Thursday, April 7, 2011

When Way Closes

This past Thursday my mom was awaiting my weekly phone call when i surprised her by ringing the doorbell. "Surprise mom. I'm home". She burst into tears of joy and "Hallelujahs", causing a scene for our surrounding neighbors. After a month of saying difficult good-byes to everyone I love in Kolkata, I was finally embraced by my loved one's in the states.

So why am I home? (you may wonder)

Because I believe "way will open"; this is a Quaker phrase I stumbled upon recently which means the process of discerning one's vocation. This is where I find myself, alongside most other people I know. I believe the last few months of my life I just experienced the flip side of "way will open" when completely out of my control or desire the way I had willed to happen was closing quickly behind me. And clenching my fist around this dream, I fought hard not to let it go, until.... I saw it for what it really was.

Let me be frank; egocentrism. I was in love with an image I desired to maintain- living and serving amongst the poor of Kolkata. Very little of who I am delighted in my daily very undefined work and living there. Many people legitimately are living and serving amongst the poor there, but for me, I was trying to be someone I was not, convinced that was what God required of me. "Surely God could not love a privileged, white, educated, American like myself" my wounded heart tossed and turned. So to earn that "unconditional love" I set out go to the extremes to prove to God and self that I am serious about this Christian thing.

And it took me hitting rock bottom, suffering from anxiety and burnout for me to begin to wonder... "What if this is not about requirements? What if God is genuinely interested in a relationship with me? Not to "use me".... but to just love me.

The moment I decided I wanted to come home was after listening to a speech by Richard Rohr on contemplative prayer. He spoke on how we learn, through meditation and self-awareness, how to recognize and silence our ego as we go before God. The beauty of this is we can only let go of our egocentrism as we grow into the truth of God's love for us. It is the freedom we find in God's unconditional love that naturally transforms us into our better selves. It's not actually something we set out to do, but rather something we grow to receive. It was there I realized my anxiety was because I was trying to will myself into being someone I was not and because I was giving from a place I did not possess.

I recently received a book called "Letting your Life Speak" about vocation which keeps putting words to my experience.

"One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess.... it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place"

This author is teaching me that there is a place in me that does flow with abundance and it is growing into this knowledge of myself from which I will learn my vocation.

So I am home. And as I finally allow the door of India to close behind me, I turn to see a room of many doors before me. It's a bit overwhelming actually. But this time I am not doing this out of my own will. Instead, I am beginning to believe in a love that arms me with new set of questions that will help me along my way. "What brings you joy Melissa? What are you good at? What do you love doing?"

Questions that, for once, allow me to start with the knowledge that I am loved as I am and can trust my inner workings as they were created with love. And use this self-knowing, and the love that invites it to grow, as my guidepost for how I can authentically give out of a place of abundance. And perhaps this one day will lead me back to Kolkata. And perhaps it will not. All I know for certain is for now I am home and this journey continues here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Learning and Discerning

In my last blog, I shared my struggle with burn-out and anxiety. For the first time since I came to India, these past 2 months I was plagued with deep questioning of whether I want to serve long-term here anymore. As I look back over the past year I see an incredible journey of both pain and growth. I am glad to say, since I last wrote, that I have recovered from burn-out and am now entering a time of discernment with the Servants team. At the beginning of this month, the rest of the team returned from 2 months out of country renewing their visa's. So now I am officially "the Intern" and using this time with them to discern if I want to live and serve in India for the next 3 years on their team.

I know Servant's vision is right where my heart is at; it's all about transformation of poor communities through building relationships with neighbors and utilizing the skill, knowledge, and efforts of local people's to create change. It's about empowering local communities to see the issues and unite over them. It's about daily living out the love of God in their context, by becoming a good neighbor before anything else. It's about solidarity before discovering solutions. It's about respecting the culture and language by taking the time to learn both of them from neighbors, affirming they are the one's with the important knowledge and skills to offer. It's about moving slow together and not fast alone. It's about not overwhelming the community with western skills, knowledge, or money lest they loose sight of their ability to enact the change for themselves. It's about being prayerful and living prophetically in a time consumed with "me". It's about humility and respect. Creativity and celebration. Rest and grace.

