Tuesday, May 16, 2017


8am Rosey accompanies our friend Shazia to the hospital to get answers regarding her toddler.  Over the last two months he has miraculously recovered from severe brain trauma after a fall off a roof.  God willing, nothing more from the doctors is necessary for continued recovery.  But it has been impossible for Shazia to get clear answers from the doctors herself – she is treated like a nobody, either asked for extra money or given the runaround, hears confusing and contradictory instructions and is then brushed off as another poor woman from the basti.  More attempts at extracting money are made with Rosey there, but her best discernment from their answers is that right now, all he needs is time and attention.  Of course, Shazia is left uncertain and worried.

9am On the way to work I pass a bike shop.   Some weeks ago I had gotten Chhaya’s bike fixed there, and Chhaya had berated them a bit for using child labor.  Now the manager calls me over.  “This boy,” he motions to the 9-year-old that works there, “can you two take him into your care?”   The literal translation is ‘into your laps.’  “His situation is very difficult, his life is very bad.”  I thought he had told Chhaya that the boy had family in the village, so I ask about them.  “His father is dead.  His mother is in the village, but she is very poor and cannot care for him.  He should go to school, get a good life, shouldn’t he?”  I find a way to respectfully excuse myself from the conversation and get to work as soon as I can.

2pm Our neighbor’s son is in jail.  He’s been there since last year.  We don’t know why.  I’ve lived in this new room for almost three months and only found out about him today.

3pm I overhear Anita, one of my fellow teachers, telling a story.  I ask her to repeat what she just said.    “You know Mira? She is sick, and she didn’t recognize who I was.”  I remember that Mira is a slender young teenager who I had met some weeks earlier.  She has been weak from hepatitis, and something had messed with her brain enough that she didn’t recognize anyone anymore.  She’s getting a CAT-scan soon.  I suspect it could be as simple as extreme heat, dehydration, or malnutrition along with the illness.  Anita tells me this had happened to this same girl three years earlier as well.

4pm I am searching the alleys for absent students when I come across a friend that I hadn’t seen in weeks.  Heavy makeup is caked on her face.   I ask her what the occasion is, and she turns her head to the side and doesn’t answer.  A young neighbor pipes up, “She got married a month ago!”  I ask my friend if it’s true, and she nods.  What does someone say to that?  The new bride may be 17, but she has the body of a 13 year old.  No bigger than my two young friends who got married off last year, who are suffering terrible consequences as a result.  No bigger than their own mothers when they got married.

5pm Pappu, an acquaintance of mine, is in the hospital.  Also hepatitis.  This time a year ago his teenage daughter missed more than a month of school and nearly died from the same thing.  After teaching I stop by Pappu’s home to ask the family how he’s doing.  There’s a lock at the door, meaning they’re all at the hospital with him.  Three nights ago I had asked a mutual friend for an update, and he said that Pappu’s condition was poor.  Another tragedy cycles.

6pm Our landlords are beating their six-year-old.  Again.  He screams.  Again.  He is very “naughty”, so he gets beaten a lot.  They don’t have any framework for what else could be done.

7pm Little Senna tells us that she can’t go to a regular school because she has to do too much work around the house.  I had been teaching her to read the last few weeks, Rosey had been planning to recommend her to someone trying to get kids enrolled in a local school.  But if housework is the real reason she doesn’t go to school, then outside assistance is unlikely to make any difference.

Senna changes the topic to her friend, who I only began teaching this week.  She says, “I feel sorry for him.  He prays a lot…I feel sorry for him.”  She doesn’t elaborate.  I want to probe further at a later time. It could be nothing or everything.

When Senna leaves, Rosey tells me that the young daughter of someone who used to be a friend of ours had come by earlier in the day.
  The girl mentioned that her older sister has gotten married.  What?  I guess it’s been 2-3 years since we’ve seen her, she was about 12 then but might be 14-15 now…another one, really?  I want to cry.

9pm, the night before.  When we reached home, police officers pulled up on two motorcycles.  A crowd milled around my neighbor’s door.  There had been a fight.  Domestic violence against a young wife.  At first I thought the woman was unconscious, but I saw her walking normally a few minutes later.  The husband was taken to jail.  His wife would return to get him let out the next morning.  Beyond other reasons…having both sons of the household in jail at the same time might have been too difficult for the family to handle.

24 hours in my community.  All this.  And these are just the ones who had the opportunity to talk.

And it's 115 degrees.  And I have a cold.  And I'm not sleeping.  And there are good stories too, and I want to tell good stories here more often, but these were the stories today.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The bell tolls for thee

A friend came to our door early this morning, before we’d even gotten up for church, and we found that her 3-year-old son had fallen off a roof.  He has a traumatic brain injury, and possibly other injuries as well.  They took him to the doctor who prescribed something so that he’d stop throwing up his food, but they haven’t been able to do the CT scan yet or the MRI.  I don’t know that he’s going to make it.

At church, our pastor tries to make an announcement, and then tears come.  He has something wrong with his spleen, and the doctors believe it may be cancer.  A biopsy has been taken and the results will be available next week.

That juxtaposition this morning, this impoverished no-name three-year old boy and this well-off, well-known middle-aged pastor, both facing death.

It makes me think of the mother down the alleyway who died of a fever a few months ago, leaving behind three little kids, and the foreigners serving in Cambodia who died in a car crash a few years ago, leaving behind two little kids.

It makes me think of the boy across the alley who died of tuberculosis at the age of 18, and the niece of my ex-pat friend who died of suicide at the age of 18.

