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.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Being a Little Foolish

Lately God has been wooing me into greater trust. Last weekend the Spirit gently pointed out that my love of money is a hinderance to both trusting God as my Provider and furthermore loving my neighbor as much as I so love myself. I was challenged to let go of more of my wealth.

At first I was afraid of parting with my money (really afraid!) but as the week passed by I have realizing the burden of my affluence while living alongside the poor. It creates a big gap in building friendships here (real friendships) and silences my ability to talk without hypocrisy about my faith in Christ among the poor - Christ being the One who left the richess and power of heaven to speak the Good News to the poor that the Kingdom belongs to them and even died for it, while I love money too much to leave it for the sake of the Kingdom to take root among my neighbors whom are the poor.

2 days ago, I was visiting Auntie and Uncle's on the Indian holiday which celebrates the goddess of wealth called "Laxmi Puja". That morning I felt inspired to write down a dream- an idea to sell more of my possessions and put those resources to work for my neighbor's well-being. It's so true; where my wealth is my heart will follow. Currently my heart is very much for myself. As I put the pen to paper to write out this dream, I started pondering the Providence of God- fear crept in again..."what might happen if I trust God more for my needs by living a life more reliant on the good will of others?"

Just then, a package arrived at the door. I was surprised when Auntie said it was for me... strange that the one day I visit a packages arrives for me. So I opened the rather large box to find 30 or more snacks alongside some basic toiletries- most of which were aligned with my mental list of "things I wish I had here". It was like someone read my mind? I searched to box to find a letter, "who could have sent this? surely it's from a close friend or family member"

To my delight the letter was from Queen- a neighbor in Pasadena! This beloved women whom I have spent so little time with sent me a huge package filled with things she had somehow knew I wanted. Jehovah Jireh! God provides through the love of neighbors and this neighbor's love for me inspired me to love my neighbors! But how?

Question: Why does boy bring girl flowers? it seems such a waste that a boy finds the most beautiful thing in nature only to kill it and bring it to his lover for a few days of enjoyment. And yet as a girl I know full and well that it is the foolishness in this act that qualifies the love. So in response to God's gift to me, through Queen, I desired to be a little foolish for Christ- not sacrificial by any means as I kept plenty of the gift for myself but just a baby step in the direction of gratitude.

Freely I was given the gift and so I felt inspired to freely give. I separated the cookies into one bag to "give away" and the other "to keep". I wrote Queen a letter telling her how I was going to share her gift with those who could never afford oreo's or teddy grahams here. Pleased with my plans I sat down, as if the deed was done, to read a book for a while. Over the course of a few hours my mind started to grow attached to the yummy cookies- so quickly material possessions begin to steal my heart again-I am finding selfishness creeps it's ugly head into the plans of love not yet put into action.

Upon this realization I grabbed the bag and knew exactly who to see. There are 8 little street kids and 2 mothers that for 3 months I daily passed and often avoided by "passing on the other side of the road" as not to be confronted with the conviction that I have far too much while others suffer so greatly- note: I am learning that my tendency is to avoid the conviction of the Holy Spirit is so that I will not compromise the "good life" I have in mind for myself for the plan's of God. Perhaps avoiding situations that cause guilt is key to living selfishly.

As I walked down the street I was nervous, praying that this gift would not harm my neighbors dignity and that I might see Christ in each of their faces. As I reached the group of street kids I called one over and they all came running. I explained that a friend had given me a great gift today but it is too much for just me. I asked if they would like to share the gift with me- confused they looked at each other and grinned. This was a yes. At first I said "one each", but I could not hold back- If this is Jesus then I wanted to give all I had in the moment.

2 Indian men watched the event unfold, a little confused, but then touched that I would share my wealthy snacks with the lowest people's in their society. I know it was charity and charity by and large does nothing to liberate people from their circumstances or challenge the systems that put them there. However this was not an attempt at justice, but only acting a little foolish for Christ- and my neighbors on the street were loving it! Perhaps somehow this was pleasing to God, perhaps not, but for me it was a baby step in learning to let go of more of what I want.

I am finding the more I let go of this world, (which has not been much yet) in terms of money, wealth, comfort, prestige and power, to join those who are excluded from such things, the more the world looks like a more generous, beautiful, and loving place to be. It can only get better from here.

Please keep me in your prayers as this week I leave for Nepal to renew my Visa. I will have 3 weeks alone to pray and reflect on the last 6 months while I am equipped for what is next. I hope God might use this time to liberate me from my love of money for something much greater.

