India: The grace of not having a clue

Guest blogger: Ben Anderson
I was on the mountain top and things looked clear.  I was watching a group of Jesuit novices in the hilly northeastern states of India who were taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  These vows were the same I had taken four years ago and they spoke to my heart.  This radical response of love and service to the world seemed so simple and easy on the mountain.

Yet one never stays long on the mountain top.  The next day I descended into the busy city of Guwahati; a chaotic place of a million people of every type.  There in the city understanding was limited, if not all together gone for me.   The noisy traffic patterns, the many people and languages, were all beyond recognition. I had no answers for how life worked or function in such a different place.

Many groups in India do understand the problems and plagues as it is a lively democracy with protests and other political demonstrations happening every day. Some had enough answers to try to take down the system all together by blowing up trains in Assam and bombing market places in Mumbai.  These atrocities were only added to by the senselessness of the Norway massacre which all displayed the brutality of Christian, Hindu, and Muslim fundamentalism.  Surrounded by and listening to only like-minded people, these fundamentalists see people in the way of their ideas and answers for the world.

Being a part-time community organizer and activist, I strive also for answers and understanding to change this crazy world, but the lesson God taught me in India couldn’t be more different from the fundamentalist response.  Every time my feet sank into the mud of a place where I could start to recognize, understand, and know, I moved on.  I expected to be grounded in one place but instead was invited weekly to visit some Jesuit or non-Jesuit work somewhere else.  I continually found myself in a new area of the northeast with its own distinct tribe, language, culture, and issues.  Having tea with so many I was honored by the sense of time people gave me and the beauty of listening to the joys and struggles of their lives.

Such people and stories pulled and stretched my heart.  Bouncing in the back of a jeep from one place to another I was often frustrated at my seeming helplessness always “the guest.”  I realized how little I have to say to their situation and how much I have to learn.

It was beautiful, hard, and freeing. The freedom that I was being taught was something beyond control and knowledge.  It was freedom of letting go of my understanding so as to listen and realize that only together, with these radically different people, can I begin to know.  My cultural viewpoint, my limited range of seeing, however enlightened I think it is, is never enough. I often accompanied two young Hindu lawyers from the Legal Cell for Human Rights who put on workshops in the poorest of villages to teach people their rights.  Never understanding the language, I once asked them how they can have answers for every question asked in every village. They laughed and said, “We don’t.  We never really answer the people’s questions directly, because they have the answer, we just have to help them see it.”

This freedom is beyond choice.  Asking a religious Sister why she organizes domestic workers, she said she was called by God to respond to the poor around her.  It was not about her interests, choices, or causes, but about meeting the needs where she was.  I saw this lived out by Jesuits I lived with who were invited out into the jungle to set up schools for the most forgotten villages.  I walked the tea plantations with organizers who humbly spent their lives helping their own people be proud of their culture and dream beyond their near slave labor conditions.  All labored in freedom with the mission not to be heard themselves, but to help nurture the poorest around them and lift up their voice.   They work as Jesus did, which was summed up beautifully by a Muslim women in a self-help group who told me “As long as God gives us life, we will give our life to help others grow.”

One of the tea worker activists asked me on a bumpy car ride why God had made rich and poor, why such disparity and diversity?   I didn’t know and still don’t know.  I leave India still overwhelmed by such a reality, but as a Jesuit president of an all Hindu school told me once, “God is much bigger than what we do and our understanding.” I don’t have to understand, but have to listen, learn, and, as I saw so many doing, work really hard in my own particularity for the people around me.  I, like those vow men on the mountain top, have been given many gifts, and out of generosity to our great God, I hope to continue moving past myself and my limited view and answers to live a life of listening and work to help others grow and have a voice in this complex and beautiful world.

This week’s guest blogger, Ben Anderson, is a member of the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and a friend to Sister Julia. Ben lives in Chicago working on his master degree in philosophy at Loyola Chicago and is a community organizing intern at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. He spent two months during the summer immersed in the Jesuit works of Northeastern India.  

2 thoughts on “India: The grace of not having a clue

  1. I just stumbled upon this blog on tag surfer and it shines like a diamond in a sea of sand. I love it. Thank you, Ben, for your insightful, gentle portrayal of the complexity of living truth in a broken, complex world. And thank you, sisters, for sharing your stories and your complicated, beautiful, wild and breathtaking faith. God bless you.

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