It makes me think of the father of my close friend in the slum, who died with us after a long battle with drug addiction, and the best friend of my close friend in the city, who died fighting in Afghanistan. 

And many others.

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from.  We will die.  Everyone we know will die. 

And yet I can’t get over my sadness at death. I can’t get over the loss.  I can’t get used to the children left behind, the parents left behind, the siblings left behind.

I don’t have to get used to it.

Jesus wept.

We aren’t asked to stop being sad about death.  What we are asked to do is live.

Tomorrow might be the last day you have before you die.  You don’t know.  But what you do know, for certain, is that tomorrow will be one day that you only have tomorrow, a day that you will never get back, a day to LIVE before you die.  Use it!  Live it!

Because the truth is, cancer and tuberculosis and dengue and car accidents and fevers are not what make this world a difficult place.    Take away every early death, and there is still suffering.  Take away every physical illness, and there is still anxiety, greed, anger, fear, depression, distrust, selfishness, hatred, callousness, and so on.   Take away poverty, take away lack, take away hunger, give a people the most advanced medical systems in the world, arrange their entire childhood around safety, will they really live any better than anyone else?

The removal of poverty and lack and hunger does not in itself bring life.  The safest childhood in the world and the most advanced medical systems in the world do not bring life.  Those things can only put off death.  And none of those things can put off death forever.

A child spends more time at school learning skills to help him make his own money in the future than learning how to bring joy to others right now.  Young people appear far more focused on trying to get the right certificates than on trying to do the right thing.  Working adults in our country appear to structure their priorities so that they are far more focused on saving for the future than on giving in the here and now.  And to what end are all these certificates and aspirations and future plans?  We have a president who has EVERYTHING we are told to seek after, he IS the American Dream.  Money.  Power.  Marriages to beautiful women.  Fame.  Long life.  So what has all that done to him?  Is his average day, his typical interaction, full of joy and contentment or bitterness and anger?  Listen to him speak (or tweet) without a script.  Do you hear love or hate?  Hope or fear?

What could is putting off death long enough to gain all the things of the world if you’ve never learned how to live in the meantime?

Being faced with death so regularly here is difficult, but it is a clear reminder: I am going to die, and I don’t know when.  We are all going to die.  We have to come to terms with that.  The question is not whether we will succeed in putting off death, but whether we will find life and live life before we die.  And all the things this world is telling us to do to put off death, all these things the world is convincing us that we have to gain before you die, not ONE of those things is going to make us alive.

Find the living.  Be the living.  Stop chasing the things of death and the false promise of extension of life before it’s too late.

Leave the dead to bury their own dead.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Zuleka is 25 years old, mother of three young kids.  She smiles brightly and greets me warmly every time she sees me from the steps where she sits forty feet from our door.  Other than an occasional question here or there and our shared circle of acquaintances, those regular greetings were basically our relationship.

Zuleka died this morning, passing away suddenly and unexpectedly after a fever.  I was stunned to hear it, having not even known that she was sick.  Then again, everyone is sick.  I can’t get my kids for class without being told that 3-4 can’t come because they’re sick, or another two have to stay home because no one is around because mom is in the hospital sick.  My best friend’s cousin, only 18 years old, died of dengue fever on Friday.  My wannabe future son-in-law had to leave church suddenly Sunday morning, getting a call that his friend’s 6-year-old son had just died of fever.

The grieving process here is one of extremes.  Most of the observers mill about solemnly or nonchalantly.  Funerals are so frequent that the reaction just can’t be the same as in America…it feels like a steady drip of hearing and seeing about death.   On the other than, there will always be 2 or 3 people, always including the mother and/or wife of the deceased, who cannot contain their grief.  They wail, and wail, and wail, cry inconsolably.  I am hearing that wailing now.

An hour ago, a couple hours after Zuleka’s death but before the latest round of wailing, I carried my daughter into the hospital.  She was throwing up all night, can’t keep down water, has had fever for three days and throwing up for two.  Though she had appeared to be improving yesterday and her fever had gone, last night’s vomiting seriously dehydrated her and I didn’t want to take chances.   It’s a hard day when watching the IV go into your daughter’s hand is the best thing you’ve seen all day.  This is the 6th fever in our family of 3 since April, the 4th to require blood tests.  That’s par for the course for our community – it feels like every kid I know has had at least 1-2 fevers since hot season started, and some are on their third.  Even our middle-class friends are going down – our pastor has been away from church for a month, weak with typhoid fever.  One of the few foreigner friends we have left here is recovering from dengue.

What do I do with this, this steady drip, drip, drip of mourning and suffering, this constant fear of what comes next?  I want to lash out at the incompetent bureaucracies with their poor public health systems, the competent doctors who flee tough jobs with more need for less pay here when they can get cushy jobs with less need for high pay in the West.  I mourn the societal changes, all driven by profit and the short-term gains of those with power, which force more and more people out of the villages to concentrate them in the slums, where disease concentrates in return.  I have almost given up on my millions of wealthy friends in the West who have the personal and social resources to be here and provide some glimmer of light into the difficulty, but who simply can’t step out of the comfort zone of family and friends and community that they know for anything less than an acceptance letter from a highly-regarded university or a job offer that pays more than the comfortable income they already make.