"There are two kinds of Christianity: success- Christianity and failure-Christianity. Jesus said, "Unless I fail, my work will be useless"- Kagawa (the late Japanese social reformer and evangelist in slums)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Desert

Yesterday I read and reflected on the verse below. Here is the excerpt from my journal. I feel it summarizes much of "where I have been" and my hope of "where God is taking me". May it bring you life.

Matthew 4:1
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.

Immediately after baptism, the event where God declares love for Christ- note this is before he does any preaching, teaching, healing or dying which means this love does not require a response but offers itself freely without condition, the Spirit of this type of love leads Christ out into the desert.

In the desert there is an absence of food,
absence of shelter,
absence of comfort,
there are no other people
it is the absence of life.

I have almost never been very far from food, shelter, comfort, or other people.

Surrounded by death is where the Spirit of love leads us to be tempted, alone. So you and I, individually are tested by the Tempter- the one who comes to kill, steal, and destroy-

The Tempter is all about death.

The Spirit of love leads us to the place of death, alone, to be tested. It is here our hearts are bared naked to reveal a faith or doubt in God

who is life,





Here temptation is not something to flee from, it is something we are led into by Love.

It qualifies our faith, purifies the soul, reveals the substance of our heart and draws us into alone-ness before God. It is the place we either realize our need for God or the place we try to play god. It is the place we either believe in love or the place we choose to hate. It is the place we are liberated to the will of Abba or become more captive to the powers of death. The desert is the beginning or not the beginning of following God.

To go searching for a desert is the beginning of the end of following God.

One cannot find a desert. As if selflessness is discovered by one's self. One can only seek the places that one might easily pass through unscathed, a place of moderate climate at best.

No, to reach a desert, one will need to be led by the Spirit of Love, lest one step into the territory of death without life accompanying. To do so would be arrogant, believing the same as the Evil One that he did not need God.

However, humility stops to listen for the gentle whisper of the Spirit of Love, a whisper that does not force itself on anyone, does not interrupt other conversations to be heard. A whisper so soft that it requires an ear trained in the art of listening to hear it, especially amidst a world that is like a room crowded with many people trying to talk over each other.

And if heard this Spirit of Love leads us away from comfort, safety, abundant supply of food, material possessions, other people we love or whatever else we think we "need". The Spirit leads us away from all that so we might encounter the One who meets all needs.

So we might encounter love.

It is in the testing of faith that one's faith becomes qualified. An untested faith is a weak faith, it knows not death and therefore knows not life.

The Evil One does not need to intrude on one's comfortable place as the Evil One knows that in this comfortable place there is no faith worth tempting. No instead the Evil One can use the one with little faith, can control them as one controls a machine, with the intimate knowledge of what makes it tic (the fear of death), to manufacture more death in the world.

The one with little faith is unfamiliar with death, has never seen a desert, and so happily produces death, even calling it "life", for the one with little faith knows very little of what death looks like. So unfamiliar with death though, the one who lacks faith also sadly, the greatest type of sadness beyond even what we feel for the dead, for this one has never known life. For the one who has never known life is the one who has never lived, so it seems only fitting that the one with little faith is cold, as a corpse is often cold and something to be very sad over.

This one feels not,

hears not,

sees not the world around it,

It is too afraid of death to ever become alive. And so remains dead.

But the one who fears not death, and has heard of the love of the Living God, can humbly stop whatever that one is doing to listen. This one trusts that Love always has good in store. This one is liberated to listen. This one can stop and listen because this one knows that doing things, even things deemed by oneself to be for God, will never take precedence over listening to the One who is God.

For even doing things one deems for God can come out of a fear of death. As if unfamiliar with the story of God, this one is trying hard to stop death because this one does not believe God is capable of overcoming death, so it is the duty, according to this one who lacks faith, to keep doing, and has little to no time for stopping and listening to God.

Oh how this one lacks faith, often clinging to those also doing so much that collectively they might never find time to stop doing things for God long enough to listen to God, for that gentle whisper of the Spirit calling them out, alone, into the desert to qualify their faith in God- perhaps the way a college qualifies individuals for a career. Anyone having exited college can say that college is but the beginning of the process of qualification. So also the Spirit of Love beckons us to come out alone into the place of death to qualify one's faith in God, that this one might stop fearing death and live liberated. So liberated that one day one might willingly even die, as Christ did, so that God could raise up more new life. Here death is not feared, it is hoped for.

