18 Mar 2017

The Empty Chair

            At almost every session I've attended, including the morning Townhall debrief with the Secretary General, there have been empty chairs near the front of the room. In rooms with standing room only, and people turned away due to maximum capacity being reached, these empty chairs carry a powerful message: they represent the women who were prevented from being here at CSW because of the travel ban and other forms of profiled oppression and marignalisation. UNSG Guterres said that while every country has the right to defend its security, borders cannot be closed based on religion, race, or ethnicity.  There's even a hashtag #NoBordersOnGenderJustice to keep it in mind.
            So today, as I sat in 3 sessions, I was mindful of the empty chairs. As a group of us shared sacred listening and compassionate action in a session titled "every voice matters" we were aware of the missing voices. In "leaving no one behind," a panel on the faith-base response to sex and gender based violence, we were aware of the missing voices. As experts provided practical approaches for economic empowerment of women and girls for sustainable self-reliance (such as the Flickaplattformen and solar cookers), we were aware of the missing voices. 
9/11 memorial fountain
            This afternoon the theme of empty chairs continued while visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It was a powerful experience; the grey-skied weather adding to the somberness of the occasion. Part of the Museum experience is to hear the names of the victims read aloud; their pictures are posted and brief bios are shared. It's a reminder that for each of those names, a family has a permanently empty chair.
            The symbolism of the empty chairs is important, as we acknowledge and honour those whose presence is missing. It is a call for justice. It is a reminder that a denial of voice diminishes an entire community.
            It also extends to us all, as people of faith, to recognise that everyone carries within their heart an empty chair; everyone has experienced loss, everyone wishes they could hear a missing voice, everyone feels an absence in the room as obvious as an empty chair.
St Paul's was a refuge
in the days post-9/11
and remains a memorial
            And so it requires us as Christians to offer the gifts of comfort and solace to those who grieve, the commitment of solidarity and accompaniment to those who journey alone, and the dedication to work for justice and space for all to join the conversation.

            May we always be aware of the empty chairs in our lives; may we never take for granted the chairs that our loved ones occupy; may our ministries support those who have need of a chair in the conversation. And may we be eternally grateful and humbled by God's promise of a chair always ALWAYS offered to us at his heavenly banquet, where all earthly barriers are removed.

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