Typing that should give the impression that bitterness is washing over me.  But it’s not.  I know why everyone with the means abandons those without to their “fate”.  I’ve learned enough to figure out the picture on a historical and societal and economic and psychological and theological level, to see where the power lies and whose decisions move this inevitable-looking push towards investment and security and investment and security, to explain why virtually everyone I know, no matter how much they “know” or how much stuff they “have”, still finds it practically impossible to break with everything their upbringing, their political party, their peer group, and the 100s of daily messages of commercial advertising tells them life absolutely has to be about, even if that way of life finds no true joy in the end, for themselves or anyone else.  I blame the wealthy enslaved to an upbringing obsessed with security in a society obsessed with economic growth little more than I blame the poor enslaved to an economics that absolutely guarantees that there can only be winners if there are enough losers to support them.  And even if Jesus and the prophets told us the way out long ago, who can really understand and accept the truth if all the dispensers and interpreters of that “truth” are the same ones who are most deeply invested in the security of the system that denies it? 

So I type here, with my beti, my daughter, laying in the hospital, me not being able to know for certain if she’ll make it out simply because so much has come so quickly now that I can’t ever feel secure in life any more.  The wailing outside my door is now three voices.  Tomorrow they will probably be gone, God willing my daughter will be back at home, and we will go on to the next day among the billions left behind by a system that will for one more day keep telling itself lies and pretending that all will get better if we just keep plugging away at the same crap that got us “this far”. 

This is Clinton’s globalist dream, this is Trump’s isolationist dream, this is the reality of the world that no one who gets voted into power in November is going to lift one finger to address if it means taking one dollar out of the pockets of those who put them there.

Our corporate-sponsored dreams ignore the reality before our eyes that those who hold the money will never stop believing they deserve even more of it, and that no theory of economics in line with reality allows the holders of money to keep indefinitely making more of it simply because they happen to own more of it, unless they take it from those who are already suffering for “lack” of it.  Our propaganda-infused dreams ignore the reality in our hearts that it’s not money, but the things we’ve been turning into money – our time, our relationships, our shared gifts, our land, our environment – that are what actually would make us happy.

I have a different dream.

A better world is possible.

It will come when we believe that something more is available than what we’ve been told to seek, and when we step off the cliff of uncertainty and embrace it.

I do not know how much more wailing I will hear, or make, before it comes.

Friday, October 14, 2016

May 8, 2016

There are few days I remember by their dates.   A few anniversaries and holidays stick out of course.  9/11 as well.   But I don’t really think about the “date” things happened.

May 8, 2016, has stayed stuck with me.  It will be in my mind for the rest of my life.

On May 8 I found out, with shock, that the hope of two young girls’ lives were being destroyed.  These young girls who were very close to us, who we had shared a home with, who had taught for me, were being married off in their mid-teens to men they did not know.  One girl’s situation I had known about for months and had been trying to resist in any way I knew, and this night was only the point of no return.  The other, even younger girl’s situation had been kept a secret from me until that moment, most likely to keep me from getting the police involved or in some other way taking drastic measures to stop it.

My first reaction was to yell at my friend who had hidden it from me.  Then I stormed out as I was asked to leave.  Then I stayed up awake, all night, in internal panic, not being able to sleep over the heart-brokenness of what had happened.  By morning I was committed – there was no way to undo what had just been done, but we would do everything in our power to ensure that these two girls still had some sort of shot at a decent life, or at least some sort of option out when things went bad.  Part of my resolve stemmed from the fact that I was certain that no one, no one else in the world, would be able to provide that help to these two girls.

It was only two days later that the next ball dropped, and two more girls in Rosey’s life, who had already had more trauma than any young girls should, in one bad decision saw their hope for their future likely snuffed out in a flash.  They are now in Mumbai, or not, doing God knows what.  We don’t know what will happen, or even what has happened to this point, because they are gone and we will likely never see them again.

In the strange world of unintended consequences, the decision of those two girls caused the NGO that had been trying to help them to make another decision which unintentionally cut off my supply of teachers for a nearby slum literacy project.  Five months later, my project there remains closed.

In an even more unexpected consequence, the decision of those girls thrust another young lady into an awful situation, and our willingness to put ourselves on the line to save her became her only lifeline to hope.  So in that moment, we became foster parents for a young woman with absolutely nowhere else to go and a whole lot of things going on.

Within another week, through a long string of bad circumstances and other people’s bad decisions and his own bad decisions, we became quite heavily responsible for a young man’s life as well.

And so in the span of three weeks, we gained significant responsibility for the lives of four people we love, all of whom were in the midst of precarious circumstances. 

It’s been five months now. There is no end in sight.

I want to say, “Things have gone better than I expected”.  But no, they haven’t.  Five months later, I probably have more concern in all four situations than I did when they started.  For one or two of them, I’ve almost given up hope.

In fact, there are another four, five, six lives which are caught up in the draft of the ongoing disasters now, people for whom I don’t feel complete responsibility, but where I certainly worry that the decisions and effort I make in those first four lives will significantly impact them as well.  Four, five, six more lives for whom I really don’t know who will be around tomorrow and who won’t. Who among them, if we leave, would make it, and who would not.

Today my wife went to the mental hospital to check my best friend out of inpatient care.  She was unable to do so.  He is doing terribly, worse than when he entered.  Yet again I worry that this is permanent, that I will never know Ali as “Ali” in anything but name only again.  That my best friend, my best teacher, is going to be in another world for the rest of his life.  I’ve gone through this process with two of my grandparents, but I never imagined it happening with a 23-year-old friend.  And if we step out of the picture, it’s almost certainly over for him.  Both his initial acute attack of the disorder and his relapse came as we were out on brief vacations, away for just a little bit while he dealt with one disaster after another at home until it became too much for him.  I don’t blame myself, because there was no way to know and no possibility of being around at all times, not to mention that I don’t know it would have gone any differently had we been here.  But I do know that without us coming back, it would have gone even worse.  Then again, what is “worse”?  No matter how much we’ve done, could he be any worse off than he is now?  His situation could be more hopeless, the disease’s progression more severe, of course, but with his mind where it is right now do we really have true hope to be realized or just false hope delaying acceptance of this dark night extending forever ahead?

