Friday, December 23, 2011

Children, part 3: Beggars

I was waiting at the train station a few nights ago and was approached at various points by children who were begging.  I hadn't eaten dinner and had walked I'm not sure how many miles that day, so I was trying to buy a little something to munch on.  I first bought a tangerine and it was at that point that some kids started following me.  Next I bought samosas and I bought a couple extra to give to the kids staring at me. They followed me and a few more materialized as I bought some cookies, but I didn't buy any for them.  My thoughts wavered between the warnings I'd been given not to give to beggars and something I'd read about how Mother Teresa always carried food (and I think some money, too), so that she could always give to anyone who approached her.  I am no Mother Teresa, I can assure you; in fact, during the day I was rather nasty at various points to people I encountered trying to sell me this or that or convince me to ride in their rickshaws.  However, in the station my eyes and heart could not ignore the young faces before me, so my feeble attempt to relieve the ache in my heart was to buy two extra samosas.  The ache remained.

I then proceeded to my platform to wait for the train.  There didn't seem to be any beggars except along the first platform, which I had left. My train was late (only by a couple hours, which is pretty good, given that some trains are 6, 8, 12, even over 24 hours late here, especially this time of year when dense fog is a big problem), so I was standing on the platform longer that expected.  I was in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and waiting for the same train was a young American couple, who came to India for a wedding and were also doing some sightseeing.  The woman had been to Europe; the man had never been out of the U.S. before.  India was quite a culture shock for both of them. The man, in particular, seemed quite frustrated with the dirt, poverty, and difficulties he'd encountered, more, I think, because of his own discomfort than because some people have to live such harsh realities every day. Of course, I've had my own such times, so who am I to judge him...?

As we stood there chatting, the kids showed up again, one or two at a time, to beg.  The man was clearly getting angry with their persistent presence.  Using a little of my Hindi, I tried to tell the kids assertively, but not angrily, to go.  One boy remained and I put my hand gently on his head, looked him straight in the eyes and said, "I have nothing for you, but my real wish is for you to have an education, so that you wouldn't have to be here begging."  Of course, he didn't understand my words, but I felt the need to let him know that I knew he was there and a real person, even if he didn't know what I was saying. Eventually he left.  My heart ached for him and for the others there without, as far as I could tell, any adult supervision, though maybe there was someone out of sight the kids were begging for.  Who knows?

As I continued talking to the couple, I found out that the woman is a music teacher in a school for kids with learning disabilities.  I told her about my teaching, both in the U.S. and in India.  As we talked about our students, I kept looking at the dirty kids begging at the train station: the kids who were probably old enough to be in kindergarten through maybe fourth or fifth grade and the little toddler boy with them with only a sweater on, no pants, no shoes. Besides the life they were born into, were these kids different from those I've taught or the woman teaches? For awhile the station kids were huddled together spinning a few of the coins they'd been given, laughing and having fun.  The difference between their begging and the child who begs her mom for a particular snack or his dad for some toy is that the station children are asking something of strangers, not of people who know and love them.  Would we be angry at our own children if they were telling us they were hungry and were asking us for food?  I doubt it.

Yes, the station kids' begging could be seen as annoying, but it shames me even to use the word "annoying," as it implies that the children themselves are the problem, when the real problems are the inaccessibility of food, water, clothing, shelter, and education.  If the children's needs were met, would they be at the station? Anger is an appropriate response.  Anger directed towards the children is misplaced. Much easier, but misplaced. 

I stood there wondering what else I can do to make another tiny dent in the mammoth structure called "Injustice." I don't yet have an answer, but I'm glad that most of my time in India was spent hammering at that structure and I'd glad I lived with and met so many SCNs and other people who have made hammering their life work.  I'm glad I've been here long enough to understand a little bit about some people's lives here, though I have a long way to go in my learning, I know. Otherwise, I might feel the same misplaced anger and/or condescension that I saw in the man.

Our train finally came.  The couple went off to find their train car and I to find mine.  Right before I got on the train, I saw the little boy I'd spoken to in English, found the last few cookies I hadn't eaten, and gave them to him.  Still a woefully inadequate response, but maybe it means that that night, he had to beg from one less person...

