A Slice of Life – Kurdistan, Volume 2

Oh, the Things We Have Learned….

I’m sitting on my couch, staring out the window at a grey sky. Through the fog I can just make out that the Kewa Rash have a fresh sprinkling of snow. Geese are honking loudly and insistently three floors below me, at what injustice I don’t know, but I am sure it is valid. I hear the music of the gas man in the distance, a strangely melodic tune that plays through loud speakers. He drives through the streets with this son, his small truck full of gas cylinders that we all need to heat our houses and use our stoves.

How I know it is the gas man is proof that I have learned some things in my time here in Kurdistan. We used to hear the truck and the tune and laugh, wondering what the man in the truck was selling. One day in December, I was anxiously waiting my husband’s return home. We had no electricity and we had run out of gas. It was cold and I wanted a cup of tea. I heard the music and looked outside. Down on the street below was the unmistakable shape of gas cylinders. I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast in my life. I took off like the proverbial bat out of hell, flew downstairs and saw my husband coming up the tiled path. “It’s the gas man” I shouted! “That’s the sound of the gas man! Let’s find him!” He was just around the corner and with limited Kurdish we were able to let him know what we needed. With good humor, and more importantly, a gas cylinder that was heavy and full of gas, he marched up our three flights of stairs and we were set for the next month.

There was great rejoicing in our apartment that night. The electricity came on and we had two full cylinders of gas.

It’s the little things that matter in cultural adjustment. You do fine with the big things, but it’s the little ones that make you lose your patience and think that you are incapable of living. For me it’s usually things to do with the house. For Cliff it’s usually things at the office. Thankfully, we are not usually both low at the same time.

Others things we have learned are how to get to the bazaar by mini bus, what to say when we need to get off the mini bus, how to order business cards, where to get keys made, where to get hair cuts, what time the bazaar opens and closes, which vegetable stalls have the best produce, how to get a taxi to take us to the grocery store and wait while we shop, how to catch transportation to the big cities, how to say hello, goodbye, how many children do you have, where do you live, we have five children, we live in Rania, we work at the university, how to buy jili Kurdi (Kurdish clothes) and which kebab place has the best kebabs. This may seem like a short list. Believe me, it is not. One of our sons said to us “Wow, at this stage of your lives, I bet this is really good for you!” I sort of hated that he had seen right into my heart and knew what I was thinking. I am someone who adores my creature comforts. Give me warmth, beauty, and a soft cinnamon roll and I will rule the world. A very comfortable world it would be, full of squishy people. But I digress.

Kurdish Resilience & Hospitality

Kurdish resilience and hospitality are known worldwide, and we have been grateful to experience both while we have been here. The story I wrote on advocacy is a remarkable story that characterizes the resilience that we are privileged to see every day. In terms of hospitality, we have been invited to countless homes and have enjoyed delicious food offered with a generosity that is incomparable. Along with this, we have experienced the generosity and hospitality of help and time. “If you need anything, anything” say our friends “call us!” They mean it.

Dinner invitations are usually no less than four hours, usually six, and often include huge platters of rice, meat, and various stews coupled with small bowls of olives, containers of thick pomegranate syrup, and chopped salads of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Along with this there is always bread. As we are invited into people’s homes we are also invited into their lives as we learn about how many children they have; where they live; who is pregnant; and at least earlier this fall – who they were going to vote for.

Recently we had the privilege of attending our first engagement party. It was held in Qualadze, a city about a half hour over the mountain from where we live. Women and men were separated for the event, so my husband, our son who was visiting, and two friends headed to the men’s section while I held my own in a room full of women of every age, shape, and size. Babies nursed while grandmothers and aunts gossiped. It was amazing. We wore Kurdish clothes to the event and I was grateful for a friend who coached me through the dressing process through a video chat. Both men’s and women’s clothes are beautiful with yards and yards of material. The end result was that I was a glittering vision of gold and fabric. This is my kind of place and these are my kind of women. The more glitter and gold, the better. None of this black is chic stuff for them! Just yesterday I went to Rania bazaar with a friend to buy more fabric and have an outfit made. The fabric stores are visions of color and sparkle – they are amazing.

