A few months ago I was invited to do an interview with Orthodox Christian Network. The interview was with Father Chris Metropulos, President of Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, Massachusetts.
I was invited to respond to several questions about growing up in Pakistan, about living in both Pakistan and Egypt as an adult, but mostly about some of the differences between East and West, and what building bridges might look like. Any of you who have read Communicating Across Boundaries know that this is the whole reason I began writing, so it was a gift to be able to communicate some of that verbally.
I’ve included a link to the audio of the interview, but I also wanted to write down some of what I prepared in writing to prompt me when responding on air. Building bridges, reaching across ethnic, racial, and other divides, communicating across the boundaries that divide us – these are the things that make my heart beat faster and harder. These are the things that motivate me to get up in the morning. I’d love you to listen to the interview (even if I might perhaps maybe definitely hate the sound of my voice in the audio) but if you don’t have time, here are the written responses to some of the questions that were asked.
Raised in a missionary family, Marilyn Gardner spent her childhood and adolescence in Pakistan and raised her five children in Pakistan and Egypt. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she works as a public health nurse with underserved immigrant communities. Marilyn is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and blogs at Communicating Across Boundaries and A Life Overseas. Her new book Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith was released in March of 2017.
- What can you tell us about your book that will help us understand each other better and your journey of faith?
Passages Through Pakistan is about 3 things that are interwoven – being a third culture kid – which essentially means being someone who was raised in a country outside of their passport country for their developmental years – Pakistan, and faith. At the beginning, it was going to be just about living between worlds, but the more I wrote, the more I realized that the other consistent thread through the book is faith.
My parents were Baptist missionaries in the country of Pakistan. They arrived in Pakistan not many years after Pakistan’s birth as a nation and thus, separation from India. They raised five children in Pakistan. Faith was ever-present in our home through prayer, devotions, and decision-making; but it wasn’t only in our home. Equally strong faith with all around us. The call to prayer sounded five times a day, mosques were on every corner, faith was alive and well, despite different truth claims. My childhood experience with faith set the stage for later moving into the Orthodox Church.
- In his poem The Ballad Of East and West, Kipling wrote: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.” What is your experience of living in the East and West? Do you see yourself and your work as a meeting place, a juncture perhaps?*
Kipling does have a great way with words, particularly when talking about East and West.
There is a cartoon that I believe captures the divide between East and West. It’s a cartoon of a fully veiled woman on the left, and a blonde woman in a bikini on the right with sunglasses on. Each of them have bubbles over their heads. The bubble over the blonde’s head is “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated society!” The veiled woman also has a bubble over her head: “Nothing covered but her eyes. What a cruel male-dominated society” This cartoon is so accurate in showing the dangerous stereotypes that are made about both east and west. The problem of course with stereotypes, is that they put people in boxes and don’t let them out.
One of my favorite authors says this about stereotypes. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are incorrect, but that they are incomplete. No one is a single story.” As I speak and write, I am more and more aware of the complexity of human thought and experience, as well as the multiple perspectives that can be seen across almost any subject. I’ve witnessed stereotypes on both sides of the globe, but the more resources we have at our disposal for learning about difference, the more culpable we are if we continue to perpetuate those stereotypes instead of confronting them for what they are.
In the last few years, my work has become a meeting place of sorts, as I have been able to do a lot of work as a public health nurse around cancer screening in the foreign-born Muslim community in greater Boston. This has been a gift and a connecting point between my past and my present. But our home in Cambridge was a meeting place way before my work became one. At a recent Thanksgiving meal, our home was full of people from many different countries, and as I observed a Syrian and an Israeli communicating over tea and pie, I had a deep feeling of gratitude that our home in the United States could be a juncture for people from different places, backgrounds, and faiths to meet.
In all that I do both professionally and personally, I believe with all my heart that how we view the one who is other is an important conversation, and I love having those conversations. The conversations come out in my writing and in my interactions with people from around the world who have made Boston and Cambridge their home.
- What made you write Passages Through Pakistan? Is this a visceral reaction to the current political climate?
I began to write Passages way before this current climate. The first bits of it were written about 8 years ago, and I remember reading a couple of them to my oldest daughter Annie, who is an excellent writer by her own right. It was Annie who didn’t laugh when I said I wanted to start a blog and gave me excellent tips. So I began blogging, but in between blogging I would go back to this idea of writing a memoir about my life in Pakistan. So the fact that it has taken this long to become a book feels providential. I can’t think of a better year for this book to be released so I am thrilled.
- Your love for Pakistan and its culture is something that anyone who has lived in these parts of the world can relate to, and yet there is much to be desired, that it is hard for someone who have never lived there to comprehend. As you are beautifully positioned between worlds how can you help us understand what makes us uncomfortable? Is it our way of perceiving, our own fears that prevent us from connecting?
There is a French philosopher who says the first spontaneous reaction in regard to the stranger is to imagine him as inferior, since he is different from us. Therein, I believe, is your answer. Which is why I think the Holy Scriptures are so full of verses about welcoming the stranger.
