Category Archives: Our Family in India…

Reflections during our family’s year-long stay in India, working among the leprosy-affected.

In June 2014, our family moved to southern India to volunteer among leprosy-affected communities. We ended up spending almost a year there, providing basic hygienic care and dressing wounds, building latrines, combatting stigma and social isolation, alleviating poverty through micro-lending, and empowering children from the leprosy colonies through education and talent development.

It was our privilege to work alongside inspiring volunteers and committed staff in situations that called for our deepest compassion, and every day was an invitation to stretch far beyond our selves. My five children, aged from 19 years down to 8, earned my life-long respect for how they rose to the occasion; and Rebecca, of course, was amazing–a natural born Mother Teresa. I, on the other hand, spent most of the year attempting to piece back together the shattered fragments of a naively-held Messiah Complex that couldn’t survive even the first week intact. By the end of the year, I’d given up trying to be that person; instead, I began allowing myself simply to show up, vulnerable and open. The following essays, written while we were in India and gathered here chronologically, reflect that journey towards presence, learning to sit as one wounded among the wounded and discovering the miracle of wholeness.

Beep, Beep. We are Here.

. . . I’m shaken by this. Not our safety–it’s becoming increasingly clear that Rajendiren will expertly navigate these perilous waters–it’s the sense that here, with a billion plus people, life is cheap. Like ants crawling over ants to get to work. I know this is only apparent, but that’s how I’m feeling as we drive. A collective sense that the stream of traffic, that ravenous beast, must continue to flow, even if must be fed a few lives from time to time. Read More

A Tale Cut Short

. . . there’s some tumult in the kitchen. Rebecca points up in the corner near the fan vent. There’s a gecko, the size of a pinky clinging to the wall, panting. And where a tail should be, there’s only a stump. I know tails regenerate, but none of us hold out much hope for this little fella. Rebecca points out a gash from the fan blade on its torso.

“I saw it skittering into the vent and then . . . . chink . . . it skittered out without a tail.”

One of the kids says they think they saw it fall.

“Saw what?”

“The tail.”

“Where?”

They point at the counter-top space next to the gas burners. “There.”

We look.

It’s twitching.

It’s the size of a chow mein noodle, translucent, and it’s arcing back and forth like a miniature windshield wiper. Read More

I Meet “Mountain of Wisdom”

. . . “God in me, God in them. No difference,” he says.

I’ve read similar sentiments from Mother Theresa, but Vedadhri says it as if asserting water is wet. This wasn’t some theological article of faith, but a basic fact of the universe. I think how the same religious world view that justifies the stigmatization of leprosy as cosmic payback for some karmic misdeed in a previous life could also provide the insights motivating compassion and charity. Hinduism is no different than Christianity and Islam in this, it seems, with some of us beating swords into plough-shares and some sharpening those plough-shares back into swords, depending on how our heart is swayed by our scriptures. Read More

Right Hand, Left Hand

. . . A meme has been floating around Facebook, suggesting that we are God’s hands. I don’t whether that’s true. If it is, then about half of us must be God’s left hand. My service so far is mostly of the left handed variety: digging holes for toilets and septic tanks; dumping basins of water made foul by oozing ulcers; clipping toenails of feet on which only one or two toes remain; emptying our bathroom bucket of used squares of imported toilet paper; tearing off a piece of chapatti when no one’s looking; and killing scorpions in the middle of the night with the same sandals that I take off every morning at the door of the meditation hut where I wish all living beings peace. I’m okay with that. And every morning, with hands pressed together into a lotus bud to begin my prayer of peace, it’s the left hand that most feels the throbbing of my heart. Read More

Still Life: A Study in Green

. . . Cohen depending on the tooth fairy to find her way to India, which she does, unbelievably, three times already. Lifting the pillow and placing three 10 rupee notes under his sleeping head, each bearing the likeness of Gandhi who will bring dreams of peace. And already the new teeth pushing through, each emptiness filling, slowly. Somewhere between hole and whole.

