Turning Strangers into Family

Bangladeshi BBQ MealToday is Eid al-Adha, the festival of the sacrifice. Muslims around the world gather in memory of Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son.

I remember being a young exhausted mother of a wall-climbing toddler, with a second child on the way. We had just moved into a new apartment in Dhaka, Bangladesh and barely had our boxes unpacked. The morning of Eid, our toddler had us up bright and early, as usual. It wasn’t long before we heard a knock on the door. Much to our surprise, seven gentlemen from seven other homes in our apartment building, were standing there, eager to invite us to each of their homes to celebrate the holiday with them.

We were humbled and honored to be their guests. And we did, indeed, visit every one of their seven homes that day. Each family shared their finest feast food with us. We were welcomed to their table, even though we were different. Foreigners of a different faith. Speakers of a different language. Welcomed as family.

I’m sitting here today with a lump in my throat that will not go away. I get goosebumps on my arms as I remember their kindness, their generosity, their welcome. I cannot help but contrast it to how my country is treating those who are foreign, those who are different.

When we lived in a Muslim country, we never spent a holiday by ourselves. We were always treated as family. Here in our “Christian” country, many immigrants never see the inside of an American home. Here we too often treat them as the “less than” and automatically assume they have broken laws to be here. Our “Christian” nation is in a frenzy, trying to rid ourself of those we believe do not belong here, stooping to unspeakable violence and indecency.  Last week in Mississippi alone, nearly 700 people were rounded up by ICE, leaving many children without parents to come home to on their first day of school.

Most of us agree that the system is broken. But any system, broken or not, can only go so far to make or break a country because a country is made up of individuals. As individuals, we can open our doors wide.  We can practice hospitality and turn strangers into family.  My Muslim friends taught me that family is any human being who is near you. So let’s keep an eye out for our family. Let’s make sure they are safe and that they know we see and value their humanity. We don’t have to wait for the system to change to become the change that our country desperately needs right now.

Eid Mubarak. Happy Festival!

 

Sunlight on Bullet Casings

The sky above is soft, giving the illusion of peace and safety as pink fluffy clouds float by, waiting for the sun to rise and fill the space with heat and light that will bounce off the metal roof and the golden bullet casings scattered outside the window and across the street. She looks at her daughter, finally sleeping in the pre-dawn quiet, and she wonders how many mornings they have left…if they stay. She is tired, so very tired, of the struggle just to survive. She thinks of her neighbors to the north and she ponders going to them for help. Her thoughts drift to the mothers in that country who are, even now, slowly getting up to make coffee, cooking their children breakfast before sending them off to school. She wonders if they have ever seen the morning sun reflecting off of bullet casings. She wonders if they even know what their country has done to their neighbors to the south over the past several centuries.

She knows. She has heard the stories, lost more relatives than she can count, seen the economy of her country totter and flail. She know the desperation of hunger, the weight of constantly having to look over her shoulder. When she looks in the mirror, she sees the lines of a woman twice her age. She looks at her sleeping daughter  and dreams of watching her grow up with a belly always full, a daughter who skips to a big yellow school bus with a backpack full of supplies to learn in a safe environment.

Should she go? She has heard the stories of those who have gone before. Some have starved on the way and never made it. Some have made it there, only to have their children taken away from them. She has heard of the deaths, the rapes, the torture. She looks again at her daughter. If she stays, she knows those things will happen here. But if she goes, maybe, just maybe she will be the lucky one to make it through. She reaches out in faith for her backpack, hand hovering in the air as the sun peaks up over the horizon, its light bouncing off of the bullet casings outside of her window.

This story was written to give voice to parents south of our borders who are facing an incredible struggle to survive. I was recently made more aware of our country’s involvement with our southern neighbors and it got me thinking. We have invaded them again and again over the years, sometimes under the guise of helping, but always with our own interests in mind. We have toppled government after government. Imagine the trickle down effect of that. We can only imagine because we have been at the top for so long. Please take a moment to read the brief summary below of our involvement South of the border.

