I am pleased to share this interview with Sarah Dawn Petrin, a Gordon University alumna with an illustrious career as a humanitarian in more than 20 countries with the United Nations and the Red Cross, and founder of Protect the People. Her new book, Bring Rain, offers a powerful, unvarnished, and inspirational look at her life and work. It also serves as a guide for students seeking to do good in the world and to express their faith through human service in the most difficult conditions on the globe. In addition to her bachelor’s degree from Gordon College, Sarah has a Master’s degree from the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University.
What does your book title mean?
Bring Rain comes from the village of Mumias, Kenya, where I was born. My parents were doing mission work there, and my Mom was pregnant with me when they went into the field. When it was time for my mom to give birth to me, the village chief and his family accompanied my parents to the clinic. I was born in a season of drought. The crops were not yielding a harvest.
When my family brought me home to the village, the elders prayed that I would be a good omen. They prayed that I would bring the rain. Although I was only a day old, and I did not have the power to end the dry season, their belief that my life would make a difference has been an inspiration to my humanitarian career.
Your career as a humanitarian has spanned twenty years and has taken you to twenty countries. How did your Christian college education contribute to that journey?
I did my undergraduate studies at Gordon College in Massachusetts, and this was a formative experience for me. Like many college students, it was my first time away from home. I was ready to be more independent, and eager to make friends. At Gordon, I made the friends of a lifetime. My Gordon friends are like family to me. Being part of a Christian college is like being part of a dedicated community. You learn so much from your peers and your professors.
I was also an AJ Gordon scholar, the highest award for incoming students which pairs you with a mentor to guide your personal and spiritual development for your entire college experience. I was so blessed to have remarkable people in my life who were always checking in with me and trying to help me succeed.
I studied International Relations, and I earned a degree in French and African Studies. The regional African Studies major was something I developed myself as a Pike Scholar, which allowed me to design my own curriculum. This was also made possible by a junior year abroad in Senegal, West Africa where I did intensive classes in African history and French.
There are numerous stories in Bring Rain from my Gordon education, from a class on Women and World Politics where I learned the meaning of patriarchy, to stories when I worked with refugees during my junior year abroad.
My favorite memory from Gordon, though, was at graduation when the professors made a celebratory human tunnel for students who had just received their degree. It was so moving to have them clapping and celebrating each of us, and I really felt the meaning of the verse from Matthew, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Our success was also their success!
You’ve been in many dangerous situations, including Afghanistan at the start of the Iraq War and Thailand during the 2004 tsunami that killed over 200,000. You’ve experienced many scary, overwhelming, and tragic events. As Christian college faculty and staff, what can we learn about how to teach our wide variety of subjects with awareness of our global context, and to respond well to international students in our classes?
Thanks for this good question. There is a chapter in the book, titled, “A Dark Night”, where I discuss some of the harder moments I’ve experienced as a humanitarian relief worker. This includes nearly dying in a car accident when I was hit by a drunk driver, receiving the body of a colleague who was killed by an armed group, and seeing people light unclaimed bodies on fire after the Haiti earthquake which had killed so many people. These are horrific moments. They stay with you, and they make you wonder, whether the world is a just and good place to live. They make you wonder, what does it mean to be alive? These are deep, philosophical questions.
Our Christian faith, too often, tries to offer easy answers to a range of complex issues. This includes trauma, sickness, death, and disease. When in fact, we live in a complex world. Spirituality is not just about the individual and whether a person is saved through faith or not. There is a much bigger component to what God is doing in the world, about whether there is collective care and true justice. How can individual salvation, for example, offer solutions to war, mass migration, and climate change? No, we need to see that God is also at work in the world in ways beyond our individual control and our limited understanding. We need to believe that God sees the whole picture of the created world, and that he is tending over his garden. In the book, I offer examples of dreams and visions that I have had, which showed me the power of God at work in the midst of human suffering.
We’ve experienced a lot of hardship this past year. Many have lost loved ones, gotten sick, lost jobs and businesses. What can we learn from the refugees and victims of violence you’ve worked with about trauma recovery? As we recover from the pandemic in the United States, what can we expect in ourselves, in our students, and on our campuses?
In spite of the difficulties we face, as people of faith, we see that new life is always possible. In the Bible, there are many examples of God giving us a chance to begin again, not just 1x or 3x, but 70×70, and more. We see, in Scripture, a God who says that a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day. What does this mean for our COVID recovery?
This past year probably seemed like thousands of years to many people. But for God, these times of struggle are like all things on earth – they are passing away. And if we believe that things on earth are passing away, as part of the natural order of things, then we have to keep putting our hope in that which remains: faith, hope, and love.
COVID has given all of us a chance to pause on reflect on what is really important in our lives.We have incurred individual and collective losses, but we can still choose to focus our energy on things that will bring new life.Similarly, refugees and those affected by war have no choice but to rebuild their lives. Some people in countries with recurring disasters have to do the hard work of rebuilding over and over again, and we call this trait resilience.
You talk about the importance of faith as a motivation for the work that you do. Could you share more about what faith means to you? How can Christian humanitarian workers and others who do good in the world understand and partner with people whose inspiration stems from other sources?
There is a chapter in the book titled, “Keeping Faith in Humanity.” This is the chapter that really lays out what faith means to me. I believe that the spirit of God is at work in every living thing – in all people – regardless of their respective beliefs. I have seen God work through people in so many situations around the world. It is hard to deny that the power of God is alive and at work. But far too often, we see the church try to restrict access to God by saying that only this person or that person is deserving of grace. We are in a season where many people no longer want to go to church, because they are hearing more about politics and dogma than the life-giving faith that inspires us to love one another and do good. As believers, we also need to reclaim the faith from those who say – religion is only this – or Christianity is only that – and offer people a living faith that claims this: God can handle all the complexity and diversity that we see in the world today.