My greatest wish for this Christmas is that no more children be born into a life of begging.  My wish for myself is that I become more aware of people's needs, so that I may give more freely from my abundance.  My wish for us all is that the Advent season of waiting and preparation that is ending leads us to experience and share the gratitude, joy, generosity, and peace of this Christmas season.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Children, part 2: Stuff

Each day when I went to Chetna Bharati in Chatra, I'd bring a few toys and other props for class: my cell phone, sunglasses, a bracelet, and some funny pictures like a purple dog, a cow with earrings, and others. Finn and Lightning, the two cars who have been featured in some photos in earlier posts (and will be featured in the future!) also came with me. The sunglasses were quite popular, as I taught the girls that the one wearing them must stick her thumb up and say, "Keeeeewwwwweeelllll."

Most recently, I brought some of my clothes, since we were practicing the words " put on," "take off," and " wear." We had some good laughs as the small girls put on one of my T-shirts or skirts over their own clothes. The T-shirts came down to their knees and the pants and skirts had to be held up. Quite a sight to see!!  I can't think of another class I've ever taught in which I would feel comfortable handing my jewelry, my clothes, or my phone over to kids.  Generally, in my classes, if I have something to pass around, I closely monitor kids as  they pass things.  With my girls (yes, I have claimed them as "my" girls) as they asked "Please may I have ____," I'd hand the requested item over and then move onto the next girl who asked for a different item. Often after distributing things, I'd have them stand up and  go to each other to ask in English for whatever item they may want. Those conversation times were organized chaos, with all girls up and moving, and, to my great delight, speaking in English.  When it was time to stop, I collected the items back and never, not once, was anything missing nor did anything come back damaged. The girls always returned  everything without hesitation.

There is one little boy, maybe 3 years old, who was orphaned a year ago. Each day when I arrived, he greeted me excitedly. Before class began, I used to ask him, "Do you want the blue car or the red car?" He would think hard for a minute about this important decision and then make his choice.  Towards the end of my time, when I'd arrive he'd say in his sweet little voice, "I want blue car red car." We didn't quite master "and." He played with the cars and at break time brought them back to me. After break, he took them again and played until the end of class and then, without me having to say a word, brought the cars back to me.

I visited another branch of Chetna Bharati a month or so ago. All girls live there, too. I had put my small foam ball and, ever faithful to the promise to my nephews to take Lightning and Finn everywhere I went, the two cars in my back pack. Like at Hunterganj weeks before, I played catch with the girls and later gave the ball to them to play with for awhile. I also took out the cars for them to play with.  As far as I could tell, there was not a single toy where they lived besides those 3 items I brought.  The girls went off to play and came back later pulling the cars by strings they'd tied around them. Like my girls in Chatra, when it was time to stop playing, there was no arguing. They handed me the toys and moved on.

When I originally wrote this, it was Black Friday in the States. People were buying all sorts of things they and/or their loved ones probably didn't need. It is a stark contrast to these girls and little boy who have every right to want stuff they don't have and yet as far as I can tell, they don't complain about their lack of things and they are absolutely respectful of mine, things they may never have in their life.  They enjoyed holding, using, or trading those things while I was there, but easily gave them back when it was time to. Without toys, they still played and had fun. They didn't seem to be too attached  to stuff.

They are attached to people. They cried when the novices left them in November. We cried together when I left Chatra a few days ago. After the SCNs I lived with, I spent the most time with the girls at Chetna Bharati.

When I think about my houseful of stuff in the States, I think Hindi may not be the only thing I can learn from my girls. I hope that I can let go of some of my well-ingrained American attachment to stuff, buying less and giving more easily. Because both consumerism and materialism are deeply imbedded in my being, I have a long way to go on the path away from them, but I think the example of my girls will help me take a few more steps in the right direction: towards people and away from so much stuff.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sisters of Charity of Nazareth

Since I've spent the last 3 months living with eight Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and two candidates and since this past weekend kicked off the celebration of the SCN becentennial, it seems only appropriate to dedicate a post to these amazing women. 

I'm not sure what it was that prompted me to ask an SCN friend of mine about the possibility of working with them in India, but I am so glad I did.  Honestly, I didn't know much about SCNs, but knew they worked in India and knew that the ones I did know were impressive women.  When I told a friend from another congregation about my interest in going to India, she gave me information about her order's missions in India, but I never pursued it, confident for reasons I still don't understand that it was the SCNs I would be working with.  Obviously I made it here and couldn't be more pleased about it.

