Monday, January 7, 2013

How to Be an Ally: Church Edition

Being in a community of faith should feel safe and welcoming.
It should ask you to build your skills, to learn to be in community, and to grow as a spiritual being.

It should not ask you to put up with racism.
I was in a training for worship leaders the other day, which was thick with unspoken messages. I think one way I can be a good ally is to speak those messages out loud, in hopes that this will start conversation. We can't end racism as allies, but we can name it when we see it.

Spoken message: Presenters should wear "solid colors," because "patterns are distracting."
Underlying cultural message: People in sari's or First Nation or African dress or loud suits would be quite uncommon in the pulpit, except as an exotic touch, an exception to the rule. If you want approval when you speak, dress as white, older people dress when they go to church.

Spoken message: "Diction is very important if you want to be heard."
Underlying cultural message: If you have an accent I understand easily, I will be comfortable. If you don't, I may get angry or ill-at-ease as I have to strain to understand you. Unsurprisingly, there were no people of color with strong accents in the training -- nobody with an accent had been asked or chosen for the worship team, because accents are (exact words) "a problem." (If you haven't put the work in to lose your "accent," how could you possibly have the commitment it takes to be a worship leader!?) This purposeful exclusion, in plain language, means: Despite the fact that English is spoken in many places, in many different intonations, there are right ways and wrong ways to speak English, and we know what they are! Since we all know a spoken word always has some accent, we must ask ourselves ...Which ones do we consider acceptable? South African or British is okay, but the way they speak in Nigeria or India or Latin America doesn't work for us? Issues of ethnicity/nationality but also class come up here as well. The white upper-class listener's comfort is the priority. Leadership opportunities for people with a non-approved accent, which could include a leader of color, must take a back seat.

Spoken message: "Silence is how you show respect. Clapping is what an audience does at a performance, and church is not a performance."
Underlying cultural message: Rules of decorum are universal. Silence is proper. People who shout, clap, or talk in church or in worship don't fit here. Also could be translated as: "I have never read Ann Pellegrini or gender theory and am not familiar with the idea that in fact church and life might all have an element of performance."

Spoken message: "Well, yes, perhaps if you're talking about a Southern Baptist church, but also that's clapping an act of worship, not clapping in response to a performed piece."
Underlying cultural message: We don't expect someone to come here who comes from a Baptist background, where they also do crazy things like dancing, hooting and hollering. White, middle-class people don't worship that way. We are concerned about having people disrupt our services with noise, and we need you to agree not to do that or encourage anyone else to do that. However people feel the spirit is fine, as long as they do it in their seats, silently. Also, could be translated as "I have never been to a Southern Baptist church."

"Spiritual growth" should not have to mean, for anyone, putting on a brave face through a crisis of faith as they are faced with pervasive assumptions from their "beloved community" about who they are, what they are capable of, how they celebrate in "their tradition," how they ought to speak or present, or what they ought to wear to be respectful in church.

From where I sit, "Being in Community" does not mean someone should have to put up with white folks mistaking you for another person in the congregation roughly the same skin tone as you are. That is not a place where "practicing patience" should be the issue, but "removing ignorance." (See microaggressions.)

In my world, "Belonging" doesn't mean that everyone but you gets to say exactly what they think, about your clothes or your accent or your presentation, while you keep your experience to yourself because it would indict the others in the room who don't understand your background, your traditions.

As a white person seeing this happen, I am not going to be patient with it.
Another person's ignorance is running roughshod in the space where a soul ought to feel safe, and when that soul cries out, it is not allowed to speak, because (!) it might hurt someone's feelings.

Intent does not equal impact. It never has. So, is now the time? Can we start acknowledging the impact of our actions in beloved community rather than wearing our intent as a shield?

Doing church must mean cultural competence, and race/class/gender awareness, or we are missing the whole damn point.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Where is the "New Hope," again?

