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Posts Tagged ‘Ama Ghar Children’s Home’

On Butterflies in Nepal

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Note to readers: I’m beginning work on a collection of whimsical and serious essays about nature and spirituality and will be offering little snippets in the coming blogs. I hope that you will consider subscribing and commenting. (I appreciate your “take” on my opinions, plus my literary agent tells me that the popularity of one’s blog is very important to would-be publishers.)

So thanks for reading — and for commenting!

This butterfly was one of the enchantments of our trek, putting the leeches into perspective. And here are the thoughts that emerged from the molting of my consciousness after returning home:

A good friend told me that the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Nepal could cause a typhoon in California. His reference (though misquoted) was Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist who, in explaining the challenges of forecasting weather forecasts, wound up changing how we think about cause and effect. A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lorenz was one of the fathers of “chaos theory,” showing how small differences in a dynamic system such as the atmosphere could trigger unexpected and possibly outrageous results.

Now, it turns out that Lorenz’ actual quote had to do with a butterfly in Brazil causing a typhoon in Texas, but I am sure that Lorenz would have used Nepal if he had known that it sports nearly 650 varieties of butterflies (compared to about half that many in Brazil). He would have chosen Nepal if he had reflected on the fact that, in geographical size, Brazil is ranked 5th with 3,287,612 square miles (just behind the United States) while Nepal is 93rd with 56,827 square miles (about the size of Iowa).

Tiny though it is, Nepal has more diversity – in geography, plants, animals, and people – than just about anywhere else on earth. Eight of the ten tallest mountains in the world (including Mt. Everest at 8,848 meters or 29029 feet) are completely or partially in Nepal. At the other extreme is the Terai region, a tropical mosquito-infested rainforest that is less than 100 meters above sea level. The topography ranges from sub-tropical to alpine, with everything in between. As a result, it is a haven for flora and fauna of all varieties.

Including butterflies.

Including people.

With a population of over 26 million, Nepal is home to more than 40 different races and tribes. The main groups are the Mongoloids from the north and Indo-Aryans from the south, but within that broad division are Thakali, Newars, Gurungs, Magars, Kirantis, Brahmin, Sherpas, Dolpa, Larke, Manag Bas, Satars, and on and on – and each of these subgroups includes numerous sub-subgroups (Here’s a link to a good article: http://www.himalayanmart.com/ethnic_group_nepal/ethnic_group_nepal.php.) So, for those of us who value diversity and multiculturalism – and believe that God created variety to bring eternal enchantment – Nepal is heaven on earth!

But how is that that a butterfly in Nepal might cause a typhoon in California, either literally or figuratively?

— Well, other than emphasizing the importance of systems thinking in families, churches, countries, culture, and climate, I will let the scientists and mathematicians explain the chaos theory part. Solipsism is untenable, both for individuals and science. Even if I don’t know you, my actions will affect your life and vice versa. If you dispute that notion, just think about the consequences of addiction on the family level, economic decisions on the national level, and global warming on the universal level. We are dependent upon each other, for better and for worse, whether we like it or not.

This wisdom is beautifully illustrated in the parable of the good Samaritan, where a Jewish traveler is walking along a path when he assaulted by bandits and left for dead. “Good” Jewish people (including a priest) ignore the injured man and walk away. But a traveler from Samaria (who are despised by the Israelites) stops, binds the wounds, loads him on his donkey, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care. It is as shocking as if Lou Dobbs were brutally mugged and now lies bleeding on the sidewalk. Newt Gingrich and Pat Robinson notice him but avert their eyes and walk to the other side of the street. But when an undocumented migrant worker sees the half-dead Dobbs, the “illegal alien” tends Dobbs’ wounds and saves his life.

The point of the parable is not only that non-Jews (and non-Christians and even non-believers) can be more charitable than “so-called” religious people, but also that we are dependent upon those to whom we would rather not be dependent. We are vulnerable and we need help, even from those whom we would otherwise consider unworthy.

Yes, our interconnectedness is probably the most important life lesson we will ever learn. Yes, the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Nepal can cause a typhoon in California.