And Stumpy our gecko, fan-blade survivor, depending on the voodoo of cell regeneration. The brown-green bud sprouting like an onion bulb into another tail, until we can’t tell him apart from any of the other geckoes we see skittering across our bedroom walls at night, or, unseen, hear snickering behind curtains in the evening as the kids form words in their nightly round of Banana Grams. Tile by tile, cell by cell. Forming and reforming.

A baby tooth is lost no sooner than a new one is ready to take its place. A tail reforms, faithful to the genetic specs printed in the DNA of every cell of the gecko’s body. Without searching, what is lost becomes found; without mending, what was rent becomes whole. When wood is green, it’s alive, supple, vigorous. Lop off the trunk and the sap bubbles up, heals the wound, feeds new branches.

I wonder at the resilience of life. And now, here in India one month, I think of the people at the leprosy colonies, what their leprosy has cost them. The pinnacle of evolution, and their DNA as Homo sapiens doesn’t provide a lizard’s worth of instruction on how to regenerate a toe, or how to return the club of a hand back into sophisticated digital technology.  Read More

Cohen and I Spend the Morning Getting Buzzed at the Local Saloon

. . . Kumar’s scissors open and close, snick, snick, snick, in the same steady but unhurried way. Periodically he tilts Cohen’s head up back. A few young men step out of the street and into the saloon, pick up a spare comb from the barber’s grimy counter, and groom themselves in front of the mirror for a minute or two and then, as suddenly as they came in, they toss the comb back on his counter and step back out into the street. This happens twice more during Cohen’s haircut. I’m guessing they’d got haircuts from Kumar in the past, may have standing permission to come use his comb and mirror whenever they’re in the area. But seeing random people swooping in and sharing the same comb makes me a little uneasy, especially for a population where it’s not uncommon to see children and even some adults shorn to the scalp to rid themselves of nits. Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lice.   Read More

What’s in the Bag?

. . . “What’s in the bag?” I ask.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve pulled out of the bag a Tibetan singing bowl, a toothbrush, a Native American flute, a blister pack of Mefloquine (anti-malarial medicine), a pound of uncooked basmati rice, and a stainless steel tea cup. And every day the mystery leads us to a story and the story leads us to a lesson. Actually, the story IS the lesson.

Today, I’ve brought a snake. A life-size, weighted, coiled, realistically painted, rubber snake. Cohen brought it along to India with him because we allowed each child to bring one “comfort animal” on the plane with them. And he wanted to bring his snake. Not a problem in LAX, nor at Amsterdam, but when we tried to get through security to board our final leg from Delhi to Chennai you’d have thought the X-ray specialist pausing at Cohen’s backpack had discovered a nuclear detonator. Soon a military guard was interrogating us.

“What is in the bag?” he asked us.

“Um . . . lot’s of stuff. It’s our little boy’s carry on,” Rebecca sputtered. “Is there a problem?”  Read More

Abraham’s Song

. . . I met Abraham in the Vandalore Leprosy Colony. He and I hit it off because we’re both musicians. I’d brought my Native American flute along, thinking it might be nice to play something soothing for the patients while their wounds were being treated by our medical team. I’m covering holes on the cedar flute with my fingertips, making up a melody, when Abraham steals the show. Now, I’ve studied the jazz art of improvisation in college, but this was improvistation in its truest form. Having no money for a proper instrument, and no intact fingers to play one with anyway, Abraham devised a way of humming while alternately plugging the stubs on his hand into his nostrils, as if pushing valves on a trumpet. The sound is, well, not exactly what you’d call beautiful, but I found myself entranced, snake charmed. Later, he took me to his home and banged on a plastic tambourine for me, singing full-throated. Pictures of the Virgin Mary floated along the walls. Read More