"O daughters of Catherine, simple and free,
Pioneer women, we are called to be,
With the love of Christ, urging us on"

The above words are the refrain of a song we often sing during evening prayer, based on the SCN mission and charism.  I can say that the words accurately reflect my experience with the SCNs here.

Pioneer women.  As I've been writing my blog posts, I've mentioned no one by name, unless I've quoted a song or text.  I've thought about mentioning this person or that, but in the end decided to simply describe them.  As I write this post, it seems appropriate to break that trend and say something about Sister Ann Roberta, one of the six SCN pioneers to leave the U.S. in 1947 to come to India.  Incidentally, the day I began writing this, December 5, was her birthday.  When she left her home in 1947, she did so thinking she'd never see American soil again.  That was the commitment she and the others made.  I'll be away from home about 9 months and I communicate often with family and friends.  I can't imagine making the decision to leave permanently to go to a land about which I know very little without any means of regular communication.  That is true commiment.  As it turns out, she has gotten to go back to the States to visit, but India is and will remain her home.

There is something so compelling about Sister Ann Roberta.  She exudes peacefulness and joy.  I have gotten to be around her on numerous occasions.  She lives in Gaya, a place that we have passed through numerous times going to and from Mokama and Patna.  We also visited Gaya for Diwali.  When we arrive, she is always there to greet us with a warm smile and hug.  She sits with us as we drink tea and eat our tiffin, always offering us whatever is in the house to eat (true of all SCN houses I've visited).  She has a keen memory and is a wonderful storyteller.  I could listen to her for hours.  She also has a wonderful sense of humor, sharing that lightness with those around her.  I asked to take a picture with her one time and afterwards showed it to her.  Her response was something like, "When I see pictures of myself, I always wonder, 'Who is that old woman?'"  She may be old in body, but not in spirit. Her smile and laughter radiate from deep within.

That joyfulness is a quality I have experienced with so many SCNs.  It has been a long time since I've lived with others and it's not always easy here to share space.  I think living in community is challenging for anyone, though.  In community meetings in Chatra, discussions sometimes get heated.  But then a compromise is reached or a decision is made, the meeting ends, and everyone is cutting up and laughing.  Laughter comes easily.  Like I have observed with children in various places, with the SCNs, work does not seem to be dull drudgery, perhaps because it is shared work.  The work itself may not be interesting, but the company shared in doing it makes it fun!

And let me talk about the work they are doing.  In the compound in Chatra, we (I know I'm not an SCN, but I'm still working with them for a few more days!) are serving about 2000 children in the 3 schools.  Yes, there are other lay teachers and staff, but the SCNs provide leadership and are at the heart of everything that happens on campus.  Ninety or so of the girls attending the schools live on campus in a hostel.  At least in these parts, it is very common for children (as young as kindergarten age) to go to another town and live in a hostel so they have a chance at a good education.  One of the young SCNs here is in charge of the hostel girls. 

Last week during the community meeting, there was a discussion about a proposal brought to the house for 40-50 more girls to come live on campus for another educational program.  Some money would be given to support them, but the SCNs would ultimately be responsible for the girls' well-being on campus.  My first thought was, "No possible way.  Everyone (except me) already has such a full plate." The SCN response was, "How could we not help these girls get an education?  What do we need to do to make this happen?"  The love of Christ is certainly urging them to see not limits, but possibilities.  Currently, preparations are being made so the girls can come.

I have seen numerous large events- the feast day celebration, a fair, two Annual Day programs, and a Sports Day program all come together as if there were many more people making them happen.  Everyone puts in whatever work needs to be done to make them successful.  I've helped a little with the events, but have not put in the long hours of labor before and after than everyone else in the house has.  I can at least say I've taken some good photographs of the events, though, and was the "official photographer" of Sports Day.  That was fun!

Also in Chatra is Chetna Bharati, where girls and boys get a rudimentary education and with it, the possibility of more formal schooling. Self-help groups, women's groups, trainings and workshops on various topics, and many other projects also come from Chetna Bharati's tireless work towards a more just world.  From here the unjust systems at work are challenged.  Actually, it might be more accurate to say that unjust systems are explained to those who are being denied their rights, so that they can stand up and speak for themselves.  It's all about empowerment.

