Trust in the slow work of God… Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.
-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Some people are soothed by the certainty that they hold the one irrefutable true interpretation of Scripture, the “right” answers everyone else outside their group is missing. Seeing the world in black-and-white, in tidy boxes to be checked off and answers given to them bring them comfort. I used to be one of them.
But as the world around me became greyer, I was no longer satisfied by packaged ideas handed to me without the ability to ask “Why?” The unraveling began decades ago when I fell in love with the cultures not my own and my Muslim friends taught me about faith. I discovered a vibrant, diverse global church outside the walls of my denomination. I found communities encountering and serving God in ways the faith of my youth would say were out of bounds. God was at work in bigger and more varied ways than I’d ever been told.
Then came my engagement with contemplation and some around me pushed back against what Catholics had to teach me. As a woman, I had never been comfortable with my denomination’s view of what women could and could not do, but I thought it was the sacrifice I had to make to fit into the community that introduced me to Jesus. Finally, after 2016, I was even more unsettled with the white evangelical church and the choices its leaders were making, especially regarding women and people of color. I stayed despite great distress—until it was too damaging to my own soul to stay.
I entered an Episcopal church through the doorway of a centering prayer group. After practicing Lectio Divina (a method of meditating on a Scripture passage) together and sitting for twenty minutes in silent prayer, we discussed what we heard God say in those moments. I had found a kindred group.
“You’re Baptist?” they asked when I told them a little about myself. “Well, kind of,” I said, unsure what to call myself anymore. “I have been a member of a Baptist church since I was a teen, but during my years in college and living in South Asia and the Middle East, I have attended Episcopal, non-denominational, Coptic Orthodox, and Assemblies of God churches. I have learned from Trappist monks and Jesuits and attended house churches and international churches in Muslim and Hindu communities. I’m kind of a denominational mutt, I guess.” They laughed and said they welcomed my perspective and were glad I was there.
A few weeks later my family attended an Advent service at that same church. With rapt attention, I hung on every word of the woman priest. When I kneeled at the communion rail and she placed the bread in my hand, it was a coming home meal. For my husband and children, it wasn’t home. We decided to try to walk separate spiritual paths and see if we could make it work.
Over the next few months, I moved timidly from the back row into coffee hours and Wednesday dinners. I wasn’t sure what people would make of my complicated history or my family now divided between two churches....
“For my entire life, it seemed that people had been shouting at me—telling me what to believe and how to act…’There is a new voice,’ Mary Oliver wrote of the journey of awakening, ‘which you slowly recognize as your own.’ Until my mid-thirties, I did not know that voice. But once I listened, it grew more insistent. A calling, a beckoning, and urging toward love. And, as Oliver said, I ‘determined to do the only thing’ I could do: Save my own life. I did not know what would happen. But I was ready to leave the old voices behind. I stared at the cage’s open door, and I knew it was time to walk out into the world. I trusted that Jesus would be on the way.”
– Diana Butler Bass, Freeing Jesus
It feels as if I am embarking on a new journey and yet my entire life has been leading to this bend in the road. So, is it really new? I am simply following the voice that beckons me on toward love.
For a long time, all I could see were the losses on this journey. All in the span of a few years—my family left all we’d ever known to move to work with a non-profit in Bangladesh. Then, we lost our dream of living long-term in South Asia when we moved back to the U.S. The family I knew was forever changed by serious illness and death. I walked away from the church that was home for two decades.
The losses I felt weren’t unique. So many were struggling with faith and church in the wake of so many shifts in society and the church, all over people awakening to what they’d been missing. Then, Covid stole so much from us all. The aches of the world gnawed away at our souls, our societies, and the faith of many.
Even as I heard a voice calling me forward and I tiptoed toward what I couldn’t see, I could not stop looking at all that was slipping through my fingers.