Sri Lanka, Part I: Mud and Mudras, Lotus and Dulip

. . . WHEN WE ARRIVE IN SRI LANKA, the first one to welcome us is the Buddha. I get the feeling he would have been just as content with us staying in India, but he doesn’t seem to mind that we’re here. He’s sitting in the lotus position, upturned soles resting on opposite thighs, gaze lowered. Passengers from our flight push past me, anxious to reclaim their baggage. I’m pausing, hoping to be rid of mine. A reverential spirit alights on the twig of my heart and then flutters away once I see the statue more closely. First I notice the pendulous lobes of the Enlightened One’s ears. They stretch so low he must have hung buckets of water from them as a boy, thus freeing his hands for gesturing. Which leads us to the second detail: the Compassionate One is flipping us off. Read More

Sri Lanka Part II: Climbing Up the Buddha’s Back with 400 Pounds of Poop

. . . They simply reasoned that if an elephant’s diet is mostly fiber, its poop must be, too. With that insight, the Mr. Ellie Pooh paper company was born. An employee gave us a tour of their factory, which borders the elephant sanctuary. The system goes something like this: They spread out the poop to fully expose it to the sun. Then they cook it, subjecting it to intense heat that sterilizes all the yucky stuff. What’s left is a slurry of fiber that’s dried over a screen, pressed smooth, cut, and sold to eco-conscious consumers at healthy profit margins.

Hearing the man talk about this process, I’m reminded of the Buddha’s most fundamental teaching, the 4 Noble Truths. The 1st Noble Truth? Poop happens! When we understand the nature of that poop and what it’s made of, we’ve arrived at the 2nd Noble Truth. Believing that we can transform that poop into something useful moves us to the 3rd Noble Truth. Then, following the path outlined in the 4th Noble Truth, we can bring sufficient energy to bear, transforming something stinky and toxic into something pure and productive. Read More

Divine Union: A Hindu-temple inspired reflection on twenty years of marriage.

. . . Large enough to make even the most confident of men more than a little insecure, the lingam symbolizes the god’s male potency and virility. But on this late afternoon, twenty years since Rebecca and I, twain, became one flesh, I can’t help but reflect on a temple symbol that foreigners often miss: Shiva’s lingam is always set in and circumscribed by a divine womb, or Yoni. It is only together, Yoni and Lingam, that the Divine is fully expressed. Read More

That’s Where the Light Enters

. . . If we’re lucky, we shed any silly notions that we (the supposed “whole”) are bringing healing to them (the presumed “broken”). We simply share a space where healing happens, and it happens as much to us as to them, though one of us wears a mask and one wears a wound. Healing becomes another name for wholeness revealing itself. Read More

Brooklyn leaves (with a Matriarchal Blessing)

. . . So here I share a poem I’ve written for Brooklyn, in which I imagine she finds herself quite unexpectedly visited by a goddess in the form of the fearless Durga, who has come to endow her with the courage and wisdom she’ll need as she continues conquering the world.  Read More

A Few Notes Before We Leave . . .

. . . You seem like a very nice razor blade and I’m sure if we’d met under different circumstances, we would have hit it off handsomely. But see, I was next in line when the customer in the barber chair pulled off his t-shirt, lifted his right arm high into the air and grunted for Kumar to scrape his greasy pits with you. Read More

Vivid Dreams: A Valediction

. . . How much will stick? If I’ve come to recognize Jesus (or Infinite Worth or Buddha-nature) in the faces of the leprosy-affected, will I recognize it back home in the face of the grimy man holding a cardboard sign, the obnoxious neighbor, the surly skateboarder loitering in the school parking lot?

Obvious suffering engenders compassion–and in this way, serving the leprosy-affected required from me no special force of will–but how do I respond when someone triggers my contempt, my revulsion?  Already, I have to admit, back in Gate C-19 waiting to board, my small self, the smug, disconnected ego self, was chiming in with snide remarks about that passenger who could have been from Duck Dynasty. I caught myself feeling smarter, more sophisticated, more enlightened than him. And so I shrunk by just exactly that much.  Read More

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That We May Be One: Healing the Body of Christ

IMG_0744AS MY SPIRITUAL LIFE HAS WIDENED its embrace, I’m coming to understand that the yearning for atonement is truly universal. Spiritual practices in the East, such as yoga and loving-kindness meditation, effect the same soul-change that prayer, baptism, and communion do in the West: they move us from separateness to sacred union. I’ve seen religions doing their finest work when they unite instead of divide, when they lead us to at-one-ment. In fact, the word religion itself means to join together, to bind (as does its Sanskrit cousin, yoga). So when I learn that my religious community–a group whose hearts should be knit together in love–is poised, once again, to rend one of its members from the fabric of fellowship, I’m filled with anguish.

