Beginnings, Middles, and Ends

Last night marked our final night in India. We celebrated our official campus farewell yesterday in a Valedictory, but have been saying our goodbyes for several days. There will certainly be no shortage of farewells today, as the end of our semester is actually here, but with those goodbyes comes a lot of reflection.

I remember arriving in India over three months dazed and exhausted from the nearly 20 hours spent on planes. We made it through the airport to meet a man (Roshen) whom I had never met before and was shorter than I had expected. We stood waiting, with our overstuffed bags, for the bus that would take us to Visthar. When it finally came and we were all loaded up we began to weave our way through the city. There were coconut trees everywhere and tons of advertisements and lights. Out the window we saw dogs and people roaming about in the darkness and it really started to hit me that I was far far away from home. I remember our arrival at Visthar very clearly, and walking into our rooms for the first time with a huge sigh of relief that it was “inhabitable” for the next three and a half months.

These memories seem like so long ago, as they mark the very beginning of this journey for us in India. I look back and laugh at my bewilderment, confusion, and slight apprehensions from those first few days. Now, we all feel at home. We know the people who live and work here, the names of some of the food, and the best techniques for washing clothes by hand. However, if we compare the beginning and the end, this doesn’t seem like a fair way to describe this semester.

In between that first night and today our lives have changed. We’ve met and been inspired by hundreds of people here. We’ve seen amazing sights- both beautiful and horrifying. We’ve learned new perspectives through which to see the world, different questions to ask ourselves about what is just, and actions to take to work for justice in society. And mostly, we’ve learned about each other; about each person’s past, present, and dreams for the future. We’ve made strong bonds, some of which will be staying here in India when the 15 of us students, Martin, and Laura all travel back home to the states.

So much has happened over these three and a half months, no words or pictures will do it justice. While the beginning and the ends might sometimes be seen as some of the most exciting and emotional of life’s events, it’s not the most important part. Everything in the middle- the field visits, the classes, the long conversations, the laughs and cries- those are what mean the most to us. In reflecting on this, I realized that the same is true for life going forward. Today is the end of our journey in India, and landing in Minneapolis is the beginning of the journey for whatever comes next. And yet, the beginning (while we will be excitingly reunited with our families) is not what matters. What matter most is the time in the middle of this new beginning and its coming end; what we chose to learn, where we chose to go, whom we chose to journey with, and, most importantly, what we chose to do with the time before the next journey’s end.

So while I am sad about the end of our journey in India, while I am ecstatic about seeing my family again, I am most looking forward to hearing about the “middles” of our  coming individual journeys; everything in between the beginning of our new adventure at home and its end, everything that truly means the most.

I hope you will all find ways to be a part of our middles during our next adventures, wherever they may lead!

Love and peace,

Christina

A Long Overdue Post About Theatre

Hello,

This is a co-post by Hannah Amundson and Leah Soule.

As two people passionate about both theater and justice, we decided to plan and facilitate theatre workshops with our fellow SJPD students and leaders. We are basing the workshops on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed theory and techniques and some of Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints. These techniques both focus on the body; Boal takes this a step further and focuses on how this can be used to process and resist oppression. It is our goal to use body and imagery to better understand the complex ideas of structural injustice and power distribution.

So far, we have done two workshops in a series of four spread throughout the semester. For each hour-long workshop, we include two to three exercises that are intended to spur ideas from the coursework focusing specifically on power.

For example, in our class titled “Identity, Resistance, and Liberation,” we used Boal’s exercise Columbian Hypnosis. In this exercise, the group paired off, and each pair selected a leader. The leader put his or her palm out and “hypnotized” his or her partner. From that point forward, the leader moved his or her hand any direction or level he or she chose while the follower kept his or her face 4 or 5 inches away from the hand. We also did a variation where one person stood in the middle and put both hands out to lead two people. These two people also put their hands out to lead two more people each.

This activity spurred conversation about an earlier encounter that we were struggling to process. During our first field visit, we toured a wig factory that had inhumane working conditions. During our tour, we met with the owner of the factory.  Our group had difficulty listening to this man praise his business practices that to us were clearly unethical, but to him were a necessary part of business competition that kept his factory running.

For our group, it was easy to label him as a villain. We watched his underpaid workers in unsafe conditions, and as we left, we passed by the owner’s expensive SUV. As we continued to grapple with this experience, we thought about why the owner ran his business this way. He had pressure from competition to keep prices low or risk going out of business. However, for us, this was not enough to justify his actions.