It was only a crawl at first—that day I stepped into the Episcopal church. Wounded, I looked for a place to heal when I found a Centering Prayer group that met at a nearby parish. I nudged open the heavy red, wooden door and stepped inside, begging God to meet me there. I believed with all that was in me I could still find God inside the church. I loved her and wouldn’t let go of that hope.
My exploration into contemplation had saved my faith, and I prayed it would help me find my way forward. Amidst deep anxiety and depression—it was silence, stillness, and contemplative prayer that allowed me to find Jesus anew and discover my own belovedness....
“I just wanted you to know I hear you. I see you.”
I received this voice message from a friend in response to a long, rambling complaint I sent the day before.
“In walking with people through grief and loss, I’ve recognized how powerless I am to rescue anyone, said Aubrey Sampson. “And I’ve been surprised (and humbled a bit) that people rarely look at me for rescuing. Rather, they’re desiring to connect, to be validated that their suffering or the injustice they are facing hasn’t somehow disqualified them from personhood,”
In that moment, I felt like a person again because I knew someone—even if separated by two time zones from me—saw me.
I could identify the feelings of sadness, anger, worry, and general angst. I could name a laundry list of circumstances in my and my extended family members’ lives. But I couldn’t let myself really pull apart the factors that had multiplied to equal this current spiral into infinite sadness.
With all the moving variables of emotions, there was but one constant: shame.
How could I ramble off an assortment of hardships when others I love have lost so much more? How could I complain about not having enough when not having enough meant being unable to afford a vacation for my kids for spring break? For others, not having enough meant not putting bread in the hands of their children every day.
I felt the anger at myself deep in my core, multiplying the hurt.
I was comforted by my friend’s assurance that I was not alone, but it didn’t help the guilt I allowed to seep into the ground of my being. It tripled the worthlessness that howled in my ears.
Another notification dinged on my phone. She proceeded to name issues she knew to be present in my life— ones I hadn’t mentioned the day before. Ones that ran deeper than the kick in the gut of a hefty financial blow or the frustration of parenting-working-schooling life that never seemed to add up to enough.
She knew the anniversary of the loss I faced, the loved one just out of surgery, the parent in pain, the inability to help loved ones drowning, and the struggling child. She named the yawning unknowns I faced and the dreams I’d lost.
“It’s a lot,” she said. “Anyone would be struggling under the weight of all that. It’s like you are a pillar holding the weight of your own life and the lives of everyone around you, and you’re cracking under the weight. Really, it’s so much,” she echoed. I didn’t quite believe her yet as I continued to weigh my pain against that of others in this always-lose game of, “whose suffering is worse?” But I tried...
Despite the gentle sound of the waves and the cool evening breeze descending over the lake, I couldn’t help but feel disturbed. The sunset over the Sea of Galilee should have soothed my soul, but my mind wouldn’t stop turning the story over and over.
I sat there on the eastern shore recalling the day and the place that had so rocked me. Not far from the quiet Kibbutz where my tour group was staying, we had trekked up into the Golan Heights. Tucked away in the hills were the remains of a Byzantine monastery, identified by tradition as the place where Jesus performed what is called “the Miracle of the Swine” or “the Healing of the Gerasene demoniac.”
It was a story in the Bible I had never given much thought to, tucked away among the other miracles Jesus performed around Galilee. But that day, standing among the ruins, the story came alive for me. That night I lay in a hammock listening to the sounds of celebrations drifting across the water from the far shore. The western shore, the Jewish side of Galilee in Jesus’ time, was alive that night with music and lights.
Change, even for the better, is never uncomfortable or easy. Restoration comes at a cost.
Here on the Gentile side, all was quiet. It would not have been those many years ago, as the sounds of the tormented man echoed out across the waves. The disciples would have heard his cries from the other shore, that strange man in the foreign city. Surely there were stories about him circulating. A good Jew wouldn’t dream of crossing to the other side of the Jordan into that unclean, strange land on a normal day. But with a madman roaming around the tombs—unthinkable.