For those not following the issue, this Sunday, a stake president will decide if John Dehlin should be excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Further stoking the flames of a fire not yet cooled after the excommunication of Kate Kelly this past summer, Dehlin’s ecclesiastical censuring has elicited copious amounts of invective from both sides of the debate.

I don’t wish to drive the wedge any deeper. Neither his priesthood leader, nor Mr. Dehlin himself deserves to be vilified. If we could see into their hearts, we would agree that they are both men of good will, following honorable but mutually conflicting motives.

As an unconventional Mormon myself, I cherish an inclusive community, and believe the Body of Christ is strengthened by diversity, not weakened. How I resonate to Paul’s teaching on the subject: “If the whole body were the eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were the hearing, where were the smelling?” When I hear fellow Latter-day Saints clamoring for someone’s ouster, I want to protest, like Paul, “The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you…those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary.” (1 Corinthians 12:17-22)

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And now, it seems, an amputation has been scheduled.

We may all concede, however reluctantly, that sometimes a limb must be amputated to save a life. So when I hear others reasoning that the health of the Church necessitates the amputation of some of its members, I can’t dispute the soundness of the logic, at least in principle. An organization, like an organism, needs a system for excreting toxic waste, fending off foreign invaders, and sloughing off dead tissue. But amputations are always tragic, and the mortal threat must be real, not imagined. Chopping off a foot because its warty toe doesn’t meet an institutional aesthetic does not constitute a mortal threat. Nor would a wise surgeon remove an organ until fully understanding how its various and sometimes subtle functions are contributing to the overall health of the organism.

And when an amputation is deemed medically necessary, that does not mean that such an outcome was inevitable. It usually represents a chronic failure to provide the attentive care and proper conditions for healing and well-being. This is a perspective borne from my experiences serving with my family in India among the leprosy-affected.

One insidious feature of the disease is permanent damage to nerve endings in the extremities. Fortunately, the micro-bacterium that causes the disease is easily neutralized and with simple treatment poses no further risk to the patient. A leprosy patient’s body is, for all intents and purposes, healthy. However, the patient, whose nerve endings have been compromised, has become insensitive to the pain inflicted on parts of his or her body, such as to the feet or hands.

Let’s suppose such a person steps on shards of broken glass. She would not perceive the injury being suffered by her foot. And when she lifts a scorching hot lid from the cooking pot, she will not know how her hand blisters from the heat. Insensitive to wound after wound, and numb to the need for healing, her wounds become infected and sores spread; ulcers, untreated, eat away at perfectly healthy tissue, until, one day, a doctor will conclude that an amputation has become necessary in order to save a person’s life.

IMG_0741John Dehlin’s ecclesiastical surgeon may reach the same conclusion this Sunday. But let there be no mistake: this excommunication, this severing of a member from the Body of Christ, represents yet another failure. A failure to be sensitive to the very real pain and discomfort some members are feeling, to be responsive to their wounds and attentive to our care-giving. A failure to view lumpy toes and unsightly moles in their proper perspective, as well as the forbearance to put up with some stinky pits now and then. We have need of thee. We have need of thee.

May we come to recognize our inherent and indivisible unity. May we come to realize that the health and well-being of a part is the health and well-being of the whole. These understandings, after all, are key insights into the nature of atonement. As the Body of Christ, may we not lose our sensitivity to the pain and wounding experienced by some of our members. And when injury leads to infection, and we worry that the infection will spread, let us be less keen to maim ourselves. Instead of a surgeon’s knife, let us liberally apply the healing balm of love.

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Divine Union: a Hindu temple-inspired reflection on twenty years of marriage.