But wait – there’s more! Call 1-800-THANK-GOD in the next ten minutes, and we will send you two life lessons for the price of one!

What is so special about butterflies anyway? — Well, they can flit in and out of our lives like sparkles of fairy dust that delight us with a grander world of possibility and enchantment. But they weren’t always that way. They started life as ugly worms, dragged down in dust and dirt, nearsighted and vulnerable, unable to flap wings that might cause a drizzle within six inches, let alone a typhoon halfway around the world. With the exception of hungry birds and small rodents, nobody much cares about caterpillars.

— Which reminds me of the early lives of some of the children in the two orphanages we met. One spent her early years with her mother foraging for food in the open-sewer-cum-river that runs through the center of Katmandu. After her mother died, she was found by a social service group and eventually came to New Life Children’s Home. Another remembers nothing of his early years other than begging and stealing, running from the police who would beat him if he stumbled.

Caterpillars foraging for food in the filth….

And now they are in the process of spreading their wings and becoming butterflies. Soon they will dance among the flowers, fertilizing the world with beauty and nourishment. Ama Ghar and New Life are not just orphanages or children’s homes; they are chrysalides* that provide a place for human caterpillars to find nourishment and safety until their spirits strengthen enough for them to emerge from their cocoons.

But wait – there’s more…

People ask what the trip to Nepal meant to me. I ponder: certainly it was enchanting (especially the beauty and diversity of land and people), sometimes hard (especially urban poverty, leeches, and landslides), and always humbling (especially in the orphanages).

But perhaps the most important word is transformation. For Easter children’s sermons, I have sometimes used the image of the earth-trapped caterpillar’s molting into an airy butterfly as one way of thinking of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. At Ama Ghar and New Life, I was privileged to witness some of this in person – I saw children who began life hungry (for food and often for love) but emerged happy, playful, tender, and enthusiastic. I saw adults who had chosen to give up a comfortable life and live as saints instead.

Thankfully, there were times when my colleagues and I were able to be agents of grace if only by virtue of being in the right place at the right time with a hug or a listening heart (or, in one case, a bottle of Jack Daniels). There were times when we were able to honor the immediacy, spirituality, and let-go-let-God thinking of the Eastern mind while also encouraging the children to consider the advantages of planning and pushing for a quality life for themselves and others. The benefits of “Eastern” thinking (spirituality, connection, respect for elders, and a sense of acceptance and integration) can sometimes erode into fatalism, ennui, and tolerance for injustice and abuse. On the other hand, the benefits of “Western” thinking (diligence, individualism, and analytic thinking) can often erode into egocentrism, superiority, and aggression. It seems to me that the children of Ama Ghar and New Life Children’s Home are among the few who are truly multicultural in their ability to recognize the gifts and hazards of both the Eastern and Western mindsets. I pray that, as adults, they will neither “buy into” the materialism and triviality of the worst of Western culture nor tolerate the social stratification and fatalism of the Eastern mindset. I trust that, growing up where they can see the best of both cultures, they will become the hope of both worlds, holding mirrors to those who think that their way of thinking is necessarily superior to another’s.

For me, the delights of Nepal are that caterpillar children born there can enchant, redirect, and yes – transform – the adult caterpillars born in the United States. And vice versa.

Butterflies teach us that diversity and transformation are both gifts from God. We begin with an outward push into individuality and separation; we age into transformation, which is the inward pull to community and connection with God and each other. As we move from solipcism to connection, we create emotional, intellectual, and spiritual wind gusts that travel around the world, changing who we are, what we know, and how we affect each other. A typhoon is birthed.

And when that happens, we molt into butterflies, bringing beauty and joy throughout the world.

* Chrysalides is the plural of chrysalis.

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Spooks and Saints

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Yesterday was Halloween, a favorite holiday for those of us who resonate more with spooks than saints. In fact, the only saints that many of us can recognize are the New Orleans’ Saints, who with a record of 6-0 seem to be flaunting their holy powers.

I recall too many Halloweens as a day of hyperactivity followed by a week of horror. In particular, today – the day after Halloween (All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day) was often the beginning of a week where my children became uncommonly secretive about what was sneaked away under their beds or hidden in the dark crevices of their closets. After climbing the walls for a day, they closed the week with fierce stomach indigestion, or worse…. While Halloween was a delightful way of gladdening the darkening days of autumn, All Saints’ Day was a downer.