With our son and our friends after attending an engagement party. See! I told you I was a glittery vision – and you didn’t believe me!

Work

We both have challenges around our work. The challenge of working with a group of students to help them get to Portugal was a great example of the many obstacles that Kurds, and now we, face in daily life. The lessons learned in that five-month long process are similar to what we face daily. It takes great persistence and patience to work within the infrastructure at the university. The strengths are many – a committed president and other leadership, good conversations with students and staff, warm friendships and hot tea daily. The challenges too are many. From getting ink for a printer to trying to get email responses, we glory in what many in the west would see as tiny achievements.

In a conversation with two of my colleagues this week I shook my head and said “You are amazing! You face obstacles and challenges everywhere, but you still move forward and do good work.” I felt myself holding back tears. It is a privilege to work here – even on the no good, very bad, awful, horrible days.

Talk Club

Friday is our day off, and most Fridays we head to Rania Bazaar to meet at a youth center with Kurdish students and others who are interested in improving their English Language skills. We begin with an opening activity and then break into small groups where we respond to a set of previously determined discussion questions. It is usually attended by Kurds in their twenties and we love meeting and interacting with this age group. They are the future of Kurdistan and if Talk Club is any indication, than the future will be strong. These are young men and women who are not afraid to learn, discuss, and share their opinions. They have worked hard at mastering English and they are amazingly smart and incredibly fun. We share a lot of laughter and learn something each week. It’s truly a highlight of our week and we miss it on the weekends when we travel to Erbil.

Miscellaneous

Rania is a small city, and we tend to run into people we know everywhere we go. This familiarity has helped a lot in curbing potential loneliness. While we miss our friends and family members dearly, and think of them in our days and in our dreams, this new community has offered us extraordinary connection and friendship. It comes with laughter, joy, and its fair share of cultural misunderstanding, but we are so grateful.

So there’s your slice of life from Kurdistan! Wherever you are today, may you learn to reach across cultural and communication boundaries – it is absolutely worth it and you will be the better for it.

  • 2nd, 3rd, and final photos are courtesy of Cliff Gardner

Healing Words

Steps souls stronger

In January of 2011, seven and a half years ago, 19 people were shot and six people died in Tucson, Arizona. The target was a U.S. representative, Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head. She survived, but her life will never be the same. The tragedy caused a nation that was hyper focused on how to be as uncivil as possible to each other, particularly in disagreement, to pause and, for a short time, put away the rhetoric.

Barack Obama was president at the time, and he spoke words that were praised across the political spectrum at the Tucson Memorial Service.

Among other things, he said this:

“At a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

I reread these words this morning, and I am again challenged by them.

Words that heal are rare and critically important in moments of tragedy.  But they are just as important in everyday life.  I look around as I walk the streets of my city and I see the “walking wounded”.  I go on social media, and I see more wounds. Yet our default mode is not to speak healing words, but rather words of criticism and disapproval. I’d love to blame just the media for words that wound and criticize, but I know differently.  I am far more guilty than I want to admit. The power of language and the way we put our words together is up to us; the way I put words together and how I use them is up to me.

My faith tradition has strong admonition and warning about the tongue. An entire chapter in the New Testament is devoted to talking about the tongue. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.”  And elsewhere I am exhorted to watch what I say, make sure it is gracious and seasoned with salt. “Let your speech be always full of grace, seasoned with salt.” 

These are sobering challenges for me. Just recently I was called out by someone, and appropriately so. She knows what I believe, and what I believe was not reflected in what I publicly wrote. She held up a mirror to me, and what reflected back was not pretty.

Our world is desperate for healing words. Desperate. Anxiety, depression, and suicide are all on the rise. Public bullying is at an all time high, and we have a plethora of poor public examples and a dearth of good ones in every area of life – whether that be politics or faith.

We can’t change what other people choose to say. But we can change our own words. We can choose to speak words of hope and grace. We can choose to disagree with civility and respect.

We can choose to share words that “make souls stronger”.*

*Ann Voskamp

An East-West Conversation

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“So – your parents chose your husband for you.” 