BACK IN NOVEMBER I STARTED letting my beard grow out. After three days, an Indian colleague looked at my face and frowned. “You are looking very dull,” she said. “You are not well?”

“I feel fine,” I said.

“Maybe you sleep not so good?”

“Slept just fine, thanks.”

“Your face is looking very dull.”

After a few more days, the children on campus started reaching up and touching my face, giggling as their fingers skimmed across the bristles. “It’s a beard,” I told them.

An older boy ran his hand across his own chin and then said, “Lon, why you are not shave?”

“I am shaving,” I say. “Every day I’m shaving.” I lift up my chin and point to the neatly trimmed border meeting my jaw line. “See?”

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 5.41.08 PMAfter 10 days or so, the beard was growing in nice and full, blonde and red with some mature white marbling. That’s when I start hearing the whispers. I’m walking by some sari-clad colleagues, and I hear one of them say something and then the others giggling as I go by.

“Lon, sir. She say you must be having the love failure.”

I walk over to them. “The what?”

“Your beard. You must be having the love failure.”

“I’m having love failure?”

“Yes, yes.” The other teachers are wobbling their heads. “You are not shaving. If you have love failure means your heart sad from no love.”

From what I was able to gather in the ensuing conversation, a clean-shaven man who stops shaving is the Indian equivalent of a metro-sexual who begins wearing sweat pants out in public. It’s very worrisome, and likely signals that the individual has recently experienced heartbreak of such staggering proportions that they can no longer muster even the minimum effort required to maintain basic social conventions such as shaving, or matching belts to shoes.

I continued to be hectored for the entire month of November by the India staff, before shaving it off on the first day in December. To be fair, one person liked my beard. He was a former Christian pastor who now serves as the hostel manager on campus. He brought his palms together one evening at the dining hall, smiled at me shyly and said, in broken English, “When I am seeing your face, I think of Jesus.”

(This was around the time that the New York Times and other media were reporting on the humiliations heaped on the Mormon student attending LDS Business College in Salt Lake who’d been granted a rare exception allowing him to sport a beard while appearing in a LDS produced film about Jesus Christ, but who was required to wear an explanatory sign around his neck while on campus. Also, he was told he must compensate for his outward display of spiritual slacker-hood by wearing dress slacks and a tie. I wasn’t wearing a tie or a sign around my neck when Pastor John was thinking of Jesus. And I don’t think it was the beard, either. I think Pastor John sees Jesus in everyone’s face.)

When the beard came off, the staff were relieved, and they let me know.

Very sharp, Sir.

You now are looking more healthy, Sir. You were very, very dull.

You and Miss Rebecca having no more love failure–is good.

It is good. And just in time for our 20th wedding anniversary.

TO COMMEMORATE THE BEGINNING OF our third decade together, we packed a light picnic and took a lovely walk down a village road whose winding path was almost as full of twists and turns as our own marriage has been. Around every corner some new, unexpected delight. And plenty of opportunities to reorient from time to time, to get our bearings. We wound up–appropriately enough–at a temple alongside a lake. We were married in a temple–the LDS temple in Oakland, California–all those years ago, and could never have imagined that we’d be spending our 20th anniversary in India standing beside a Hindu temple. It was late afternoon and the slanting sun spilled its gold on everything–on the temple, the pond, the palm trees and herdsman’s goats, the cattle egrets and pond herons stepping through the marsh grasses. Rebecca’s hair shone gold and copper.

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We settled onto a spot near the temple, overlooking the little lake. The temple was in the southern Indian style, with a pyramidal steeple adorned with hosts of vividly-painted gods and goddesses, devas, and even gargoyles for scaring away the asuras, or demon spirits. Ecstatic devotional music trumpeted from loudspeakers in four direction as we sat together and looked back and looked forward, it being the turning of the year and also that tipping point in our marriage where, after 20 years, we’ve been together longer than we’ve been apart.

The temple includes a shrine to the god Shiva, (whose seemingly contradictory associations with both Destruction and Creation might better be understood as Regeneration, not unlike a farmer who discs a harvested field to prepare the ground for next spring’s crop.) Shiva is represented by a polished phallus, called a lingam.

