Thursday, March 20, 2008

My Life On Another Planet

Good news for the Charismaniacs! It’s your day!

Yep, see, I’m a Charismaniac too. This doesn’t mean that I yell and scream in services ( I don’t), nor that I’m a “dancer before the Lord” (I’m not) nor that I announce in public “thus saith the Lord” (well, I do this very rarely, but don’t hold it against me, please). The difference between Charismatics and non-Chrarismatics is that the non-Chrarismatic is content with the Bible and their worship services and their ethical standard. The Charismatic is not. The Charismatic wants to see God at work through miracles, power and direct speech. This doesn’t mean that the Charismatic neglects the Bible or ethics—not at all! But they want understanding and life and love directly from God’s power, experienced in their lives.

Now, back to our story. For as long as I have been a Christian, I have believed that God could speak to those who believed in Jesus. Why not? He spoke to the people in the Bible, when He wanted to, so why not now? So I just expected that God would speak to me. Perhaps that was arrogance on my part, assuming that God would WANT to speak to me, but, hey, I was a teenager. Yes, God made the world, but it revolves around ME. Anyway, I knew that if I asked God something, he would answer. So I knew that I was going to participate in missions—cross-cultural ministry in a country not my own. So I contacted a youth missions group called YWAM (the organization my friend and I wanted to join when we were sixteen) and said, “Where are you located?” They sent me a list of all of their bases, all over the world.

So I looked them over and told God—“God, I’m going to one of these places. I’ve chosen either Cyprus, India or Hong Kong. Which one of these do you want me to go to?” I’m sure that God remembered that I was only nineteen and so he didn’t project me into space in millions of unconnected particles. God, quite politely, (probably sniggering behind his omnipotent hand) answered, “India.” So it was decided, I thought. I’m going to India.

Of course, I had no money to do this or any experience of travelling solo outside of Southern California, but my ignorant arrogance knew no bounds. (I haven’t really changed much in this regard, although I consider myself to be less ignorant) I sent an application to Madras, India, and they wrote me back to send it to Calcutta, for they weren’t accepting foreigners. So I sent it to Calcutta so that I might be accepted to their six month discipleship school beginning in July. Meanwhile, I got a passport and asked for funds. Between my church and my father—who, amazingly, and perhaps naively, offered to pay for my airfare to Calcutta—my expenses were taken care of.

I was fully confident that I would be accepted by the school. As July loomed closer, however, my brick wall of assurance began to crack. By the end of June, the holes were big enough to drive a herd of elephants through it. By July 1, the first day of the school in India, I had almost put it out of my mind. Of course, that was the day my letter of acceptance arrived.

I spent about a half hour pacing, attempting to make a decision—I was actually rebuilding my wall of confidence, bricks, mortar and all. By the next day, my mother in tears, I was on a flight to San Francisco to obtain an Indian visa at the Embassy there (they told me it would take a week, but I sat in their office for a full working day and they gave me the visa just to get rid of me), and in less than five days after the letter arrived, I sat in Bangkok, Thailand. The telegram I had sent the folks in Calcutta said that I would arrive on Saturday. But the Calcutta airport was flooded, so I stayed overnight in a plush hotel (airline’s expense!) and slept away my jet lag. The next day I arrived in Dum Dum Airport (yes, that’s really the name of the airport in Calcutta—and they didn’t have a single lollipop!) and waltzed through immigration and customs only to find no one waiting for me.

Well, I figured, maybe they didn’t know when the flight was going to arrive, since it was late. No problem, I will find them. The only address I had was “Mission Compound, Uluberia, West Bengal”. No problem, I just walked up to a taxi and asked, “Can you get me to Uluberia?” He looked at me questioningly, and I repeated “Uluberia” about twenty more times and then he understood. “OK. Yes. OK.” He directed me to put my luggage into the taxi then turned around to confer with the other taxi drivers for about fifteen minutes. After some hand waving and writing of notes, I realized that my chosen taxi driver had no idea where Uluberia was. But it looked like he was getting directions. And sure enough, after about two and a half hours, ten close calls with buses coming from the opposite direction, driving into a dark, mostly deserted town, asking for directions, we arrived.

