Monday, 28 October 2013

Cruisin' The Streets... For Jesus

You know those high-pitched screeches you sometimes hear late at night as drunk young people (I'm trying to be inclusive here, but I'm pretty sure they're usually male people) cruise the streets looking for trouble?

Well last night I and a bunch of friends did the same thing.

Except exactly the opposite. Our Catholic singles group was doing a little outreach, trying to encounter Christ in the poor, just like Papa Francis asked us to do.
"Please do not withdraw into yourselves! This is a danger: we shut ourselves up in the parish, with our friends, within the movement, with the like-minded... but do you know what happens? When the Church becomes closed, she becomes an ailing Church, she falls ill! The Church must step outside herself. To go where? To the outskirts of existence, whatever they may be, but she must step out. Jesus tells us: “Go into all the world! Go! Preach! Bear witness to the Gospel! ... Go out, go out! In this “stepping out” it is important to be ready for encounter. For me this word is very important. Encounter with others. There is another important point: encountering the poor. If we step outside ourselves we find poverty."
Pope Francis at the Vigil of Pentecost

We knew that there are many homeless people on the streets of our city, so we bought a bunch of packed biriyani meals, piled into a small car, and took to the streets at about 8 pm. The smell of the hot biriyani wafted through the car, and tantalized our empty stomachs. But we were on a mission. We were going to find 'the poor'.


The poor were nowhere to be found.

We drove to a small railway station, knowing that that is where homeless people are often stranded, but no, it was mostly deserted. We scanned people sitting on a bench on the streets with eagle eyes: "Homeless? Or breathing in some fresh polluted air after dinner?"

My clue was whether they had some sort of scrappy belonging with them or not. Mostly they didn't.

"Where'd all the poor people go-o-o?" I sang. (Yes, I AM talking about Jack Johnson.) It was slightly incongruous to be so disappointed that there were apparently no poor people in my city. But the thing is, we knew they existed... we just didn't know where. Maybe the city authorities had gotten better at hiding them. We got drove halfway across the city, and on an unfamiliar street we saw them. About six figures lying parallel wrapped up in some sheets... on the pavement. A young man and woman with a baby were the only ones awake eating a plate of rice. We stopped the car, and two of us approached them. We didn't want to scare them with all six.

We looked them in the eye. We smiled. We struck up a conversation. We asked them their names. (Yeah, my limited Hindi is good for something.)
"When I used to go to hear confessions in my previous diocese, people would come to me and I would always ask them: “Do you give alms?” — “Yes, Father!” “Very good.” And I would ask them two further questions: “Tell me, when you give alms, do you look the person in the eye?” “Oh I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it”. The second question: “And when you give alms, do you touch the hand of the person you are giving them to or do you toss the coin at him or her?”
Pope Francis
They were knife-sharpeners from a neighbouring state, who had come looking for work a few weeks before. They were very grateful for the food. We prayed with them. Okay, I didn't, but one of the guys from our group uneasily said he would try to pray in Hindi. I don't think I have ever heard him pray aloud in English. But as the best Hindi speaker from our group, he was nominated as the pray-er. And the most beautiful prayer flowed from his lips.

When we told them we were Christians, the knife-sharpeners told us they knew who Jesus was, and in their village they would go the church. "In our religion we have many gods, but we pray to Jesus."

Huh. Things I didn't expect to hear. We told them where the closest church was, in case they wanted to go.

We bid them farewell, and they waved as our car drove away. We continued our search, and were rewarded. We met one drunk, or possibly mentally ill man who grabbed the food, but chased us away. We met one old garbage picker, with a wrinkled face, and suffering eyes. The stench of the garbage was disturbing for the few minutes we spent talking to him. I imagined spending all my time rooting through stinking garbage.

We saw real smiles. We met real people. One man blessed us. And then we went home. It was 10.30 pm, and we hadn't had dinner.

You know what, it wasn't much. But it was a start. We took a little foray out of our comfortable well-fed world, where the only time we've felt hunger is when we've either fasted or had to do without... for a few hours. We don't REALLY know what it's like to be them. But we took the first step to finding out.

And plus,

"If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one," says Mother Teresa.