No instead this one with little faith is assured of their work and has no room to doubt self, after all no one else seems to- a dangerous place to be indeed. So it only "makes sense" to keep working for God, and yet can anyone ever do work for God who is too afraid of death to stop one's work and hear God? And perhaps in hearing God, this one might find out that God does not fear death and therefore does a very different work then the one who fears death. In other words, perhaps the one who fears death has never worked for God. For the requirement to work for God is to believe in a love so good one might walk into death willingly for the good of love.

In so far as one believed in God's love, one might humbly stop

and listen,

and be led out alone

in to the territory of death,

where all but one need is not met, and where this one need is met, this one meets the Supplier Of All Needs. And in the place where death is abundant, this one might become alive by knowing the One who is Living.

It is in the testing of faith that one's faith becomes qualified. An untested faith is a weak faith. It knows not death and therefore knows not life.

"We are poor listeners because we are afraid that there is something other than love in God"- Compassion by Henry Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas A Morrison.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Prayer of Hope

Here is prayer God worked into my being last month that I want to share. It has helped me to give up some of my lust for power, control, and selfishness. I hope it brings others life as well.

Oh Lord my Helper. Your ways are a mystery to us.

If it is our caring for the earth that the Creator is made known, then help us to care.
If it is our generosity that Your Abundance is made known, help us to give generously.

If it is in our being still that we can better see what your doing, then help us to be still.
If it is in our doing that we share wisdom, then help us to do wisely.

If it is in our love for the stranger that we learn love, then help us love those strange to us.
If it is in our love for enemy that we befriend you, then help us to love our enemies.

If is it in our weakness You are made strong, then help us to be weak.
If it is in our poverty you give us true riches, then help us to be poor.

If it is in our unseen work that You are more visible, then help us to work un-noticed.
If it is in our humble suffering that you are glorified, then help us to suffer humbly.

If it is in our dying that you resurrect life, then help us to practice dying.


Below is a video that brought me much comfort, joy, and courage in a time that I have been quite uncomfortable, despairing and fearful. My it also bring you life.

Mumford and Sons - Awake My Soul from Thomas Henley on Vimeo.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Identity Crisis and Idol Worship

This last month has been the hardest. G*d has begun to show me the truth of my fears and faith. Moving into a different culture, has challenged my own. Before I assumed so much of my culture was "just normal". Here I have to wrestle with my cultures underlying collective beliefs.

For example in India there are numerous holidays throughout the year where the Hindu people spend large amounts of time, money, and creative energy constructing beautifully painted idols. They parade these through town only to dump them into the Ganges River as a sacrifice to the gods. Through the centuries of idol worship, this now polluted river causes all sorts of illness, disease, and death for my community who rely on this dirty water for daily life. And yet these human-made objects are worshipped because the Hindu people believe the deities will reciprocate their devotion providing happiness, fulfillment, prosperity, belonging, among other things. It is the Hindu faith and fear of these gods that lead them to worship. At first sight, coming from my western culture, these idols seem absurd, until my eyes were opened to my own cultures idolatry. If we worship who we fear, then perhaps the question is, "who or rather what do I fear?"

When I first moved to Kolkata, my new community did not know who I was, which was in contrast to the community I had just left who thought quite highly of me (at least I think they did). My reputation, good and bad, did not follow me to India. And because other people did not know who I was, I forgot who I was as well. I had an identity crisis my first few months as I realized much of “who I am” was wrapped up in the lie that I am as good as people think I am. Much like any other idol, a reputation is something human made. It is what we create together as we watch, judge, and remember each other’s actions. This human-constructed idol of reputation is the fear that unless I get everyone, including myself, to believe I am good than I am not really “enough”. The Idol of Reputation promises the false-hope of attaining the fulfillment, happiness, and belonging that I have always wanted.

Looking back, and still now, I give so much time, energy, and critical thinking into winning the praise of others, and thus I worship of the idol of reputation. The problem is this idol creates an "in group" based on the exclusion of others. The idol of reputation excludes those who do not have a good reputation, like perhaps prisoners, prostitutes, drug addicts or other marginalized groups of people in society that are deemed “bad” because of things they have done. Like every idol, it only brings death and destruction in a community as it breed’s comparison, mistrust, and division. Prisoners on death row stand in witness to the death the idol of reputation produces.

