U-C: What I See

Thursday, January 26, 2006

On practicing hospitality in India and Pakistan

Kohlapur, India

Although Kohlapur is a small city, the streets were still crowded as we drove toward the city from the airport. I was expecting to go directly to the offices of the Diocese of the Church of North India (CNI) in order to receive a briefing on the visits we would make during the day. Instead, our driver stopped the car on the busy street and we were invited to get out and join throng of people who clearly had been waiting for us for some time. As we stepped into line, a band began to play in front of us, and there was a group of pastors who were all wearing their robes (men and women) just behind us. The crowd surged forward and fashioned itself into a long line, five people abreast and several hundred yards long, and I realized that we had just joined a parade, complete with our own police officer to attempt to manage the traffic.

After walking about a kilometer with folks waving at us from the side of the street, the parade turned to the left into a dusty lot about the size of a football field. There were old buildings scattered on the back of the property, and off to the left there was a large tent made with billowing red, yellow, purple, and pink fabrics. Leading into the tent was a red carpet (I’m not making this up), and inside there were several hundred chairs facing a large, elevated stage that was also covered with carpet. Edwin, Raafat and I were led to the stage and seated where we looked out over a crowd that was standing room only.

There were the obligatory speeches of welcome, and a ceremonious presentation as red turbans were placed on each of our heads, we were each given a ring, and then we were invited forward to be garlanded. As we stood at the front of the stage, three women stepped forward and each placed a beautiful garland of freshly cut flowers around one of our necks. As I started to turn and return to my chair, however, I realized that others were lining up with their own garlands. One by one, three people from every church and ministry came forward and placed another garland around our necks. Eventually, we were wearing dozens of them, and they were piled up so high around my neck that I could no long see. I have a marvelous picture in which only my clapping hands are visible; my head has disappeared behind the flowers.

Just when I thought that I couldn’t take any more, all of the flowers were removed and I thought we were finished. However, there were still dozens of people lined up with more flowers, and we proceeded to load us up once again until we could no longer see the crowd, all of whom had broad smiles and were laughing as we struggled with the weight and the bulk of the flowers.

Ludhiana, India:

Shazia was a vivacious, articulate young woman in her early twenties who came with the delegation that met us at the train station as we in the city of Ludhiana in the Punjab region of northern India. There was a sparkle in her eyes as she educated us about the food we were being served in the restaurant where they took us for dinner, and she teased us about our inability to handle the spicy food of the Punjab. As we learned about our agenda for the following two days, she and her father Unys, who works for the Diocese, insisted that we must come to their home for tea on Sunday evening.

Tea is an event in India and Pakistan. It feels as if most of my itinerary for our nine days in the two countries involved being offered tea by everyone we met. I guess I expected something similar when I arrived at Shazia’s house – an hour of conversation in the living room as we sipped cups of tea together.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Shazia, her father and mother, and her younger brother who is studying at the university. (I must apologize because I’ve misplaced my notes from this part of my trip and therefore I don’t have all their names.) There was also a second family, a younger man who also worked for the Diocese, his wife, and their two young daughters. It was a little uncomfortable at first as we made small talk over soda and cookies. Then, however, the two families decided to sing. The Christians in this part of the world have a wonderful tradition of singing the psalms. Shazia’s younger brother set up an electric keyboard, and then Shazia and her mother led everyone in singing. After several songs, we began to try to think of songs that we all knew, and I eventually discovered that Shazia’s mother and I had in common a great many of the songs I learned back in vacation Bible School. All of us began to smile as we dredged up songs like “Father Abraham,” “I’ve got the Love of Jesus down in my heart,” and we were laughing together when we got to the version of “Allelu, Allelu, Allelu, Alleluia, Praise ye the Lord” where we assigned the parts and each group had to stand only while they were singing.