The women speaking to me was not posing a question; she was making a statement. I took a breath, not sure of how to respond. No, my parents did not choose my husband. Cliff and I met in Chicago and realized after a short time that we wanted to share our lives together. We traveled to Pakistan where he could meet my parents and ask my father for his blessing. He did this on his first night in Pakistan, a country he had never visited, after going into the crowded bazaar with my father. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. After all, I was fully at home in Pakistan and it was deeply satisfying to be back in the country introducing the one who I loved to my parents.

As I think back on the trip and the engagement, I realize how brave Cliff was; how willing he was to move into unknown territory and conquer it. Just days later we celebrated our munganee (engagement) in my parents’ yard in Shikarpur, Pakistan with Sunni, Shia, and Ahmediyya Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. There we served hot, spicy samosas and pakoras and sweet gulab jamuns and barfi. Fragrant garlands of roses and sparkly garlands of money were placed around our necks as we celebrated with a community that had hospitably welcomed my family and the entire missionary community.  It was a celebration to remember.

But I didn’t know how to relay all this to the conservative Muslim woman with whom I was speaking. We shared many similarities – but in this area, our experiences were different.

For as long as I can remember, I have analyzed and thought about both eastern and western traditions as they relate to love, marriage, and friendship. I have often felt the West displays a cultural imperialism and ethnocentric attitude toward some of the values and views of the East, namely arranged marriages and the concepts of extended family and their involvement in one’s life.

An Uncommon Correspondence is a book that is described as an “East-West Conversation on Friendship, Intimacy, and Love”. Anyone who has friendships that span cultural boundaries would not only appreciate, but also inhale this book. I found myself grabbing a pen so I could underline those phrases and paragraphs that put words together in perfect packages, like presents to be unwrapped by my heart and mind.

The book is series of letters written between Ivy George, a professor who is Indian by birth but living and working in the United States and Margaret Masson, an adult third culture kid, also a professor, who lives and works in England. The correspondence spans one year — from 1989 to 1990. While the book is primarily about love and relationships, more specifically a look at romantic love versus arranged marriages, it brings up the many cultural trappings that surround those two areas; values, expectations, and cultural views integral to how they play out. The result is a unique and readable discourse on the dynamics of love and relationships both sides of the globe.

“How deeply we are written by our culture” exclaims Margaret at one point, as she recognizes that just because she can analyze her reaction to her experiences with romantic love doesn’t mean she is free from falling into the cultural “pitfalls” that are part of the package. And later in the same letter: “It seems that neither of our cultures has got it quite right. But I’m sure that each could learn something from the other. Even if it is simply the acknowledgement, the realization that ours is not the only way, that there are alternatives to what our cultures seem to conspire to convince us is the ‘inevitable’ the ‘natural’.”

Ivy left India to study in the United States, partly to escape the pressure and path to an arranged marriage. But as she observes her peers and others in the United States, the concept of romantic love, carefully cultivated in her life through novels and myth, is shattered. She sees the broken pieces scattered through stories and on faces of those she meets. In an early letter to Margaret, Ivy says “While I was horrified at my prospects as a married woman in India, I was disappointed at my prospects as a single woman in the U.S” Ivy’s observations of “dating and mating” as she describes it fill her with anxiety and fear. “Alone as I feel” she says “I am still trying to understand ‘loving and losing’ and the worth of it all. The anxieties are deep, the stakes too high. While I came to the West believing in ‘choice’ for one’s life, I am struck by the absence of it. What’s so different from India? Thinking about it as a Christian sheds little further light on this. I can see the workings of God’s grace perhaps, but little perception of God’s will in these matters. There’s far too much human manipulation….”

As far as opinions on physical contact and touch between the sexes, Ivy learns to greatly appreciate some of the traditions she grew up with in India that stressed no touch until after marriage. “After living in the west so long I can see the importance of this value in my tradition when I see how many hands, lips, bodies, and beds have been shared before one chooses to marry. Surely such serial giving of oneself has an impact on so much of one’s present and future being!”

An area that comes up in the correspondence is close same-sex friendships. Friendships that are not sexual but intimate and life-giving. Both women are concerned that the west has not given enough credence to the importance of intimacy in these friendships. They fear there is no longer any vocabulary for friendships like these in the west; that “all of our longing for intimacy must be focused on a sexual partner”. This is contrasted with the deep and intimate female friendships that Ivy experienced growing up in India.