Sorry, I haven't gotten my pictures back yet — you'll have to use the picturemill in your mind. :)
On the road to Comilla, in the Chittagong District of Bangladesh, thin power lines stretch between clusters of houses and shops.
The bigger, steel utility poles, visible for miles, shepherd clusters of wires toward industrial concerns. "New Hope" is one such, a giant blue factory on N1, the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway, biggest structure for miles, with a Bangladeshi flag for its logo and Chinese characters in its name. It produces fish and poultry feed, and seems to have employed locals to carry sand in baskets to create a sand flat.
There is something difficult in seeing an small older woman in an ochre sari carrying a basket of sand on her head, dumping it, and slowly moving back toward the mammoth sandpile. I'm not sure why. It's honest work. Isn't she carving out the landscape like Bostonians did, building a future city's foundation by moving earth, creating a peninsula where it hadn't existed before?
That earthmoving work, done by the nameless thousands, undergirds Boston's present-day public transportation system, our school days, our nights on the town. People moved earth with their hands, with baskets, and in carts, because those were the tools available — it was a job, presumably for a poorer colonist.
But Boston wasn't contending with quite this level of powerful private industry when its landscape was forming. Maybe that's why this scene still feels ominous to me. The giant factory is so large, and her body so small. She will tire. She will shiver in the rain. She is susceptible to worms and bacteria and hunger. She will come and go. The giant blue feed factory, "New Hope," will live forever, susceptible only to rust, dependent only upon utilities and some organizing human brain — but not hers. (Who decided fish and poultry needed a factory so they could eat? Was that the best choice for this community?)
Is it somehow more ominous because her body is so vulnerable compared to earth-movers and backhoes? Does it feel problematic because the people in the countryside break their backs in the rain to do work that could be done by machine?
Yes. Because the people who hire them know this. Her worth is perhaps 1/100th of a machine. If she says "no," or "how about this way," there will be other bodies to carry sand, if those bodies begin to ask for benefits or education or a neighborhood school, the company might just decide it's cheaper to bring in a machine after all — I can just see that memo, the middle manager looking at his margins, saying, "Pay the damn freight! This has gone too far."
At least the worker who maneuvers the machine is the master of something. Skilled. More than just her arms, her legs, her basket.
That consistent chant of developers, "it'll bring jobs, bring jobs, bring jobs" — what does that mean, exactly, in this kind of landscape? Is any job a gift? What would it take for these jobs, and the local people who hold them, to carry weight and bargaining power? It's not enough to pay for a week's food, while leaving the powerlessness of poverty intact. What would jobs look like that did more?
I should add that New Hope does offer jobs besides carrying sand. Here's an ad for a control center operator for the Gazipur factory. New Hope also has charitable impulses. It has publicly distributed blankets to local residents during the Bangladeshi winter.
But, as developed nations working in developing nations, our responsibility, in service to the larger goal of development, is to offer more than handouts or two or three good jobs in a district. We shouldn't just get families through the week or through the winter, even if they are poor and uneducated. They are not dispensable.
What would a real investment look like? Doesn't she, in her sari in the rain, deserve to be supported in her vision for a better future? Climbing the hill with her basket, does she earn a place at the table, making decisions about the company's future in her community? Does she earn the time to spend with a manager, a decision-maker in the company, talking and thinking about what would support her family's livelihood in the long term?
When she does, that faceless blue factory will start to earn its name.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Observations from a bus, Dhaka to Comilla