All of these things resonate with my heart. It's what I hope for in an organization. But even though our ideals and values match, I don't want to assume that I want to live these out in an Indian context. This past year has allowed me to learn so many things about myself- particularly that I have made many of the choices in my last 5 years subconsciously out of what I think I "should do" so that God will love me. But perhaps the most important thing I am learning in India is that God already does love me. And for the first time in my life I am learning that the question to ask when I enter into a new commitment is not "what should I do? " or "what would a radical follower of Christ do?" but actually "What is Melissa Dorman good at, and enjoy, and find life-giving for her and the world around her?" Because ultimately there is a loving God who created me uniquely to do those things, even if they do not mirror the life of Mother Theresa. Which is fine because I'm also learning that the best person I can aspire to become is actually me.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Art of Not Doing Anything

For most folks, chillin out all day on the couch, watching a movie, and eating junk food sounds like paradise! But for someone like me, who finds so much of my self-worth in what I check of my "to do" list by the end of the day, it is downright devastating to find out that these are the doctors orders for me.

Right now I am learning the art of "not doing anything". Through all the accumulated stress and transitions in the past 9 months; ie. culture shock of India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, transition in relationships from living with Auntie and Uncle, moving in with Shikha in the a 1 room place in the red-light district, my time ending at Freeset, moving into a new home this month, and beginning my internship with Servants... I have officially been diagnosed with burn-out. Unlike being stressed out where you feel you have too much on your plate to balance, experiencing burn out feels like you don't even have a plate to put things on. Things that use to bring me so much energy and joy- like spending time with my bengali neighbors- now makes me feel really anxious and tired. And with all my down time I have had too much time to think; I am often faced with daunting questions about my purpose here, whether this is really my dream, will I be able to survive for a 3 year commitment with Servants? Questions I can't answer but also can't stop asking myself. It's something I have never experienced before and for a "doer" like me, it's hard to face the facts that right now...I just can't do very much.

(taking a lesson from Homer)

In the states, if I had burn out, I could just take a vacation, change my work hours, spend more time with friends. In a foreign country where my work IS where I live- building relationships amongst the poor.... it's a little more challenging to recover and then set up healthy boundaries in the future.

I have seriously wrestled with returning back to the states for a while, but I think one more transition at this time will likely not ease my stress. So for now, I am here, taking it real easy... or trying to learn how to at least. This month I have suffered a bladder infection and giardia (one of the side-effects of burn-out is lower immunity) so it's forced me to rest a lot. I feel really well supported by my new team members (even though most of them are on Visa leave) and folks from home. They have all offered a listening ear and their love and care through all this. It's ironic that I have waited so long to find and join an org like Servants, and my first month as their intern I am at my worst. Perhaps this is exactly where I need to be to learn I am loved by God and others despite what I can do. So far my new team has encouraged me to take as much time as I need to recover and to give myself lots of grace in all this. I feel very blessed and love by them all.

I feel I am learning lots of lessons about self-care and my limitations and God's love for me. My hope is in joining this team, I will learn to live a more sustainable way of life that not only focuses on bringing life to my neighbors but also bringing life to me and my team. For now, keep me in prayer as to find courage to give my heart once again to a new team of people, as I learn the art of not doing anything, and more importantly finding God loves me just the same.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Discovering my Need to Succeed

My first and... and then second attempt at making Rooti

Arriving back in K-town it felt like home- yellow taxis, streets alive with people, the smells of Indian food and rotting garbage. Hmmm hmmm...Home sweet home. On my mind was the future; doing a masters program, potential research, applying for my new organization, working part-time at Freeset with my 2 best friends. All these ideas of “who I might be in 2011” swimming about in my head. But not for too long…

To my surprise, when I went to discuss my part time role at Freeset with my boss, I was faced with a hard choice; either work full-time at Freeset and move into a middle-class apartment or continue living with Shikha to focus on learning Bengali in which case they could not offer me a part-time role. From his perspective, my living with Shikha was getting in the way of doing my best work and causing problems for others. I was devastated (beyond what I would like to openly admit on my blog)

I was at a cross roads between the community I have grown to love this last year and still wished to partner with and … and the Servants community that I am applying for and I feel called to join…(but cannot officially until training this September)

In the end, I felt I needed to begin my journey with Servants… even if it was un-official. But now what do until September 2011… just live here?

The next day, I accompanied a Servants member still looking for a home in the slums in the north part of the city when we stumbled across a little place perfect for 2. She looked at me…the thought crossed my mind… “I wonder what it would be like to live here?”