Originally, Halloween was a Celtic ceremony from pre-Christian times. The festival, called Souwen, somehow got combined with the festival of All Hallows’ Day; it then became the eve of All Hallows’, thence Hallowe’en. Unfortunately, according to tradition, Halloween was the night when the souls of the dead were released to wander abroad to scare the wits out of the rest of us before finally returning to heaven or hell the next day. I say this is unfortunate because, much as I enjoy Halloween, the combination of spooks on All Hallows’ Eve and saints on All Hallows’ Day has encouraged many of us to think of both saints and spooks as other-worldly beings. In the process, we have degraded the essence of the Christian faith.

Think of the word hallow as in “hallowed be thy name.” It means, literally, to “make holy.” More generally it means to honor and respect. There was much clamoring for saints, especially in medieval times, because having bones and relics from a disciple or well-known miracle worker translated into money with which to serve the poor and build cathedrals. Sainthood was a valuable commodity – so much so, that there weren’t enough days in the year to designate one day for each person deemed worthy of sainthood. So, All Saints’ Day was designed to honor those saints who couldn’t have their own day.

So what do you think of when you hear the word “saints”? I see three possibilities: the simplistic, the standard, and the enlightened.

In the simplistic view, saints are special people who lived in history, did miracles, and only Roman Catholics and Orthodox take them seriously. In fact, some Catholics pray to saints to intercede on their behalf before God – a notion rather distasteful to Protestants who believe that God is gracious enough to listen to us directly. In this view, saints are: 1) superhuman; 2) dead; 3) probably poppycock. This is a satisfying explanation, for we Protestants get to feel superior to those still-in-the-dark-ages Catholics. In our smugness, we dismiss Catholics and saints simultaneously. And, because saints, spooks, goblins, ghosts, and their ilk all represent the outer-worldly, we discount their importance.

The second possibility – the standard view – is an improvement. In the Bible, “saints” simply means “the faithful.” I found 63 references to saints in the New Testament, most of which referred to people very normal and very much alive. Paul routinely addresses the loyal members of the church as saints, as does Luke in Acts and John in Revelation. So also do Protestant churches proclaim their understanding of the term. For example, the Book of Common Prayer defines the “communion of saints” in the Nicene Creed as “the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.”

Sounds good, except for one problem: despite the epistles and despite the church’s teachings, most of us don’t think of ourselves as saints. I’ll bet that each of us has said, at least once, “I’m no saint, but…” So the standard view is that the saints are: 1) a whole lot better than us, but not necessarily superhuman; 2) mostly but not always dead; 3) not poppycock … but not quite normal either.

There’s a third possibility – what I’ll call the enlightened view – in which we see the saints as living realities in our lives – as personal role models, if you will. In this model, the saints are: 1) very much alive, even if their bodies are no longer part of this earth; 2) fully human; 3) the vision that transforms the gospel from historical artifact to living truth.

To explain how I began with the simplistic “poppycock” view and ended with the living truth version is the story of my faith journey. I realized that a new understanding of how saints operate in our lives is also a new understanding of how God operates in our lives. For me, enlightenment came in an offbeat way. About fifteen years ago, I went with a friend to a metaphysical chapel where I learned many things from the medium who was there. He told me, first, that the reason I don’t like tight things around my neck is because, in an earlier life, I was a Crusader who was beheaded by the Saracens. (It is true that I generally wear open collars, but I thought it was for more feminine reasons…)

Then he told me that I would rather be too hot than too cold because, in another of my past lives, I was one of the Russian submariners who disappeared under the Arctic circle. Now, this could be, but I vaguely recall that the incident happened when I was a teenager, so I found it a problematic to reconcile the fact that I was alive then and alive now, but that I was two different people… The science of cloning has not progressed quite that far, I thought…

Then he told me that Joan of Arc was my patron saint. It seems that everyone has a patron saint, but most people get the gentle ones like St. Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila. My patron saint was a marauding military heroine, martyr, and (probably) a madwoman. Aarghhh – this is not good… But it didn’t matter because I didn’t take him seriously.