So we did.

Small Family = Happy Family... Really?

Implied: Big Family =Unhappy family... Really?

A few days ago at our after school tuition (tutoring) class in the slum, I was ‘taking up’ one girl’s Hindi answers. All the kids had Hindi or Marathi exams the next day, so I was roped into helping them prepare for their exams. And as all Indians know, the way to prepare for an exam is to memorize a bunch of answers given by your teacher. But that’s a rant for another day.

My Hindi isn’t awesome, but I can read and write (even if I don’t always know what I’m reading or writing... I used to fake it when I had to read passages in class). My students know that I’m not comfortable in Hindi or Marathi, so they were fascinated to hear me read Hindi aloud. (They still haven’t decided whether I’m really Indian or not.)

So I was taking up an answer based on a story in their Hindi textbook. I was mindlessly following the words to make sure she said the right ones, when my attention was caught by the last line: ‘Chota parivar sukhi parivar.’

Or ‘A small family is a happy family.’

My eyebrows shot up. “What? What is this lesson about?” My thirteen year old student explained. It was a conversation between a man who had three daughters in the quest for the elusive son, and a man who had just one daughter. The man with one daughter was explaining to the man with three that a daughter was as good as a son, and he didn't have to have a son in order to be happy. He was addressing a very common problem in India: gender inequality. It is not unusual for people to keep having children... until they get their boy. In fact, someone who heard my dad had five kids, assumed that the four oldest were girls. Because of course, boys are the ones who bring in the dowry, are likely to get jobs and financially support the parents when they are old. Whereas girls, those useless creatures, are nothing but trouble- parents have to PAY to get rid of them, and once they are married, their allegiance is to their new family.

I have heard of these attitudes, but never experienced them personally because I grew up in a family that doesn't do dowry, and values both sons and daughters equally. But my student looked at me and said, “Boys are bad. But everyone think girls are bad. In my place it is like that.” Girls occupying an inferior place to boys in their families is still a reality.

Well, it’s good that the text book was trying to attack this unhealthy and unfair and very prevalent attitude through the story. But the next line mixed a very different moral into the lesson – a lesson that has been permeating all of Indian education for many decades: A small family is a happy family. Or the root of all India’s problems is TOO MANY CHILDREN. Or the population. Overpopulation, population control, population problems, we never heard the end of it. To the point that, any family that had more than two kids is considered unpatriotic, anti-progress, and probably kinda uneducated.

Now, I do realize that there are legitimate reasons to limit the number of children in one’s family. If you really can’t feed or care for the children you do have, or you are struggling with sickness, or mental health issues, or any of a number of difficult situations, then it would be responsible to attempt to limit your family size. But that isn't the situation of most people I know in middle-class India, nor is it what the government is suggesting. The government says ‘Hum Do, Hamare Do”- “We two, our two.” Have only two children, get yourself sterilized (or we might forcibly do it to you*) and never commit the sin of having a third child... let alone a fourth or fifth. “You can improve your quality of life with less children” is another not even subtly selfish reason. And with a better 'quality of life' (a TV? a car? going on holidays? a bigger house?), of course, your family will be happier.

I’m one of five. And my parents received a certain amount of flack for that, and so did we. A Catholic teacher in my Catholic school publicly mocked my sister (a fourth child) for coming from a large family and asked if her parents were uneducated.

People around us had been brainwashed into thinking that another baby is a CURSE, not a BLESSING... to their family, to their country. Especially for those of us who are Christians, we should recognize that as a lie. The bible tells us that children are a blessing from God. All children, not just the first two. Every child is precious, valuable. Whether they are the fifth, the tenth, or the only child. Whether they are physically or mentally challenged. Whether their parents are struggling to make ends meet, or have just upgraded their Maruti 800 to a Scorpio**. The child isn't the problem.

And you know what else, having a bunch of kids in our family didn't make my family an unhappy family. I never wistfully imagined how much happier my family would be if only they had stopped having kids after me. I may have had more of a choice about which movie to watch (Rose and the Slipper over the A team, but I had to compromise many, many times), and more pocket money. I may not have had to wear as many (ugly) second hand clothes. But I definitely can’t say I would have been happier without my three younger siblings.

