February 8, 2012 / Creative Writing
Vic Sizemore reviews Robert Clark’s latest novel, Heaven, which tracks the love affair between two men during the heyday of the American dream.
August 8, 2005
In the year 2005 our world was no stranger to deep tragedy. Tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tropical storms, war, and the AIDS pandemic devastated countries resulting in loss of life and livelihood. The ones who were already vulnerable were made more so because of such unexplainable acts of God. Children who already lived in poverty lost their parents. Men, who daily struggled with nets to fish the ocean and eke out a living, lost those nets, their boats and even their courage to face a fickle sea. The poor became poorer, the exploited were left wide open for further exploitation, and we are left to ask some difficult questions.
Not difficult questions like: Where is God? Or, if God is good, how can He allow such horrible things to happen? And, why do such catastrophic events always seem to happen to the poor, leaving them even poorer?
Instead we are left to ask more personal, even more difficult questions like: What does this catastrophe reveal in me? And, where do I fit into this tragedy?
It’s Christmas time now, a time when the world unites and we are on our best behavior. We give money to poor children so they will have gifts under a tree, donate blankets so homeless men can stay warm at night, or we might even serve up a turkey dinner at a local shelter to battered women or recovering addicts. At this festive time of year we’re reminded to find the good in others. We receive holiday cards calling for peace on earth printed on recycled paper and are urged by made for T.V. specials to be thankful for family and friends.
I, like most of us, try doing all of these things, or at least at some level feel compelled to do them. I desire to make a difference, make my dent in humanity at this point in history that is both healing and fulfilling.
A few short months ago I stood and worked on the streets of Calcutta, India. Calcutta is a city of an estimated 23 million people. Crowded streets, packed buses, overflowing metros are an overwhelming characteristic of this city. As are the gray and crumbling buildings that once boasted the affluence of the British Empire. Calcutta was the capitol of British India and the gem of Southeast Asia. Today she smells a bit rotten, like she was overcooked or left to sit out too long at an empty dinner table. Her children run barefoot, her women are mostly forgotten, and she is the last place on earth where rickshaw pulling by human beings is legal. I stood and walked and breathed the length and breadth of this city and wondered what good I could do here when I heard a whisper: Seek first my Kingdom.
When Jesus was born His parents took Him to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer Him to God (Luke 2:22-32.) There was also a man named Simeon who loved God. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and was “looking for the consolation of Israel.” It had been revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had seen God’s Messiah. The Messiah would usher in God’s Kingdom and offer salvation to Israel, and ultimately to the world.
And so, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus came to the temple and Luke says that Simeon also came in the Spirit to the Temple. He took this 7-day-old infant in his arms and blessed God and said: Now I can die, I’ve seen the Kingdom of God.
Not only did Simeon see the Kingdom, but he also took it into his arms and held it. I imagine Simeon holding that baby like I would hold one, cuddling it up close to my neck, kissing its forehead, and believing that I’d never seen such a beautiful baby.
I wasn’t holding a soft cuddly baby, though. I was living in a city with sweltering heat, fighting a parasite, and attempting to ignore the dirt, when I hear a whisper to seek the Kingdom and I wonder how to do it. How does a white woman like me look past the leers of men who grab me on the street in order to find the Kingdom? How does a privileged white woman like myself forget her affluence long enough to sit on a Calcutta sidewalk with a street woman and find the Kingdom? How does an educated privileged white woman like me lose all she thinks she knows in order to hold the hand of an elderly demented abandoned woman in order to find the Kingdom?
Calcutta is also the city of Mother Teresa who founded an order of nuns and monks called the Brothers and Sisters of Charity (Missionaries of Charity.) This group of men and women take a vow of poverty in order to “serve Jesus among the poorest of the poor.” I worked in a home run by these Sisters called Shanti Dan. In India, mentally ill men or women are generally abandoned and left to die on the streets. Shanti Dan is a place where women with mental illness can live in safety and be fed, clothed, and cared for as long as they live.
At Shanti Dan I met a woman who was visibly mentally ill. She would sit in a hunched position most of the time, bobbing her body back and forth, biting her fingers. She couldn’t speak, but would mutter the word: mommy. Since the Bengali word for mother isn’t mommy, she wasn’t calling her own mother. Instead, it became her name.
I learned part of her story included giving birth to a baby in January. She had been living on the streets and someone took advantage of her mental state and the reality that she would not be able to tell anyone she’d been raped. There was no one to tell anyway. She was alone on the street. I can only guess that this was not the first time she’d been sexually exploited, but this occasion had resulted in the conception of a child. The baby was put up for adoption and there wasn’t any indication that she knew she’d had a child.
My heart broke for this woman. Because she was mentally disabled, she was abandoned. Because she was abandoned and mentally disabled, she was exploited beyond anything I could imagine.
From time to time the Sisters would turn on music at Shanti Dan. When they did, Mommy would stand and place her legs in almost a running position and bob from left to right foot, dancing. She’d moan with the music, singing. And I thought: what did she find in those moments? Was it merely joy, or was she holding the Kingdom?