The others, certainly, could be worse.  Suicide threats and attempts can be routine events to deal with for those who love the downtrodden and the struggling, the relationally isolated.  But I’ve had my heart plagued by more reports of suicidal ideation from those close to me over the past five months than in the rest of my life combined. If we’re not here, who makes it the next week, or the next year, and who doesn’t?

I could tell other stories – of psychiatrists who should have their licenses revoked for how they treated my daughter, of families who should have their children removed for how they treated their daughters, of NGOs breaking one promise after another because they were lazy or so that they could save face or because they got tired of dealing with a situation, of court systems that were basically designed to destroy victims, of government bureaucracies who keep screwing over the people I love, of one friend after another who just hasn’t been as reliable as we needed them to be when we really needed them.  Of feeling like the whole world is conspiring to take away our friends’ and family’s hope.

Not that there isn’t occasional hope.  But it is partial, fleeting, often surrounded by as many reasons for suspicion of hope as for hope itself.  Not to mention that any time there’s hope for one of them, the desperateness of the situations of the other three tempers it into the ground.  At times my hope has become so low that I was to the point of making deals.  God, can you make it so half their lives turn out?  Please, can I at least have half of them?

One?  Can you give me one? 

Can I at least make it to next year with some reason, any, to still have hope for any of them at all?

Some of you who have been aware of the stress that we’ve been going through during the last five months have encouraged me to take a break.  “Come home.”  “You can’t save everyone.” 

The thing that is so difficult to communicate is that if I took a break the stress would be worse.  Not knowing what was going on for them would make it worse.  Knowing that their lives were almost certainly getting even worse without us would make it worse.

If your little sisters, your daughter, and your best friend were in desperate circumstances, and no one else could help them, would you leave town to get away, abandon them so you could deal?  When would you give up on your daughter and just “save yourself”?

Is it okay for me to give up just because my best friend and my foster daughter and my “adopted” little sisters are a different color than me?  Or from a different country?

May 8, 2016 will be the date that I went from feeling responsible for the hope of a community to feeling responsible for the continued day-to-day sustenance of individual lives.  No couple should have to bear that burden alone.  But as long as every single person who could seriously help to bear that burden either refuses to come here, or leaves, or simply can’t be relied on to stay in the lives of anyone who is “poor”, then we will have to bear that burden alone.

And as long as God sustains us, we will.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

All my friends' moms are widows

Danish’s ears perked up to hear the mosque announcement, and he stopped reading.  I usually ignore mosque announcements because, in a basti of close to 10,000 people, they more often than not have nothing to do with my own circle.  But I stopped and listened because Danish wasn’t going to continue his reading until he had heard the announcement.

“Salman the tailor….lives near the recycling area….prayers will be in Daliganj…..Salman the tailor….lives near the recycling area…prayers will be in Daliganj.”

Salman?  Salman is one of my best friends in the basti!  I started to freak out internally and asked Danish what he had just heard.

“Salman, the tailor who lives near the recycling area…”

“Yes, yes, I know Salman, he’s my friend.”

“He died.”

I pick up the books and tell Danish that the lesson is over.  I rush across the basti.  In the five minutes it takes for me to get from one side to the other, I pray over and over, “Let me be confused….let it be some other Salman….let there be some confusion about the message.”  I think of his wife, his three sons, about the various difficulties they’ve been having.  Could it have been a car accident?  Could he have done something to himself?  I am freaking out as I rush across. 

When I got in view of Salman’s home, I saw the red chairs sitting outside, the sure sign of a death in the home.  (There is someone who holds onto a few dozen red chairs to set outside the home for the visiting crowds of guests that precede any funeral.)  But only seconds later, I caught sight of Salman sitting on his steps.  He did not look good, but he was alive.  My heart moved back down out of my throat and I prayed a cautious prayer of thanks that my worst fear hadn’t been realized.  I asked him what was going on.

“My father…you know his health was not good.”

I can see the body lying inside.  Salman, who had just lost his beloved aunt who lives next door to him a month ago, had now lost his father as well.

There’s a conversation that has been stuck in my head a long time, from when a friend of mine who also lived in a slum expressed the vulnerable realization that all of her friends were widows.  Though this friend had a few years on me, she was not yet 50, and many of her friends were even younger.   Yet the various trials and difficulties that befall one here had taken their husbands one at a time.  It is a very difficult thing to be a widow in India, and to be a poor widow is especially difficult.  These women in my friends’ life had a very tough time of things.

With Salman’s father’s death, I realize that the mothers of all my friends are in the same boat.  Saeed, my language helper, lost his father when he was 10 years old and became the man of the house at that point.  Shahmim, my closest friend in the basti and now the primary teacher who works under me, lost his father at the age of 20 while we were living with him.  Haleem, my best friend among my neighbors in the room we’ve now been living in for 2.5 years, lost his father when he was about 13.  Salman, the first friend I made in the basti, is actually much older than all of them were, only a couple years younger than me.  That does not make it an easy thing for him, either.  Now all four of my closest friends in the basti have experienced the loss of their father. 