These are examples of only a few of the many ministries of the SCNs in India.  Their work also includes work in hospitals, work with persons affected by leprosy and polio, work with children of sex workers, and many others.  A number of you have said very kind things to me about my presence here, and I thank you for your support, but I have to say that my short-term and rather relaxed commitment is nothing compared to the work these women have committed their lives to do.  I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with them and learn from them.

I'll also say that as my time is almost over, I am encouraged to have heard the words, "the next time you come..." several times while I was in Mokama last weekend.  I hope with all my heart that there will be many next times for me with the SCNs here.  I am certain my relationship with them will continue and, as with any new relationship, I look forward to seeing how it will continue to develop.   

Saturday, December 3, 2011

What's in a day? Part 2

I've described the first half of the day; now let me continue...

1:45- I walk to Chetna Bharati. It's about a 10-minute walk, through the compound where I live, then up the road, then along a narrow path. During my walk, I pass multiple cows, maybe some goats or a pig. I always receive unwanted stares from others walking along the road or from people in passing vehicles. There isn't another foreigner for many miles around, so sometimes people gawk. My presence has even been the subject of several articles in local newspapers, some more accurate than others. I have copies of 5 of them. I know there are at least 2 more where I am either talked about or in a picture. Who would've thought?

Anyway, when I arrive at Chetna Bharati, I am greeted with even greater enthusiasm than when I walk to school in the morning. "Good afternoon, didi (the affectionate word for sister)!"  The girls are often finishing lunch when I get there, so my arrival prompts a flurry of activity as girls finish eating, wash their plates, and come up to class.

The girls living and studying at Chetna Bharati are grouped according to ability: there are red, yellow, and green groups.  I teach the girls in the green group.  They range in age from, I'd guess 7 or 8 to maybe 14. I haven't taught them what in the U.S. would be a normal introductory question: How old are you? Most do not know their age, nor do they know their birthdays. When they were enrolled in the program, if these facts were unknown, their ages were estimated and each was given a "birthdate."  I was talking to someone here about birthdays and was told that celebrating birthdays is a fairly new thing in India because community has always been more important than individuals.  I know there was more explanation given, but that's all I remember.

2:00- Class starts with the ringing of the bell, again a metal disk that is hit. I greet the girls and ask, "How are you?" Most now answer, "I am fine, thank you," but some enthusiastically say, "I am thank you," which I then correct. Incidentally, I have recently taught them other words to answer this question, so after the rote group response, I ask individuals the same question. "Happy" is a common response, especially because I ask a follow-up question like "Do you want to dance or jump?" (Those are thing I might do if I'm happy.) After they answer, they get to do that action.   For a laugh, someone may answer, "I am sick," which prompts me to ask, "Are you very sick?" If the answer is yes, then there is a vomiting gesture made by the "sick" girl, causing great merriment for all.  If someone answers hungry, the follow-up is something like "Do you want to eat an elephant?" The whole class, 2 hours long, goes like this. Lots of laughter, lots of movement, as they act out vocabulary or stand and practice new questions and answers with each other. I've also taught them Simon Says and Mother May I?, both of which are wildly popular, especially when I let them play the part of Simon or Mother. We sing, too, the most recent song being BINGO. I'm sure the teacher next door is not too happy with all the noise we make, and I do try to quiet the girls down sometimes, but honestly I don't want to dampen their joyful spirits or enthusiasm for learning. As far as I'm concerned, if their noise is in English, it's fine by me! I have only had to be stern with the whole group twice over my three months and rarely do I have to say anything to individuals about their behavior.

3:00  There is a 5-minute break in the middle of class, and we often don't even realize an hour has gone by until the other groups walk through (they have to go through our room to get to/from theirs). Those who want a break go and come back quickly. Many choose not to go and will check out whatever I may be getting out of my basket for the second half of class.The second hour goes equally fast.