After doing Columbian Hypnosis, one of the participants brought up this experience and connected the factory owner to the person who had to both lead and follow. He could still control those beneath him, but ultimately had to follow the hand in front of him.  By seeing a visualization of the factory owner’s role, we understand that he is accountable for his actions, but we must also recognize that he is subjected to systematic pressures. This helped us understand that removing the factory owner was not the answer. The system we live in is far more complicated than that.

We did workshops with exercises like this three more times throughout the semester. Most exercises were from Augusto Boal’s Games for Actors and Non-Actors. For our final workshop, we chose to create an exercise on our own

These workshops have been a place where we can address these hard issues in a different way. We can use images and our bodies to explore and understand complicated questions and experiences. For Leah and I, it reinforces our belief that theatre can impact social change. Theatre has the ability to educate and explore ideas of social justice that is distinctly different than a traditional classroom setting. We play, we laugh, we work, and we learn all in hopes of understanding the world we live in and finding a way to change this world for the better.

Bridging the Social and the Spiritual

Four months ago, I was expecting my time in India to be filled with yoga and meditation, wisdom from one of the oldest religions, and spiritual epiphanies. I was very mistaken, probably because of this myth (http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/02/08/the-magic-of-india-for-white-people/), and am not even too disappointed by it. 

This past week, however, I came to realize a deep connection between the social and the spiritual. In working for social justice, we are working towards a society in which inclusion is a basic principle and all people have inherent worth (dignity). This is true for any issue of social justice, but has become especially apparent to me in the past two weeks. Lately, we’ve been discussing disability justice—a topic for which our “justice as fairness” theorist, John Rawls, gives no guidance. And the more we talk, the more I find that I am able to imagine a world in which people of all abilities are included in society. It is a world in which rights are not brushed off as “special needs” or “accommodations” to be met when the budget allows, and one in which my dignity is not dependent upon my (false) lack of dependence on others. As an advocate for social justice, in short, I am called to see the world from the standpoint of inclusivity. Indeed, we are a global community of rights-holders, dependent upon one another for survival, and must work together to ensure that each person’s rights are met.

The principles of inclusivity and interdependence do not have to be confined to the lofty realms of global justice, however—they can inform the way I live my daily life. I am reminded that the compassion that drives my work for justice is the same compassion that needs to inform everything I do. So as I look outward, imagining a more inclusive world, I am called to simultaneously look inward, becoming wholly inclusive of others. 

A Past Reflection On Religion

Since our last course is on religion I thought I would share a past reflection paper about just that.

After brushing my teeth with filtered water, shedding my dirty clothes, and slipping into my scrubs and t-shirt I always do one thing before going to bed, which is pray. Growing up in church I’ve always prayed before going to bed. Mostly for my friends, family, and sometimes myself depending on the day, but I always end it by praying that “God will shape me in his image, whatever that may be.”

For twenty years it has seemed like a simple enough concept, until the other day when David was discussing religion with us. We’d just finished discussing the 3 C’s, of religion which stand for Creed, Cult, & Culture.  Creed, mainly being the doctrine that is interpreted in each religion. Cult is more about the ritual of the specific religion. Culture is actually putting the ritual into practice.  All three are interconnected. One way to look at the cycle from the outside is to take the Muslim example of fasting (culture), why, because it is a ritual (cult), which is based on their specific doctrine (creed).  The 3 C’s were very new to me, but an important thing to look at in order to understand religion, and of course the rest of David’s class. He then went on to discuss the up and coming St. Mary’s Festival, which was in honor of St. Mary’s birthday. He brought up how during St. Mary’s Festival they put a sari on a statue of Mary.

I immediately thought of going around Bangalore seeing the different statues of Mary, white, not Indian, dressed in a sari. Even in the Lingaraja slums we visited were statues of a white, very western looking Mary adorned in an Indian sari. It was this perfect example of how somewhere after the creed of Jesus, but between the cult and culture artists had decided to make him look like whatever they felt comfortable with (primarily white, and western). This is ironic to those who know that Jesus was not born in the west, he was actually born in Israel, and thus most likely looking nothing like the white skinned westerner that we so often see portrayed today.

Seeing all of those statues of Mary who is portrayed as a white woman in a sari threw me off a bit. Her being white was normal for me to see because that was what I was used to, but the sari added a hint of fascination. “Why did she wear a sari?” and “If she is wearing a sari, why wasn’t she also Indian looking?” were questions that quickly popped into my head. David explained that by having Mary wear a sari it was a way for the Indians to claim Mary as theirs, to make her image more like theirs. But who is to say what Mary looks like, what Jesus looks like, what God actually looks like?