Lingam and Yoni

Lingam and YoniLarge enough to make even the most confident of men more than a little insecure, the lingam symbolizes the god’s male potency and virility. But on this late afternoon, twenty years since Rebecca and I, twain, became one flesh, I can’t help but reflect on a temple symbol that foreigners often miss: Shiva’s lingam is always set in and circumscribed by a divine womb, or Yoni. It is only together, Yoni and Lingam, that the Divine is fully expressed. If you look at some of the oldest statues of the Hindu god, you will see that only the right half is Male; the left half is Female. They, together, Shiva and Parvati, comprise the Divine Whole, co-equal in power and capacity, but each reliant on the Divine Union to unleash their creative energy.

Five red-headed bundles of creative energy later, I think of how inseparably entwined our lives have become. To borrow a term from the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, our marriage has invited us into a kind of inter-being, an ecology of relationships that recognizes, beyond the arbitrary epidermal boundaries, a complex system of inter-dependence that allows us to do more together than we could apart. To the extent I’m learning to yield to that inter-being, I expand exponentially.

This is what I couldn’t have fully understood at the temple 20 years ago. My Mormon tradition, too, has an audacious and sublime vision of Divine Union, which I cherish. But sometimes it’s obscured by ego-baiting rhetoric promising celestial dominions, kingdoms, glories, hierarchies of status. And perhaps it’s tainted, too, by a troubling history where polygamy seems to have been leveraged by its earliest practitioners not as a way for co-equals to enter a sacred partnership, but as a kind of celestial multi-level marketing scheme where the reach of a man’s exaltation was proportionate to the number of brides over which he presided.

This isn’t how I’ve come to understand my marriage. Those with a sublime vision of Divine Union aren’t embarrassed at the mere mention of a Heavenly Mother, nor fail to find a place for her in their temples, particularly during depictions of the Creation.

So it is fitting that we are here, where the Hindu temple at our shoulder can reminds us, perhaps better than our own temples dare, of the vision that has inspired our marriage for two decades and counting. A vision where we learn to embrace the other, loving and accepting until dualities dissolve, until that improbable partnership of opposites becomes a dynamic union of inter-beings, one in soul forever.

I didn’t know much twenty years ago when I married Rebecca Leavitt in the LDS temple in Oakland, California. The wedding rites hinted that we would one day rise to a fully divine nature. Now I better understand that our temple sealing wasn’t just a box to check off on a list of required ordinances that had to be satisfied. Now I see that the work of sealing was in truth the work of a lifetime spent together, learning to let the ego-boundaries of self melt away in the presence of the beloved. And if we do rise, we will rise as angels who, having each only one wing, ascend in each other’s embrace.

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Circles of Inclusion: A letter to my community from the leprosy colonies.

BEING WITHOUT AN INTERNET CONNECTION so far from home can feel like being marooned on an desolate island. The tower that connects us to our loved ones was overthrown in a violent storm a few weeks ago. We’d only been in the remote village here in India for a day and half when a tropical gale ripped the tower from its rusting anchors and hurled it to the ground. No more internet. We didn’t know how much we relied on it and now we’re really struggling without it. The hardest part is the feeling of being severed from our community, isolated, cut off.

With that in mind, you may understand the mixture of sadness, disappointment, and utter helplessness I feel as I’m getting weather reports from back home. It seems that a climate of fear, mistrust, and hostility broods over the Mormon community. Storms eventually blow over, but this is something different. This is a foul, pestilential vapor hanging over our community, although, in one of the many ironies inherent in being human, we are asphyxiating ourselves even as we fume at others.

I have no breath of fresh air to offer. No breezy expressions to sweep away the reeking miasma. In an emergency, they say, an oxygen mask will drop from above. But clearing the air will take more than some deus ex machina.

It was not the gods who did this–they did not command us to kick each other out of the church; they did not whisper that TRUTH was such a fragile thing it needed protection from IDEAS; they did not inspire us to pick up stones and hurl them at one another; they surely did not teach us that moral influence and power should be maintained by virtue of priesthood office, nor by exercising control, dominion, or compulsion, nor by contracting out the dirty work to modern-day hirelings, the PR Department.