But this idol crumbles as we remember our Sav!or died as a convict. His reputation nailed Him to a cross. Chr!st is the only one without sin. Where the Idol of Reputation says there is something to be achieved, G*d’s mercy stands in starch contrast and proclaims, “G*d’s love is for all and it cannot be earned”.

Hindu god of prosperity Lakshmi-->

Another identity crisis took place as G*d revealed my own love for money. In my fast-paced capitalist American culture, I have believed in the lie that “I am as good as my salary. I am as good as the profit I produce for a company. I am as good as the material things accumulate for myself”. Like all idols, money is something we humans create and attribute value to. Money promises to bring happiness, success, security, and prosperity. These promises are rooted in the fear that we might not “have enough.”

So often I have worshipped the idol of money. Whenever I chose my work based on a pay rate rather than the good it did for others, I bowed to the money. Even my understanding of time was sacrificed to money so every second was a quantifiable dollar amount that is best not wasted on things like slowing down, patience, prayer, and living in the present with others.

Much like the idols in my Kolkata neighborhood, the money is another false-hope that steals life and produces death. I see now that this idol in my culture transforms middle class families into a place where mom and dad are absent because they feel they must maintain a livelihood that required 60+ hour work-weeks. This fear brings death to families all over the world as it has created a culture of accumulation in the west where the richest 10% of adults have 85% of the world total wealth (2000). Over 1.2 billion people survive on $1.25 (USD) a day. The fear that drives materialism in my culture is starving the majority of the world. Inside North America, undocumented workers, the unemployed, the mentally or physically disabled, and the homeless are seen as sub-human when we find belonging by what we own or can produce.

But this idol crumbles as we remember we follow a homeless Savi0r. When a rich man wanted to follow, Chr!st told him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. The Me$$iah that explained we can love G*d or we can love money, we will hate one and love the other. We must choose to follow the man who proclaimed, “Blessed are the poor” which stands in starch contrast to a world who fears the fate of the poor. On the Contrary, the life and teachings of our homeless Sav!or’s proclaim, “This love is for all. You cannot earn it and you cannot buy it.”

Hindu people make their idols of visible material like wood and stone. Perhaps it is the invisibility of my own idols which is most dangerous. It is in a Hindu culture I find myself entangled in a worship of wealth and fame. As long as my identity is tied to idols, I will never fear the G*d who Chr!st followed to the poor, the excluded, the marginalized, and the forsaken. Perhaps this is why it is in the loosing of our lives that we gain it. I guess my hope is G*d might woo this rich young woman into loosing herself.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Entering Community with the Poor

My new neighborhood is a place where most people avoid even walking past lest someone find out they were in this part of town. This is because I share this section of the city with over 10,000 women "standing in line" who are entangled in the sex-trade. Most of which are self-less mothers who would rather sell their bodies than watch their children go hungry or uneducated.

My new home is a 15"x8" too-short-to-stand-up-in room and consists mainly of a bed, a kerosene stove, a fan, a TV, and a drain where we do our bathing, cooking, dish-washing, and (occasionally when it is urgent or too late to leave our room) it is for our peeing as well. I have found myself living life alongside the most incredible, warm-hearted woman named Shikha and her far-too-beautiful-to-be-living-in-a-red-light-district 11 year old daughter named Papya. I am happy to say these are my new room mates.

I am discovering there are many beautiful treasures in relationship with the poor.

For instance, as I packed my stuff for the big move, consolidated "my-life" into a back pack, I was required to think critically about my wants verses my needs. Suddenly as I looked over my heaps of belongings scattered on the floor there was a shift in thought. The things that had once brought me feelings of security or self-worth, suddenly seemed quite unnecessary and even shameful as I realized these things were not only excessive, they were too expensive and and large to fit into my new home.

It was at this moment I realized how much of my identity has belonged to those things on the floor called "my belongings" and somehow at one time I had been so convinced I needed. But why?

My new neighbors had lived their whole lives without such things. I looked down at my designer clothes that had once given me so much confidence in America, realizing now they would be hurtful to my neighbors self-worth, as they could never afford such things. I counted my 15 sets of clothes that had once given me a sense of security in their numbers, only now the more I counted the more it seemed like a waste knowing the cost of just one those pants could pay our rent for the next 2 months. And all my gadgets for "well-traveling" now seemed like roadblocks for well-living.

It was in that moment I found I had been owned by the things I owned; possessed by my own possessions.