When we moved to the United States, I remember having our kids’ friends over for dinner. Often they would see foods they had never seen, much less eaten at our table. Their automatic first reaction to seeing this ‘strange’ food was immediate and strong: “Uuuuhhh! What’s that??” They would look at a dish of spinach curry and immediately assume that this food was not as good as what they were used to. It is the French philosopher’s quote in action. I believe strongly that this is the very first, unfiltered version around the world when any one of us confronts difference in the form of a stranger. Yet, more and more, encountering the stranger is part of our daily life.
Sometimes the encounters are interesting, intriguing, fun, joyful. Other times encounters are troubling, assaulting us with faces, smells, clothes, and accents that exacerbate the differences we feel and make us uncomfortable and fearful. Sometimes those feelings of discomfort spill over into anger or judgment.
But I believe with all my heart that the way we confront difference, the way we treat the stranger, reflects what we believe. If we consider the stranger to be inferior because he or she is different than we’d best ask ourselves ‘why’, best examine our motivation and our heart.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”*
From Genesis to Hebrews to James we have clear instruction and wisdom on how to treat the stranger. The words of Jesus call us to feed the hungry, bring drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, come to the prisoner. The writer of Hebrews asks us to show ‘hospitality to strangers for by it some have entertained angels’. Hospitality holds a high premium in Middle Eastern culture, both now and in Old Testament times. The Bible is not ambiguous in its commands.
Ronald Rohlheiser is a an author who has written profoundly about ‘otherness’ in a book called Sacred Fire. He says this:
We are constantly being overwhelmed by otherness. Nothing is safe for long. More than any previous generation, we are being stretched beyond what is familiar. Often that is painful and disorienting….(p 267) The simple fact is that otherness frightens us and often brings out the worst in us. It is not easy to be comfortable with, at home with, and welcoming to, what is other, different, and often seemingly deviant. (p269)
Ultimately we must move on to face and accept otherness, strangeness, difference, what is foreign. Our survival depends upon it. We can no longer live just among our own. Sooner or later, given that the planet is both limited and round, we will find it impossible to avoid what is foreign to us. What is strange to us will soon enough be part of our neighborhood, our home, our church, and our perspective on things.
Moreover, welcoming what is other and different is in fact, a key biblical challenge… God is defined precisely as “Other”, as what is beyond imagination, outside the realm of the familiar. This is what scripture means when it calls God holy. Biblically holy is not primarily a moral quality but an ontological one—namely, otherness and different from us.
Thus, biblically, we have the tradition within which revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected, in the unfamiliar, in what is different, in the surprise. For this reason the scriptures insist on the importance of welcoming strangers. (p270)
On Fear: I think safety has become something of an idol in the Western world. And I think many make too many decisions based on this. We are slaves to the images and stories we hear on the media, and if we’ve never met someone from Pakistan, or from Syria, or from Afghanistan, or Iraq or Iran, then our default is to cling to what we do know. And what we do know is fear-based. It tells a story of terrorism and Islam and chaos. Our faith must transcend this. We must ask ourselves the question “Does God really love me more than the rest of the world?” I think if we’re honest we think he does. We think we’re his favorites. But there’s no qualifying line in John 3:16. It says “For God SO loved the world.” Not for God so loved Russia. Or For God so loved Greece. Or for God so loved the United States. It’s “the world” and I believe it’s important that we examine our hearts around who we consider to be God’s favorites.
- Finally as a child of a missionary family from Pakistan, you have continued to work in the Middle East, bringing aid and working with the refugees. It seems you are in some way continuing the calling of your parents, would you agree?
You know, for a missionary kid, the word ‘calling’ is loaded. I wrote one time about “calling” and asked the question if it’s in our DNA. I believe that any Christian has one primary call – and that is to God and his church. Beyond that, there are all kinds of creative ways that we exercise our faith. What I do believe is that I have had wonderful, and often unique, opportunities both internationally and in the United States to interact with people who don’t share the same faith, culture, or truth claims that I do. I am grateful that I have had the opportunities to move forward in relationship with many of these people. I don’t know if that’s calling, but it is responding to opportunities that I have been invited into.
- What would you wish to see happening as a result of the publication of your book?
Obviously, I would love it if people read it and the journey of faith resonates with them. I would love for the book to bring honor to Pakistan and the minority Christian community there. I would love for it to be a book that is a bridge-builder, for people who would never pick up a book about Pakistan to pick it up. But I can’t count on any of this. I just know that in God’s incredible grace, he allowed me to begin writing and gave me words that were well-received by others. And so ultimately, I want this to bring honor to God.
- If there is purpose to our lives, what would that be?
I think if every day we know God a little more than the day before and translate that into loving people a fraction more every day, then that’s enough. And that really is possible. I guess if pressed, I want my gravestone to say “She loved God and she loved people.”
*When I sent the audio link to my brothers, my brother Stan responded with this important caveat:
BTW, the quote from Kipling often (usually?) omits the last lines at the end of the poem: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat. But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.” Kipling has very often been accused of being a bigoted colonialist. In fact, when read fully, Kipling is exactly the opposite and gives dignity to every character except those on all sides who are indeed the bigots.
Audio Interview: On Understanding the Differences Between East and West – Marilyn Gardner