This book was freeing and I found myself nodding and speaking to it as I would to a person.  It gives words to so much of what I have thought, seen, and felt.

When my friend asked me about who chose my husband, I hadn’t yet read this book. In retrospect I see many similarities between her experience with an arranged marriage and mine. Though I chose my husband, it was critical to us that family be apart of the journey, that Cliff ask for my parents’ blessing, and that we recognize family as central to surviving and thriving in a marriage. It was also important to recognize that part of the way we show love is through commitment and sticking with a person through the awful and the beautiful.

But since that time, I’ve continued to ask these questions: Can we find a better way? Can we develop an approach to love, marriage, and intimacy that transcends both cultures? Because though my heart bends East, I think we can learn from each other.

The book  and my many conversations through the years challenge me to think deeper and wider about love and friendship across oceans and cultures. As Margaret says in the introduction, hearing a different perspective can be disturbing, but it can also be profoundly liberating.

Learning Our Enemy’s Stories

Everyone has a story

“An Irish proverb says, ‘It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.’ We can give shelter to each other by telling stories of what it means to be human, and by listening generously.”*


A few years ago I had a long conversation with a physician. The physician was ethnically Indian, but had moved to the United States, become a citizen, and had built up a primary care practice in a suburb of Boston. She came up to me after I had given a talk on the importance of culture and health care.

She relayed the story of some Brazilian patients that came to her practice. “I didn’t like them” she said. They were noisy, always had a lot of questions, and came to appointments with lots of family members. She would dread it when she looked at her daily schedule and saw that one of these patients was coming. She just knew that visits from these patients would put her behind schedule and cause chaos in her brain and her office.

Then one day, she unexpectedly had a bit more time. She stepped away from her computer and stethoscope and into the realm of human dialogue with a Brazilian woman. This wasn’t the first time she had cared for this patient, but it was the first time that she had asked her about more than her symptoms. She ended up in a conversation about family, about Brazil, and about how the woman came to the United States. Instead of the appointment ending in a sigh of relief that it was over, she found herself reluctant to say goodbye. The next time the patient came, the doctor did the same thing. She ended up learning more of the woman’s story, and then the story of her family. She stopped seeing these patients as a bother, and began seeing them for who they were and the stories they carried.

It wasn’t long before the entire community had learned that this doctor was different. This doctor cared. This doctor liked them. Go to this doctor, they said to each other. She’ll take good care of you.

Our world faces a massive empathy problem, an inability to listen to, much less like, those who see the world differently. The story of this doctor shows that when we take a step back and really listen, really get to know someone, our attitudes can change. It is not the only story like this one. In fact, there are many more that tell of how perceptions and feelings toward people changed, once they heard the story behind the person.

A recent article in the Plough quarterly called Meet a True Story talks about the resurgence in storytelling in the United States. The article begins with these profoundly true words: “Technology feeds our insatiable hunger for stories, but fails to satisfy our need for human connection”

The article goes on to talk about a couple of different storytelling programs that serve to help build empathy. One of these is a program that helps people inhabit another person’s story. The idea is simple: You listen to another person’s story – not with the intent to respond to it, but with the intent to retell it as your own story in first person pronoun. It changes the dialogue completely because in order to do this you have to live in the story of another; often another who you don’t agree with or like.

Dismantling our enemies requires at least three steps: proximity, curiosity, and humility. We must be close enough to listen, curious enough to want to know more than we already do about the other’s story, and humble enough to wonder if perhaps we’ve been wrong about the other all along. If we can….get close enough to hear the story of our enemy, we may be able to subvert the narrative of fear that has controlled us for far too long.

There is a lot of fear in our world. I see and hear the fear every day. It is fear of the other, it is fear that “our way of life”(whatever that may mean) is going, and it is fear that the views of others may hurt our tightly held beliefs.

