Wonderful welcome, water, weather, wealth, waste, waist (as in “wide”), wild world, Why? No friends, this post is not sponsored by the letter “w”. As contrived as it may seem though, after fourteen months in the global South, many of the first words that come to mind begin with that letter. Here are my first impressions of being back in the States.
How wonderful it is to be welcomed by and reunited with family and friends, and to see familiar surroundings. How much more I appreciate certain things about which I hadn’t previously given much thought. Simple things. Mmmm, water—what a pleasure to drink my first glass of tap water—not boiled or filtered—and with ice cubes to boot. Ah, a hot shower, and so much more than a trickle of water. How fantastic to see the autumn foliage—and yeah, a change of seasons—as winter pays its annual visit.
It's impossible not to notice our vast material wealth. It didn’t take the cornucopia of food served around the table at Thanksgiving for this to register.
In Zambia I was used to watching barefoot Zambian children in tattered clothes on dirt fields darting after soccer balls—balls consisting of two or three clear plastic bread bags scrunched together and wrapped with a few rubber bands. Watching a niece's soccer game in north Jersey recently, I realized what a privilege it is to have a leather or vinyl ball. Did I mention the girls’ smart blue and white soccer uniforms and black leather cleats, or the snappy athletic bags each player had slung over her shoulder? While overseas I became conscious of how competitive we Americans are. Based on my unscientific anecdotal observations since returning, we seem to have a comfortable lead in the race to see who has the world’s widest waistlines. I was shocked the other day, to see an NFL-sponsored TV commercial encouraging parents to get their children to spend an hour a day playing outdoors. With something like 40% of our kids purportedly clinically obese, it’s come to public service parenting lessons from the National Football League?
My zigzags have made me more aware of how much waste we generate individually and as a society, as well as how wasteful we are. We waste a tremendous amount of food. We dispose of reusable things too. In Zambia, valued perhaps because of their scarcity, re-sealable Ziploc plastic bags get washed and re-used. We pitch them, maybe because of our enslavement to the clock and efficiency, or a haughty attitude that causes us to perceive such re-use as either cheap or unduly frugal. Do we not talk a better game about our concern for the environment than we walk?
This one may surprise you: NYC. Morning rush. Subway. I was floored by the spontaneous, orderly manner in which people shuffled through the crowded underground and cars, and their civility toward each other. Would you believe that we seem friendlier than when I left. Or maybe it's me! Perhaps in all my zigzagging, some Zambian and other global-South-friendliness rubbed off on me! I hope so. It's also been refreshing to see the ethnic and racial diversity of humanity with which we Americans are so richly blessed. Few countries have this the way we do. What a gift. Also welcome was American efficiency. I realized this buying a subway ticket and being served lunch in a Vietnamese restaurant. I was pleasantly surprised that a shrimp soup I’d had in Cambodia last month tasted pretty much the same in NYC, though it didn’t come as a surprise that it cost more than four times more here!
In many ways my homecoming has been, well, weird and surreal. I think the questions I have about our world—cultural, theological, historical, political, and personal—are changing, and multiplying. It seems as if I've stepped into several different worlds. The funny thing is, lately I've become conscious of reminding myself that all these disparate worlds are real, comprising a single reality. At the same time, the people and places I've gone each has its own culture, values, hopes, dreams, struggles, defeats, victories, history, present, and future.
What a wild and wonderful world we live in. I wish Brent and Erin Raska, my successors as Global Ministry Fellow, well. They're off to a fantastic start. Now that the Ws have run their course, so has this blog. Thank you for reading and for the prayers, encouragement, and support you’ve given me as I’ve zigzagged the global South. Though I will no doubt be unraveling these fourteen months for years to come, I think I’m beginning to see what T.S. Eliot meant when he said that, “The end of all exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.” God's grace, peace, and joy!