And for the first time, my rock solid "ideal of simplicity" was shattered. Now I see simplicity is so much more than a principle, it is actually the natural overflow of love when our neighbors are those who are poor. I'm believing more each day that the inequality of wealth in the world is not because the rich do not care about the poor, but we simple do not know them. It has been in relationship with the poor that I'm discovering my own poverty; greed, materialism, and hoarding to name a few.

It brings to mind "Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven".

Friends and neighbors enjoying Shikha force-feed me yet another dessert

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Lesson on Language

A few days back, I was sitting with the ladies at work, practicing my Bengali; something I try to do as often as I feel adventurous enough to leave my text books for the real thing. Although, this time was different. Many of the women seemed too busy to help and I started to feel like a burden. About ready to retreat to my books, one lady sensed my discouragement and began to patiently teach me the names of body parts. Pointing to her nose or her ear, she would say the word in Bengali and I would repeat and hope to retain it, but often inverting syllables and beckoning the laughter of the ladies around us. Yet I was astounded at how quickly I was learning!

Fifteen body parts and an hour later, I realized who this patient woman was; she was one of the twenty original ladies that began with our business 10 years ago. She is a beautiful old woman, the type of beauty where you can tell she has always been beautiful. And she was elegant, even in her second-hand sari sitting on the floor of our workroom teaching me Bengali, she was clothed in dignity. Then I remembered, this is the lady who goes out into our community and finds women who have the courage to leave the trade and work with us. A real freedom fighter! Suddenly, I felt honored that she had given me so much attention.

After an hour of patient teaching, we left to find some water. Passing by Kerry, she said (in Bengali) "We are going out to the red-light district". I was surprised by the arrangement, but I quickly agreed, as I gulped down the rest of my water.

With my limited Bengali, and the growing trust I had for my newfound teacher, we ventured out. I felt so vulnerable, realizing this was just my second time walking the red-light district and my first time relying on a person to lead me who did not speak my language. But a rush of peace replaced my fear, as she took hold of my hand, leading me through narrow lanes and busy streets with the tenderness of a mother's love. I felt the warmth of her heart in the warmth of my hand.

We walked past the hundreds of women standing "in line" and stopped to talk with only a few. From what I could understand, she would tell them about our work being a place to work with dignity and more importantly freedom from "the line". I would answer questions about myself, as each curiously asked about me. Each time, the women were delighted when I answered back in their own language, feeble as it was.

The last woman we visited invited us into her room and bought us chai and cookies.

Sitting on her bed, drinking the chai, I couldn't help but imagine what had took place there, right where I sat. What had she endured? What was the cost of my little cup of tea? And how gracious was her hospitality? My heart ached, but I smiled and sipped, not wanting to waste a drop of the costly tea she had given of herself to buy.

The woman listened as we shared about our work I thought for a long time, carefully forming my words, "Apni amrader shonge kaj korte cai" (I want you to work with us). She smiled, but with a tinge of despair. I wish I could understand and say so much more. I wanted to listen to that despair, to reach beyond my elementary vocabulary and limited understanding of the conversation. It was there that language learning took on a whole new level of importance.

In the midst of my seemingly endless struggle to grasp this new language, it's days like this where learning vocab and grammar take on new meaning and new hope. Teachers like this are rarely found in a classroom. And these lessons on language cannot be found in a book.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Revealization

So I have been wrestling with a question; “Do I love Chr!st’s mission more than I love Chr!st?”, a question that unsettles me in a place I have not wanted to confront.

To be honest, prayer has been an afterthought since I arrived in Kolkata. I have been caught up in the excitement of a new life, as I see G*d move in and through this community. Which is beautiful. But could I say my eyes are on Chr!st? Sadly, no.

Yesterday, I listened to a recording of my first sermon on “obedience vs. effectiveness”. Not something I do often, obviously, as it was a prophetic verbal-slap in the face, waking me up to reality (which is funny since it’s my voice doing the sanctifying assault). I think I had started to believe in being effective again. I have noticed that effectiveness is an easy struggle at my work, being a business for freedom (a good cause)…making it easy to believe in effectiveness over simple obedience regardless of result. It’s easy to get sucked into a vortex of working long hours for the pressing temporal needs that surround us and loose sight of the eternal. Nonetheless, I know better, that it is not WHAT we can do, but WHO we do it for that matters (And the HOW-action flowing out of that alone).