  • 1846 US went to war with Mexico over land issues and took 1/3 of Mexico’s land, including most of present day California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.
  • 1903 US helps engineer Panama’s independence from Columbia and gains, in return, exclusive possession of the Panama Canal. The US kept possession until 1999.
  • 1809-1903 US helps Cuba gain independence from Spain, continues to occupy Cuba and refuses to pull troops until it gets something in return – long story short, the perfect spot for a Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay.
  • 1914 US invades Vera Cruz, Mexico, hoping to help take down Mexico’s leader.
  • 1954 CIA backs a coup to take down the Guatemalan president.
  • 1961 CIA launches full scale invasion of Cuba, in hopes to topple Castro from power.
  • 1964 US backs coup that takes down Brazilian president
  • 1965 US sends troops to the Dominican Republic in hopes of preventing a communist dictator from taking over.
  • 1973 US backs military coup in Chile to overthrow the democratically elected president. He is replaced by a brutal dictator.
  • 1970s US plays a significant role in Operation Condor, and intelligence operation that resulted in an estimated 60,000 deaths.
  • 1980s Regan fears communism and interferes in both Nicaragua and El Salvador. The US backs forces against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and sends $3Bn to El Salvador who is fighting left-winged guerillas, The US also invades Grenada to take down a communist ruler.
  • 1989 US invades Panama and takes down the dictator.
  • 1994 US leads invasion of Haiti to restore the former president to power.
  • 2002 US backs coup in Venezuela.
  • 2009 US backs coup to overthrow Honduran president.

While I am sure that there are more details that could be added to this list, I hope it can spark a chain reaction in your brain. Imagine that each state of the US were its own country and that for the last 150 years, Canada had been either invading various “countries” or backing coups, always manipulating outcomes to grow it’s own wealth and protect its interests. Imagine what our economy and infrastructure would be like. Imagine what our family dynamics might be. Imagine, if you will, waking up to sunlight on bullet casings and deciding you have had enough. Would you look at the opportunities and the security of your northern neighbor and want that for your children?

What would you do if you woke up in those shoes?

 

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

 

 

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.

 

The People Nobody Wants

I have been following the story of the Rohingya Refugees for quite some time now and have been moved to blog about them here several times before. My dream of one day visiting their refugee camps had finally become a reality. I woke eagerly on Day 3 of my sickness, sure that this would be a better day. I texted my friend, who is a nurse in one of the medical clinics inside the camp, and she confirmed my suspicion that the antibiotics were intensifying my nausea. I put off taking my final pill, in hopes that I could feel more normal for the day ahead. I was able to eat breakfast with my team and we set out for the camp. The road leading out of town was the size of a narrow one-way street, huge holes gaped out of the edges in places, as if a ravenous monster had taken bites of it during the night. We left the town behind and soon the road gave way to lovely views of the ocean on one side and rolling hills on the other. After nearly an hour of driving, we met a sweet Canadian couple who gave us drinks of cold water before catching CNGs (similar to Baby Taxis or Auto Rickshaws) to take us the rest of the way into the camp. As we jostled along the dusty and bumpy brick road, we learn that the road had only been built a few months prior. Before that, it had just been a dirt path, which fast turned to mud during the monsoon. Nearly one million people are crammed into this tiny space that was once a national forest. Now the trees are gone and thousands of tiny huts cluster together on any acreage deemed safe enough for building. I was struck by the organization, the number of blue latrines that dotted the hillsides, and water pumps everywhere.

We passed many NGO centers, women-friendly spaces and even a playing field where kids played soccer together. Many refugees are hired to work at building roads and reinforcing dirt hillsides with intricately laced bamboo in an effort to keep the hills from eroding and turning to mud during the monsoon. Little children greeted us in English as we drove by while Burka-clad women looked on.

It was nearly noon by the time we arrived at the clinic.The heat inside of the tiny metal structure struck me with shocking force, though it was still supposedly the cool season. A tiny pharmacy was located inside along with a waiting room lined with benches, and 4 exam rooms. More benches lined the front of the clinic, to hold the overflow of patient who still had hopes of being seen that day. After finding my friend and being introduced to some of the staff, I was able to be part of one of the exams. An American midwife gently looked into the ears of a two-year-old boy who had an ear infection. He lay asleep in his mother’s lap, made small by her protruding belly which spoke of a sibling soon to be born. Soon the mom was on the exam table, cradling her boy as best she could while lifting up her burka so the midwife could check on her baby. As I perched on my stool in front of the window, I could soon recognize the swooshing song of the baby’s heartbeat. I wondered if I was feeling faint faint from the excitement of it all, or if my traveler’s belly was threatening to do me in again.