And yet, and yet … my fascination with Joan was such that I couldn’t get her out of my mind. And clearly, I wasn’t alone. The first efforts to have Joan canonized began after her mother’s death in 1458, but the church waited until 1903 to begin the formal process, and she was not officially sainted until 1920. Despite almost 600 years of contentiousness surrounding her canonization, she is one of a handful of truly important women – way up there with the mother of Jesus, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Cleopatra, Rosa Parks, and … not many others. Her influence was such – even among non-believers – that the greatest artists (and a good many of lesser quality, including some recently Hollywood directors) saw fit to study her.

Mark Twain, the notorious skeptic who panned God in his Letters from the Earth, noted that she was the only person, of either sex, who has ever held supreme command of a nation’s military forces at the age of seventeen. Joan enthralled Twain, who penned a historical novel about her from the viewpoint of her squire. In closing the novel, the imaginary page wrote that he could finally “recognize her at last for what she was – the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One [Christ].” She may have been a madwoman, but she was the most noble madwoman ever to grace this earth.

Then I learned that there were not one, but two, Saint Felicity’s in the early church. Horrifically mauled by wild animals, both of them were among the few mothers who were martyred. The faith and influence of the first St. Felicity, a widow, was so compelling that she not only marched herself to death, but was joined by all seven of her grown sons. The martyrdom of the second Felicity, a slave, was overshadowed by the accompanying death of her owner Perpetua.

So what does it mean to have the same name as these two early martyrs and be under the shadow of the ever-formidable Joan? On the one hand, not much. The fact that two women suffered brutal deaths nearly two thousand years ago had no bearing on the fact that my parents chose a wonderful name for me. (Being non-believers, they did not know about the saints.) Neither am I made of the same “stuff” as St. Joan: I have no desire to die a martyr’s death, and I lack both the faith and the courage to live a martyr’s life. So while there many be no divine influence at work here, I freely admit that I stand in awe at the faith and fearlessness shown by these three women.

But even with all that historical baggage, the saints – even those who share my name – seem so distant. Was it easier to be a saint in Roman times, or during the Middle Ages? It seems so hard to be a saint now… Do I really need to search back in time to find appropriate role models?

Not at all! I once learned about a committee of lay and ordained ministers who were asked to recommend twentieth-century saints to be honored in ten heretofore-empty niches of Westminster Abbey. The obvious names came to mind: Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Oscar Romero. But, here’s the kicker: the committee reported that they identified more saints and martyrs in the 20th century than in all of the previous 19 centuries combined. They considered the religious persecutions in Africa, Asia, in Germany under Hitler, in the Soviet Union under the Communists, and they could not find another century – no, not the 2nd and 3rd centuries under Rome, and not even the bloody 16th century of the Reformation – in which so many Christians died for their faith.

This made me sit up and take notice. Those millions upon millions of martyrs may not been canonized through the formal process of the Roman Catholic Church, but they were recognized as saints nonetheless.

It also made me want to learn more. I found a charming book of saints, prophets, and martyrs called All Saints. It is intended to be read as daily reflections with one saint for each day. What is intriguing about this book is that author Robert Ellsberg struggled with the same questions that plague us – what is it that makes a “saint” a saint? Can only Roman Catholics be saints? Can only Christians be saints?

I loved what the author gave as his criteria for sainthood, namely “to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” As a result, not all of Ellsberg’s saints were Christian – he includes Mahatma Gandhi, the prophet Amos, Galileo, Chief Seattle of the Suquamish nation, and Anne Frank, among others. Of the more modern surprises, he also includes Cesar Chavez, Flannery O’Connor, Oskar Schindler (of Schindler’s List fame), Albert Schweizer, and probably a hundred people I had never heard of before in my life. They may or may not have died for their faith, but they lived for God.

Reading further, I noticed two very interesting facts. First, fully 122 of them – or one-third – lived during the last 100 years. Second, there’s no saint for February 29. Mr. Ellsberg leapt over Leap Day. This got me to wondering, “Whom would I include?”