Today it occurred to me, the verse, “For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me” (Matt 26) is not only a radical statement about the how being a follower necessitates our communion with the marginalized, but it also means that what Mary did (washing Je$u$’s feet with costly perfume) is an act that challenges disciples, then and now, to keep our eyes on Chr!st before we look to see Chr!st in the poor. (This might seem obvious, but I am relearning it). How can I expect to serve Chr!st in the distressing disguise of the poor if I bypass prayer with Him out of urgency to meet the “pressing” needs around me? I justify exchanging my time to focus on Je$u$ each day for more time with the poor (or for myself), and yet it is Je$u$ I wish to see IN the poor. Plainly stated, how can I recognize Chr!st in the poor if I don't spend time with Him?

Mary modeled this; She was “a sinner” (which takes on new meaning now that I work in the red-light district), whom Chr!st had loved and accepted. And she lavished her love on Chr!st, not sparing a dime.

During our life, this is our only opportunity to give- as the Manifest Body (since the Eternal Kingdom will have no needs to tend to). This not only means that we should take advantage of our opportunities to give now, but it also means if we are not intimate with the One we give to, we miss out on the Eternal by never having made time for God during the temporal. My heart ached as I imagined walking past Chr!st my whole life to go "serve" the poor, only to die and realize I had not developed any real love for Chr!st, but only for the poor, (or my romanticized version of them). And I saw an image of myself, upon death, realizing I had only served myself in being married to a mission that was exciting and gave me self-worth, but was distant to the Master who gave me the mission, and had left myself very foreign to a love for G*d; that is to love at all. And then it struck me, this is idolatry. All things can be made idols, even the the Sacred Kingdom. And I seem to have fallen more in love with the Kingdom of God then I have with the King.

All this leads me to this; as I transition into the red-light neighborhood, with a fresh start, I believe I need to re-cultivate a life of prayer and mental simplicity, especially at the onset of each day, so that I might not miss out on loving Chr!st in my efforts to love the poor. And then maybe, out of the overflow of my love for Chr!st, I might also learn to love my neighbor, which include the poor.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Moving into the Neighborhood

One of the greatest treasures I have found in Kolkata is my host family. I live with an elderly couple, whom I fondly call "Auntie" and "Uncle", and my host brother, Sudip, who is a local pastor. I have quickly felt at home here as Indian hospitality has a way of doing that.

A common sign in Chr!st!an homes in India

One problem: I have an hour commute to and from work each day for my part time job, which has limited my ability to spend time with the community I work in. So a few weeks ago, I began to pray for a family in Sonagacchi (the red-light district) to live with and the phrase "with a widow and an orphan" kept coming to mind.

Later that week, I told my boss (Kerry) that I was looking to move into the neighborhood. At this point, you may wonder, "Why are you moving into a red-light district?" Good question.

My Global Studies professors have taught me the importance of living amongst the people I seek to serve. This is based on Chr!st's example, who took on the form of human, that is He became one of us to show us love. And following Chr!st, I want to live like the people I seek to love.

Annie and Kerry- founders of where I work--->

When I told Kerry this, he immediately said, "I have someone I want you to meet." So we walked down the street to meet Shikha, a 26 year old widow who is a single mother of 11 year old Papiya whose father died last year of liver failure. She showed us the 10'x7' (too short to stand up in ) room she recently moved into. Upon meeting her, I immediately felt that Shikha was a joyful and warm hearted woman. She served us chai and (with my permission, as I was feeling particularly bold) Kerry told her about how I was living an hour away and looking to move into the neighborhood. Before he could say another word, she asked him, "Would she live with me?!"

She answered the question before we could ask!

Of course, I said, "Yes!" Immediately she started praising G*d and calling me her new sister. A beautiful answer to both of our prayers.

A street in Sonagacchi

Now, I will take the next month to prepare for the big transition, mainly working on my ability to speak the language. Shikha doesn't speak English, and Papya needs to learn English to stay in school (and out of the sex-trade). In that way, it will be a beautiful exchange of language learning for us all. Of course, it will come with many changes, and probably challenges, but I believe many blessings as well. Perhaps I will learn more about this right -side-up Kingdom of God that says it is actually the poor that are blessed.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Remembering that Work is Love and Love takes Work

The work I have joined here is beautiful beyond what I had imagined. Even more remarkable is my ability to easily loose sight of the bigger picture and focus on myself. It is in my nature to quickly wish for what I no longer have; whether it be good weather, familiar friends, the ability to speak the language of most people I know, or eat foods that don't send me running to the bathroom. Some people label it homesickness; I prefer the term ungratefulness.