Salman, at least, had time to grow into being his own man by the time his father passed.  What kind of effect does it have when you lose a father when you’re still half-grown?   Many of the boys had already seen their fathers go through years of illness or inability to be fully present in their lives even before they died.  And what difference does it make in a community when it’s not only you who is without a father, but many of your friends and neighbors as well?

I don’t really know the answers to those questions.  In what feels like many lives ago, my master’s thesis was on the life experiences of students, primarily boys, who appeared to be achieving far below their academic potential.  It wasn’t a very good paper, and I hesitate to draw anything from it at all.  But in spending time in the lives of these boys, the one thing that stuck out the most was that every single one of them had either lost their father or had him absent for significant portions of their childhood.  And that absence appeared to have had a profound and negative effect upon their lives.

I don’t know for sure exactly how all the early deaths of fathers are affecting my community.  But all my friends’ moms are widows.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Riot night

The crowd pulsed, a hundred people behind my arms, 20-30 of them trying to push forward with sticks and other weapons.  Opposite us another 15-20 men, some of them also wielding weapons, reached towards the crowd behind me.  Belt blows from the front rained down on my arms and shoulders, and someone’s elbow or fist caught me in the side of the head.

How did we get here?

I had been eating dinner in the dark with my wife and foster daughter when I heard a roar outside.  My first comment was, “That’s not a normal fight.”  I went outside and saw a crowd filling the alleyway outside our home, half of the men unrecognizable to me.  At first it seemed to be a typical yelling argument.  But then I saw signs which indicated that real violence might be possible, so I went down and got ready to intervene.

I soon found that the men I didn’t recognize were from a nearby neighborhood and had come to support one of my neighbor families in the fight.  I couldn’t understand the yelling enough to figure out what the fight was about, but the women living next door to me had instigated it somehow.   There was a good chance there would be yelling and not much more.

Some teenagers I knew made their way in my direction.  Electricity had been out for some time, so I was wearing my headlamp and it attracted their attention.   One wanted to try it on, and got a kick out of shining the light in everyone’s face.  He asked how much it cost – I told him it was expensive and refused to put a number on it.  (Oddly, my headlamp was bought for scientific research in the jungle and is one of the most expensive things I own.)   Minutes later he slipped something into my hand.  They’re brass knuckles, or at least a cheap steel version.  I’m dumbstruck that these kids had come to the argument like they were ready for a gang war.   The brass knuckles didn’t belong to my friend, but to another teenage kid he had taken them from.  

In the dark I casually slipped the weapon into my back pocket and said that I lost it.  The original owner argued for it back, and I told him I’d give it back tomorrow, then switch and say I’ll give it back in an hour.  My friend laughs and calls the kid a “beast”.  The kid appeared to be satisfied with my promise to return it.  I decide I'm gonna hold onto them until I know the moment of violence is passed.

The argument doesn’t seem to get anywhere, but enough people were trying to force the instigators to back off that the energy seemed to be dying.  The outside gang of boys that formed one side backed further and further away until they were almost around the corner.  I decided to get back to dinner, and discreetly slipped the brass knuckles into the kid’s hand and went upstairs.

Ten minutes later, the roar came again.

I rush downstairs and see that people are really at each other.  I work through the mob to try to get to the flash point in the middle.  A couple people trying to hold back the most aggressive instigators have formed a partial division, but the fighters are streaming around them.  I get into the gap and begin to pull/push people back until we create a clear line between the mobs.

If my Hindi was better I might have understood what happened next, but someone said or did something that made the tension escalate.  The crowd pushed behind me and I thought they would push past me for a second, but I was just barely able to hold them back.  Someone pushed me on the chest and I realized that two other guys, shorter than me but very bulky and strong, were also holding the crowd back.  I shouted, “Hey, I’m trying to help you!”, and they realized that we were three.  In that narrow alley, the three of us with our arms out formed a wall that the major instigators in the mob failed to break out of some combination of lack of strength, coordination, or commitment to the fight.  The other mob didn’t have the same kind of coordinated defense, but there were two people who were individually trying to keep the most aggressive men back.

Suddenly there was another rush and the two groups met.  We managed to hold the wall, but now were pushed from the front and the back.  The guys in the mob in front of me had pulled off their belts and randomly-aimed blows struck my arms and shoulders.  Someone behind me from my “own” group hit me in the side of the head with either a fist or an elbow.  But we held, and I yelled at them to back off, and somehow something made the mobs pull back again.

We still had to maintain the wall but I felt a bit of latitude because they weren’t pushing as hard anymore.  I began yelling over the general din at the men in front of me, “You hit me!  You hit me!  Why’d you hit me?  What did I do?”  The sight of a random White foreigner, who clearly wasn’t fighting anyone himself, confronting them in Hindi for having hit him seemed to disarm them.  Several of them apologized, and most began to back off further and form sort of a straggling presence down the alley rather than a grouped mob.

I took the chance to turn and look at my own group, and saw that several still had sticks raised in threat.  One woman who had seemed to be at the center of the issue picked up a brick; I began to move through the crowd towards her and she put the brick down.  I went to her anyway and reached for the stick that she held in her other hand. At first she tried to pull it back from me, then she let me have it.  I dropped the stick in the gutter.