In the case of the doctor that I relayed above, her life and her practice became richer as a result of her willingness to move from prejudice to really getting to know someone. In really listening to her patient, she began to empathize. When she stopped seeing her Brazilian patients for the chaos she felt they caused, and instead entered into their stories, her attitudes and behavior toward them changed. The last I heard, she had decided to break down a wall in her practice to make more room for family members to come to appointments. She is beloved and trusted in the Brazilian community.

This can be us. If we take a step forward to listening to the story of another, we can learn and grow in respect and love for those who are different from us. We can begin to love the respect the one who is other and love the one who we used to fear. People are more than the views they hold. They are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, friends and co-workers.

As the quote above says, there are three ingredients. We must be close enough to listen, curious enough to want to know more, and humble enough to admit when we might have been wrong. The ingredients are simple, but the work is hard. Can we do it?

If we want to change the current climate, I don’t think we have a choice. 


*From Plough Quarterly “Meet a True Story” – I highly recommend this article. It is excellent and goes much more in depth on what it means to hear and inhabit the story of another.

On East and West (and In Between!)

stereotypes

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

 

Lewiston, Maine – It’s a Good Story

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“The way they play together, the way they get along, that’s the future of our cultures together…” – Coach Mike McGgraw

The story of Lewiston, Maine is a good story. It’s a story of integration and resilience and how a group of refugees and immigrants can revitalize a dying community.

It all began in the late 1990s when Lewiston was a dying city. Historically a mill town, Lewiston had long seen an economic downturn and jobs had vanished like the leaves off a tree in late fall. In 2001 that changed.

An extended family of Somali refugees found Lewiston. They decided it was cheap to live and may be a good place to begin their lives anew, far from the refugee camps that had been their homes for many years. It was a secondary migration from where they had originally been settled. They told other Somalis about the city, stating it was a place with low crime, cheap housing, and decent education. Soon more refugees and immigrants began to arrive from Somalia, Congo, Kenya and more.

It wasn’t all easy. At one point soon after the arrival of the initial group, the mayor wrote a letter to community leaders asking that they discourage others from coming. There was a public outcry to the letter, with community members and supporters rallying around the community and pointing out the gift that they were and could continue to be to a city that badly needed a new face and spirit.

That was around 16 years ago. Today, Lewiston is a picture of what can happen in a community when refugees and immigrants are welcomed and invited to flourish.

By all accounts, most credit the influx of Somalis, Sudanese, Congolese and other immigrants to Lewiston’s successful comeback. Businesses have sprung up, adult education classes are booming, but nothing represents this community more than their champion soccer team.

The change to the team began when a group of teenagers from the community approached the coach and asked about the soccer team. They assured him that they could play, and that they would play and make the team good. In 2015 the soccer team won the state championship and were ranked as high as 17th in the entire nation.

The story of the soccer team has been filmed and is a poignant picture of a group of kids coming together, playing above the fray of national politics and national and local prejudice. It is a good story to remember during a year when good stories are difficult to find.

Changing demographics and communities makes for hard work. It is hard on the newcomers, and it is hard on the old timers. It requires far more than mere tolerance; instead it requires first identifying, and then challenging our own cultural assumptions. It asks that we look at our own values and beliefs, and commit to communicating across those boundaries. It has taken a lot of time, but Lewiston, Maine can teach us much about what this change looks like, and how to continue the hard work of communicating across boundaries in order to make our communities stronger.

When asked about the team, one of the coaches said that though his own background is far from the refugee camps of East Africa, it doesn’t matter. The players bring something to the field that transcends geography.


On Thursday night, I will have the privilege of speaking at a conference in Lewiston and I am honored. I’ll be writing more about this, but for right now take a look at this short film.

Caution and Compassion: A False Choice

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On Saturday night, my husband and I sat in the small kitchen of an apartment in a nearby city. This apartment is now ‘home’ to seven refugees – all young men. The apartment is heated solely by electricity, an expensive option in our cold northeast winters. All of the appliances are also electric. The electricity was turned off four days before, so we sat, shivering, around a table. Today, the electricicity is still off and we are doing whatever we can to get it turned on. “Whatever we can” has turned out to be far more complicated than it should be.

This is a short story in a much bigger tale of displacement and resettlement. It is an easy story compared to much of what we have heard and seen, but it is still a difficult one.