Yet, that is exactly what Jesus did, his disciples in tow. He initiated their journey to the other side, rowing into the storm and knowing what would await them on the other side: a naked, screaming man who said he was possessed by a legion of demons.
As soon as the man saw Jesus, he knew something the disciples did not just moments earlier when Jesus calmed the storm. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me,” he cried out. He knew precisely what kind of power Jesus held, and he wanted nothing to do with it.
The people in this area were ruled by fear and superstition. The tombs were believed to be the home of demons, which is why the man was there—not in the Decapolis, the ten Greek cities directly to the South, where he was from. The caves around the tombs were a refuge for people who had been cast out by society. He was utterly broken, an outcast, the lowest of low. Jesus sought him out with the power to heal. Yet he begged Jesus not to torment him any further. Why?
Change, even for the better, is never uncomfortable or easy. Restoration comes at a cost...
Nicole T. Walters and Prasanta Verma were both raised in the Southern United States but have ties to South Asia. Nicole fell in love with classical Indian dance and then Mother India herself through social work in the country. She and her family spent two years in Bangladesh working with a nonprofit. Prasanta’s roots are in India. She was born under an Asian sun, and lives in the U.S. now, and her ancestors and relatives come from this region of the world.
Their two very different perspectives converge in their love of South Asia, chai, faith, and writing. Together, they interact with the first ever U.S.-Bangladeshi co-production, the acclaimed film, Rickshaw Girl.
This is a story that helps the audience…
…to Feel the Weight: Nicole
You cannot help but feel when you watch Rickshaw Girl. Through the rich color, grit, and complexity, you feel the full arc of the plot—from the weight of poverty to the grief of oppression and to the hope of new beginnings.
Having lived in Dhaka and feeling all the paradoxes of life in Bangladesh, I was eager to first read Mitali Perkin’s young adult novel Rickshaw Girl and then watch the film adaptation. Watching the movie was like stepping into a memory for me, while also stepping into parts of Bangladesh I could never know fully as a foreigner. It was like pulling back the curtains into what I only heard from friends.
In the movie, you are immersed in the life of a young girl whose father is a rickshaw driver in a village outside of the capital city of Dhaka. The difficulties of poverty send her into the city to find work to help her family and bring her face-to-face with the struggles facing women in the majority-Muslim country that was part of India until the British withdrawal in 1948 left a divided and warring subcontinent.
…to Rise Above: Prasanta
The movie starts with a painting.
The protagonist, Naima, is cheated out of payment for her painting, and her mother tells her to be grateful for what she did receive. Then her father becomes ill, can’t drive his rickshaw, and falls behind on payments. Her mother also loses her job due to an unjust accusation. Naima finds herself surrounded by injustice. How does one break this kind of cycle, when the whole world seems to be scheming against her?
I’ve ridden in rickshaws in India, fully aware that the life of the person pulling the rickshaw bears no resemblance to mine—and the ability to leave such a lifestyle is only available to a few who are fortunate to find a way out. But for the grace of God, it could be me in those shoes, like Naima, with a rickshaw-pulling father, bathing in a river, scrounging for money, and subjected to mistreatment.
The movie feels authentic to the life I’ve witnessed in India—as one who claims a tie through her ancestral roots to that region of South Asia. The scenes looked familiar to me, and if I didn’t know the setting was Bangladesh, it could have easily been in India.
Naima’s only skill is painting—but she is very good at it, painting walls of houses, sidewalks, and rickshaw covers, brightening the dull and dreary days with her colorful scenes. Her vibrant paintings of flowers and birds are a cheerful, stark contrast to the darkness surrounding her, to the broken concrete and fragile dreams, her faded clothes and the never-ending cycle of hardship and suffering.
Her paintings reveal a bit of what’s inside her heart: the desire to dream, to fly, to rise above—the desires that exist in the young where hope resides—that small drop of belief that a smidgen of justice remains hidden somewhere beneath the mounds of desperation of her family’s plight.