By Jeslyn Lemke
Every night, thousands of refugee children in Northern Uganda flee their homes to escape being abducted into a brutal rebel army. A non-profit organization, Invisible Children, was formed to rescue these children. Part of their effort to end this 20-year war was the new Global Night Commute held April 29, where people were asked to write two letters: one to their state senator and one to their president. The goal of the night was to alert government officials about these children and ask the U.S. government to help them.
Over 60,000 people around America came out for the night (some walking over 10 miles) to honor the children and make a case against suffering.
If the prospect of sleeping one night outside in downtown Spokane wasn’t adventurous enough, Trevor, our trusty cowboy, came in with a real live lasso and walking stick strapped to his 1960s backcountry backpack. That could quite possibly have been the most entertaining aspect of my group’s participation in Spokane’s Global Night Commute, a symbolic and revolutionary event that went down all over the world on April 29.
More than 800 people turned up in the First Presbyterian Church parking lot that night. When I arrived, the lot looked like some wild war-zone party, with hundreds of people laughing and gallivanting around in the darkness while trying to keep dry and find a place to sleep. Everyone was pretty young, mostly from the ages of 14 to 25.
By 11:30 p.m., a big field of sleeping bags was spread across the parking lot, with people squished in underneath tarps and garbage bags.
“Care for a chunk of ham?” asked Trevor, holding up a ball of meat the size of my fist. Tonight was going to be great, I could tell.
Things were going well until it started to drizzle.
Mummy bags and tarps shrank a little at first, and people pulled them closer to keep dry. We, the three brave girls, had pushed some tables together, blockaded ourselves from the wind with recycle bins and lay on the pavement in a dark wet First Presbyterian Church Parking Lot Cave. It was nice, I gotta tell ya.
At one point I looked up to see Trevor lassoing two emergency cones with some stranger he’d talked into helping him. Nice touch to the night, I guess.
And then the rain really started pounding down. Within minutes, my good amigo Linzy was practically clawing her way upstream to keep up with our fading conversation.
” Or how ’bout some of these nice dried prunes?” asked Trevor.
The parking lot was soaked within minutes; water was actually flowing under people, drenching everything it touched. In one mass movement, everybody picked up their soaked bags and headed into the church.
Except four very stubborn Christians from EWU.
“Let’s go to the bank, man!” said Blondele.
I squirmed out of my bag, did a few calisthenics to put my shoes back on without touching the ground, and then we were out, rushing through the rain, leaping over abandoned blankets and tarps, running across Maple Street and scuttling under the open pillars of the Global Credit Union.
“Are you sure it’s okay to sleep here? I don’t want to get shot by the Global Credit Union,” I joked, tucking my bag a little farther out of sight from the street.
“Cheese anyone?” asked Trevor, baring a giant Bowie knife and slicing up a hunk of cheddar as big as a hunk of cheddar.
By then it was about 1 or 2 in the morning. Blondele and Nick had actually walked five hours that day, all the way from Cheney to Spokane. This was in honor of the refugees, who sometimes walk for half a day, every day, just to escape the rebel army. Nick was sleeping hard, stretched out under the eaves of the bank. Trevor wandered off and came back with three steaming cups of cocoa.
Then the waiting set in.
We talked about Africa, about school, about whatever. Time kind of folded in on itself; we lost track of the hours in our conversation. Blondele kept us entertained with some of his stories from his time in Africa while Trevor and I drank cocoa. At some point, Blondele got up to run in place because he was so cold. One time I looked up to see that Trevor had actually lit a candle inside his sleeping bag to keep warm. He could have written a book called Ways to Keep it Country While Homeless in Spokane.
I do remember, though, dozing off for about 20 minutes before dawn.
Then it was morning. Like one big Spokane hangover, sleepy people with crazy hair emerged from all kinds of weird crannies within the church, shuffling out in front for one very big, very tired Spokane snapshot.