Unlike the crowded and polluted alleys of Sonagacchi, this community felt safe, spread out, and restful. I had a sense of peace that this is exactly what God was doing all along. I need a safe place to slow down and grow into my new community as I focus on language and culture. So within 2 weeks, and after lots of hard conversations, I found myself hugging Shikha good-bye and climbing into a taxi (although I will still visit once a week).

Me and my new room mate Meghan as we head off to our new home

This situation was has been an incredibly stressful turn of events... I even considered flying home until September training. But in the midst of all the anxiety, I have been given a glimpse into seeing myself more truthfully and that is a true gift. Probably not a surprise to many of you but this month I was shocked to find out I am actually an over-achiever. (I know, laugh it up). But on a serious note, whether I would like to see it or not, this means my self-worth is dangerously caught up in how others view me and the success of my work. I know you are wondering… how in the world did you manage to discover this about yourself Melissa?

Glad to answer, I have been exploring this part of me using a spiritual tool called the Enneagram. This tool has Christian roots starting as far back as 350AD with a desert monk Evagrius Ponticus but today you can find tests and readings easily online. Basically the Enneagram describes 9 basic personality types and how these interact together and with God. Each type has a basic gift and a basic need. As we attempt to meet our own needs outside of God, we head down a destructive path. But as we grow aware of our needs and how God is the One who fulfills it, then we grow liberated from our own destructive ways and into the gift of who God is making us to be.

Check out the link to learn more:

Using this tool does not give us the answers, it actually just helps us ask the right questions. For instance, why did I rush into living with Shikha? Looking back, I think part of me unknowingly really wanted to push myself to gain the respect of my western peers. But that backfired, being the oddball living with a local did not impress them and in fact it may have made some feel guilty for not living this way (shoot!). Plus the stressful home environment exhausted me so that I could barely keep up with 4 hours of work- so no one really benefited. <----Our new bedroom

I like to think of it like this; there is this little Melissa inside of me scheming to get people's attention by doing good stuff, but I never see her false motives until her plans go array and hurt the folks around her. It's connecting this little person inside me with the Love of God she so desires that will liberate her from all this scheming so she is free to just love regardless of being affirmed by others. As I learn this about myself, it’s humbling or rather humiliating… how ever you want to phrase it. And I am discovering there is lots to learn about just "being" with God. Now that I see this, I can begin to explore a love not dependent on what I can or cannot achieve for God. A love that delights in me regardless.

our new kitchen--->

These next few months I will have lots of time on my hands; I hope this experience helps me grow into that unconditional love I so desperately long for and have been looking for in the wrong places. 2011 is not exactly as "productive" as I imagined, but like my train ride here, it's been full of surprises and the unexpected way God always gives me exactly what I need.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gotta Catch that Train!

I often use this space to update you on my course in life, or even share meaningful moments I have had along the way.... but this time I want to just share an exciting story. So enjoy!

Beep-beep Beep-beep 5:45am my watch rang- it was time to begin our journey to Kolkata. Little did we know, the sound of my alarm also signaled the start of a race- a race to catch our train that had started boarding before we even left our beds. Unfamiliar with how to correctly read boarding times on our international train tickets, we leisurely enjoyed our granola and fruit breakfast, pleasantly surprised on how our taxi was a “minute early” at 6:29am to take us to our 7:15 departure. Tic tic tic. 6:29 we sat at a train station, a place packed with local peoples, cha venders, street children and disabled begging for our change, mosquitoes buzzing about us. The cha vendor assured us we were in the right place. Naively we plopped down in a pool of all our belongings to wait for our train. 7:13- I went to ask the conductor “Which side of the tracks we should wait at?” One look at my ticket, his face told it all- we were not in the right place.

(My friend Pip who we stayed with in Bangladesh while studying Bengali)

Clearing a path in the crowd, he pointed to the train across the way “Dhaka Containment station! Go!” In the chaos of the moment I gathered from his Bengali conversation with the observers that there were actually 2 train stations, international and domestic. A concerned observer stepped forward to lead the way. It was a boy, just crazy enough to believe we might make our train. I started to believe him too. At 7:15 (the time of our departure) we found ourselves running across train tracks with all our belongings to catch the wrong train that was headed towards the right station.

