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Religion

I have already talked about this topic some in my post “Lesson #6“, but just today my beautiful friend Divo shared the following article from the Guardian with only the simple note “READ!”.

“Delhi Rape: How India’s Other Half Live”

I felt it necessary to pass the article along it here because as I read this, I realized that this girl, 9 yrs younger than me, grew up and lived in the part of Delhi known as Dwarka. This horrible crime didn’t take place in Dwarka, but the neighborhood was her home and where she was headed as she boarded the bus that evening. It is that same small part of Delhi where I lived, worked and taught for 4 months in ’03.

Dwarka at that time was not a big place. Apartments were just being built and you could walk the whole neighborhood, which means I knew this girl in spirit even if I never met her. I probably sat next to her on a bus, walked by her in the street, stood next to her at the sweet shop, or danced with her at the wedding in the apartment next door or at the Diwali festival down the street. Heck, I might have had her as a student in my morning enterprise workshop or afternoon English class.

When this story first came out, I wondered why I so viscerally responded to it.
Yes, it is terrible and tragic, but terrible and tragic things happen all the time. Why could I not let this one go? Now I see that it was because this story is in fact a part of my story. It’s intricately interwoven with my own life and my own path.

I share this story here, because by following this blog all of you are now also intricately interwoven with me.

So if you have heard about this case and thought, “What does that have to do with me? Why do I have to keep hearing about this? I am half way across the world.” Reevaluate, and realize that you are closer to her and closer to this story than you could have imagined.

By realizing this, you can begin to change the story, one lit candle, one smile, one intellectual debate, one good intention at a time.

What we do shapes the world around us, and, as we see in this case, the world just happens to be a little smaller than we think.

Sometimes words just can’t cut it. That is how I felt when I started learning about the Rwanda genocide. Below are some of the commonly accepted statistics, but for a more human perspective see the following slideshow.

Rwandan Genocide:
1994 April – July
2 ethnic groups
800,000 people killed
400,000 orphans
250,000 women raped
7.3 million people (total population before the genocide)

Rwanda is by far the most Christian place that I have ever been – more than Italy, more that the southern United States. Any given day of the week you will hear singing in the churches, the doors will be open, and life will be unfolding amongst the wooden pews. Sundays have this festive air as women in floor length prom dresses and men in suits fill the sidewalks on their way to or from their church.

People here seem to live for the Church.

A look inside the Genocide Memorial Church in Kibuye.

And what amazes me most is that, through my completely elementary observations, it seems like the people them

selves own the churches. At home I always experienced the Church as a place to be talked at, a place to have dogma imposed upon me.  Here it is as if the people themselves have built the walls, created the space and shaped the religion into an expression of themselves.

And it makes sense. After living through so much terror, fear, and pain, any human being would be reaching out for something to give some structure and sense back to life. And once they find it, they would want to own it and make into something better than themselves.

All this makes me think that not having a religion (I was baptized and raised Roman Catholic but really can’t bring myself to follow any religion these days) might just be a privilege that many of us take for granted. If we don’t suffer, if we don’t look death in the face and walk away, why would we need to ask for help? Why would we need to fall back on our faith in something better?  If our life isn’t hard, why do even need to bother worrying about an afterlife?

The next time I am in a place where we are all asked to join hands to pray, instead of standing quietly to the side, I think I’ll join in and thank life for the privilege of never having to pray.

A lazy afternoon in the costal Tanzanian town of Bagamoyo unexpectedly turned into a religious experience like none other I have had before. Biking along on the outskirts of town we came across the old Catholic church (apparently the first in Eastern Africa and a springboard for the anti-slavery movement). Curious, we parked and ventured inside through one of the slightly ajar side doors. Inside we found:

A young man playing Celine Dion on an electric organ with a beat box background
A bright green-turquoise, yellow, and white color scheme
A nativity set tucked on a shelf under the stairs so that Joseph teetered right at eye level, threatening to jump off the shelf at any second
Two dusty cupboards with random pieces of old textiles
Innumerable benches that were only 6” in depth and with hollow backs so that if you slouched you would fall completely through to the floor behind
A brightly colored painting over the alter – clearly master artisans were not deemed necessary to call in – it seemed as if scaffolding had been set up and the town’s children were given paintbrushes and free reign
A dozen stained glass windows designed so that the center third could have built in wooden shutters
Algea coated bowls of holy water at each door

Check out the following photos for a visual:

The Sufi Muslims in Senegal have a strong belief in the importance of giving alms every day. It doesn’t have to be much, but at least a token offering to someone less well off than you. I have always believed that charity was a fundamental good. However, I know that the one thing that can change lives more than anything else is empowerment through dignified work.

Being here, I began to wonder if I would be a bad Muslim. Would I hand someone 500 CFA just because they ask? No — a banana, orange, or apple maybe, but cash, no. I’ve seen too many examples of how small change can corrupt and create a cycle of poverty that is unbreakable, especially for the children involved. Throughout my own life experience, I have only ever seen a handout (few extreme exceptions aside) disempower. An exchange, on the other hand, I have seen empower beyond measure. An exchange proves to both parties that they have something of worth to offer.

As I get ready to leave Senegal, I think about this as I realize how much I have collected here. My pack is suddenly bursting at the seams, filled with objects that I never knew I wanted. Necklaces and bracelets I will never wear spill out of new batik jewelry bags. Tie-dye fabrics need to be folded and refolded to fit properly into the remaining crevasses. Looking down at all of these items, most of which I know I paid too much for, I realize the joke is one me. Senegal’s sea of endless entrepreneurs has won me over. I didn’t think twice about the 5000 CFA piece of fabric, the 3000 CFA necklace, or a 2000 CFA contribution for a beach mat, because each time I exchanged money for goods, I gained a conversation and the seller gained resources and capacity.

I look down at my bag again, packed and so much heavier than it was when I got here. I take note and think, perhaps, in my own way, I actually have been giving alms all along.