The temples at Angkor Wat are magnificent in their massive scale and symmetry, a testament to God’s gifts to humanity of creative artistry and engineering skill. One needs to remind oneself that these structures were carved and erected over eight hundred years ago using thousands of human (probably slave) laborers sans modern construction tools or equipment and know-how. I wondered though, if today, anyone so committed to her/his faith and god(s) or God to undertake such an act of religious devotion as the Khmer kings Suryavaryam II and Suryavaryam VII were to theirs, would be ridiculed as a religious fanatic and shunned as a pariah. On the other hand, I’m reasonably sure a jubilant “live for the Yankees fan(atic)” (note how the term fanatic, used here, is not packed with the same condescending, pejorative ring as “religious fanatic”) celebrating after the franchise’s 27th World Series title, would be accepted as amusing. Why would that be? How are these not both a form of religious devotion? But I digress.
To avoid the possibility of being let down by seeing the smaller idols and temples after the piece de resistance, I saved the main attraction until last. To my amazement, this strategy backfired! I found the smaller, outlying relics far more interesting than the featured showpiece, which was, dare I say it, relatively disappointing. The stone carvings of the less prominent works displayed far greater intricacy of detail. Nevertheless, how incredible that any of these chiseled sandstone edifices are still standing after all this time, let alone that they’re recognizable. That said, Mother Nature is conspicuously and persistently clawing back to reclaim center stage. In some cases, even apart from this, the works are not, as it were, their old selves. Ancient Khmer Hindus had a penchant for decapitating the statues of Buddha, who was initially Hindu. Hence the head-chopping?
While these sights showcased the best of humanity’s gifts in shall we say, a constructive fashion, a visit to Cambodia also promises a glimpse of the dark, destructive side of humanity. I visited Tuol Sleng, better known as Security Prison 21 or “S-21”, the prison where Pol Pot tortured over 17,000 people he perceived to threaten him. From S-21 he transported prisoners to an extermination camp, a “Killing Field”, at Choeung Ek, just outside of Phnom Penh. In less than four years between 1975 and 1979, he constructed over three hundred of these death camps at which have been found over 19,000 mass graves containing the remains of as many as three million people (that "19,000" is no typo). How hard it is for me to grasp that this happened in my lifetime, let alone within thirty years of World War II. How was Pol Pot able to concentrate power so effectively? How could he evacuate millions from Phnom Penh to the countryside for extermination, with (seemingly) so little resistance? Choeung Ek is on a sleepy clump of swampy ground that is today, a very peaceful place. How ironic. Jarring though, is the memorial stupa (Buddhist shrine dedicated to the deceased) in which are encased for all to see, thousands of the human skulls unearthed here. This brought two things to mind: 1) what John Calvin had to say about humanity’s “total depravity”, and 2) an interview I saw of the actor John Malkovich (who, though very talented, gives me the creeps) in which he said he believed every human is capable of killing another—an inadvertent echo of Calvin? A visit to S-21 and Choeung Ek makes those guys hard to refute.
There is plenty of natural beauty in Cambodia, the swells of green- and yellow-hued rice paddies rolling beneath blue skies studded with puffy clouds backed by verdant mountains and thinner, wispy clouds. Gotta' be careful though. If, like me, your perpetual curiosity beckons you to investigate that less traveled way, don’t do it here. Land mines could be lurking anywhere in the shadows off the beaten track. Cambodians with stumpy or missing limbs bear silent testimony to this harsh reality.
In spite of all the contrasts, in the short time I’ve been in the Cambodia, what I’ve seen in the people evokes a sense of forward motion. As in India and Ghana, people have a sense of urgency about them. They seem to be hustlers, in the best (former professional baseball player Pete “Charlie Hustle” Rose) sense of the term. But they know how to laugh too. Tired of saying no to taxi or tuk tuk drivers whose services I don’t need or want, I’ve begun making these interactions a little more interesting by turning the tables on these transport hawkers. I respond by asking them if they want to take a walk with me—I tell them I’ll walk with them wherever they want to go. At first, many are puzzled. I continue, telling them I’ll give them a special price, just for them. Then I quote an outrageous amount. When they hesitate, I ask them why they don’t want to walk with me. Then they get it—and we both burst out laughing! I suppose that’s a constructive way of dealing with the wearying of taxi and tuk tuk driver querying.
