You’d think she was a celebrity, the way I watched her from across the room. I tried to work up the nerve to speak to her but the taste of salt in the back of my throat gave me pause. I didn’t want to embarrass her and I didn’t want to cry. But I wanted her to know what seeing her in that place meant to me.
She was just like every other woman at the conference that weekend. They were the farthest from celebrities you could get. Many were known only to those inside their villages. They had come together to encourage each other, some of them the only followers of Christ in their home area. I heard their stories over the span of those few days, the depth of their hardships and the hope they clung to in the midst of them.
I watched her quietly as she listened to the speaker. Her eyes sometimes closed as she savored the Scripture being read. Other times she leaned forward in her seat. She would tuck her headscarf behind her ear and laugh. I strained to get the joke, my feeble Bangla skills failing me.
The first time I’d seen her face was on my computer screen. My husband and I were sitting in our bedroom over 8000 miles away from this place. We’d been planning for over a year to move to India to work for a non-profit focusing on education and economic development. We had visas in our passports that gave us permission to go. Our house was about to go on the market. I had already quit my job. And then the organization we were going to work for found themselves facing issues with obtaining the permissions to have foreign workers. We were left asking God, “what now?”
Another organization expressed interest in having us work with them. They were located in India’s tiny neighboring country, Bangladesh. We were especially moved by the idea of empowering vulnerable women with skills to provide for themselves and their families.
They sent us a video about the work they were doing with child brides who were suffering from medical issues that arose from pregnancies their too-young bodies couldn’t handle. Most were then divorced and ostracized from their families. Once the women received surgeries that allowed them physical healing, they attended tailoring classes that gave them a marketable skill.
We watched this woman in a remote area on the other side of the world talk about how her life had been changed by the program. When she was asked about her plans for the future, she laughed. She said her plans were just to make clothes for her family and have a good life, a simple life. A life that honored God.
We sat silently for a few minutes after hearing her story, afraid to say the words that marked the finality of what we knew would come next. This was it. We would be moving to Bangladesh...
Our eyes grew wide in disbelief at the yelling, shoving crowd. We had been warned, to be fair, that our trip to the Mogamma, the towering government building in Tahrir Square, would be difficult. But this was something entirely otherworldly. We clutched our passports to our chests and braced ourselves against elbows to the ribs. Everyone there needed to get to that one plexiglass window at the front of the room. On the other side were the stamps that would allow us to stay in the country.
We came to Egypt on tourist one-month entry visas in faith that the system would work and we would be allowed to stay. We didn’t act like there was any other option when we signed a two-year lease and enrolled in Arabic classes. But we needed someone on the other side of the mob to take our papers and give us final permission.
We tell our immigration stories fondly now from the other side. They felt like harrowing experiences while we were in the middle of them though. We hounded the guy at the Bangladeshi Embassy daily. He could have denied our visas because of a changing rule we didn’t know about. Instead, he gave us a call and a chance to make it right. Our entire life was already packed up in ten suitcases and the one-way plane tickets had been purchased. Yet he held the power to deny us entry into the new life we sought. In the end, we got the highly-coveted five-year permission that others told us they were jealous of. “How easy it was for you,” they would say.
I’ve been an immigrant twice and I’ve served with an organization that worked in relief and development amidst one of the largest refugee crises of our time. I’ve helped bring aid to those who fled. I listened to and wrote stories so that donors would hopefully continue to help. I stood looking over the vast rolling hills of the world’s largest refugee camp and thought I knew something about the vulnerability of a transitory life. I knew nothing.
When I started listening, really listening—I realized how one-sided my knowledge was of why people leave and why people need sanctuary...
When we settled back in the U.S. last year after our living in South Asia, it felt like the world had moved on without us while we occupied another plane of existence altogether. We might as well have been returning from outer space. My family got used to living in partially packed houses or out of suitcases in someone’s guest room. We spent the last four years of our lives in one form or another of visible transition. out of suitcases in someone’s guest room. We spent the last four years of our lives in one form or another of visible transition.
When we stopped long enough to deal with how all the change had given us many gifts but also many scars, we opened our eyes to those in transition all around us. Ours was obvious because it included suitcases and tearful goodbyes.
But what about the friend who went back to work after years of staying home with the kids? There was the recently retired family member and a friend coming to grips with the limits her chronic illness gave her. We saw parents struggling with children’s learning difficulties or developmental stages, young adults stuck between college and “real life,” marriages falling apart and new families blending, moving between foster homes, adoption, leaving home, and returning to faith after years of anger with God. And these were just the people in our immediate circles!