Looking back again towards the mob on the other side, I saw one of them back off to just around the corner, lift up his shirt, and tuck something back into his pants.  I didn’t see what it was at all – it literally could have been anything.  But I have some feeling for what it looks like when a man tucks a gun into his pants.   I kept my eyes on him but he immediately walked away in a different direction from everyone else and disappeared.  The presence of a gun there would be hard for me to believe – I wouldn’t put more of a 20-30% chance that that’s really what I saw.  Yet an hour later after everything had wound down, I began hearing vague talk from neighbors about “the gun” that someone had seen.

Back to the moment, both mobs had backed off to the point that there was now 50-60 feet separating them, with the door to my house directly in the middle.  Besides myself only 3-4 other people walked in this gap between the groups – I don’t know what separated someone who thought they should stay behind the lines from those of us who were willing to walk in the middle, but it was obvious I could do what I wanted.

I wandered over to “my” side, and the tension had dropped enough that people started talking about my role in it.  “You were holding everyone back!”, some of them said, and one teenager began to mime the way in which I’d extended my arms to hold back the crowd.  “You got hit, didn’t you?” several asked, which excited a lot of people, and the extent to which I’d been hit began to dominate the conversation.   One or two of them felt my chest and said, “Your heart is beating hard, isn’t it?  Jon’s heart is beating so hard!”  Meanwhile the tensions decreased and people from both sides began to peel away.  A moment or two before two police officers came around the corner, the opposing mob disappeared entirely.

The police behavior was horrific.  They were intimidating (one officer was at least 4 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than me, a shockingly big person in these parts), but they intimidated in the manner of tough teenagers, not mature adults.  They yelled at and berated the family who had started the thing as if they were speaking to naughty children.  About the only good thing they did was order the family to stay inside their home and not come out into the alley again for 1 hour.  Overall, though, they reminded me more of how a teenager gang leader might handle a dispute than an officer of the law, and an incompetent gang leader at that.

The police went towards the remnants of “our” crowd that were still there, who excitedly tried to get in complaints about this person or that person from the other side who had done violence.  Then I hear, “They hit the White foreigner too!”

Great.  I’d been wondering if I should disappear when the police showed up, but I wanted to see how they would handle the situation. I really didn’t want their attention.

The police officers were shocked when they heard that from the crowd.  I had stood next to the officers as they berated the family, but perhaps in the dark they hadn’t recognized me as a foreigner.  Or maybe they had seen me but assumed I didn’t live there, or that I hadn’t been involved.  They asked the crowd questions – several of the crowd reiterated how I had been hit.  They turned towards me (I was standing a good 20-30 feet away) and asked if I had been injured.  I shouted out, “No, no, I wasn’t injured, it was nothing.  No, it was nothing,” and made as clear as possible that I was not going to get involved in their complaint.  The officers continued to interrogate the crowd incredulously about me.  They seemed shocked that I lived there, asked what I was doing, got the explanation that I was teaching Hindi reading.  Thankfully, they got enough answers from the crowd that they didn’t come back to me.  They left, and I left.

Back up in my home, my landlord’s family came into our room as a group and berated me.  First they told me I absolutely must not go outside when such fights happened.  I explained that I and two other men had stopped the entire fight, and I would not fail to get involved in such a situation because something really bad could have happened.  They then shifted tones and said that that was okay, but that I needed to disappear once the police came.  This was clearly their real concern.  We talked about the police for ten minutes.  I explained that they had nothing to worry about, that I had my official registration papers that they had helped me to obtain, that I had registered with the local police 2 years earlier, that my visa and registration and lease and everything was all in order.  They still made very, very clear that they didn’t want any involvement with the police, in any way, ever.

This is a common sentiment in the basti.  Almost everyone I know has told me nothing but bad things about the police.  They avoid them at all costs.

I agreed with the family that the police behavior I had seen was not good, and that I would disappear next time and not stick around if the police were around. That seemed to satisfy them, and they’re okay with me getting involved to stop the next fight.

The next day, my involvement in the riot was the talk of the community.  Rumors that I had been injured seemed to have spread across our section of it, and I was asked about my "injuries" by 7-8 people the next day.  One of the most touching interactions was from an old, half-senile man who asked me to sit next to him and then lamented what had happened.  "How could they have hurt someone like you, a nice man who has come here just to teach the children and is doing such good things?"  The second most touching interaction was from a teenager who had been present, who rushed up to me the next day and shouted in an emotion I'd have to call glee, "I listened to you, didn't I?  I respected you, didn't I?  I did what you asked!"

Sunday, May 22, 2016

New Readers

The young guy called me over to talk. I’d seen him before, usually leaning against a motorbike. I’m wary, as random conversations with young men I don't know are usually either to make a joke, to bring up some inappropriate topic, or to ask money-related questions, like, “How much do you make?” or “Can I work for you?” or “Can you teach me English so I can get a job?” or “Can you get me a visa to America?”. But I want to be hospitable in my community, so when a young man calls to me and I’m not in a huge rush, I usually let them start into the questions.

This time is different. He spoke respectfully, asked real questions about me that weren’t all annoying. Even though I needed to get children for the reading program, I gave him 5-10 minutes of my time. Then he got around to the question,

“I don’t know how to read – can you teach me too?”

I’m a bit unsure if he’s serious. “You mean in Hindi?”

“Yes, I don’t know how to read in Hindi.”

I give him my stock answer. “Then sure, you can come. Room is open from 3pm to 6pm, every day.”

“Really, I can come?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

This is my “stock answer” because I know that 30-50% of the kids and 95% of the adults who say they want me to teach them to read are not going to show up. I currently manage about 35 kids a day working with 3-4 teachers besides myself, and it’s a full load for 3 hours. I’m not about to chase additional people down teaching them house-to-house…they’ve got to show me some commitment. So I invite them to come, knowing they probably won’t, but they can’t ever say that I rejected them.