Nupur tells me these tall hibiscus are called "kalmilata."
Kalmilata, flat water and rice fields as far as the eye can see, one road only, two thin paved lanes, for mothers with babies, bicycles, painted rickshaws, autorickshaws, CNGs (caged autorickshaws that run on compressed natural gas), trucks, jeeps, open-air schoolbuses carrying 8 or 10 children, traveling buses like ours (the biggest thing on the road), and occasional cars, traveling to and from the city.
The headrests on the bus are encased in white ersatz sanitary covers caked in ground-in grime. I start to itch just thinking about it — my scalp, my neck, my thigh. I don't want to rest my head.
Cattle are packed into trucks moving toward Dhaka, head to tail, jammed like cattle, necks straining toward the sky, eyes show no evidence of thoughts or wishes, not blinking. Straining without moving.
Some homes have woven mats on their floors. People say this keeps it cool.
I see homes on the road to Comilla that have those mats for walls, as the flood waters rise. The monsoons have well and truly arrived.
A swimming baby, maybe three years old, splashing by himself in a pond.
A wailing ambulance is stuck in market traffic, as we travel through a small village; our bus cuts him off with an angry blast of the horn that brooks no refusal. We are through the village in a matter of moments.
Back to the grasslands, where the sand is eroding away under some of the houses. Lengths of bamboo prop up the tin roofs and walls.
Boys have set up a soccer field on a sand flat, bamboo for goal posts, and toed lines in the sand for a goalie's box.
Kalmilata: tall, bending water hibiscus, blood red centers and pink petals.
The most permanent structures for many kilometers are the factories, the mosques, the schools. Madrasas you know by the teardrop shape of the windows.
People and long stretches of pipe carry sand from the bed of the River Meghna to long, flat boats, which will take the sand to Dhaka.
It's a muddy world outside (rain predicted for the next three days) and a young cow is nosing a green apple in the mud in front of a streetside market.
Back out on the grasslands a brown, respectable cow has climbed down toward the water to eat from a vine, compromising her dignity somewhat at a 45-degree angle.
Many of the mud-walled ponds seem to contain fish. The mud walls also offer a path from one mud-flat collection of tin houses to another — some drainage pipes connect the small ponds to the larger, unending stretch of water.
Thin power lines stretch between clusters of houses and shops.
The bigger, steel utility poles, visible for miles, shepherd clusters of wires toward industrial concerns. "New Hope" is one such, a giant factory, biggest structure for miles, with a Bangladeshi flag for its logo but Chinese characters. It seems to have employed locals to carry sand in baskets to create a sand flat.
Another madrasa, boys in uniform and arched windows.
This is a city bus - ours was fancier.
The busdriver won't stop blowing his horn: Once, twice, three times, five times, or a long, angry blast, depending on his frustration level, until they do what he wants — it hurts my ears, my head, I feel it in my ribs. It reverberates. The least belligerent: Two short for mere notification of his presence.
This road is the highest point I can see.
Men in lungi stand in the water plants which sometimes foster a patch of lilies, gathering greens, netting fish, gathering sand. Though it rains, still the people work, the men and boys shirtless.
The horn for a full 8 seconds as the driver tries to pass a slower, smaller bus which is already engaged in its own project of passing a slower, smaller bus. We are nearly off the road.
A woman in a burqa helps to unload a stalk of green bamboo (it is as thick as a grown woman's leg) from a pedal cart.
On one raised sandflat, a tall cylinder kiln for bricks.
A male goat stamps his foot in the mud, perhaps making a point to his female companion.
The trash man has stopped his blue pedal cart and is washing in the pond.
Everywhere, potential buildings stand half-finished — the foundation of a building, rebar exposed, no evidence of recent work, offers a sign, in bright color, announcing, "Palmy Shoes LTD: European Footwear Production."
Did they run out of money or interest?
I can't think this is such a surprise. Folks here seem used to great ideas that don't work out in reality — another thing people might just sort of get used to, like theft or heat, as the means to prevent it do not seem accessible in any way.
A cheery little mosque, painted generously in a variety of colors, its logo a white crescent and a burst of white stars.
We stop for gas. Very soon, there is a lot of shouting. An extremely angry man has exited the ambulance we cut off many kilometers ago, and is shouting at the driver. I imagine that he is incensed on behalf of his wounded brother, who is in the ambulance. "I am late!" the driver protests. But the man's anger is intense. Others pull the man back into the ambulance and they are away.
As our journey continues, the horn blasts become shorter, less certain, less persistent. Is he more aware of his neighbors? Or is it my imagination? This is how I think justice works — I am eager to believe the shouting had an effect, made him a better citizen driver; now perhaps he wonders how his driving affects others.
When we step from the bus, into the mud of Comilla, I offer the driver a note. It says, "Thanks for the ride. May your horn fall off and break into many pieces." I think this is funny and in some way mitigates the physical pain he has caused me.
The look of hope and surprise in his eyes as I hand him the envelope is almost more than I can take. He thinks it is money, or thanks. And perhaps he deserves both. We arrived so quickly. He drove like the very devil was at his heels. I curse my anger, my discomfort, my need for quiet, my need to tell others when they have encroached on my idea of ethics.
Chaim Potok, who I am reading on this trip (taking refuge from the noise and bustle in the warm fold of Ladover Brooklyn), offers this wisdom:
"Truth has to be given in riddles. People can't take truth if it comes charging at them like a bull. The bull is always killed. You have to give people the truth in a riddle, hide it so they go looking for it and find it piece by piece; that way they learn to live with it."
I have long believed this, though the practice of it is a great mystery. In a similar vein, I keep these words on my desktop: "Never tell the truth too plainly," as a reminder that fiction is not the same as what I have written above, a list of observations, plainly told, a travelogue.
Observations, plainly told?
When you see such a small piece of the truth, what is there to tell but the physical, the disparate pieces you are able to see? How can I code the truth when it is always in flux?
Anyway, to offer an observation with kindness I think would bless the person who heard it. Another day, another aggressive bus driver, I will know what to do.
Truth, some, with kindness, lots.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Visiting Kumudini Hospital