I snatched up a copy of Gina Butz’s book Making Peace with Change: Navigating Life’s Messy Transitions with Honesty and Grace because I knew I needed it. It was obvious I was in the definition of a messy transition every time someone asked me how I was doing and tears started running down my cheeks. Having read some of Butz’s work before, I knew she also had lived overseas.
Making Peace with Change takes us through the often hidden parts of transition: hard, loss, desire, expectations, and grief...
I didn’t want her to see me fumble around with the spices she effortlessly wielded. She had been making these dishes her whole life, learning at the side of her Amma. This was my second attempt at making the fancy chicken roast and fragrant pulau, Bengali staples. My friend says they are her comfort food. They are mine, too. The fragrance of ginger, garlic, and onions sautéing on the stove smells like home to me, taking me back to the year and a half we lived in Bangladesh.
I had tried to gather all the right ingredients and tools. She looked around wondering what she would mash the daal with. I didn’t have the flower-shaped wooden utensil perfect for making the lentils into the creamy, yellow goodness we’d pour over rice. She asked for a spice in Bangla and I couldn’t remember the translation. Was that cumin or coriander?
I worry every time I write. What will people think? It’s obvious my faith has been changing over the past few years. How could it not? I’ve been immersed in the wide, beautiful world of the global church. I’ve taken beautiful things from the various traditions I’ve been immersed in and my practice has become a smorgasbord of diversity.
I’ve sat cross-legged on the dirt floor of an Indian slum church and passed chai between us like holy communion. I’ve prayed with monks and Coptic priests, and with women who found Jesus after they were rescued from sex slavery. I’ve worshipped in a room full of countless languages intermingling at once. Between the Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Coptic, Pentecostal, Catholic, and house churches (not to mention the temples and mosques) I’ve been able to visit—I couldn’t tell you what I claim as my own.
I’ve also been a part of such a diverse global sisterhood through my writing. My eyes have opened to things I never thought of in connection to my faith before like systems of oppression, racism, immigration, poverty. I tip-toe around conversations involving politics or church, about faith in connection with activism. I believe the two go hand-in-hand; they must. But I don’t want to offend. I want to know the perfect way to do this.
We were planning for lunch but, as always, a feast like this takes longer than we expected. That is why I had always been afraid to do more Asian cooking; I wanted to know the perfect way to do it before I tried. We had to peel the ginger and garlic, chop them, and blend them into a creamy mixture. We added spices from canisters strewn all over the counter, cashews, and yogurt in the blender to make the base of the perfect gravy for the chicken.
Presentation is vital, too. The rice must be a perfect mound inside the serving bowl with crispy onions dotting the top. The rest of the dishes should be kept warm so that the host can serve everyone in the right order, with daal and white rice for the end of the meal. Our table looked stunning.
The kitchen was another story. Bright yellow turmeric streaked the counter. Oil splatter covered every inch of the stovetop. The sink was overflowing with every pot I owned.
The meal was perfection. I watched my daughter scoop handfuls of rice into her mouth with a sigh. Each taste reminded her of the land she loved and the people she missed. We laughed around the table and chattered with our friend, Bangla words we hadn’t spoken in months tasting as sweet on our lips as the food. This kind of meal takes a lot of time and even more mess. Every bite, every laugh together is worth it...
“Why are you here?” she asked suspiciously when we sat down knee to knee on the dirt floor of her shelter. She had seen other foreigners before. They brought food and water, set up medical camps. Were we here to do the same? “We just want to hear your story,” one of the women in our circle said. The Rohingya woman tugged the violet scarf behind her ears as she smiled widely and let out a contented sigh.
When I was younger I never imagined I would be sitting in a circle like that one. Everything in me loved to color inside the lines. A risk-averse rule follower asks where the boundaries are and then stays a few feet inside of them.
My faith stayed inside the lines for years, too. I clung to right answers and thought I knew all the rules to follow to please God and to make a difference in the world.
And then, I went out and met people who looked, lived, and believed nothing like me. I started listening and realizing how little I knew at all.
Thankfully, I met people who valued people’s stories over quick solutions. When one organization I worked with wanted to combat slavery in India they asked the people in bondage how they could help and listened when they responded: “Educated our children. Don’t let this cycle continue with the next generation.” So, they started schools and empowered national teachers to run them.
“It is easy to know what is good for someone else,” says nun and human rights advocate, Joan Chissiter, “It is difficult to listen and let them define it themselves.” I don’t always make the effort to listen. But when I do, I realize the gravity of carrying someone else’s story…and the privilege.
Back in that camp, we leaned in closer around the quiet woman, eager to hear her story...
I am thrilled to share my story today at Cara Meredith's Coloring Outside the Lines blog. Cara is the author of The Color of Life: A Journey Toward Love and Racial Justice. The proceeds from the article will go to the work of Preemptive Love.