08/13/2013 01:19 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2013

Religion and Refugees

I am a Catholic, and like so many of my faith, I have had what we call "lapses" -- those times, months, sometimes even years -- when religion takes a back seat to life, and though we still believe, we return to church and to God only in times of sadness and despair. A cafeteria Catholic, that's what I was. I picked and chose what I needed and when, but by 2001, I had returned to the fold, and though I wasn't the most vigilant church goer, I did manage to attend Mass with some regularity. I believed wholeheartedly in God, the God of my childhood -- a God of goodness and salvation and hope, and so when I arrived in a refugee camp in Kenya in the spring of 2001, I had a pocketful of prayers to guide me. But I hadn't counted on the misery of the work, and the heat and the utter agony of a refugee's life.

The camp housed almost 65,000 stick-thin refugees from conflicts and crises all over Africa, and they carried with them the physical and emotional scars of lifetimes of sorrow and deprivation. I arrived filled with a determination to make things better, to change lives and maybe even myself along the way, but I ran head long into a place filled with enough sadness to flood the world with tears, my own among them.

I'd seen refugee camps before, but there was a certain indescribable misery to this place, a place where children had lived their whole lives with little hope of escape or rescue, where Somali refugees were burning their huts in an effort to be moved to yet a third country of refuge, and where food rations had been cut yet again. Where was God, I wondered, and how could he allow such wretchedness to exist? I began to question everything I'd ever believed at the most basic of levels. It wasn't just the unfairness of life, it was the hopelessness and desolation that I saw at every turn. In the one place he was needed most, there was no evidence that he'd ever been there at all. I was ready to turn my back on God in the same way the he seemed to have turned his on these refugees.

And then one day, a group of Sudanese refugees I was seeing in my clinic, invited me to attend Mass with them, and on the following Sunday, I walked alone to a small Catholic chapel located in the center of the sprawling camp. The chapel, a small mud building with an aluminum roof, was bursting with people and, with barely room to move, we were literally rubbing elbows. My eyes scanned the crowd for my friends, and there they were -- huddled on the other side of the chapel.

Mass started and suddenly these people who to my eyes had nothing, sang together in exquisite and perfect harmony to thank God just for the privilege of being alive. They were accompanied by instruments crudely fashioned from rough pieces of wood, producing some of the sweetest sounds imaginable. These refugees, who had so little, were grateful for simply being. They didn't question God or his existence as I had. There was no angst in that room, only a sweet and transcendent connection to God. What they had were riches far greater than my eyes would ever see.

I was stunned and humbled, and I came away knowing that God existed, and that he gives each of us what we need at the hour that we need it most. The following day, I asked Joseph, a refugee and friend, about his own faith and I shared the doubts I'd been harboring since my arrival. Joseph smiled, and looked around, his arms open wide -- "Of course he is here," he said. "He is here most of all."

And it's true -- in the darkest of places, he is there. In the shining face of a tiny child clutching a glossy marble -- the only toy he's ever known, or in the eyes of a refugee mother who's just learned her malnourished baby has gained an ounce or two, God is most surely there. And he is in my heart as well, and when my own doubts creep in, I think of Joseph, and his words -- "He is here most of all."