I have to say the two hours at Chetna Bharati are usually the best hours of my day. I am continuously amazed and crazily proud of how much English the girls have learned. I'm told that my teaching-style is quite different from the average Indian teacher. Knowing that some of my girls will get the opportunity for further schooling, I only hope their enthusiasm for learning is not squelched by more conventional teaching styles.  My results have been so positive that I was asked to lead several teacher trainings while I've been here, an unexpected and wonderful honor.  I have also been observed numerous times by various teachers. My success makes me realize just how much I have learned from my own teachers, teaching colleagues, and students and I am ever grateful to them for helping me become a better teacher.

4:00- When class ends, I drink tea, usually accompanied by good conversation with any of several people working at Chetna Bharati. This is usually a time when I hear and learn about the social activists and movements going on in India.  Topics might include right to education, land rights, women's empowerment, or more recently, the emerging details of the murder of a nun working for the rights of coal miners. She was brutally murdered on November 15. Investigations are still going on, but one of the contributing factors leading to her death may have been that on November 16, she was going to help a rape victim file an official report denouncing the rape. As I'm typing, I have to stop because I don't even have words to express the horror of it.

4:30 to 6:30- After my tea/social justice education, I return to the compound and convent. By this time the cows and goats may be on their way home, sometimes with obvious human accompaniment, sometimes without.

Often when I enter the compound, the girls from the hostel are cleaning the campus. This includes picking up trash, sweeping all areas, whether paved or dirt, burning trash, and preparing their dinner.  Some of the youngest girls will come running up to me to have the privilege of carrying my basket back to the house. If there are more than 2 girls, I'll hand out individual items until they all have something to carry.  When I arrive back to the house, the sisters are usually sitting at the table having their tea and chatting, so I often join them for the conversation, not the tea. Of course, if there are good snacks, I may eat something!

After tea I usually go to my room and check email. If I washed clothes in the morning, I take the dry clothes down, fold them, and put them away. Sometimes I'll read or write a little.

6:30 to 7:30- We gather in the chapel for evening prayer. Before entering we take our shoes off. Many of us sit on cushions on the floor (sitting on the floor is standard practice in many situations here);  some sit in chairs. There is a rotation for leading prayer. Each of the 8  sisters and the 2 candidates takes a turn. I also joined the rotation after I'd been here awhile. Prayer is conducted in English, though sometimes Hindi songs are used. Usually there is a lot of quiet time for reflection and there is always time to share our prayer petitions. I am so grateful for this time. I am particularly grateful for this time on the days when I walk into the chapel ready to scream. I always leave feeling much better than when I enter. I hope I will have the discipline when I leave here to continue making time for quiet reflection.

7:30- Dinnertime. The meal includes leftovers from lunch, some new vegetables, and, once or twice a week, meat. I am vegetarian, so there is a paneer (mild Indian cheese) dish for me when the sisters eat meat. After dinner, as at the other 2 meals, fruit is served.  Because the weather is cold now, hot water is served to drink. Most of the sisters don't drink it until after they've eaten. I usually drink cold water and drink it throughout the meal. After dinner everyone participates in the cleanup, clearing the table, washing and drying the dishes, and putting them away. There always seems to be laughing and joking going on during this time, but actually there is a lot of laughing and joking at most meals or any time a few of us are together.

8:15ish to 10:30ish- After dinner, the sisters watch the news, sometimes in Hindi, sometimes in English. After the news there's a soap opera some of them watch. I may watch the news, but always go to my room before the soap. I get ready for bed, which lately includes putting up the mosquito net, something I didn't have to do often when I first arrived. Then I'll read, write, maybe listen to my iPod, and go to bed. And after sleeping, it all begins again...

The description that I've given here is a workday. It seems that almost every week, we have a day off for a holiday or a special program. This week we didn't have classes Monday because of the English medium Annual Day program Sunday. Friday we only had a 3-period day because of the high school's sports day starting in the late morning. The school week is supposed to be a 6-day week (with a 1/2 day Saturday) but most often the school week is 4 or 5 days, at least while I've been here. I am only scheduled to teach Monday through Friday anyway. I go to Chetna Bharati 4 days a week, whether school is in session in the compound or not.

That sums up "regular life" here. Of course, traveling interrupts the routine.  This weekend I'm in Mokama  for the SCN bicentennial celebration and in a couple weeks, I will be leaving Chatra to travel a little more in India (including going to a wedding!) and then Spain, ending any sort of "regular life" until I get settled in Palestine in mid-January.

Until I go, I'll enjoy the last few days of the routine...