Human First

Two weeks gone in a blink and we are in line at the airport to travel home from Bangladesh. We battle mosquitoes and crowds for four hours, standing in one line and then the next, until we finally board our 3 am flight at 4 am. We miss our connecting flight in Doha by minutes and spend four more hours in line, waiting for new tickets for the next day’s flight and hotel vouchers. Deep thirst drives me to ask for water, having been given nothing since breakfast on the plane some six hours prior. I’m sent to a shop where I begrudgingly bring out the plastic card, cringing at the price this liquid gold is costing me. When I return to the group, I return with a new friend and soon meet another. We share this liquid gold and it is worth every penny. I return to the shop and throw down the plastic again for a pack of biscuits and we share this too. Who knew that airport liquid gold and packaged Marie biscuits could be the holiest of communions. Four exhausted Americans and our new friends – a young Bangladeshi lawyer from Minnesota and a sweet Bengali Auntie from Kolkata who spoke no English.

Together the six of us move forward, a weary cluster of travelers, and squeeze ourselves into the hotel shuttle bus. After check-in and a lovely spread for lunch, we set out with our new friends for the Souq. We walk on clean city sidewalks, past bank after bank covered in beautiful mosaic, we walk in cool but bright sunshine, my new friend asking occasionally for directions. We cross busy streets and turn a corner and there it is, like something out of a storybook. Ancient architecture, paintings, textiles, pottery, jewelry, stalls spilling over with treasures. We forget our tiredness, the long lines of waiting that landed us here and we soak up a girls night out. We buy treasures to tuck into our luggage, sip coffee under pink-soaked clouds and laugh with the thrill of this adventure. Our new Kala (auntie) gifts each of us with a magnet that says Qatar and we insist of buying a bracelet for her, something to keep us connected after the initial memories of this day fade.

We finally pull ourselves away from the Souq to begin the long walk back to our hotel. As we rush to cross one of the busy intersections, I turn back to make sure Kala is still with us. What I see utterly melts my heart. My new Muslim friend grabs the hand of my new Hindu Auntie and walks hand in hand with her for the rest of the journey. It was a reaction of the heart and it moved me profoundly and it makes me want to be more like them and the hundreds of others I met on my journey to the East. This ability to see another as human first blurs the lines of labels and boxes that we of the West cling to so fiercely. What would our nation look like if we saw each other as human first? Imagine if the lines of race, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, and education could be blurred enough that we could see straight to the core of each other. Imagine the beauty of looking into the eyes of a complete stranger and seeing your own soul mirrored back?

Human First.

 

Parallel Threads

It was a journey into the sacred. Each step of our pilgrimage of stories led us deeper into the heart and soul of this amazing country.

The constant tension of of beauty and ugliness called something to life within us as we heard story after story with parallel threads of utter pain and glorious triumph. As we walked past piles of raw and putrid garbage, we were also aware of artistically painted, brightly colored rickshaws passing us on a road filled with beautiful people wrapped in colors that brought the city to life on a breezy evening.

We walked in paradox. Endless honking and exhaust from four-lane roads somehow transformed into ten-lane roads contrasted with palm trees, bougainvilleas and dahlias taller than I. A weather-worn 15th Century palace with crumbling buildings surrounded by teenagers taking selfies on smart phones.

A patriarchal society where women are rising up in the best of ways, stitching together a future of hope for the next generation, while young girls learn CPR and basic rescue skills. Discarded women who became leaders and work together to change entire communities. Worn and torn saris stitched into quilts of love by hands that were once held immovable by forces too strong to resist.

A national forest given up to become a refugee camp, swelling at the seams to hold a million of the world’s most unwanted people. Hungry hands reach out to me while vibrant green rice fields stretch from the road, as far as the eye can see. Endless crowds of people and obvious poverty overshadowed by unbelievable generosity. As outsiders, foreigners, we were welcomed and treated as family. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, all treating us as equals with enthusiastic hospitality. Muslims called out to us wishing peace upon us and sharing their food with us. A Hindu friend wrapped me in her arms and asked about my family. Buddhist hands served us tea. Beautiful diversity, woven together with the warmth of Bengal.

