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...
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...
There’s something inside you waiting to unfurl. It is quietly growing beneath the surface. You can feel it gathering itself up, the momentum of its growth building. How it began is a mystery. What it will become is yet to be seen—even to you. But in its time, if you nurture it well, it will bloom.
“I understand now,” she said slowly. My mom sighed deeply and shook her head like she was trying to shake off the realization that had settled over her. “Seeing the way you interact with the people, seeing how you are here…” her voice trailed off as she gestured toward the old city street bustling locals and tourists entering shops. “You’re different somehow,” she finished after a pause. “You come alive,” she said as she placed her drink down on the table, every move deliberate as if the words pained her.
I wasn’t exposed to much diversity as a child in the middle-class Bible belt of suburban Georgia. I don’t know why this hunger had been churning and rumbling inside me or why it founds its place of rest and belonging the moment I stepped off a plane onto Asian soil.
I was twenty-one before I ever traveled outside the borders of America. It wasn’t for lack of trying before but my parents said no to that trip in high school and my college study abroad plans fell through. I couldn’t name this burning desire that had always been germinating inside of me. It longed to connect to something I couldn’t see—somewhere out there. As soon as I could pay my own way and had the chance, I was gone.
In the next ten years, I traveled to eight countries and lived in South Asia and the Middle East. I dragged my mom to Hindu temples and Bollywood movies. She came to watch my classical Indian dance performance and listened to me practice my broken Arabic with at the Lebanese restaurant where she warily tried shwarma. But she never connected with the cultures for which I had an insatiable appetite. I was growing in a direction that took me far away.
My first Bharata Natyam teacher explained my immediate aptitude for the complex Indian dance form as something I was born into. “You must have been a devadasi (Hindu temple dancer) in a past life.” My South Asian friends laugh sometimes at my ready acceptance of their culture—“Sister, you are more Bengali than we are.”
Fourteen years after my first steps outside of my home country, my mom and I sat together in a café tucked inside the ancient cobbled walls of the Arab Quarter of old Jerusalem. It was her first trip overseas in her adult life and my first chance to show her the world I loved. I knew the admission pained her, to say that she finally understood it, in her own way. It was a relinquishing of sorts—releasing me to something that threatened to take me (and my family) from her side...
For someone with a love of simplicity and order, I own an excessive amount of trinkets. A few weeks before our departure from South Asia, I packed some of them in a suitcase to send back with a friend returning to the United States. I lovingly wrapped the items as I pondered the most important things to go first.
In went a wooden Coptic cross from the church we attended while living in Egypt. I settled it next to an olivewood communion cup that once held juice outside the garden tomb in Jerusalem. They nestled next to the green, white, black, and red prayer beads secretly pressed into my hand by a Palestinian in Jericho when I spoke to him in broken Arabic, asking about his nation and his faith.
These items have lived on my dresser in Bangladesh, reminding me of the places that have made indelible marks on my life. They will return to a curio cabinet in America next to items that might be worthless in the eyes of others—things like sea shells from the island we visit every year with our closest friends, stones dug out of the Red Sea, a scrap of silk hand embroidered by a friend living in the largest slum in Asia.
My kids placed the beginning of their collections inside the bag as well: a bronze tiger for my son, a little wire rickshaw for my daughter. These things will sit collecting dust on dressers for years to come, surely. But they will also serve as a reminder of the land my children called home for part of their childhood.
This place will make a mark on them they won’t be able to name for years to come. One day, though, they will want to remember. They will need to understand why the smell of ginger and garlic paste simmering in a pan stirs something deep inside their hearts, something they can’t quite place.
When my friend told me the suitcase full of “souvenirs” went missing in transit—lost somewhere in Istanbul—I held back the tears and held my breath. Thankfully, a few days later, I learned it had safely arrived. They are just things, I know, but they are irreplaceable to me, because of the places and the stories they represent...