Imagine it for just a moment: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A college prep school for girls.
It’s the end of the spring semester, and teenage girls from all over Western Pennsylvania gather for final exams. The exams are taken over the course of several days, so the girls stay in dormitories, giggling and cramming late into the night. Tomorrow is the physics exam, and so there is more cramming than giggling. Eventually the girls sleep, sort of, restless and anxious.
But then, early, before the sun rises, they are awoken by the shouts of men. Pittsburgh police officers? Firefighters? What is happening? Some assume that they are having a nightmare and try to wake up. But they are already awake. Get into the trucks! Now! The girls begin to realize that these men are not there to protect them. They are there because the protectors have failed.
The drivers, whoever they are, know the back roads, and the trucks bounce over potholes. They cross a river. The girls cling to one another and confer desperately: Are we in the Mon Valley? No, we’re somewhere near route 28. My grandma lives near here. Where are they taking us? Should we jump? No, don’t do it, they’ll shoot! Fifty-seven risk everything and jump, some breaking legs in the process, but the kidnappers do not pursue. The rest disappear. Taken. Gone. Two hundred and nineteen girls.
The media erupts. Where did the trucks go? Did they head toward Ohio? Are they hiding in the Allegheny Forest? No, they went south, toward West Virginia. Are you sure? There are conflicting reports. Someone near Butler saw a line of trucks. No. Someone Morgantown calls channel 11. The girls are just over the state line. Maybe.
Parents gather outside the city-county building, demanding information. Demanding action.
But then, inexplicably, local officials begin to question the story. Was there even a kidnapping? The Post-Gazette interviews a congressman who says it’s all a hoax. Those aren’t even the parents of the girls. They’re actors, hired by a super-PAC to make the governor look bad. Don’t you know that an election is coming up?
But those who know the girls know there is no time to waste. Groups of parents with hunting rifles begin to follow leads. Someone in Tionesta says that he saw them, but he has a warning: the kidnappers are well-armed. If the rush into the camp, the girls may be massacred. The parents turn back. They return to the government offices.
Bring back our girls. Two hundred and nineteen families plead for action.
They receive lip service. ‘We are doing what we can’, ‘It is a complicated situation.’ ‘You don’t want the girls to be hurt, do you?’ ‘Trust us. We know what we are doing.’
The families take their plea to the world. Hashtags and celebrities take up the cause. They pressure leaders, governments, and militaries to do more. And for a moment, they do.
But then the voices die down. Other stories fill the headlines. Local shootings. International terrorists. There is so much tragedy, so much violence, and from the girls and their kidnappers, only silence. Meanwhile, the city of Pittsburgh hires a PR firm to increase public trust. This tragedy has ruined its reputation.
Six months go by. One girl is discovered. It seems that she was abandoned in the forest because she was pregnant.
There is more silence.
Now the hashtag is a voice in the wilderness: #Bringbackourgirls
Our girls. Imagine. What if they were two hundred and eighteen of our own?
Today marks the six-month anniversary of the Chibok School kidnapping in Northern Nigeria. My local imagined version of this story parallels real events on the other side of the world. For example, fifty-seven girls did escape in the first few days by jumping from the back of trucks or grabbing low-hanging branches. The government of Nigeria did initially challenge reports that so many girls had been kidnapped, does accuse protesters of being politically motivated, and did hire a PR firm to improve its reputation.
Why do I care? I ask myself this question quite a bit. I do not know these girls or their families. I will probably never meet them in this life, even if they are rescued. I do not have a particular interest or connection to Nigeria. Why these 219 in a world of 7 billion, with so many tragedies close and far away?
I do not have a complete answer to these questions. When I became aware of this tragedy in May, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It had something to do with my two daughters, but it wasn’t just about them.
My sense was that life couldn’t just go on as before, that the world needed to stop and re-orient itself until these girls were returned to their families. Do we really live in a world where hundreds of girls disappear and no one does anything about it? The answer of course is mostly yes, but my answer at that moment (and in the months since) is no.
No, life does not just go on. No. It mustn’t be this way. And so, in my small voice I said small prayers to a big God. I continue to, and many of you pray with me. And though our prayers do not seem to be answered, something is happening. How do I know?
Because the more I pray, the more I sense that these girls are our own. And they woke up today praying that the world hasn’t forgotten them.
We have not.