How is it that one of the most impoverished nations on earth can be so generous and welcoming of those who are different, while one of the wealthiest nations on earth is building walls and has collectively forgotten simple kindnesses? A famous prophet once said that if you want to be great, you have to become the least and serve others. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which nation displays this type of greatness.

I took my friends to Bangladesh to learn and collect stories. Perhaps one day people from Bangladesh will be able to come here to learn and collect stories of greatness. Perhaps someone will write a story of how the nation that grew powerful on the backs of slaves finally became great by serving others. Perhaps there will be a story about the descendants of immigrants who welcomed other immigrants and together transformed the struggling economy into something vibrant and thriving. I dream that someday a stranger will come, be welcomed and write a story about the land that built hope instead of walls and finally figured out that love is the strongest force of all. I hope that someday my nation will display some of the greatness that I discovered in Bangladesh.

 

When Labels Slip Away

My body feels as if it has been dropped into an alternate reality. The haze I feel goes beyond being hurled through eleven time zones, and dropped back into a land of ice and snow. I shiver, yet my body bears proof of time spent in a place of warmth as my forehead peels and my feet boast scabs from wearing sandals for two weeks. But the shiver is not just physical for the very depth of my being is in shock, though I have gone and returned many times before. You would think I would be used to this by now, or maybe I am just more aware this time of my own prejudice and Western expectations and the labels I am so quick to apply. Each day I was gone, those things were ruptured with a shocking but beautiful reality. My brain struggles to turn these experiences into words that you would understand. I will try, because the brave and beautiful people I met deserve to have their stories told and because we in the West have so much to learn from those unlike ourselves who we label as “other”.

Forgive me if I can’t lay it all out just yet. There is something sacred about being welcomed as a stranger into the story of another, for even a brief moment, of observing utter pain and despair being transformed into the very deepest joy. It’s as if a lifetime of joy and pain have been squeezed into two weeks and there is no language to translate it into.

So I’m holding these stories in my heart, yet they leak from my eyes and I am more than undone. For among the poorest of the poor, I have met the bravest, kindest and strongest souls you could imagine. I saw glimpses of the Creator in their faces, heard whispers of the Divine in their stories. I sat myself down and I listened. Labels slipped away and love was all that was left.

A Different Reality

The whirlwind of January’s blizzard and winter trade shows are finally behind us. I sit, staring at our snow-covered deck, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that next week I will be walking around Bangladesh in my sandals. Here the bare tree branches reach out under a grey expanse but there I will soak up sunshine under a clear blue sky, walk on green grass, smell fresh flowers, sip cups of cha, slap mosquitoes and revel in the warm welcome that only Bangladeshis know how to give. A complete different reality is only a mere 20+ hours plane ride away. A few friends will be traveling with me and we’ve had a many conversations about what it will be like. I’ve tried to prepare them for a different reality, which has been a fairly straightforward task because they all assume that life in another country will be completely different from their “normal”.

But what about my neighbor who immigrated from Germany and still speaks with an accent? What about my other neighbors who are a mixed race couple? Or the Latino family up the alley? Or the single mom at my church? Or the black kids playing basketball at the YMCA after school with my son? Or the queer people I love and care about. Do I assume that their reality is or should be the same as mine? Because the more I listen, the more I learn that right here, in my own back yard, the reality of others is as different from mine as Bangladesh is from America. That is why I have no right to form judgements about or give answers to those who I perceive as “other”. I have absolutely no right to tell them how they should react to the hurdles they face.

My reality as a white American straight female is filled with privilege, choices and status that many people I know do not have. Inside my soul, there is a chair, and I have sat myself down quietly, on that chair. I am listening. Too long have I spoken out of my own reality and placed my own expectations on others. Perhaps in listening I will learn. And if I learn, perhaps I will begin to change and grace will meet us both.