Sadly, it seems to me that the hand of inclusion and acceptance we’d been extended by a few apostolic leaders seems to have been withdrawn. Now it’s all jabs and sucker-punches.

BUT I ALSO HEAR REPORTS OF KINDNESS, of inclusion, of individual ministries where institutional ones have failed. I rally when I hear these reports. They tell me that pockets of fresh air are possible where two or more are truly gathered in His name–a kind of rescue breathing where words of acceptance and inclusion resuscitate the dead and dying.

To those who have been excommunicated from the body of believers, whether formally (institutional punishment) or informally (social punishment), my heart aches for you. I’ve been working among the leprosy-affected here in India enough to witness how dehumanizing it is to be shunned, marginalized, even banished from a community. I’ve also come to understand the fear and ignorance lurking under the surface of such behavior. But you are not unclean for questioning injustice. You are not filthy for calling foul. You are not untouchable for challenging the status quo.

Every time someone, in fear, draws a circle that excludes you from the Mormon community, please know there are others of us drawing circles wide enough to take you in. And as your brothers and sisters, we will continue our commitment to inclusion, through renegade acts of radical acceptance, until we find ourselves—all of us–circumscribed into one great whole.

 

Here outside the tiny village of Thottanaval, there are plans to rebuild the tower that pulls internet fire from the sky. It could take a month or a year. But in the meanwhile, I still find my most meaningful relationships intact, needing no intermediary to connect us. May it be so for all of us.

I Meet “Mountain of Wisdom”

I Meet “Mountain of Wisdom”

AT ONE OF THE LEPROSY COLONIES, while the medical team worked with patients, I met Vedadhri. He’d stepped out into the courtyard at the center of the colony looking part benevolent mayor and part Socrates entering the agora–it may have been the crown of white
hair or the broad paunch; it might have been the way he leaned on his cane and surveyed our work. I introduced myself and discovered his strong command of English, a hearty laugh, and an inexhaustible store of wisdom. We were soon engrossed in a conversation that meandered from geo-politics and classical languages to religious pluralism, philosophy, and economics. I came to understand how well-suited he was to his name, which means Mountain of Vedas. The Vedas are the repository of spiritual insights revered by Hindus, so named after the Sanskrit term for knowledge. He laughs when he explains this to me, tapping his cane under his palms.

“Mother and father surely disappointed. Short as a stump and no wisdom!”

I steer him into talking about his own history a little. He bears none of the markers of leprosy, so I wonder how he came to live in this colony, among the leprosy-affected.

What I learn: Vedadhri had been an eager and ambitious young man in 1956. Despite the widespread fear surrounding leprosy, Vedadhri was convinced that that the disease could be understood. And if it could be understood, it could be cured. He was just one of many researches working on the problem, but instead of experimenting in the safety of he lab, he went out to the field, conducting research and trying to understand the problem first hand. I ask how he overcame the deeply entrenched stigma. Back then, didn’t he feel some aversion? He dismisses the idea.

“God in me, God in them. No difference,” he says.

I’ve read similar sentiments from Mother Theresa, but Vedadhri says it as if asserting water is wet. This wasn’t some theological article of faith, but a basic fact of the universe. I think how the same religious world view that justifies the stigmatization of leprosy as cosmic payback for some karmic misdeed in a previous life could also provide the insights motivating compassion and charity. Hinduism is no different than Christianity and Islam in this, it seems, with some of us beating swords into ploughshares and some sharpening those ploughshares back into swords, depending on how our heart is swayed by our scriptures.

After a long career with only incremental successes, Vedadhri retired. But instead of leaving the field and moving into a nice house in a respectable village, he accepted a position as the manager over this little colony we were visiting.

“These are my people,” he explains, swinging the foot of his cane out in a wide arc. “I feel great affection.”