David goes on to bring up a fascinating contradiction that so many of us are guilty of doing. He says, “Why is it that we feel we have to shape God in our image to feel comfortable, but at night pray that God shapes us in his image.” Immediately after hearing this I felt I had had an “Aha moment”, like it was so true what he said. How contradictory, that we literally pray for something we constantly feel the need to change in order to accept and feel comfortable with it. It is a great example of an idea we learned about earlier in the week, which was “vision vs. practice tension”.  Our vision is to have God shape us into great people in his image, but the practice tension spurs from our need to control what his image looks like to us.

If we have shaped the way we see God, what else have we shaped for our own comfort, and understanding? Jesus says, “I am the way.” He says “I am the way”, not that he has any intention of making a religion called Christianity. He was living out this life as an example for others. This has been shaped since then into a religion with leaders, rules, doctrines, and other things that are structured, and familial to people. During the St. Mary’s Festival the church auctions off the sari that is worn by the Mary statue, and uses the funds for the poor. Do the ends justify the means? Religion profiting off of a market shaped by those who took Jesus’ way, and turned it into something of their own.

“We shape God’s image into our own to feel comfortable, but pray at night that God will shape us in his image.”

Such a concise sentence, which filled me with so much thought. Days later I am still thinking about it, how religious extremists shape God’s will to their own benefit to wage wars; how when I picture Jesus he is a white guy with a brown beard, and brown hair; how many other things we do or believe that were more so shaped by us than that of the one we claim to have had it shaped by. I really don’t have any answers right now to all of the questions that keep popping into my head, but I’m confident that as time goes on some of these mysteries will begin to be answered.

Tia’s Post From Emma’s Account Because I Still Don’t Understand How WordPress Works…

Our Lot

Religion is absolutely everywhere in India. Whether it’s from waking up to the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer at 5:30 in the morning, the Hindu temples on every corner, walls covered in Warli art illustrating genesis, or sitting in class with Buddha. The list goes on and on and as a student of religion I find it particularly exhilarating. Religion, rationalization, motivation, instructions, opiate, nonsense, are truly all synonyms. Religion and a lack thereof is how people make sense of the world and find their place in it. Part of the human experience is searching for meaning and people have been contemplating life, the universe, death, and everything for literally thousands of years.

King Solomon said sometime shortly after 1000BCE “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This is true to some extent. The wheel of life in Buddhism depicts scenes from life that are common: people are born, they live for a short while, work hard, try to find happiness, and then die. Death occupies a large and ever-present space in human consciousness. There is no escaping death. Everything that is living is dying.

On one trip into Bangalore probably over a month ago now, I saw a dead man. A body was laid on the ground, covered in a white sheet, and adorned with flowers. A dead man literally on the side of the road! I remember feeling shocked and withdrawn for the remainder of that day. Let’s try to imagine Siddhartha’s shock when he ventured out of the castle for that first time. Legend tells that Siddhartha’s father kept any sign of mortality from his son, he even covered himself in makeup and colored his hair to hide his ageing. Then when Siddhartha wanted to see the world, he saw age, sickness, and death for the first time. Suppose you never knew anything beyond beauty, youth, and physical ability existed… In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is distraught over the death of a friend and searches the ends of the earth to find the secret of immortality. Along the way, Gilgamesh meets a woman who makes wine and she tells him that the gods allotted man death and kept life for their own keeping.
She also tells him that he’ll never find the immortality that he’s searching for, but Instead he should fill his belly with good food, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice, have fresh clothing, bathe in water, cherish the little child that holds his hand, and make his wife happy in his embrace; “for this too is the lot of man,” (Epic of Gilgamesh Chapter Four). This sentiment is echoed in Sikhism by leading an ordinary life as a way to reach God. Siddhartha realized this too before his enlightenment. After living an extravagant life as a prince and spending six years self-deprecating as an ascetic, Siddhartha saw the middle path as an instrument: if the strings are too tight they will snap, if they are too loose they will not play. Thus Siddhartha became the awakened one, by occupying the space in the middle between two extremes, a place that is quite ordinary.

Living an ordinary life is much easier said than done especially when forces beyond one’s control destroy ordinary. Humankind has been inventing and perfecting new ways to kill, maim, inflict pain and suffering, and limit the agency of others for eons. I don’t know if King Solomon could have imagined the generation of children suffering in Bhopal, cancer caused by chemicals, or the devastation of nuclear warfare. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, quoted the religious text the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death. The destroyer of worlds,” after watching a trial detonation. This new breed of suffering goes beyond death by mutating genetics and degrading DNA. It sentences innocent people to lifetimes of physical and mental pain, which was unknown before the advent of the bomb and chemicals, completely decimating the potential of “ordinary.”