Certainly, I would add Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and probably even Jimmy Carter, but – thankfully – they are still alive, so perhaps that’s why they are not yet included. So I’m inclined to add Eleanor Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, both of whom dedicated their lives to the cause of peace and justice.

And there are several people that I know absolutely that I would include. Last month, I met Shrawan Nepali and Bonnie Ellison, the founder and manager of Ama Ghar Children’s Home, and Kent and Shovha Rogers and Rajendra Budhathoki and Nadine Rogers, the two sets of parents who manage New Life Children’s Home. All of them have given up much personal comfort in order to provide a loving home and a quality life for the orphans in their care. My colleagues and I came away humbled and inspired by their wisdom, courage, and love.

Another two would be my grandparents. Although he died before I was born, my mother’s father was reportedly one of the people who pushed the Episcopal church away from the country clubs and into the slums. As a result, he was hated. His job as a seminary dean was always in peril and he was officially investigated as a Communist by the Federal government. But nothing stopped him from doing what he thought was God’s will.

Thankfully, I remember my father’s mother very well. Although she has been dead for forty years, I can still hear her explaining why she took a stance on an issue that was likely to lose her some good friends. Her explanation was simple: “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Years ago, Jesse Jackson made a statement that went something like this: “Never underestimate the importance of grandparents. Spend a lot of time with them. Get to know their stories, their dreams, their hurts, their passions. For it is through our grandparents that we learn our history. And it is by learning our history that we are able to shape our future.” The same is true of saints, who are there to tell us about our religious history, just as grandparents can teach us about our family history.

Saints are not spooks, devils, ghosts, or angels. When we lump them in with imaginary Halloween-type creatures, we are doing them, and ourselves, a huge disserve. Most saints aren’t even heroes, in the common understanding of that term. They are typically tormented by insecurities, doubts, fears, heartaches – all of the anxieties that we also face. But their love of God and of God’s children is like a beacon that carries them through. The lives are a testament, fully as powerful as the Bible itself.

So let us enjoy the spooks for a day and celebrate the saints for the rest of the year!

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Nepal Day 4 at Ama Ghar: Where Hope and Home are One

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Playing games and "hanging out"

Mending clothes

Taking a short trek to visit Buddha

David takes two boys bicycling
David takes two boys bicycling

Today, Thursday, is day 4 at Ama Ghar, the “Motherly Home” for Children in Taukhel, Godavari (about 11 miles south of downtown Kathmandu). It was founded by Shrawan Nepali, himself raised in an orphanage. Later, with the help of two Peace Corps volunteers he met in Nepal, he came to the US to get an MBA and pursue a successful business career.

Eight years ago, he started work on his greatest dream: to create a “motherly home” (“Ama” means mother and “ghar” is house) where children always “have the keys to come home.” He then convinced old friend Bonnie Ellison, who grew up in Nepal as the daughter of a U.S. State Department official, to take an early retirement from her work as an advertising executive and become the managing director of the home.

The first group of 14 children came soon thereafter and a dream became a home. Now, eight years later, some of the children have graduated into college and beyond (still returning “home” whenever possible) while others are still here, going to school, learning new skills, and finding hope.

Most of the children are not here; they are celebrating Dashain with their extended families. Lasting for two weeks, Dashain is the biggest festival of the year. Schools close, homes get painted, clothes and new furnishings are bought, and Nepalis basically think of nothing else. The holiday focuses on family reunions, exchanging gifts and blessings, and devotions. Those children who remain (about a dozen) are here because they have no home or, in at least one case, because the home is unsafe. So Bonnie and her able staff of “parents” try to engage the children in fun activities during their vacation time. We’re doing our best to help out.

In addition to the dancing and singing on our first night (just before most of the children left), we’ve been having a relaxed time with those who are still here. This means playing games, teaching them how to ride a bicycle, going on short treks to see Hindu and Buddhist temples, constructing a makeshift basketball hoop, and the like. Later today, one of the children has promised to teach us a Nepali folk song, and I’ve promised to teach them how to play the comb. (Bonnie and her staff may never forgive me, but what the heck…)

The pictures give a brief glimpse of some of our activities.

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