After well over half an hour of singing, we slipped back into conversation as we sipped tea together. Each of us shared about our families, and I was fascinated to hear Shazia’s mother and father speak of meeting one another for the first time on the day they were married. The love that they have for one another is obvious, and I found yet another of my preconceptions slipping out of my grasp as I though about the ways in which my wife Kitty and I really knew so little about one another or what our married life would be like before the wedding. Perhaps arranged marriages, still very common in India, aren’t the forced, oppressive arrangements that I must admit I’ve always imagined them to be. Stereotypes die where friendships and relationships begin.

Finally, Shazia insisted that we must dance. She turned on the computer in the corner and first selected Indian music, and we watched her as she danced. Then, confirming my worst fears, she insisted that the rest of us dance as well. I was the one at the high school dances who stood in the background and tried to disappear. Since I don’t drink alcohol, I’ve never quite been able to find that mental state in which it doesn’t really matter what other people are thinking. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become a little more graceful about my discomfort, but my insecurity persists. The only dancing I feel confident about are the jitterbug moves I learned from a girl who took pity on me in the seventh grade.

That’s right, we found the closest thing to rock and roll that we could, and I tried to teach Shazia to jitterbug while everyone else looked on with great amusement. I suppose it would have been no less embarrassing trying to waltz in the tiny living room, had I ever learned to do so. What was even more embarrassing was that Edwin, my colleague from the GAC who comes from Puerto Rico and who also insisted he couldn’t dance, finally was talked into some of the best salsa I’ve seen in a long while.

After close to three hours of “tea,” it was finally time to leave. As we hugged, it felt like the distance between India and the U.S. had almost entirely disappeared and the cultural distance had melted away as well. I long for this kind of experience for everyone I know in the United States, for when we build those kind of boundary crossing friendships, nothing can remain the same.

Gujranwalla, Pakistan:

The Presbyterian Church of Pakistan has a seminary in Gujranwalla, a city located about an hour’s drive away from Lahore. On our first day in Pakistan there was a great celebration at the seminary that was attended by pastors, lay leaders, and the directors of the ten different institutions and ministries (many founded by Presbyterian Missionaries from the U.S.) that are related to the church.

Each time I’ve thought that no experience of welcome could surpass the ones I’ve already experienced, someone manages to do it again. This time, Edwin, Raafat and I were offered a ride up the long driveway to the seminary in a horse drawn carriage. There were two white horses pulling a high, fancy carriage that was a throwback to England circa the mid 1800’s. Shade was provided by two large umbrellas made of Pakistani cloth of brilliant colors. Ribbons and brightly colored ropes decorated the carriage, where I was offered the high, cloth covered seat from whence I could wave at all the kids who ran along beside the carriage.

As we came around the last corner and faced the seminary chapel on one side and another of those bright, cloth tents on the other, the carriage was brought to a stop and everyone smiled and clapped as the three of us climbed down and were in led into tent. Like our experience in Kohlapur, we walked up a long red carpet to the stage at the front of the tent, and were offered the seats of honor.

Once again, we were turbaned and offered garlands (though I was grateful when we stopped at one garland each. Once again, there were words of welcome and appreciation. Once again, I promised to do my best to share with my sisters and brothers back home the richness and the depth of emotion we felt as we received such a warm welcome. Once again, I greeted them in the name of Presbyterians across the United States who are connected to them across the miles by our common faith, and by a legacy created by the first missionaries who came here to partner with these people one hundred and seventy-two years ago.

My wife will tell you that I’ve never liked pomp and circumstance. It’s always made me uncomfortable to be treated differently than others. On this trip, as on others that I’ve made outside our country, I’ve learned about the importance of receiving gracious and abundant hospitality. I suppose I needn’t worry about getting used to it, for my family keeps insisting that when I get home I’ll be back to washing dishes and cleaning the bathroom and telling jokes with the kids who live in our small, intentional community.

On this day, however, I know that I receive these welcomes on behalf of all of those in the United States who believe, with me, that we are one body, one community of faith that supersedes all the borders that have been placed between us. That seems like a particularly important recognition from a place like Pakistan, a country about which our preconceptions in the United States tend to be unbelievably negative.

Friends, we have a lot to learn about hospitality and community from our sisters and brothers in this part of the world.

Peace to you,