I swapped places with one of my team mates and sat outside to try to catch a breeze, but my body just wasn’t having it. They took me to the one empty exam room and I stretched out on the table, rolling up my scarf as a pillow. Nurses fluttered in and out to get supplies while the sounds of crying babies, mothers chatting in one corner of the building, men in the other, all melded together. Sounds and smells collided and bounced off the walls of this tiny life-saving structure that had been carried in piece by piece and put together out of love. I lay, unable to do anything else, on the bed used to diagnose and heal their pain, this pale foreigner, stripped of her strength and left only with an inner kernel of humanity, nothing to give but exhausted love, in much need of rest and healing herself. A tiny speck in a camp of a million refugees, a people no one wants. It was there that I recognized the humanity of suffering and need

The sacred truth revealed that day is with me still. To be human is to be equal. Ethnicity, citizenship, religion, wealth or lack thereof, mean absolutely nothing in the big picture. These categories are lines that we have drawn in the sand, lines that distract us and cause us to miss out on all that life could be if we just remembered this sacred truth. May we actively remember.

To be human is to be equal.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

 

Unexpected Kindness

Misery violently took over my night, pushed sleep aside and sent me rushing to the bathroom. The initial relief was short lived and I soon found myself fumbling in the darkness, desperate for the antibiotics the Traveler’s Clinic had sent with me. I gulped down the first giant tablet, determined to be ready for travel by morning. We had a full day planned, including a visit to a hostel for young girls, shopping and then dinner at a friend’s house before returning to our guest house in Dhaka. Yet, morning still found me pasted to my bed, stomach swirling in unreasonable circles. Relief that no one else had caught the same bug and the reality of our next day’s flight out of Dhaka propelled me out of bed, grateful for friends to help me pack up. This was not the way I wanted to say goodbye to Mymensingh, one of my favorite cities on earth, eyes squinted tightly shut to block out the light and hands grasping a plastic bag just in case. As we left the city behind and headed towards Dhaka, we canceled all other plans for the day and I laid back in my seat and willed myself to survive the journey.

It was awful, I’m not gonna lie. Many roads in this densely populated nation feel like a loop in Mario Cart, only there are a million other drivers racing down the same road and the precipices are real. Our driver, Ramjan, who had been nothing but a gentleman since we left Dhaka, was now doing his best to maneuver his way home. It wasn’t long before I found myself squatting on the side of the road, upheaving the remains of my stomach. Ramjan hovered beside me, full of concern, telling my friend to hold my hand and pull my hair back. He even took a long look at my vomit to try to figure out what I had eaten that was causing my insides to have such a mutiny. When I was finished, he motioned for me to hold out my hands so he could pour water into them. He showed me how to rinse out my mouth and wash my face. As I squatted in the dirt by the side of the road and cupped my hands to accept his gift of water, I felt the Divine tapping me on the shoulder and I knew I was taking in a holy sacrament. I saw my Creator mirrored so beautifully in the face of our Muslim driver who shared his water with this tired and sick American woman. Something inside came unglued and it’s a wonder I made it back into the van instead of catapulting down the embankment.

Here is the painful truth – if Ramjan were in my country, he would most likely be arrested or put on a watch list simply based on his appearance and yet he welcomed me,  the stranger. He played the role of protector and host. He was the one who gently taught the first time visitors in our group how to eat with their fingers. In a country where clean drinking water is a commodity, he shared his with me. Dang, he didn’t even avert his eyes from my vomit! It’s the Ramjans that make the world a better, kinder place. In my home country, we tend to judge people like him because of the way they look or the religion they follow. Instead of sharing our water, we build higher walls so those still desperate to come must cross in the desert south of the border, some dying of thirst on the way. We deny place to those who have lost everything because we are afraid they will take something from us. Yet, no matter how high or long we build our walls, how many refugees and asylum seekers we turn away under the pretext of our own safety, we are the ones who lose the most. By diminishing the created, we push away the Creator and Christ is turned away once again.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography and Liga Mullins.

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.

The Takers and the Dwellers

Once upon a time, the Church of England was filled with imperfect people who did some really bad things. Others in the church were so fed up with the impurities they saw, that they separated themselves and eventually sailed for a new place where they had been promised land and freedom to live how they wanted. Those giving the land did not own it but saw it as their right since the dwellers worshiped in a different way and were therefore labeled heathen with no voice or value.  A few days after arrival in the new land, the takers went exploring and found a cache of corn that had been grown, harvested and stored by the dwellers and caretakers of the land. They took the corn and came back later and stole even more corn. They also found graves and stole pretty things out of the graves. This was only the beginning. The takers continued to take and showed no respect for humanity and the earth. In spite of this, the dwellers shared with and taught the takers how to survive in this new land.