Nurse, mother and child at Kumudini*
My visit to Kumudini Hospital in Mirzapur (about two hours south of Dhaka, if the roads are clear and there are no major "jams") began with a friend I met at the swimming pool... she invited me to join the water aerobics class, and then, knowing of my interest in NGOs, kindly invited me to come along when, on Friday, the hospital hosted an open house for dignitaries.
Her grandfather started this hospital in Mirzapur. He built it with his own funds, after coming up the river to in a houseboat from India in the 1930s. The village has grown into a town, and the hospital has both a school for girls and a medical school, which trains promising young women to be doctors and nurses.
People can get medical care here for free. Kumudini charges a nominal fee for medicine — between 5 and 10 taka — less than the cost of a short rickshaw ride in Dhaka, about the price of a banana.
I talk to an older male doctor there, who, when I ask him if he likes his work, says, "Money's nothing compared to knowing you're really helping the people." 
Men's Ward at Kumudini Hospital*
We walk through the wards, full of patients — bed after bed, like the post-WW2 open-ward hospitals I've seen in films. In some ways patients seem more exposed in their suffering, but also less cut off than the small, two-person hospital rooms I'm used to. Those patients who can sit up watch us curiously from their beds. Some are not so alert. One frail older man is so thin and desiccated that I'm really not sure he's not dead. I don't want to stare, but out of the corner of my eye, I watch to see his chest move, just to be sure. It does. It's almost imperceptible, but he's breathing. I don't know what to do with his frailty but to acknowledge it and to wish him good health in this place. The ward has a multitude of open windows, when there is a breeze it is a joy.
The hospital incorporates many faiths. Catholic nuns run the nursing college, many of the patients here are Hindu (a minority in Bangladesh, about 9% of the nation's population) in addition to Muslim. One of the nuns, the third of her sisters to become a nun, speaks to me about the joy that this service, teaching and nursing, has brought her. I get her number so we can talk more.
I talk to a young female doctor who had done her training there, and is now entering her internship. She loves the work, she says, and is thankful for the opportunity. She exudes an air of quiet confidence and professionalism that I think is a clear byproduct of this place, which invests in women, and allows them to invest in their community.

*Photo credit 1: winners/?cat=NTP&place=HM1
Photo credit 2:

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Snakes and Dragons: Breathing in order to Walk Down the Street