And I have to say, whatever small discomfort we felt that night, it meant nothing in light of what this movement has broken open.
The voices of the invisible children will be heard. The end of the war has started.
As hard as I’ll try to describe the night of the Global Night Commute, I know that much of it will be lost in translation. I feel like I’m trying to describe a complex dream that bobs in and out of my memory, even though I didn’t really sleep that night.
Maybe I should start by describing the situation before I get too weird.
As powerful as a single image of one child’s misery can be in the pages of National Geographic, it’s surprising that the force of tens of thousands of children experiencing hell in Uganda every day don’t make humans everywhere bleed internally, that the children’s pain doesn’t shatter windows across the globe or inspire fish to jump from the water and drown themselves in the sand. Or, at the very least, get noticed by other people. Anyway, there shouldn’t have to be cameras for people to care, but that’s the way it is.
The Global Night Commute was an attempt to accomplish two goals: to raise awareness among those that don’t already know about the horrors in Uganda, and to show the government that the people of America will stand behind them should they choose to engage the problem. A little more than 50,000 people around America pledged online to spend that night outside, together, like many children in Uganda are forced to every night. I went because it sounded like a good cause, and I wanted to see what 50,000 people could accomplish if they united for one goal.
The night turned out to really, really suck.
It was held in the First Presbyterian Church parking lot, just off I-90. Ashley, Cami and I walked from the Plaza through the streets of downtown Spokane, getting weird looks from people driving and walking by. Carrying a sleeping bag and a duffel bag around downtown Spokane seemed to imply something to these people.
When we arrived, we were each issued a packet containing instructions and three blank pieces of paper. By morning, we were requested to have written two letters, one to the president and the other to a state senator, and to have used the third piece of paper to draw something that would bring attention to the problems in Uganda.
We were a little late, so most of the people were there already. I’d say, of the 600 that had pledged to come in Spokane, about 300 to 400 showed up. Most had come in groups ranging in size from two to 20, and in age from 12 to 60. We met some others that went to Eastern and set up camp next to them. They had bought a giant tarp for the occasion.
Everyone knew that it was supposed to rain that night, and I’d told the girls to bring garbage bags. I hadn’t realized how specific I needed to be.
Our inventory consisted of one sleeping bag, three blankets, two pillows, a quilt and three miniscule, dorm-room garbage bags that I’d pla
nned to use as cover for all of our stuff, but they were barely big enough to keep the pillows dry during the first drizzle. We laid out my quilt on the pavement, then the unzipped sleeping bag over that, then the three blankets. We laid atop all of our belongings to keep them out of the rain, so our clothes ended up getting wet. After the storm departed I turned to the letter, which I’d been looking forward to.
It rained again before I made any headway on the letter. People started to leave. I overheard one girl in slim-fit Prada say, “They didn’t say anything about it raining. This is so not cool. Let’s get out of here.” Word for word.
The three of us tried to sleep, but when we crawled beneath the sleeping bag we discovered that my quilt was soaked through. It was warm though, when we huddled together. We drifted off at about 1:30 in the morning, after about an hour of cuddling.
At about 2 a.m. someone woke me up and told me to come inside. It was pouring, and the blankets and sleeping bag were so wet that the water was coming through all of the cloth and drenching us. I planted my hand to get up and water pooled around my fingers. We had to get inside.
Putting our things into borrowed trash bags, we rushed into the church for sanctuary from the wind, the cold and the wet.
Cami, Ashley and I played cards until morning. We left at 6 a.m. and walked to the nearest bus stop, only to discover that the first bus back to Cheney left at 8:50 a.m. Unable to go back to the church because they’d kicked us out for morning worship, the three of us walked to the Carl’s Jr. on Third Street, where we stayed for two hours and ate breakfast. The walk to the Plaza was cold, long and miserable. The bus ride back wasn’t much better.
I’d say that three-quarters of the people who came for the Global Night Commute left because of the weather. I can’t say that I can blame them.