Perched on the balcony, like the Black and White Doel¹ that serenaded me from the windowsill in the spring, I watched over my little corner of the world. In the most densely populated city on earth, that one little intersection of Road Six and Safwan Road felt like a microcosm of humanity itself.
I would sit there with a steaming cup of coffee in my hand though the tropical morning humidity already made streams of sweat trickle down my back. The city had been awake for hours already—really it never slept at all. Through the night my family would be serenaded by the barking street dogs and dinging bicycle rickshaw bells. The construction trucks arrived in the early morning hours to dump more rebar and brick in the lot next to us for the ever-growing high rises.
Bangladesh, built on the delta that contains over 700 rivers, is a stunning display of God’s workmanship. Even in the concrete and brick mega-city, our flat was surrounded by green. Palms lined the streets, heavy jackfruit pulled branches down around us, and the bright red Krishnachura blooms fell to the ground like the snow the city will never experience. Humanity has complicated that beauty as more people pour into the city, away from the rising floodwaters, the ebb of jobs, and increasing poverty in the villages. When most people talk to me about the city I love, this is what they focus on.
The pollution that blankets the city in the winter and causes pounding headaches, the trash that lines the streets, and the steady protests that clog traffic makes Dhaka a less than desirable location for most. When we moved back to the U.S. I heard it everywhere: “Aren’t you so glad to be out of that place? It must have been so hard. I would never want to go there.” Every time someone says something like this, I can feel tears of defensiveness sting my eyes. In my mind, I still go back there often to that intersection. My heart swells with love for the beauty I found there, amidst the mess. Because of the mess. Because of the people.
That coffee in hand, for a few quiet moments I would watch the people, so many of them. The chatter of Bangla rising from the street never stopped as people called for rickshaws, yelled at friends heading to the University, or kids ran off to the English primary school down the street—its walls painted brightly with cartoon characters.
From where I stood I could peer directly into the nursery below, as early morning shoppers chose from orange marigolds and buckets of pink bougainvilleas to take home and grow on their balconies. Depending on the season I could see the children inside the small slum-house across from the nursery chasing chickens or running past the cow tied outside the gate. The day workers cleared their throats as they ascended the pile of red dust made from smashed bricks that they would add to the concrete mixer.
I would smile and wave at the nuns, their white shoes shuffling down the cracked street as they walked to the Christian counseling center next to the school. I wanted to smile at the men on their way home from morning prayers at the mosque but their white Topi-clad² heads never looked up at me, hurrying on into the day. The Ayah³ in the villa next to us would meet my gaze, though, as she pulled tight sheets over the rooftop clotheslines. I wondered what she saw when she looked at me. We were some of the only white faces visible in this part of town, far from the richer, diplomatic area in which a lot of foreigners chose to live. She would nod as she returned to her work.
As the heat closed in around me, I would leave the sounds of the city behind and return to the work awaiting me. Soon I would head down to the non-profit office just a couple floors below to write out stories about these people I loved. I would weed through reports from our village schools and news from our teams in the Rohingya refugee camps in the south of the country. I would stumble through accounts of other people’s lives, trying to figure out how to communicate to donors just how important their support was to the education and economic development of people they would never meet. I would pray that I could somehow honor the stories of people, let their own voices come through my words.
Today, I sit here two years after our return to the U.S. and twenty years to the day from the moment I felt God telling me to turn to love when so many around me were learning to hate. The day after the attacks of September 11, 2001 as I sat in an Arabic college class among my Middle Eastern classmates weeping that their religion had been turned into a weapon of terror, my heart shattered. It has been breaking ever since for the divisions we invent out of fear—the blinders we erect that keep us from seeing the glorious richness of what others have to offer us....
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...
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...
Hers was the first familiar face I saw in the sea of unknown that was the airport atrium. Standing back on the soil of my “home” for the first time in a year, I felt uprooted. A week before, my friend only existed as a voice over the phone while I ached for community I hadn’t been able to build yet in my new life in South Asia. America felt like another reality altogether as change pulled me further away.
But a family crisis had yanked me up by my transplanted roots, and there I stood again. Home yet not home. My husband and children stayed behind 8,500 miles away, and my heart was torn between two continents.
I expected to feel out of place after the prolonged absence and adjustment to a new normal. Yet in the smiling face of the friend who had known the depths of my wandering heart for twenty-three years, I felt like no time had passed at all. We became friends over bus rides to band competitions and passing notes in biology class. We saw each other through crushes and crushed hearts, marriage and divorce, chronic illness, and now two international moves. We had shared a house and shared over half our lives.
I had imagined our connection dissolving with time and distance as I complained that I had no friends in my new home. I focused on what I didn’t have and forgot what I did have because it lingered out of sight. Yet there she was with a caramel macchiato she knew to be my favorite in hand. She was a visual reminder that friendship is not erased by time apart and not changed by miles traveled.
When I walked into the ICU waiting room where my whole family was gathered, she quietly melted into the background. She let me cry with my sister, whose husband had just undergone a second emergency surgery for the aneurism that had prompted my unplanned trip around the world. I felt ashamed at my own lack of willingness to be inconvenienced for others when her husband didn’t complain that it was 2am before we pulled into my parents’ driveway.
I was reminded of so much more than the strength of a childhood friendship in those days. Every time she showed up over those two weeks, I was surprised when I shouldn’t have been. Where else but in the everyday needs of life should we expect Christ to show up?...
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