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....
The new leaves look as small and fragile as a baby’s fingernail. I smile in wonder as I water the miniature umbrella tree that sits as a quiet reminder to me in my window sill. The bonsai sits soaking up the morning sun doing its slow work. Changes are subtle and take days to notice. It looks like nothing is happening for a long time; then suddenly what appeared dormant emerges.
I am the farthest thing from a gardener. Though I love plants, I can’t keep them alive. Yet, after years of admiring the bonsai garden at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit which I visit several times a year, I finally bought one of the minuscule trees last year. I took great care the first few weeks to make sure it was watered and fertilized. In short order, the leaves drained of their color and started collecting in heaps around the base of the tree.
I read more about the specific type of plant and realized I was over-saturating it. I purchased a humidity tray to keep subtle moisture always nearby. I started watering it only once a week. Yet, I feared it was too late as the branches remained bare for weeks. I kept pouring water into the ceramic, turquoise base every Monday. I didn’t think there was any hope for the weepy branches, but I kept trying.
And then one day as I was watering the apparently dead tree, I saw those tiny leaves beginning to emerge. Something had been happening beneath the dark, moist soil that I couldn’t see. Life had been pulsing inside the branches all along, quietly, imperceptibly.
I started working on a rule of life four years ago sitting under the high arches of the very same abbey church where my little bonsai started its life as a sapling. I sat at the monastery and dreamed of a well-ordered life like the ones the brothers who live there know—one that prioritizes prayer and community, faith and action. One that finally makes sense.
“A rule of life aims to create a framework for being and becoming, rather than checking something off a list. Practical and spiritual goals fit into this framework as prayer and Bible reading can get sidelined into another item on the to-do list.”
I first learned about living by a rule at the monastery but found that followers of Christ have been creating personal rules individually and in community for years. St. Benedict himself, who wrote the most famous rule which orders the life of monastics around the world, summarized the rule as “simply a handbook to make the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life.”
I’ve struggled to complete or live by a rule in the years since because it feels rigid in my ever-changing life. I would get a draft together of spiritual practices I wanted to pursue and ways I wanted to fix my life around anchor points that didn’t shift when my circumstances did. A few months into the year, just like with resolutions or goals, I would abandon the attempt, only to try again later. Continue Reading
“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.
A quick Google search defines the word they as a pronoun “referring to two more people previously mentioned or easily defined.” It’s my experience that no one group of people is easily defined but, oh, we still like to try.
We tuck people away into groups of them and those people, defining those groups as different than us. And these labels reduce people to a stereotype that can house hate, fear, and oppression.
Sometimes that little word triggers such anger in me. I see it in my social media feeds almost daily describing how those people act or believe, words laced with venom—words about how one such group of people we inaccurately mis-categorize is out to destroy our country and world. Words describing people I love—my Muslim brothers and sisters. A huge, diverse group of people comprising one-fourth of the population of the world is reduced to a they that others so easily reject, or vilify.
Most people in my daily life claim Islam as their religion since I live in a country where Muslims make up 80% of the population. To see a group of men wearing white prayer caps and flowing robes walking down the street on the way to the mosque is a normal daily occurrence for me. These are my neighbors. For many people that same image would strike fear of the unknown in their heart.
That’s the key—the unknown. We fear what we don’t take the time to know. We just slap a they label on people and think they are so easily defined.
When others don’t recognize the image of God in my Muslim friends, don’t see them as equal to themselves, as someone who has much wisdom to teach them—I want to rage, I want to scream: how can you not see? I can forget that once I was blind too...
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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