The Kingdom in the song and dance of a mental patient in Calcutta? I guess I thought the Kingdom would shine more brightly, smell better, and be less crowded. In the Kingdom I thought people wouldn’t let their children sleep on the street because they owned a mansion just over the hilltop. Streets would be paved with gold, not strewn with garbage, and Peter would stand at the Pearly Gates only letting in those who belonged. They certainly would not be creepy Indian men.
And when I heard that whisper beckoning me to seek the Kingdom, I whispered back: how can I when I daily feel like I’m literally dragging myself from the small house where I live, to a rickety, crowded bus, to Shanti Dan, and then back to the house and a cold shower, after which I drag myself to a thin sleeping mat, and in between these stops I witness poverty, deformities, filth, smells, and abandonment. I struggled with learning Bengali. And me, dragging myself, dragging myself because I thought I should come and make my mark, make a difference. Because I believed in this “mission,” because I had a vision for the oppressed and exploited.
Still I heard a whisper: Seek my Kingdom.
Is the Kingdom in the faces of sedated, deserted women? Or is it in the uncertain steps of a girl who rarely moves, but loves to dance? Can it appear in the smiles of widows happy to hold my hand, in the bright red nail polish I applied to dirty hands of women who are missing fingers?
It was one of the things they loved best, to have their fingernails painted. From the moment we would enter the home they would begin asking: Auntie, nail polish? And so, I would sit and paint hand after hand, sometimes toes too. They had a variety of colors to choose from, but they liked red best. Lal, they call it. Bengali for red. It’s applied thick like blood, and I began to wonder if it was the color of the Kingdom, bright Christmas red nail polish.
Another day at Shanti Dan I slipped on a wet step and scraped my hand. The women laughed at “Auntie,” and rushed to tell the Sister about my accident. I was sent to Sister Olga to get cleaned up and bandaged. She put iodine on my scrape, which tightened and stung the scrape. I blew on the cut to cool the sting when an old woman named Roxana who always spoke nonsense took my hand in her own with its red finger nails, and began to blow on it for me. In the Bible the Holy Spirit sometimes manifests Himself in a wind or a breeze. At Shanti Dan He was the cool breath of an old woman with painted fingernails, the Kingdom breeze blowing across my pain.
It’s Christmas and the end of a year, a year riddled with global tragedy, tragedies I found written on the faces of women I grew to love, to hold, and in those faces I knew I’d never seen such beauty. And in their smiles, in their laughter, in their dirty hands that filled my own I found I belonged. I belonged not because I was poor or because I was rich, but because I was a woman who could feel their pain and recognized that it was not unlike my own.
I am an educated privileged white woman who believes that in belonging to the Kingdom of God I should care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien. At least, I did believe that. I once believed it was my responsibility and yes, my obligation, to care for those who had less than I did, to remember the forgotten. But in Calcutta I did not find and hold the Kingdom by fulfilling a Christian duty. I found and held and belonged to the Kingdom by becoming a part of it, by entering into it.
Simeon didn’t only hold and cuddle a promised Messiah, the Kingdom of God. He held the One who became just like us. That One lost His home, His father, His safety until He was nothing but a man.
One sweaty Sunday in Calcutta we walked to church and past a man with leprosy. He had no arms past elbows or legs past knees. These stumps were bandaged and as I turned to smile at him, he put his white gauzed stumps together in front of his face and smiled back. The pain of his disease and the shame he faced at not only being a leper, but a beggar as well, seared into my heart. I was struck with the picture of this man as Christ. When Jesus took on humanity it must have looked like this man; God becoming man was like me becoming a begging leper.
The King of this Kingdom I seek was a man despised, rejected, and diseased. He knew betrayal and abandonment. He was shamed, hungry, thirsty, and alone. In Calcutta I was weak, dependent, scared, lost and alone. At least, I’d like to believe that it was only while I was in Calcutta that I was weak, dependent, scared, lost, and alone. The truth is, I find myself feeling weak, dependent, scared, lost, and alone no matter where I am or whom I am with in the world.
Liberation theologians like to talk about solidarity and while I may not agree completely with their theology, I do find myself thinking again and again that it is in solidarity where we find the Kingdom. Human solidarity requires a like-minded thinking on our part. It means believing that I am no better than anyone else is. It is remembering that all humanity is frail and sits warily on an egg shell of emotions and stories that begin to look not unlike another human in Africa suffering from AIDS or in New Orleans who lost their home. We are men and women who at a very soul level know what loss is and live with a longing to belong.
And here is our opening to the Kingdom. Here is where we forget who or what we are and become like children in order to reach out to each other and see the Kingdom of God draw near. This is what happened when the Christ of Christmas was born and the Kingdom of God appeared.
I struggle now in the U.S. to still live at this place in the Kingdom, but for this day, I hope I do. I hope I remember the feel of a cool breeze on a cut so that in a small way I can reach towards another in their pain and offer not just a touch of human solidarity, but also hope. Because the Kingdom of God is not only about being in a place where we all stand equally, it’s about being in the place of salvation.
And when I remember this place of salvation, the Kingdom where I belong, I pick up a bottle of thick red nail polish and paint my toes the color of the Kingdom.
April Folkertsma is a writer and social worker who works in Calcutta, India with women and children who are struggling to escape the reach of prostitution.