Posted by Bob Louer at 3:43 PM
The other day, as I glanced down into my guide book to get my bearings, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the cutest Nepali lady, perhaps in her eighties, with her eyes riveted to my book, as if she needed to get oriented too. The wrinkles lining her face looked like some of the craggy mountains I'd been scaling lately, to get a glimpse of other higher mountains. At first I assumed she was a beggar--but she was so focused on that book that I momentarily dabbled with the remote possibility that she could read English. A bystander would never have known that for her, the book was upside down! Then she looked up at me and gave me the most impish, toothy grin imaginable. As far as I could tell, she didn't want anything from me, only to coax a laugh from this much younger stranger. How cool for her to be so playful, and to bring a ray of sunshine into my life.
Speaking of sunshine, I twice seized the opportunity to watch the sun rise over the Himalayas. This required getting up at 5 a.m. to get to a mile-high lookout post. Overall, it was worth the investment. How majestic those mountains are. They make a person feel small, the same way standing in St. Patrick's or some European Cathedral imparts the awe of God's presence. Looking at the Himalayas up close one can gain some understanding how Native Americans, Japanese, Nepalis, and even ancient Israelites revered mountains as holy places, places where the Presence of God dwelt. A friend recently described the Himalayas as "awe-inspiring". That's exactly what they were; I don't think mere words can do better than that.
In a recent e-mail update or blog post, writing of whether in India I'd seen Dalit people, "Untouchables", I used the term "menial labor". That I did has bothered me ever since. I think that term aroused such dissonance in me at least in part because of a book I read a couple years ago by a seventeenth-century Carmelite lay brother who came to be known as Brother Lawrence. In his book, "The Practice of the Presence of God," Brother Lawrence talks about work, and how there is inherent dignity in work done by humans, all of whom have inherent worth (because that work is to be done to reflect favor on our Creator). That Dalits and others are human beings tasked with work that many of us consider unpleasant, does not reduce their dignity, which the use of term "menial labor" may imply. John D. Rockefeller is famously quoted as saying of labor: "I believe in the dignity of labor, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a living but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living." Rockefeller's words underscore the injustice to the Dalit people, that they don't have the opportunity to choose the work they do, but are forced to work, essentially as slaves, at what any objective observer would consider the worst, most undesirable jobs possible. When witnessing a man overseeing the cremation of a body they other day, I again wondered whether he was a Dalit, for this is one of the tasks "reserved" for Dalits. Nepal, unfortunately, like India, has a caste system that is very much alive, with throngs of Untouchables. These people, whether the man cremating the body, the Tibetan women refugees I saw weaving carpets, the man assuming traditional garb to entice tourists to take his picture for a few rupees, or the Buddhist artist sitting for eight to ten hours a day to painstakingly create traditional thangka paintings--all are made in the image of God and have inherent worth and dignity. And if each of them chooses to do that work, there is dignity then, in their completing those tasks to the best of their ability. Forgive me then, for using the term "menial labor".
Over the last five days Hindus have been celebrating Diwali, which is said to be a festival of light. Numerous Hindus I've met likened it to Christians’ Christmas. Diwali has been variously described as the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, a harvest festival, and a new year’s celebration. Hindus celebrate by lighting wicks fueled by oil or butter and by igniting fireworks, as Americans do on July 4th. People also string electric lights around their homes and businesses just as Christians do for Christmas. This is supposed to bring them good luck (when a certain god visits and finds the lights illuminated). Diwali was associated with quite a bit of commercialism and shopping. People exchange gifts. There was much talk about “the happy Diwali season,” especially in print and broadcast advertising. Indian merchants are as opportunistic using Diwali for commercial gain as Western ones are with Christmas. If the reports I heard were true, it seemed no less opportunistic to me, though in a politically savvy way, that Obama would be "celebrating" Diwali in the White House. I affirm the aspiration to overcome darkness with light in a great variety of interpretations, though the news I heard of celebrating Diwali in the White House smacked of contrivance.