The next day, I’m getting my last students for the day when the same guy calls me over.

“So can I read with you?”

“Yeah, if you want to come.”

“Me too?” asks his friend standing next to him.

“Sure, you too.”


“Follow me, I’ll show you.”

To my surprise, they follow. There are three 10-12 year-old girls with us as well that I just picked up, and another young girl who I’d just given the stock “come and I’ll teach you” answer to. We were an interesting crew walking through the basti alleys. The new girl says, “I’ll come tomorrow!” and peels off. 80% of the time that means she’s not coming. But to my surprise, the two 20+ year-old guys stay right behind me.

As I’m about to get to the classroom, I suddenly remember. The home my class runs in has 5 sisters between the ages of 12 and 20, all unmarried. The two oldest are two of my teachers. The mother has strict rules that boys over 13 aren’t supposed to come in class. These two guys are definitely persona non grata.

Thinking on my feet, I tell them the situation and have them wait at the door. Then I run upstairs and grab all the books I’ll need. I get back down, and they’re not there anymore. Not surprising in the least. I ask a little girl, “So, where’d those men go,” not expecting a meaningful answer.

“Oh, they’re right there,” she replies. They are just waiting for me at the end of the alley.

My own room is close, so I take them over there. They’re reluctant to enter this house (perhaps because of the warning from the previous house?), but I insist they can go inside. We go up to my room. “This is Jon’s room!” one of them exclaims, without clear implications. I open up and we sit down.

“So, how much do you know how to read.”

“Nothing at all,” they both tell me.

I’m skeptical. Not to stereotype, but I thought I had a decent idea of who would know how to read and who wouldn’t, and the main guy especially looks like the sort who would know at least something. I turn to an easy word in a book. “Can you tell me what this says?”

“I don’t know,” one says, turning to the other, “Do you know what this says?”

“I don’t know.”

I’m wondering if they’re putting a little bit of a ruse on me, but I play along for now. I ask them basic questions – they’re 25 and 20 years old, neither has ever been to school. “Okay, we’ll start at the beginning them.” We start with the most basic letters.

One of them, not the main one who started the conversation with me, can identify the letters from the associated pictures. He isn’t immediately able to form words from letters, but soon gets that too for the first few simple words without too much difficulty. You can see he’s excited to be figuring out how to read so quickly.

The other guy, who is dressed stylishly, can’t even identify letters with associated pictures 2/3 of the time. Sometimes he can't even ID the pictures. He has less starting knowledge than almost any student over the age of 7 that I’ve tested. Even when we figure out the letters together, he can’t put them together into words. The mistakes are genuine and I’m now certain that they aren’t fooling with me. They work through the first short lesson.

Realizing that it’d be easier just to teach them at their own place, and affirming that they had made that first commitment to showing up on my terms, I tell them that I’ll come to their house from now on. I tell them I’ll come daily at the end of each teaching day, and they agree.

As we leave the room, the main guy, 25-year-old Sadav, turns to me. “Actually I did go to school once. I didn’t know something and the teacher hit me with a stick. I was looking at the words and I was so confused, and while I was confused the teacher hit me. So I was…” and he trails off, but makes a dismissive motion with his arms, clearly indicating that his young self had decided that that was enough of school for him.

Sadav and Rejvan were readers 38 and 39 for my class on this particular day. But it’s been weeks since I was hurt and touched as much by one of my kids. This is a story repeated tens of millions of times across India. Maybe, God willing, today was the beginning of something small and good coming into the story.

Monday, March 28, 2016

What Jesus died for

On (Western calendar) Palm Sunday last week, we went to church with the girls that Rosey counsels.  It was a new church for me, and the pastor’s body language was positive.  He was sincere in his prayers; cared about the congregation in front of him.  That sincerity spread to the congregation, many of whom cried when the girls shared their own stories.  You could see women across the church using their dupatas to hide their faces and cover their tears.

One of the women who runs the house gave a message about the Palm Sunday cry: “Hosanna!”  I had long forgotten that “Hosanna” is a cry for help in Hebrew.  “Save us!” we cry to the King of Glory as he enters the city, humble on the colt of a donkey.  “Save us!” we cry out to the Prince of Peace.  She vulnerably shared her own story of being sexually assaulted as a teen, an incredible risk in an Indian context.  “Save me!” she cried from her own experience of pain and separation from others and from God.  She spoke of how God’s rescue of her inspired her own willingness to serve others, and expanded the Hosanna cry from a one-step personal plea to a two-step direction for life.  “We are being saved to save.”

We are being saved to save.

Where do we believe our salvation will be found, and what do we think it will consist in?  As I sat in a (Western calendar) Easter service this morning, the limited aspirations of our presidential candidates ran through my mind.  The ones who claim to reject money are the very ones who think the right application of money will solve all our problems.  The ones who belittle government power are the very ones who seem willing to do anything to acquire it.  The ones who act the most distressed about violence are the ones who brag about what violence will accomplish in their hands.

We will not be saved by the proper application of violence.  We will not be saved by the proper application of power.  We will not be saved by the proper application of money.  And thus we will not be saved by a vote for those who only know how to use money, power, or violence to change the world.