Eventually, the takers took the entire land and, in the process, set off the largest genocide in human history, taking the lives of 100+ million dwellers. The genocide continues today, as shown in this video by Truthseeker.

Today the takers celebrate the beginning of all of this with a feast called Thanksgiving. They are in the process of building a giant wall around the borders of their land because they fear more takers will do to them what they did to the previous dwellers.

This Land

She lay quietly, waiting, until they found her. Like a treasure, they cared for her and she, in turn, birthed the deer, elk, and buffalo, while berries ripened on her branches and birds filled the space of her breath with song. The bushes, trees and grass burst out in all vibrant shades of green and flowers danced daily in her light. She swelled with life under their care. And they multiplied and soon chubby little feet caressed her face and she laughed at their joy.

But then, the pale ones came. Some were kind, and tired, and grateful for her. They settled in and cared for her. But many others – they tricked, and killed, spread disease and reduced the ones who treasured her from a mighty number to a frail few. They spilled blood quickly to demand more and more of her. They brought in others in chains and shackles and forced them to pull from her what little life she had left so they could feast and sit in ease. Generation after generation they grew, and consumed, and hoarded until an empire emerged.

Then they built walls around her and said, “No More!” to those standing at their doors. They took what was never theirs, hoarded it and turned their eyes away from the tired, the hungry, the ones running for their lives. They shut their eyes and put their hands over their ears and would not share her. But what they did not see was when they shut their eyes and closed their ears, they shut down her life as well. The empire they made for themselves alone, the one that could have fed all the hungry and brought healing to millions, distorted into a poison that consumed them, and they dried up with her. Too late, they realized that their self-protection had become their suicide.

But still she whispers her secret to those who can hear.

I belong to no one; I am both gift and treasure. My bounty multiplies when I am loved and shared. Share me so that I can come back to life and dance again.

 

 

Walking Inside the Story

I put my hands on my ears to block the callous cheers of those rejoicing at the deportations that have been ongoing. There is a rending inside of me as something fierce, something long trapped, seeks release. I cannot give voice to the scream of anguish that I feel rising in me as bone and limb holding families together are torn apart. You see, it’s personal now; I’m on the inside of this story. I have the privilege of walking with him for a bit.

His shoulders hunch under the weight of years, though he has not lived two decades.

He barely meets my gaze, and I feel his grief encircle my heart.

Separated from his mom.

Unwelcome by dad, he does his best to manage…alone.

Siblings scattered across the nation.

Taken advantage of by those who should be caring for him.

He survives on little more than noodles.

He pays the rent.

He goes to high school.

He sends what little is left to Mom, the one he loves more than life itself.

Our nation created this. We are creating orphans. Misery. Chaos. Abandonment. Child Labor. Desperation. Unimaginable pain.

Not a great America. Not a cleaned-up country. Enforcing pain, not laws, we are creating our next disaster.

Can you hear the roar?  Can you feel the excruciating pain of families being torn apart, limb from limb? Our inclination towards self protection does us no good until we can learn to protect all of US.

 

Be Love

I gotta be honest with you. Sometimes the fight for justice for the oppressed takes more than I have. Some days the cost of it all leaves me spent and I’ve got nothing left. But I realized something yesterday, as my husband was being arrested for taking part in an act of Civil Disobedience. Fighting for justice is costly but allowing injustice to go unchecked is the greatest cost to us all.

When we are more concerned about the law than we are about the safety and basic human rights of others, we all lose dignity. When we are turn our backs to the break up of families, essentially creating orphans and widows, the impact on the next generation is profound. When we deny prisoners and detainees communion, prayer and a listening ear, we lose bits of our own soul. When we are don’t bat an eye at the millions of tax dollars being spent in the deportation process of many who have been trying for years to become citizens and have been paying taxes into a system they will never benefit from, we subtly give the message to the next generation that ethnic cleansing is okay.

Injustice unchecked creates monsters. Ignorance feeds them. A society that cares about itself more than others opens the doors and lets them out. But love is greater and always finds a way to push back.

Be love. Let it define every thing you do. It will pick you off the floor and grow you into something so much bigger than the monsters.