That was about 30 years ago. When he first arrived here, he found that the previous manager had erected a security fence around his house, protecting his family from contact with the colony and their disease. There was still a lot of fear back then. Vedadhri’s first act as the colony manager was to take down that fence. He invited them into his home, without distinction between who was family and who wasn’t. He told them they were all family, and they were welcome day or night in his home. His own children eventually married and left the colony. If his wife was still alive, he doesn’t say and I don’t ask. As colony members passed by, they exchanged smiles and head wobbles with Vedadhri. He stepped down a while ago as the manager of the colony, at least officially, but it’s clear he holds a
place of honor here. He calls a young man from the colony over to him and speaks some instructions to him in Tamil.

The medical team is loading the van. Some students are here, too, from the US, finishing their degrees in nursing. It’s been a long day for them and they’re starting to gather near the busses. Vedadhri turns to me and says he wants to thank our group with some coconuts. “For refreshing, please. Coconuts.”

I see the student nurses are climbing into the medical bus. I thank Vedadhri and then trot out to catch the group. There’s some mumbling and eye-rolling. They don’t want to stay. No one knows when the young man will be back with the coconut. They’re tired. I catch up with their nursing professor, who’s accompanied them to India. She’s standing not far from Vedadhri with another group of student nurses. I explain that our host has kindly sent for coconuts and isn’t that thoughtful and wouldn’t we want to express our gratitude. They’ll be here soon, I say.

Perhaps she’s exhausted, or skeptical about how long this might delay their departure. She says, “Let’s just go. No one even likes coconut milk, or water, or whatever.” She turns to her group. “Does anyone even want a coconut? she asks. She turns back. “See. Let’s
go.”

Vedadhri’s hearing this. She might not know he can understand her. She looks like she might not care, at this point. I’ll learn later that she’s been frustrated at the impositions on their very tight schedule. But at this moment, I’m wincing at what I see as a breach of etiquette, rudeness in response to Vedadhri’s generosity. Of course, we can’t stay indefinitely. I walk back to Vedadhri and thank him again for the offer. How much longer does he think the man will take? He tells me maybe 15 minutes.

Someone else from Rising Star announces that’s too long, hooks his thumb out and jabs it towards the road. “We’ve got to go,” he says to both of us, really. As we pile into the medical van, the young man pedals into the colony on a bicycle, balancing two bulging burlap
sacks full of coconuts.

In the end, no one seemed to agree that we should take a few minutes to enjoy–or pretend to enjoy–the coconuts, so Vedadhri, smiling and seemingly unruffled, tells the young man to load them into the back of the van.

I spend the ride home wondering what it cost the colony to treat 30 Americans to coconuts that we’ll never eat and what it would have cost us to suck some coconut water through a straw for a few minutes. It’s hard to be upset with a van full of people that have
spent the day dressing wounds in unbearable heat, so I let it go, or try to.

I think of a story Vedadhri told me that afternoon. The colony had kicked out a woman who’d broken a major rule. It was her third infraction and had been seen as an egregious offense. Banished, she languished a few weeks outside the colony, trying to survive on her own. When she came crawling back to the colony, it was to Vedadhri she appealed. I think back to how his eyes brimmed with tears as he told me this. “What were we to do?” he asked me.

“She broke our rules. Very bad for our community. Third time.”

He says he called the colony out of their huts and buildings. He gestured to the woman and then asked the community, You may ask, how many times can we forgive her? Do you remember that Jesus was asked the same question? Vedadhri looks at me with a twinkle in his eye when he says this now. “You see? Now I had them,” he tells me.

While not Christians in any formal way, I’m learning that, at least here in Southern India, Jesus holds a place of devotion in the heart of many Hindus. God is one, I hear often, and figure that if the Ultimate Reality can appear in any of 3000 avatars, there’s no theological objections raised by one more incarnation. Vedadhri’s family worships Shiva, he’d already told me, so I find his appeal to New Testament forgiveness all the more interesting.

He finished his story of the woman by pointing her out for me, there on the cool slab of broken concrete outside a proudly painted home.

“She is here, until this day. And we always are forgiving her.”

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