© 2019 by Kenneth Jordan Burkey

  • Kenneth Jordan

Valeria's Unshakable Joy



For an elderly woman like Valeria, daily necessities like gathering water and taking care of her goats is quite strenuous. But the challenges of today are incomparable to the pain she bared two decades ago. In that tragic year of 1994 in Rwanda, Valeria lost her husband and was forced to raise two children alone.  The genocide quickly demolished Rwanda, as 800,000 were gruesomely killed within 100 days. On average, 8,000 deaths occurred daily over the course of three months. 20 years later, the scale of this brutality is still devastating.

When circumstances are out of one’s control, the best thing we can do is control our response to the circumstance.

After such shattering violence, there were two choices: to hate or to forgive. The majority of Rwandans have chosen to love, to forgive, and press forward working for a bright future. The choice has resulted in healing and the resurgence of joy in their hearts. Joy is now as present as the banana trees here in Rwanda.

As I sit on the dirt floor of Valeria’s home, I see joy in her smile, I feel it in her generosity, and I sense it in her hospitality. As this overwhelming sense of joy comes from someone who has been through so much pain, I am fascinated seeing that her joy has never withered.. Pondering this, while sharing a pot of ginger tea, I remembered my own experience with loss. I remember how I found my own joy, amidst pain.

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In 2009, my aunt suddenly died of cancer. We found out she was sick in late October, and before I could process the news, she was gone the day after Christmas. Now, seven years later, the holiday season is different for my family and me. For my grandparents, who have now lost two daughters to cancer, Christmas is a time of pain, yet also a time of thanksgiving for the family who are still with us. For my cousins who lost their mother, this season reminds them how much they miss her. For me, the Christmas of 2009 taught me something: that joy is fundamentally different from happiness.

The day after my Aunt Rhonda left this earth, I sat with my cousin who had just lost his mother. We sat silently watching the horses across the street run freely, unaware of the pain going on inside the house.  

“I am so angry”, he said. “I am mad that the world decided to take my mother away from us.”  After a long pause he spoke again, “But at least God has taken her away from death. She is with him now, in heaven, without pain.”

In that moment, with tears billowing down my face, I understood the difference between happiness and joy. I understood that even when we are angry and unhappy, God gives us peace. There is joy in knowing he is in control. When we feel overwhelmed by this world, he reminds us that he has already overcome it.

Death cannot win because Jesus has already claimed victory.

I now know that happiness is just a feeling, and a conditional one at that. It comes and goes ever changing as our circumstances. But joy is something we don’t receive from our daily life, instead it is built by our relationship with God and circumstances cannot take it away from us. Joy is unconditional, it comes from an inner peace that we cannot produce and when one has it, it is as dependable as the sun rising from the east and setting in the west. Homes can burn down, money can disappear, stability can wither, and uncertainty can creep in, but joy will remain. Even in the pain of death; joy remains.

My time with Valeria has inspired me to really focus on my relationship with God. Valeria lost her husband in the worst way imaginable and yet, is one of the most joyful people I have ever met. She is not allowing her joy to die because of her husband's death. Though death may come and evil may attack us, we can be peaceful knowing God has already conquered this world. The Bible says that love is stronger than death. The battle is over. We now can experience unconditional love; we can have peace, and we can be joyful though all seasons of life.