Refugees have become pawns and scapegoats in a political game, instead of human beings, desperate for safety and refuge. This should not be a partisan issue, this should be a human issue.

Communicating Across Boundaries is not, and never will be, a political blog. It is a blog about communicating across our comfortable borders and boundaries and being willing to see the other side, to hear another’s point of view.

But I think when it comes to the recent refugee order, we are being played by master players. There is room for common ground on most issues, only it is hard to find that common ground when our emotions run high and we see the issue as black and white. Caution and compassion are not incompatible; instead it is reasonable to assume that they work well together.

“This is the awfulness of what has happened this weekend: Trump has exposed his authoritarian streak, and the left has exposed its inability to oppose such authoritarianism in a real, connecting, positive way. We have the theatre of Trump’s strongman act, and the hysteria of a radical take on the politics of fear. Between theatre and hysteria, there has got to be something else: reason, perhaps, and principle, and a true, fear-free moral case for liberty.” – Brendan O’Neill in Spiked*

In the interest of finding common ground on an issue I care deeply about, I have posed a few areas where I hope we can agree.

  1. We can agree that there is a crisis. The number of refugees has become a humanitarian crisis. This is why the United States increased their capacity last year – because UNHCR and other humanitarian aid organizations begged for countries to help. “An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.”
  2. We can agree that governments are tasked with protecting their citizens. Every country has the right to make laws and rules. Every country has a right to vetting policies that take into consideration safety and security.
  3. We can agree that immigration policies have been in crisis for a long time. The immigration policies in the United States have been failing the country for many years. This is not new and it is a travesty that this has not been resolved by law makers. President Obama was known by immigration groups as the “Deporter in Chief.” “Between 2009 and 2015 his administration has removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders, which doesn’t include the number of people who “self-deported” or were turned away and/or returned to their home country at the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).” [Source: ABC News] Real people suffer under poor policies. As an independent voter, I am disturbed that lawmakers spent time and money on bathroom bills, all the while ignoring immigration reform which laid the ground work for what we are experiencing today.
  4. We can agree that good policy must be a compromise. Good policy rarely comes out of reactionary hyperbole. Good policy comes when people sit down and look at facts: risk versus value. Good policy comes when both sides of an issue are heard and both sides are willing to compromise.
  5. Finally, we can agree that the state is not the master of the church. If you are part of a faith community the recent orders do not prohibit you and your faith community from reaching out to those who may be affected. They do not prohibit you from reaching out, in love, to refugees in your midst. It is a lot easier to wear a sign and yell “Let them in!” than it is to make a hot meal and take it to strangers. We must be willing to do more than react emotionally. We must be willing to put our loudly voiced newsfeeds into real action.

I have so much more to say – but I fear that I will join the echo chamber if I keep on talking. Thank you for listening. 

I end with this quote: “The ability to love refugees well doesn’t require a certain party affiliation. It doesn’t require you to vote a certain way. But it does require us to show up, to step across “enemy” lines, and to choose love over fear.”

I have included this quote from an excellent article from Preemptive Love: President Trump’s Refugee Order: 5 Things to Know

Vetting and compassion are not mutually exclusive.

Sometimes we get locked into strident, polarizing positions, as if our only choice is between opening our border completely in the name of love, or locking everyone out in the name of security.  

Let us be clear: this is a false choice.

You can care about refugees and care about securing our borders. This is not a “liberal vs. conservative” issue. It’s not a “Republican vs. Democrat” issue. It’s not all black-and-white. There are shades of gray.

There are entirely legitimate reasons to insist on a careful, thorough screening process for those coming into the United States. Insisting on adequate security does not make you a “cold-hearted conservative.” Nor does insisting on compassion for refugees make someone a “bleeding-heart liberal.”  

More importantly, we need to see beyond the dualistic, mutually exclusive categories of “us vs. them.” Our security versus their well-being.

What if, in reality, our well-being is tied up in theirs? What if our security is connected to theirs?

If that is the case, then we must find ways to pursue our mutual well being. And sometimes, that requires taking risks. See the entire article here

[*Source: Brendan O’Neill]