However, this week my eyes were opened a little to the "good and perfect gifts" G*d has showered before me;
I have the challenge and excitement of learning a new language...
a bengali family to learn hospitality from each day as they call me "daughter" and treat me as one too...
the simplicity of life in the slums and late night pillow talk with Auntie (my bed-mate)...
the adventure and growing pride in mastering 5 new forms of public transportation
the business skills I have been taught in the past month for my new job...
eating on average 3 mangoes a day, chai 4x a day, and discovering the best naan ever...
having over 150 women to love and learn love from each day.
(to name a few)

I recall the night of my going away party, a good friend of mine gave me an archaic looking poetry book. Not being the "poetry reading type," I let it collect dust for a few weeks before parting it's pages and discovered the beautiful truth between them.This book is called The Prophet, written by Kahlil Gibran.

It is also remarkable how fitting the passages of this little poetry book intertwine with my life, as I am learning let go of so much that I held dear while I simultaneously growing to embrace all things new here. G*d is patiently and gently teaching me to find myself anew in a place where no one knows me, guiding me to remember that "loosing your life to gain it" really means "loosing my life", and a life of discipleship requires a bit of discipline.

I hope this builds courage in you as much as it has me.
An excerpt from The Prophet concerning work
And I say that life is indeed darkness
save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind
save when there is knowledge
And all knowledge is vain
save when there is work
And all work is empty
save when there is love;
And when you work with love
you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another,
and to G*d.
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth of threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit....

Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste,
you should leave your work
and sit at the gate of the temple
and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference,
you bake a biter bread that feeds
but half a man's hunger.

To work, this is my prayer, that I am slowly learning to embody.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Beginning of a Beautiful Work

Over 150 women and a handful of children sat together in the center of a restored apartment complex that opened up into the skies of Kolkata, India. A few white foreigners were scattered about the crowd of women dressed in beautiful Saris, while children were laughing and playing in the middle of the circle. Soon,the purpose of the gathering became clear; today we begin our work together with Chr!i$t. Each morning this is the way my work begins it's day; in prayer, in the Word, and singing Bengali praise songs.

All the women, children, and volunteer staff from all over the world gather to "do business for freedom" says the our logo. Some of us sew, others cut burlap, others process paperwork (like myself), while still others bring weary workers a mid-day chai. But we all work together for freedom from the sex-trade within Kolkata's largest and most notorious red-light district, called Sonagachi. It's hard to imagine in the midst of all the joyful smiles and kind greetings I encountered today, that these women come from harsh lives of abuse and sexual exploitation. Some were trafficked and others were forced into prostitution by poverty. But all have received the opportunity to work towards freedom now. And this is where I will spend the next 6 months (at least) working for and alongside these women. Today I realized that this is the beginning of a very beautiful thing.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

In the Debt of Love

To continue the analogy of this Blog being written in the format of a book, this section would likely be the introduction. In this part, I mainly want introduce why I named the blog "In the Debt of Love" and then give the details of my departure. As for the names origin, as you know (if you did not skip the preface) I am financially free to go to India because an anonymous donor paid all my student debt, $105,000. In this freedom, although I cast off the burden of financial debt, in recent months I have began to desire taking on a new debt; that is the debt to love. However, this new debt is chosen, not something I submit to but actually it is where I can find the greatest riches.

You see, much of the past 2 months I have been consumed by the book Works of Love by Soren Kerkegaard. Besides the B!ble, honestly this is the only book that I can say has changed my life. It has broken my heart and humiliated me on so many levels as I have discovered the truth about what it means to love, which in contrast means learning, to my dismay, that much of what I thought was love was actually selfishness.

One of the major themes is that Chr!$tiaN love, the only true love, means to love solely because we are commanded to "Love our neighbor as our self". Therefore it is rooted in the duty to love our neighbor and because it is a duty is not affected by how our object of love (the other person) behaves, changes, or treats us in return. And furthermore, because it is a duty to love our "neighbor" that includes all people and excludes no one, and we are not to prefer loving one person over the other, for that is preferential and exclusive to our neighbors, meaning it is not love. I was astounded to learn that Chr!$tian love is quite contrary to a friendship, family, love interests, or even marriage. It does not prefer the rich nor does it prefer the poor, neither the important nor the unimportant, the extraordinary nor the simple. Those loves are preferential (meaning you chose some people over others) and conditional (meaning dependant on how they treat you in return or fulfill the potential you desire for them) and temporal (meaning it will always blossom and always die).

