Monday, November 1, 2010
When you return from a two-week, twenty-two thousand mile journey, a frequently asked question is “what was your number one take-away?” It’s a good question. The one asking really would like to know. And it would be nice to have a ready answer to this all-too-common query.
But when you are sorting through an avalanche of information, a hurricane of new experience, a tsunami of new friendships and a Wikipedia-sized torrent of language, culture, religion, history and political turmoil to plow through, one has considerable difficulty reducing it all to a single life lesson. I come away wanting to write another book. The publisher would ask for a teaser to place prominently on the cover jacket that will compel a browsing public to purchase the volume, take it home and devour it. That is one tough assignment – better left to the marketing team. So how do you answer in a sentence or two that over-arching, gripping “take away”?
Well, I tried. We sat in a circle around a table in the hotel’s top story conference room, elegant by any standard, and all of us weary not just from the demands of travel and suitcase living, but something we once called “culture shock.” None of us would admit to a vulnerability to the onset of this malady. We buck up. We smile and listen and nod. We observe. We try not to make the expected judgments of the proverbial ugly American. We disguise our fears of exotic infection. We pretend that it is just another ordinary day in the slum or the village or the city streets. But we have been uprooted from all the things that make us comfortable. We have been transplanted into another world where the language is unknown and the traffic is chaos and the clutter creates an ambience of disorder. We recoil at a near miss at the intersection. We gasp at the oncoming, overloaded bus aiming at us head on. We wince at the gutter trash. We want to clean things up. Paint a building or two. Dump the billboard. Rewire the electrical.
And wandering through the maze of the unfamiliar, we see smiles. We hear laughter. The children play and sing and dance. They welcome us. They want to hear our English and engage in conversation. Our cherished assumptions explode, leaving us to re-learn the things we thought we understood. Emotion kicks in. We feel again. Our neat little categories disintegrate. Sadness overcomes us. Then joy blindsides us.
So I made a gallant attempt to express my “take away” to my fellow-sojourners up in that conference room with the high back chairs, chandelier, polished table and broad view of the city lights. It went something like this: “The moments I will remember are those when us tough guys got that choke in the throat; when emotion welled up and made it hard to speak. That’s when I was touched in an unexpected, powerful way.”
Like when Matthew spoke to us all, crowded in a private home, crammed in a living room; a gathering on the occasion of the twenty-third birthday of a promising young man named Rueben who just one year before accidently fell three stories to his death on the concrete below. His still tender mom and dad joined us, along with a gang of others who loved the boy. Friends gathered to remember. We watched a slideshow that captured his too brief life and the sound track added to the grief of loss. A collection of college friends was there, too and included several who did not share the family’s strong Christian faith. Matthew spoke as a seasoned pastor, finding scriptures and challenges that just fit. And then his eyes reddened and his voice cracked as he looked those friends eye-to-eye, scanning from one to the other with compassion. He challenged them. “I don’t want you to miss it,” he said, with a credibility that comes from utter sincerity. “I don’t want you to miss it,” he repeated. We all choked up with him.
And then the afternoon when Pat learned that the little boy named “Job” that his family had sponsored sight unseen from back home in California studied right there in the Hyderabad school where we stood. A computer operator found him in the database, identifying him with a bio and photographs. “That’s him,” Pat declared.
“It’s too late today, but we’ll see if we can track him down tomorrow,” one of the staffers said to Pat.
The following morning as we got ready to visit the campus, Pat told us, “You know it will be OK if we don’t see him.” He tried to convince himself. “Seeing his picture was enough,” he added. “That was too cool. It’ll be OK… either way.”
But what we all knew was how much this twelve-year-old Dalit meant to Pat, his wife and his kids. We all whispered our own prayer: Lord, please, help us find Job today.
We were there as over at the school, Brent walked up with two perky students: Persig (the young girl who plays Kavya in our movie, Not Today) and Job. Brent introduced him to Pat. Pat’s a tough guy. But when he scooped the boy up in his arms, tears in his eyes, he smiled a smile we’ll never forget. Job smiled back.
And then there was John K. who shared his sense of brokenness in our morning session. And John G. teasing and roughing up the boys as they squealed with delight. And Jay H. addressing students lined up in rows all crisp in those uniforms made by women who now have the skills of a seamstress and telling them all that there are no limits to the possibilities of their lives. Jay’s voice caught, choked with emotion. And then when Scott prayed over a staff couple who asked us to petition God that they might soon have their own little baby. These potent moments were take-aways for me.
But as good as all these are, they only begin to give you a sense of what happened those two weeks. To reduce it all to a single take-away may be a time saver, but it does not do justice to our journey into the unfamiliar, where God is doing some of his best work.
And maybe that’s my real take-away.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010