Jesus [“He saves”] came to those calling hosanna [“Save us!”], having rejected the wealth of the world, the power of the world, and the violence of the world.  Yet on Good Friday and Easter, without employing any of these things, he brought salvation.  In the brief years preceding that terminal week, He told stories of how a willingness to trust God for provision could replace a need to trust in accumulating our own money, that a willingness to submit to God’s authority could replace a need to trust in acquiring our own power, and a willingness to place faith in God’s security could replace a need to trust in employing our own violence.  And in His last week He culminated the rejection of those false needs in taking up His cross and surrendering all to the One who could be trusted in, even unto death.

God saved Jesus so that Jesus could save.

And we are being saved so that we may extend that salvation to others.

We are being saved to save.

The safe house where many of those girls feel that they are being saved is in a tenuous position.  It will only exist so long as being-saved people maintain open hands so their money may flow out to anyone in need.  It will only be staffed so long as being-saved people have humility to give up positions of authority in order to work for far more humble positions with the girls.  And it will only make a lasting difference so long as being-saved people break into the cycle of violence which brought the young girls here – the powerful men using violence to abuse the lowly men who abuse the women who abuse the children – with a love greater than violence.

In that Palm Sunday service last week, the pastor stepped up to the podium after the girls had spoken, opened his notes, took a look, then closed them again.  “I had a message prepared for Palm Sunday today,” he told the congregation.  “But I just want to let the testimony of our friend and these girls stand.”  He then asked someone to pray for all of us, and closed the meeting.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Thoughts on ISIS

I spent several weeks researching ISIS for a series of "What to do about ISIS" posts, built on a long period of trying to understand the root causes of violence and how our God calls us to respond to it.  These posts aren't a complete framework, but I'm hoping they can be a resource for Christians in understanding how we got to this point and forming a gospel-based response to an issue prominent on many Christian's minds.

Post 1: Why ISIS started in Iraq

Post 2: Why ISIS grew and thrived

Post 3: ISIS's theology

Post 4: Why do people join ISIS?

Post 5: How a Christian responds

Let me know if you have any thoughts on the things I've shared, or further ideas about the situation and what we as Chistians can do going forward to better bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth.

Friday, October 30, 2015

This year's Moharram

Tonight is Moharram, and Rosey’s not feeling well and has already gone to sleep, and the entire slum is awake and engaged, and I feel too much energy in the place to just stay in my room.  So I go out, without much purpose in mind. 

I wander in a big circle around the slum.  A young boy with a bit of a mental problem is excited to see me and says hi.  An acquaintance of mine pulls me over and sits me down in a chair next to a huge caldron of chai on a fire.  He offers me some.  The boy sits across from me.  We make a bit of small talk, I appreciate the hospitality, and I get up again. 

I wander over to the vicinity of a home we used to stay in two years ago.  At a turn in the alley I am undecided about where to go next, and a woman I used to know sees me stall.  “Where are you going?”  “Uh, just wandering….looking at tazias,” I reply.  Tazias are the symbolic crafts that are being displayed on this night.  She says, “Oh, then come over here, there’s a tazia right here!”  She pulls me over in the direction of our old room.  We stop at the tiny gully right next to it, and I see that the tazia isn’t just in the alley or doorway like most of the others, but tucked back into a home I know.  “Go ahead,” she insists.  I reluctantly walk in.

Tucked back behind this tight dirt alleyway is one of the poorest families we’ve ever known.  I walk inside, and indeed a beautiful tazia is set up just inside their home.  The thin paper-and-sticks structure appears only slightly less substantial than the family’s own plastic-and-sticks residence.  A large number of children and a few adult women are sitting in front of it, praying.  They see me and invite me to sit down with them.  I politely excuse myself and try to turn back.  “No, no, I’m sorry, I don’t want to disturb your peace, see you again.”  They insist again, saying, “You must sit, auntie wants to speak to you.”  When I understand what they are saying, I notice that around the corner just out of my view, the matriarch of the family is sitting down.  I can’t deny her, and so I sit down in their midst.

We don’t know her well.  The one time Rose and I visited her home together, she broke down crying as she showed us her incredibly poor residence.  This time the tazia gives her more confidence as a host.  She welcomes me, asks me how I doing, asks where Rosey is and how she is doing.  The other women listen with rapt attention and toss in their questions too.  Many of the children listen to us, while others continue praying their night’s vigil.

I note that this is not going to be a short visit and get used to sitting there.  On one hand I feel uncomfortable to be an outsider in a place of prayer and a man in a place of women and children.  On the other hand, everyone is so peaceful and so incredibly respectful to me that I am put at ease.  One young women in particular engages most actively with me along with the matriarch.  Their questions run the gamat from my religious beliefs to what I cook in my home.  My statement that Rosey cooks the rotis while I cook the veggies elicits laughter and surprise. My statement that I follow Isa the Messiah and that we don't practice the same traditions elicits what appears to be respect.  Most of all, everyone wants to just to get to know me better and treat me well.

When I first sat down the women offered me some sweets that had been prepared specially for that night.  As time draws out, they begin offering me more and more – lentils…chicken curry…more sweets.  I refuse everything the first two times it is offered, but it becomes clear that they won’t be satisfied with my visit unless I have some of everything they have.  The young woman giving me the food, the same one who has been asking me questions, looks so proud of what she has to give and a huge smile never leaves her face.  I eat the treats they lay before me and contemplate, not for the first time, the amazing circumstance of this incredibly poor family in a plastic-and-sticks home in the mud serving and feeding me with all they have to give. 

I have come here to serve the poor, and once again I am struck by how deeply even the very very poor want to serve me.  I feel we’ve shared a sacred space tonight.