The mission compound was closed. The tall metal gate was locked and the taxi driver pounded on it. The night guard told us the compound was closed. I said they were expecting me (I hoped) and the guard went in to check. About ten minutes later, I hear a male voice call out in American English, “Are you Steve Kimes?” After spending the minutes trying to discern how I and my luggage were going to spend the night leaning on the gate, I said in relief that I was. “We were just praying for you. We just received your telegram tonight. We thought you were lost in Calcutta.” I said “No problem. I took a taxi.” “A taxi!” he exclaimed. “No one’s taken a taxi from Calcutta to Uluberia before!” I always seem to be first to do things.

After spending a while in Uluberia and Calcutta, I realized that I had not arrived in another country, but another planet. Moments after my arrival at the compound and I mentioned my need to go to the bathroom, I was motioned to a small room with a hole in the floor. I wasn’t sure what to do with that hole, and the bricks on either side didn’t seem to help in sitting on it. Most people there spoke some version of English, except for my roommate who only spoke Napali (being from Napal, I guess that would make sense). Everyone there ate enormous helpings of rice with some amounts of either dal or curry, neither of which I found palatable—okay, it was just about impossible for me to eat, but I learned because I soon found that otherwise my diet would consist exclusively of rice of a quantity that were it water I would have drowned. Desperate for Western food, I scourged Calcutta for months, eating spaghetti that tasted like Chinese food and a “cheeseburger” that consisted of a half-inch slab of strange-tasting cheese between two slices of bread.

Part of my learning process was having my passport and traveler’s cheques stolen. To replace these, I spent more time in Calcutta, dealing with the various bureaucratic institutions of India, from police stations to banks to embassies.

But a huge part of my experience was dealing with the beggars and poor of Calcutta. After spending a bit of time there (outside the airport), it is impossible not to notice the poor. For one thing, if you go there as a Westerner, you can almost see the dollar signs roll up in their eyes like in a cartoon. Once they see you, they won’t let you go. I had one woman follow me for a half mile, yelling something incoherent (to me), then stand outside the place I was eating for a half hour, only to yell at me again when I stepped outside. (Although this was my experience in 1985, my more recent visit to Calcutta was nothing like this). As a beggar, she was “making her own luck” I suppose. And, as an unjust judge of old, I finally gave her something just to get some peace. Don’t be fooled, blackmail works.

But the beggars weren’t the only sign of poverty. Millions of people daily washed themselves and their clothes in public at the water pumps. Of the twelve million people in the city at the time, a million of them lived on the street. Thousands would scour the already picked through piles of garbage on the street. Poverty and homelessness wasn’t just “an issue” in Calcutta, but it was a slap in the face insisting upon attention from every person who lived and visited the city.

For me, though, while I was there, the poverty didn’t stir up wells of compassion that were full to the brim. Poverty was just a problem that I had to deal with quickly, and ignore just as quickly so I could get on with my business, whatever that business happened to be. Dealing with poverty wasn’t a religious deed or dealing with my pangs of guilt—it was a matter of getting it out of my face so I could deal with my real life. Every time I entered Howrah Station (the main train station of Calcutta) I was constantly tempted to take a handful of almost worthless coins and pitch them behind me so that the group of child beggars would just get out of my way and stop touching me, stop staring at me with puppy-dog eyes that quickly turn to knowing glances after money was given.

This isn’t to say I didn’t feel pity at all. That emotion, though rarely experienced, did creep up on me as I heard the Dickensian plight of many of these child beggars: These children were often kidnapped from other cities in India from their parents, to other towns, and young enough that they could not find their way home on their own. They were forced by their captors to beg on the streets, for the cute and pitiable make much money. Should they not bring in enough money that day, they are beaten and not given food. If the children are not wise enough to run away on their own, and their captors realize that they aren’t making as much money as they “should”, then an arm or a leg would be hacked off, in the hopes to make them more “pitiable”. After they are old and ugly enough to not even make enough for themselves to live on, then they are thrown out of their captor’s house, and they beg on their own—too crippled to work, too ignorant to do anything else but beg.