(I got a haircut in Bangladesh)

The train bellowed it’s horn, signaling that it the engine was turning it’s gears just as the girls loaded their gear on the train. Still on the platform, with 30pds on my back and 20 pounds in my hands of luggage, the train started to gain speed. My first attempt to jump aboard failed. I had too much weight to jump 2 feet onto a moving train- go figure. Recalling this scene in a movie I knew what to do next, I tossed my valuables into the carriage and pushed with all my strength to board the train again. Luckily, two men joined my efforts and pulled me and my pack inside to an upright position. Temporarily relieved, I looked at my watch….At 7:20 we were on the wrong train at the wrong time pulling away from the wrong station. We looked at each other. It was written all over our faces; the prospect of catching the only train this week to Kolkata was fading like our mistaken train station was into the distance behind us- faster and faster.

(7 layer tea in the Shrimongal Bangladesh gardens)

I searched our tickets, were no instructions about “what to do when you sit at the domestic station and miss your international train by an hour”. So we sent our silent prayers as we imagined another week in Dhaka. I looked over, the boy had not a worry on his face. Within minutes the train pulled up to a much nicer platform, one that made our last station look so obviously intended for domestic travel. Observers cheered us as we jumped across the 4 foot gap, luggage and all. When I turned around, a man pointed across the tracks at the most beautiful train I have ever seen- a modern steel carriage that contained our only hope of reaching Kolkata this day. “You have 3 minutes, Run!” he said.

So we scrambled off the platform, luggage and all once again, over the tracks and up again onto the platform of the other side. Men pointed the way, the boy ran ahead with our luggage. “No time, no time, run!” the observers cheered us on. Running past security, out of breath, handing our tickets to the customs officer felt like what I imagine it might feel like to cross the finish line of a triathlon. As we caught our breath, our little hero said not a word. He even refused to take any money for his help, but still we insisted. Without him we would be $60 short and another week in Bangladesh. It figures before our adventure in Kolkata even begins we would have an adventure in getting there. I can only hope the next six months have half as much excitement in store and that this is but a foreshadowing of how God will continue to provide for us along our way.

(Kolkata here we come!!!)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Home, Away from Home, Away from Home

(view from the roof where I stayed in Nepal)

Nepal was just a few hours behind us when we entered a slum community in bangladesh. As we approached the outskirts of the vast community, I noticed we were ironically encircled by modern high-risers, the workplaces and homes of the nations wealthiest people. The slum conveniently located in this position to serve the domestic cleaning and hard-labor jobs of the wealthy. After the work of the day, it was as if the city divided itself into economically bi-polar communities.

From across the river, I saw little tin and scrap wood shacks help up on stilts hovering precariously above the polluted riverbed. My mind was plagued with questions... "Would a muslim slum be as hospitable as the hindu slum I just left? A month without bengali study, will I remember how to talk? Will this be a good experience for my 2 friends on their first night here?"

We descended into the narrow lanes, where the moonlight could no longer guide us. Tin walls lined the path as we stumbled over rocks and debris, side stepping around boiling pots of food or scattered ditches. Each doorway revealed a different story. People chatting on the floor of one, children playing in the next, a tired woman cleaning, a group of men playing cards after a long days work.

Within the first minute, just as I I began to wonder if our presence might not be welcomed, a woman stepped out of a doorway to greet us. Her name was Mukta and before I knew it we were sitting on her bed sipping tea. In homes this small, the bed is not only a place of sleep but fulfills the role of a kitchen table, a living room couch, a desk, and many other uses. She told us about her husbands illness, likely a case of TB, and her 8 year old son whom was mute, from a high fever years ago. All this was over plain conversation as we exchanged the details of our own lives with her. Surprisingly, my Bengali freely flowed out as if just yesterday I was in Sonagacchi. And somehow this tin shack felt a tinge like my India home. The walls and people were new, but the warm hospitality was exactly as I had remembered. The time passed easily, along with the tea. As conversation wound up we thanked Mukta and took our leave.

As we trailed out of the slum, to my surprise, a woman grabbed my arm and pulled me into her home. Startled and confused, we both burst into laughter. She quickly offered that I stay for dinner. Clearly subdued by her offer and or perhaps the hilarity of the situation, I pleaded that she go invite my friends to join us, whom were still walking ahead unaware of this pleasant kidnapping. Soon the five of us sat on the bed as the rest of the room filled with spectators. We spent the hour receiving bengali make-overs, eating rice and vegetables, and giggling at the spectacle we created. I left that night once again blessed by the generosity and kindness of the poor.