King Solomon got it mostly right. Life and civilizations are cyclical. The world has operated the same way for thousands of years. King Solomon saw that, but what he didn’t see was the potential for destruction and that what has been might never be again. Religion is one tool people use to organize life, making the anxiety of death that much more bearable, the uncertainty of disaster less intimidating, and justice slightly more attainable. Just as religion also has the potential to repress, scar, frighten, and create injustice. These contradictions are rooted in different understandings of purpose and why we’re all here on earth capable of thinking about these things in the first place. We’re all sharing in the common human experience of life, searching for our own ordinary.

Communion Without the Wine

IMG_6649 Loving and Learning and Laughing and Journeying.

Between paper-writing, bucket-listing, and last-minute-learning, our group continues discovering more about ourselves, each other, and our loved ones back home. We’re anxiously pretending India’s ticking hands are lost somewhere in a beautiful Kerala forest, as visions of nieces and cookies dance in our heads. We’re calculating how many nature walks, post-dinner talks, and friendship locks we can squeeeeeeze into just one more week. Some call it procrastination, we call it appreciation. A feeling/action/opportunity that will be our only saving grace. Appreciation for such a beautiful and inspiring semester; appreciation for the strong women who’ve graciously served us tea, meals, and clean sheets; appreciation for the sensitive faculty who’ve always had our best interests at heart. For Roshen, Martin, Laura, and more. The people we never knew were apart of life’s simple yet powerful gifts. For the people back home who’ve supported us even when we pushed their thoughts, who were patient even when we disappeared for weeks. For the people we’ve sat next to in class these last four months who’ve challenged us, laughed with us, and stood up for us. India did not make us different people. India supported us, showed us perspectives, and encouraged us. We’re the same fifteen loving, enthusiastic, passionate, strong students that left Minnesota in August. And we’re nervous about leaving India and excited about coming home. Nervous about implementing new ideas and excited about engaging with our community. To our friends and loved ones, continue supporting us, and continue loving, admiring, and enjoying us as we will do the same for you. Today we practiced deep listening with each other, realizing the beauties of vulnerability and trust. We discussed the importance of communion and fellowship. Nobody is at fault in this system. We’re all learning and affected by the world around us. A world filled with personhood, nature, and wonder. Which reminds me, it’s time for my nature walk! As I go to wander in wonder, I’ll leave you with this uninspiring last remark: resist global warming/climate injustice, but tell MN to turn off the freezer until we can find this girl a coat!

Peace out, girl/boy scout!

Love the world; Love you.

Reflections on Religion

As we are wrapping up our religion course and writing our final essay, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on religion. We tend to see religion in society as groups of people believing certain things, but we often forget that religion is personal for each person. It is personal in the way it is practiced and what one actually believes. We loosely group religions together and then fight over who is right, when actually, we are all just trying to find meaning in our lives. Religion though, do hold a prominent position in our world today.

I have been pondering many questions related to religion in our world. What is religion? What does it mean to be religious? Can a person be religious without having a religious affiliation? Does one have to believe in God to be religious or a part of a religion? Who defines religion? What types of rituals are important for different religions? These questions are so daunting and confusing precisely because religion is different for every person. So, let us just say that religion can be whatever one wants it to be, but I believe that in the essence of all religion, of all life, there is always love. Religion and love cannot be separated, for without love, there is no religion.

One may ask, how can religion be about love when it seems to perpetuate so much hate and injustice? These are not at the core of religion, but stem outward from misuse of religion. When one realizes that all religion stems from love, there is no room for hatred or injustice. When one embraces love as the essence of religion, one realizes that tolerance for others’ beliefs is a necessary part of any religion. I have witnessed tolerance and love in so many religions in India- in the visual images of mosques next to churches next to temples. I have seen the beauty of religion as well as the injustices, but I am able to see that these injustices are not at the core of the religions and they should not be the defining part of religions. Rather, they are introduced to justify greed, power, and control which run contrary to love.

I may seem idealistic, but I can see how love is the mission of religion. I see this through the words and actions of Mother Theresa, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, and Gandhi who have used religion to preach love, because the essence of religion is love. These people give me hope for the future of religion, hope that injustice can be disengaged from religion, and hope that in the end, love will prevail.

We All Live in Bhopal

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Hello family and friends! It’s been a while since we’ve posted, but our SJPD group just got back from our two-week field visit throughout North India (Delhi, Agra, