12 April 2005

Mrs. Punima

Mrs. Punima sits on the steps that run along the taxi line in front of Howrah Station in Calcutta. Each day one of us passes her as we walk the area around the station checking for the sick and dying. A tiny little lady who looks like a fragile bird and hobbles around on errands doing this or that during her day, she speaks some English and chats with me as she shields her eyes from the bright morning sun. Mrs. Punima has an allergy to eggs, but she enjoys the occasional samosa and thanks me politely as I go on my way. Sometimes she is not in her regular place, and I wonder what she is up to.

She owns two saris that we change out periodically, washing them in our houses because she doesn’t have the means to wash them at the station. Lately she has been sick, lying along the wall in the hot sun, and very confused when I gently shake her shoulder to wake her up. The other day I asked again if she would come with us to Mother Teresa’s home where we know she can have a good bed and people to care for her. But she refused, as she has many times before, stating that she’s waiting for her husband to return from a trip. She has been waiting for more than 10 months now. Her small brown feet are hard and cracked, and she tucks them under her sari as she lies back down on the wall.

11 April 2005

Sri Lanka, Week One

Greetings from sunny Sri Lanka. I arrived a little less than a week ago in this place and it feels as if we’ve been here for some time. Since I arrived things have been very busy. We jumped right into community life in a great house that God provided in Galle, which is on the south-east coast of Sri Lanka. We began work with Habitat for Humanity on houses in a Muslim area of town called Dewata. So far our time here has been pretty great both for me personally and for our community.

I think we are all sort of surprised to find ourselves here, half-way across the ocean from the homes we’ve always known, seeing the destruction and effects of a natural disaster that we might otherwise have quickly forgotten. The tsunami is far from old news here. People are still living in emergency housing—tents set up in clumps— without basic resources like a kitchen or a restroom for their families to use. The Sri Lankans are very quick to smile and very generous to us. They have shown us far more kindness and openhandedness than I myself would be willing to offer was I in their position. Many of the people we’ve met in the neighborhood where we are working—people who bring us popsicles and cokes and let their beautiful brown-eyed children come and entertain us— are in the position of not being able to rebuild. Many are fishermen & their families who live near the coast for their livelihoods, and need to remain there for business but there are difficulties with land titles, government corruption, and a lack of organization among non-government agencies and local agencies that are in emergency mode and very overwhelmed with needs as they seek to help rebuild.

From this perspective, the whole situation seems devastating and like a big mess involving bureaucracy, a lot of loss and not a lot of hope. But even for the week we’ve been here the people have blessed us. We came to stand alongside the people here in Galle in whatever small way possible. I think we came in person to say that a smile and a handshake and our shovels filled with rubble that we are sorry they have had to face these losses, and that they are not forgotten. The people we have met seem strong and resilient and hopeful.

We are reading an interesting book by Jon Sobrino, a San Salvadorian priest, called Where is God? . It is a good perspective from someone from and in the third-world who is intimately acquainted with oppression, injustice, and poverty about the effects of natural disasters, terrorism and war on people in this position. It has challenged me to question where my alliances lie and to whose kingdom I belong. It has been so great to learn from the servant team and from fellow staff and to ask hard questions. They remind me along with the people of Sri Lanka that God is here in our midst, and that he cares. We are far from coming up with all of the answers or conclusions, but we are learning and being humbled, and that is always good.
On a personal note, we had a time of sharing the other night and I shared with our community a deep struggle that has been brewing for a while and that I can see more clearly now that I’m out of Calcutta. I realized that I am very confused and overwhelmed, and even angry at God because of some of the things I’ve seen in Calcutta. I recall the ghostly eyes of certain people I know living at the station, or the hardness and manipulative behavior of some of the beggars I see every day, and I am very broken and sad.

Obviously the suffering and injustice, oppression and abuse that we see on a daily basis do not have easy solutions. I think we come with enthusiasm and passion that God has sent us with a purpose, that his Spirit empowers us to love and serve, to touch one person at a time with his love. But I realize that in spite of trying to maintain this perspective I am really quite exhausted and hopeless when I think about the problems there. It feels like the small things we do on a daily basis don’t make a difference in the larger scheme of things, and that change will never come to a city that has so many deep and long-lasting strongholds. So pray with me for renewed hope, for God to heal my heart, for us to have his vision and hope for his Kingdom to come to Calcutta.

Thank you for joining me in praying for the people of Calcutta and Sri Lanka. Thank you for being willing to hear their stories and for your compassion. I pray that we all know in a deeper way how God hopes to redeem and heal the brokenness each of us has experienced, and how his love and compassion are genuine and transformational. He is always with us no matter what we see or face, and he is good.

08 April 2005

First Impressions, Sri Lanka

The graceful palms sway over the road, and temple trees dip down with their green, shiny leaves and delicate flowers to give shade occasional shade from the equatorial sun. Many of the houses we pass are merely fronts with no back, and there is still debris and trash that lines certain areas of unoccupied land. I wonder what was once there, if people’s homes & fishing boats and stores have completely been wiped away. I have heard stories of this.

There are old cemeteries along the road that have different sections—Buddhist, Muslim and Christian—and some of the gravestones are knocked over, scattered, broken apart. But these were those buried long ago, before the wave came and took many more lives and left mass graves filled with bodies.

As we drive down the coastal road toward Galle from Colombo, the wreckage left behind by both tragedies is evident. The first tragedy, that of the poverty of families of storekeepers and fishermen who build weak structures too close to the shore for lack of both resources and land, who are left with nothing, and have no resources saved for rebuilding. The second tragedy, that of a natural disaster that hit unmercifully and without discretion, taking lives, houses, and dreams and Turing them upside down.

As we continue on, I wonder what the people standing outside and riding bikes down the street, going on with daily life, are thinking. Surely things haven’t returned to normal. Groups of women stand in the shade in front of tiny shops that sell biscuits and cold drinks, some of which are sandwiched between two piles of rubble that were once also small stores. The destruction is random, unpredictable, and in some cases complete. Some of the women have children on their hips, and I wonder if those who don’t lost sons and daughters to the terrible waters. I meet eyes with them as we go past and we have a moment of recognition that is mesmerizing. They have beautiful long braids of thick black hair and wear long flowy skirts and in most cases, I begin to notice, no shoes.