In addition to visiting a multitude of churches and cathedrals on my swing through southern India, I’ve found my way to numerous ancient Hindu sites. These include temples and idols of various gods and goddesses that date to the fifth or sixth centuries—chiseled in stone by human hands. I’ve engaged in a number of conversations with Hindus (and Muslims) about their faith. One Hindu man told me that Hinduism really isn’t a religion (I admit that I can’t yet explain that; I’ve heard the same said about Buddhism). On one of many train rides, I sat next to a Hindu who explained that, “In Hinduism we worship idols.” Later, I wondered what exactly that meant. Could one say that Hinduism is on a par with the Canaanite religions the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible were warned to avoid? Do Hindus believe that the idols they worship possess some inherent power themselves, or that they are representations or symbols of particular deities that are themselves manifestations of a single Divine Being. Either way, those experiences, coupled with witnessing devoted Hindus offering pujas (prayers) to the god or goddesses of their choosing and rotating in place 360 degrees or walking clockwise around stone columns any number of times, has got me thinking about a particular New Testament text—Paul in Athens addressing the Jews and Greeks at the Areopagus. The words that wouldn’t, no won’t, stop echoing in my head: “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you…The God who made the world and everything in it…. does not live in temples built by hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He Himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (vv. 23-25). What a powerful speech.
I visited many of these Hindu sites after taking a short excursion from Puducherry to the village of Auroville. It was established in 1968 as a place belonging to no nation or people in particular, the residents of which must renounce any creed, religion, politics, or nationality. The purpose of Auroville is “to realize human unity.” “To live in Auroville, one must be a willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness” (www.Auroville.org). Auroville is a community of 2,000, populated by people from thirty-five nations. In its center is what is called “the Matrimindar,” a massive sphere that bears some resemblance to the one at Disney’s Epcot, only it is gold, with what appear to be suction cups like those on the underside of an octopus’ tentacles. I think Aurovillians assemble in the Matrimindar to meditate. The place struck me as very “New Age. I got the impression that it’s designers and residents were sincere and quite well intentioned. I can hear people describing Auroville as “a very spiritual place,” though the meaning of such a generic description never fails to elude me. That residents must renounce all creeds and religions seems to imply that Aurovillians believe these are the causes or at least contributors to the disunity and the lack of the “unity through diversity” that they seek, (and which, by the way, followers of Jesus Christ also seek). I’m not sure that the source of such disunity should be laid at the foot of “religion” as such. Is it not sinful human beings who, in their various understandings, misunderstandings, zeal for and ignorance of the deity or deities they worship and or follow in their respective faiths—that it is humans and not “religion” that deepen the fissures in our already broken human relationships and our relationship with God? That said, it is undeniable that actions taken in the name of religion or God can and do obstruct healing and wholeness in our human relationships, and that surely separates us from God. All this got me thinking about the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s concept of “religionless Christianity” and how I’d like to dig deeper to understand what he meant by that, and how one would enflesh this idea. Did Bonhoeffer mean by this a pure way of loving and serving God in obedience to God’s commands and in response to God’s grace—without the human trappings and baggage (whatever they might be and in all their forms) that we in the Church in particular attach to worshiping God? In all candor, I’m sure I can’t articulate what these are, but this is what’s rumbling around in my head. I have an intuition that Bonhoeffer was on to something, but I’ve already said more than enough to further confuse myself, let alone anyone who might happen to read these disjointed musings. If you’ve any idea how to interpret Bonhoeffer on this I’d love to hear it.
Author: Bob Louer
Created: March 1, 2010
The end of all exploring Will be to arrive where we started And to know the place for the first time - T.S. Eliot (Four Quartets)