africa, this time to Botswana, a friend knocked on their door one day and asked if they could help with her infant’s funeral. “That was the announcement that an HIV/AIDS calamity was just around the corner,” Larson said.

Public health workers’ early pleas to political leaders to act against the coming epidemic “fell largely on deaf ears,” he continued. Later, though, Mary Kay was asked to help lead the U.S. government’s effort against AIDS in Botswana.

She and her colleagues were often dispirited about the prospects for finding a cure, but after antiviral drugs arrived, they began noticing that the drugs not only eased suffering and prolonged the lives of AIDS patients, but also seemed to diminish the degree of transmission of the virus.

When the Larsons visited a friend’s father’s grave before leaving Botswana in 2008, they realized “we were the only ones in the cemetery” on a Saturday morning—normally a time when cemeteries were filled with mourners, he noted.

Mary Kay Larson “walked into the fray” against AIDS and eventually saw a remarkable change offering promise for the future, her husband said, crediting her and her health care team with bringing about a transformation for Botswana.  

“Go farther than you think you can,” Larson advised his listeners, repeating counsel he once heard from an older African colleague. “Listen for that voice that says, ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’

“There are everyday water-walkers all around us who rise to acts of great moral courage and creativity, surprising even themselves with what is possible.” And that call, he added, comes to us, too.


Jonathan Larson
There are everyday water-walkers all around us who rise to acts of great moral courage and creativity, surprising even themselves with what is possible,” Larson said.