This was told to me to let me know that I shouldn’t give to the child beggars, because the money just goes to these super villain captors. But does this mean I shouldn’t give to the children? Does this mean they should be beaten each night and starved? I said that I just give them money to get them out of my way. My tutor explained the situation to me again, as if I didn’t understand what the money was going to. No, I understood. What he didn’t understand is the difference between us: he was Indian, and not especially wealthy. He was ignorable. I, however, with my white-white hands and blonde hair and blue jeans and French hat—I was the epitome of wealth. These beggars would rarely see such an ideal stereotype of Western wealth. There I was, the god of Rich Boys, incarnated and walking among them and they were damned if I and the salvation I represented just walked by them and ignored their plight.

By the end of the first three months there, my wealth was drained—I had nothing left. Not giving to beggars, mostly, but giving gifts to those of moderate wealth who were my friends at the compound. Giving myself restaurant food, when cheaper food was available. Attempting to gain the passport and money I had lost.

Eventually I traveled to Bangladesh—East Bengal—and learned of their poverty, although I saw little of it. The poverty there wasn’t urban as much as rural, and I stayed mostly in the cities, praying, evangelizing, learning about Islam. We returned to Calcutta and I assisted in an evangelistic campaign. But I mostly had time to think. I thought of much, of the spiritual need of those around me. But I also couldn’t forget the beggars. For some reason, they stuck in my head. They still stick in my head, today.

At the time, as part of my young aspirations, I fancied myself a poet/songwriter. They stunk, of course, and I think I suspected this, for I almost never showed them to anyone. I had done enough reading of Emily Dickenson and T.S. Eliot to know what real poetry sounded like, and I didn’t have the muse’s gift. But just before I left Calcutta, I wrote a song trying to voice what that beggar woman yelling at me was saying:

Don’t turn your eyes from me, don’t turn away
I see the wealth you hide within, share it I pray.
You don’t have to squeeze my hand—you know I am poor.
I only want a little, I don’t ask you for more.
My clothes tattered, my flesh torn, flies fill my face.
You reason I’m unworthy of you—but I need your grace.
Your wealth abounds and begs release, please heal my sore
Your pockets full, yet sown with greed—do you need it more?

Don’t give me pictures from your cameras, movies nor magazines.
You have the life that I need to live. Give me bread, don’t give me jeans.
You turn away from my sadness, but what would Jesus do?
Would he give me dust and say “go away”, or heal me and say “be true”?

Through a customs error (on my part) I ended up spending a week in Delhi that I did not expect. This allowed me with ample time to meditate on my experiences as a young man in India. I thought about wanting to go home, about the differences between home and India, about the warmth and friendship I had experienced. And I thought about the beggars and garbage-pickers in Calcutta. In the Delhi airport, I met a man with a slight Southern accent and a large ten-gallon hat, who felt that it was his right to inform me of how idiotic he felt India was, from how they went to the bathroom, to how the people smelled. I was disgusted and found another seat.
I arrived back home the day after Christmas, after spending my Christmas on three planes. I was glad to come back the day after “present-day” for I don’t think I could have faced the orgy of wrapping paper and greed. I received some few presents—clothes, and some cash. But I realized I wouldn’t receive much, for my gift was going to India. But I don’t think my parents realized what such a gift would mean. It wasn’t just a toy that one plays with a couple days and then casts away. Rather, my experience in India was a jewel covered in rock and mud that required much polishing and scraping to discover the wealth that was truly underneath it.

Being Christmas, the tree was up and trimmed beautifully and huge plates of leftover food was available, as well as candy dished filled with peanut M&Ms (as a treat I would occasionally purchase myself a bar of Cadbury chocolate in Howrah Station). I remembered the years of Christmas’ I had received enormous amounts of gifts, and most of these gifts had been trashed or wasted or ignored. I remembered my extended family and their gorging of food and the fact that the majority of excess weight gained was due just to overeating. That night, as laid on my bed three feet off of the ground, with a padded comforter over me, I turned my well trained righteous prig eye on myself. Remembering the beggars and the garbage-pickers. And I wept.


Michael Coldham-Fussell said...

This I found to be worth reading.

Steve Kimes said...