But Chr!$tian love, actual love, is eternal because it is rooted in obeying the command "to love your neighbor", and the command never stops saying, "Love your neighbor". Loving out of duty causes a shift in our love-need, from our love-need is to be loved by others in return, to our love-need is to love others. In fact, the greater the need is to love our neighbor, the greater are our riches in love. And this is the debt of love.

It is the acknowledgement that you could never love someone enough. And in doing so, you also could never stop and compare how they love you with how you love them, for to do so would be to think you are somehow repaying the eternal debt to love, which means you have not loved eternally, or Chr!st!anly, or your neighbor.

To say the least, this is a great challenge; To love my neighbor in the debt of love. As I enter into my time in India, this will mean loving the oppressed and the oppressor. It will mean loving those who are easy to love and those you are not. It will mean guarding myself from loving some people more than others, for to do so would mean I am not seeing them as my neighbor. And it will mean loving despite how I am treated in return because I am loving my neighbor to love G*d, not so they love me back. This keeps G*d as the bond between us. This makes it Chr!st!an love.

So this is my task: Last night I accepted a part time position with an org as their Customer Care Representative. As mentioned previously, I begin my work May 4th. Since it is part time, I will have spare time to learn Bengali, and the culture, and about my host family. As my language ability increases, I will be able to get more involved with the women in the red-light district. By far the greatest challenge in all of this will be to love my neighbor in the debt of love. I named my blog this as a reminder to be earnest of only one thing; loving my neighbor. For it is the eternal duty, rooted in the debt of love.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Preface

If this Blog were a book, possibly even an autobiography, then perhaps this post would be the preface. Usually I skip right over the preface of most books but in this story, it's quite possible that the preface is the most important part since it is the part I already know. The rest of the book has yet to be written as I have yet to leave for India. But let's begin here, with what has happened to arrive at this place.

This story really picks up when I studied abroad independently in Uganda. God had done quite a bit of work in my heart concerning poverty in the third world to get me there, but for the sake of time, I will spare you the details.

Let's just say after a life-altering 4 months in Uganda, I knew I wanted to work overseas long-term. However, at that time I was $105K in student debt so I also knew that would not be happening for... a while. In my senior year though I discovered and later joined a sending organization called H.I.S. years which offered me about $10K towards my student debt while I served overseas. However, about 8 months with the organization, I realized $10K doesn't really even put a dent in my $105K debt so ultimately I began to doubt if i should go to India until my debt was paid in full.

One night in specific, about 2 months before graduation, I was particularly distraught by the contrast of my desire to serve overseas and the insurmountable debt I had accumulated. I remember very distinctly getting on my knees to pray, a bit shaky and with tears streaming down my face, I worked up the courage to say with all sincerity, "G*d, if you want me to go to India then get rid of my debt, and I will go."

Two months later after the busyness of finals week, that prayer was a distant memory and I had fully accepted, and was even excited about, my state-side alternative way of life ie. waitressing to pay off debt while I lived in an intentional community house. There I was, in the line-up about 15 minutes before graduation began when i remembered I had to go to a brief meeting to promote H.I.S. years (I still hadn't worked up the courage to commit to telling H.I.S. Years I was not committed, so off i went to promote).

It was me and two other H.I.S. years students. We walked into a room filled with all the "important" people at APU. As President Jon Wallace introduced us, we stated our name and where we were going. Hesitantly I said, "My name is Melissa.... and I am trying to go to India"

The next thing I know, Jon Wallace says, "Melissa Dorman, an anonymous donor has stepped forward and you have been forgiven 105 thousand dollars, you are free to serve". To say the least that sentence changed my life. From that moment on, I knew I was going to India.

Of course that was almost a year ago, soooo...what have I been doing with my life? (you may wonder)

Well, I decided to still live in that intentional community house with mostly strangers and work as a waitress to raise money to go. Probably the best decision I have ever made. It was by no means easy but I have learned so much about love, and myself, and G*d, and community. Not to mention these people are now my dear friends. I am very grateful for the lessons they have taught me or been with me while I have painfully learned. I have no doubt these are lessons that will be crucial to my life in India. Which leads me to my next point, the question I have heard a thousand times, "When am I leaving for India?"

Well, almost 2 years later, I can answer- May 4th.

(to be continued)