Family time circa 1998 :Early attempts at photography

Humans are not just resources, or burdens, or things. You can’t reduce them to ways to help or hinder a country. A country is after all not just a piece of land, but is made up of every citizen... even if he or she happens to be a fifth child. Instead of saying ‘Have less children, and all our problems will go away’, let’s look for ways to use the resources we do have better.

If you can afford to, have another baby. If you can’t afford to, and another baby comes anyway, welcome him or her with joy. Because the happiness of your family doesn't depend on how many or how few children you have, or even how much or how little money you have, but on how you value each unique, lovable, irreplaceable person that God gifts you.

Good (Related) Reading

Why My Big Family is Not Overpopulating the Earth by Jennifer Fulwiler

"More people means more ideas, more workers, more love, and more hope. And so, I don’t see my children as adding to the problem; I see them as contributors to the solutions of the future."

Snappy Answers for Stupid Questions About Your Big Family by Simcha Fisher

"Q: Don’t you have a TV? A: If you think TV is better than sex, then you are doing it wrong."

The Earth is a Nursery by Simcha Fisher

But the only reason it's here -- the only reason it's in the Goldilocks Zone, which makes it possible for a planet to support life, is so that it can support life. It wants to support life. Why else would a planet exist? It's here so that people can live on it.

*It happened in 1976 and it's happening still-coercive female sterilisation practices.
**Yeah, I know nothing about cars.

Monday, 21 October 2013

God Chooses Uncomfortable but Effective Ways to Change Me

Change begins with me! That’s what they say, but you know, it’s really OTHER people who need to change. It’s because they’re so annoying. And most of the time, they don’t even know it!

Right? You with me?

Actually, God knows what a self-centred, full of myself brat I am, so He tried to get me to change, using that most useful and blunt instrument (pun intended): my family.

“Sue,” my mother told me, “You need to talk less and listen more. Sometime you come across too strong.”

“What!” I replied, offended. “I can’t help it if I’m passionate about some things.”

“Yes, but you can overwhelm people with TOO MUCH. You have a lot going on in your head, but you need to give other people a chance to talk.”

“Hmmph!” I replied and stalked off.

My sister would throw me annoyed stares sometimes when I started off. Once she told me, “It feels like you’re always preaching at me.” I was really hurt. “I’m just thinking aloud. I thought I could share what I was thinking with you at least. So what if I’m always thinking about finer points of theology?”

Once we were talking about someone who talks too much, and who people feel like backing away from, and my mum told me, “Maybe that’s how people feel around you sometimes.”

Ouch. That might have made me cry.

Still, mostly my family was just insensitive and hurtful. It wasn't really my problem. Maybe I talked a lot, but at least I talked about things worth talking about. And anyway my personality type includes ‘iNtuition’ which means I live in my head a lot, so technically it’s not really my fault.

God apparently needed a more heavy-duty instrument.

I once met someone to whom I wanted to say ALL THE SAME THINGS. She was insensitive. She was overpowering. She would dominate conversations. She would grab a conversation and turn it into a monologue or a diatribe. People really did want to run away from her. (And did, quite often.) There was no communication at all. It would just be her DRIVING home some point or the other. She was so caught up in her own thoughts, and trying to prove that she was right, that it was like she was almost unaware of anyone else around her, except as an audience. She would look for the smallest excuse for a controversy, and then JUMP in and take over the conversation. I was SO annoyed and frustrated and upset. I might have even said some direct and perhaps too pointed words of correction.

But guess what? It made me take a good look at myself... and promise I would NEVER do that to anyone ever again. I almost promised that I would never talk theology again, and stick with conversations about how the monsoons have been so unpredictable, how Gravity freaked everyone out including Sandra Bullock, and how much oil bais use when they cook. (I hear that’s what other people talk about.)

Actually, I didn't go that far. But I did decide that my mum had a point, and that I was going to (try anyway to) be a LOT more sensitive to other people in a conversation. You know, by taking a pause, and saying “What do YOU think?” every now and again, and then really listening to the answer.

 Yeah, painful, but effective.