Though I'm embarrassed to say it, after several days in a whole different country, with an entirely different way of dressing, a complex set of cultural norms to learn and experience, and no small amount of political upheaval, my first blog post is about, well, me.
I haven't been sleeping. I'm full of anxiety. I've been really sick with a chest cold. I love my sister's apartment and it makes me happy to share the space, even though she's far away. My Google web sites are showing up in Bengali/Bangla because I had to change the timezone on Google calendar.
And it's hard right now for me to leave the house. Not just because I'm sick -- because I'm anxious. I try to leave the house early in the morning, as a kind of vaccination for the rest of the day -- if I do it once, I can do it again. The guidebooks tell you as a white person here you're always the center of attention, that especially for women it's worse and, of course, more dangerous to be on your own. I get so anxious thinking about it that it's better just to do it. A walk down to the river with some people staring is not nearly as bad as the books make it sound. You really do get to greet almost everyone. People smile. You get to read people's faces, see what they bring to the interaction, without any words. This lady asked me to take a picture with her kids.
Generalized anxiety is like a set of boa constrictors, which never quite kill you but choose a different part of your body and squeeze and squeeze until you're all worn out and scared. And if anxiety is snakes I guess fear is dragons -- enormous obstructions that stand in a path you might take and breathe fire at you until you either give up, or steel yourself to walk through the fire.
I've meditated once since I've been here, a simple vipassana. This I find very nourishing. While I am labeling thoughts and focusing on breath, it becomes clear where my mind is, the patterns it is falling into.
At the end of this vipassana, realizing how much anxiety and fear were present for me, I decided to do a bit of tonglen meditation: breathing in the heavy and icky, breathing out light and effervescence.
I have always done tonglen with some degree of reservation. Pema Chodron describes the practice as breathing in the crap of the world without resistance -- as she puts it, the practice "dissolves the armor of self-protection we've tried so hard to create around ourselves." I strongly resist the idea of breathing in the crap of the world. I never know how to breathe in the heavy, polluted yuck that exists in the world without allowing it to stick to me. Sometimes when I do tonglen, I keep that thick, heavy feeling all day.
But this time I read Pema's passages on tonglen differently -- she really sees this, too, as a place to confront our inner demons. "Start where you are. This is very important. Tonglen practice (and all meditation practice) is not about later, when you may get it all together and you're this person you really respect... You don't have to transform anything... That light touch of acknowledging what we're thinking and letting it go is the key to connecting to the wealth that we have." (Start Where You Are, 1994, Shambhala, 35)
The beauty here is that whatever you do for yourself, you do for others, and vice versa. Breathing in my snakes and dragons, being with them, their fangs and fire and scales and terrible constricting bellies, I had to breathe in fully. And, the next moment, I was still there, breathing. The snakes and dragons weren't gone, but they weren't freaking me out so much. Chodron writes, "When the resistance is gone, so are the demons."
I always thought that finger-wagging phrase, "Wherever you go, there you are" had a deterministic and judgemental cast to it -- I have often interpreted it to mean that my wanderlust was sort of an ill-disguised attempt to try to escape myself. The puritanical schoolmaster in me tells me to stay where I am, don't try to get fancy, don't focus all that energy on getting away.
In fact, "wherever you go, there you are" is an amazing and expansive truth --  wherever you go, you find opportunities to work on different things about yourself, you get to know different things about yourself. Different pieces of you are exposed to the light. Wherever you go, you discover new and beautiful and crazy things about you. There you are.

Here's a funny thing from today... I asked a friend if we could go to a bank, and we ended up at an ATM in Baridhara. There's a smiley guy who sits at the little ATM kiosk and opens the door for you. All day! He sits with the bank all day. There are no tellers, no bank managers, just this guy and the ATM kiosk. And he was pleased as pie to see us.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The air smells like cut watermelons

The air smells like cut watermelons,
light, slightly sweet, like a rare day in July
bringing picnics and lightning
the air is not heavy, but will be heavy soon.
In this moment, action --
we must swim and eat and call to each other;
we find truth in movement,
we try brave things without thinking,
rounding a bend in the road at full tilt
stopping short at the top of the hill
as the deer at the bottom
makes us catch our breath.
Truth is there, too,
in the frozen stock-stillness.
The grown-ups do not swim and
your mother cautions against it as
my father says, "oh let them go,
won't be many more days like this one,"
and he is right.
When the rain falls
like a host of small golden spiders
with the sunlight behind them
everything seems greener, and
your mother collects her Tupperware,
your father gathers his keys, says,
"it's about that time,"
you wave through the window
of the station wagon, and
still my father sits, watches,
ankle crossed over ankle, in silence,
hands clasped at the back of the neck,
and after a while,
I go and sit by him,
and he puts his arm around me
and he smells like dust and thought
and after a while, we gather our things
and go home.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


singular how the chest
speaks even when the mouth dursn't
when the mouth dares not
or has not gathered its pebbles for stacking
when the mouth is busy eating or talking,
musing, wishing, speculating, explicating, formulating,
still the chest rises to the throat,
it is this ripe cherry truth blossoming out,
plump, created with no especial intent --
it is merely itself, literature,
The Mayor of Castorbridge,
we may ask questions if we choose,
or sit and look on, mute --
after all, questions are strategy --
and tell me the agenda of a cherry.