For the next month I am studying bengali 5 hours a day, an intensive effort to gain some much needed grammar and literacy before returning to my home in India. The school I am attending is called HEED (Health, Educated, and Environment Development) and does amazing work throughout Bangladesh. Check out the short video below to see a bit of HEED's work and how our daily lives in the west can help prevent natural disasters and love our neighbors better overseas.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Trekking the Himalayas

Often it is on the mountaintop that we see clearly the valleys below- both behind and onward.

This is certainly the case for me as I just got back from an 8 day trek through the Himalayas to pray and relfect. I set out alone, but by the second day I realized that was an unwise choice, one that others have lost their life from. Luckily, minutes after this realization and a humble prayer, God provided a wonderful man named Isreal to lead me the remaining 6 days.

Some highlights; eating wild-berries in lush meadows, walking over wooden bridges suspended over blue wild rivers below, through cloudy pine tree forests, passing Buddhist temples and indigenous villages, standing at the highest peak of my trek as the sunset on my right and a clear view of Mt. Everest on my left, making superglue out of acorn sap to fix Isreal's shoes, hiding in the mountains from 3 angry oxen, late night conversations about world politics, God, and empowerment around lodge fires with trekkers from all over the world, and about 30 hours of praying and thinking along the way.

I feel this time allowed God to do many things in my heart. I was able to interpret the value of my time at Freeset as well as what God is calling me to next in my journey. Unfortunately I am learning the lifestyle of simplicity (living at the economic level of the people we come to serve) the model I learned in my Global studies courses at Azusa Pacific is quite rare among western Christians abroad, even among the wonderful Christians I met at Freeset whom I really care for. This is not a judgement statement on anyone's character or a comparison to my own self-righteousness, this is my observation on how all of us rich Christians fall short of the style of service Christ modeled for us among the poor. Even in my limited experience in Uganda and Kolkata, I see how affluence creates unnecessary barriers for building authentic friendships and empowering local people to take initiative for the betterment of their own communities. I feel this quote very much summarizes my purpose in Kolkata. I am not here to save the world but to be liberated alongside others....

"If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, let us work together." Lila Watson (Aboriginal educator and activist in Australia)

It is amidst the little bit of suffering that I have experienced in living alongside the poor (mostly induced by my own inaccurate standards of "success") I have begun to see myself more honestly as a selfish human being desperately in need of God's grace. Christ came to be with the poor and I am learning to meet Christ in my own poverty. It is wonderful!
<----(Pic of Sumita who is my language teacher who has begun to pray to Christ during our friendship)

My greatest suffering is becoming the source of my greatest joy- something I feel we easily miss out on in our quest for "effectiveness" by western standards of achievement. It is living with Shikha and Papya that God has brought me the most healing and joy because it is here I must choose to die to my desire for wealth, comfort, success, fame, productivity, pride, and convenience. It is here I am liberated from those things. And it is also here that I see God resurrecting the most love and change in the lives around me. When we loose our lives we find it. And it's true, I have never been a more joyful and alive human being, and this is only the beginning!

I was delighted a few months ago to find a community of other westerners that are also striving to live simply and empower in this way. I know it is dangerous to spend too much time with like-minded folks, as it easily taints the selfless nature of love when I begin to "love" what I see of myself in other people. However, even with this temptation, I am seriously considering applying for their organization, which would mean a 3 year commitment to journey together. Feel free to peruse their website and send me your thoughts on all this

It just seems fitting to do life in community with people of similar journeys, much like trekking the Himalayas. ha

Below is my favorite sermon because illuminates the up-side down model of Christ that so many of us miss in our quest for doing "good to the poor". We must realize Christ did not come to do good to the poor... he came to join them and then consoles us by saying "follow me". I believe this is where the western evangelical church has misunderstood the model of Christ (as I so often do). By western standards, Christ model was not powerful, effective, or convenient by any means and that is precisely why it prevails! Love has the freedom to die for the life of the world because it believes in power of God over one's own efficiency, power, wealth, or fame! Enjoy and be challenged. Peace.

Money and Power: Oscar Muriu from Urbana 09 on Vimeo.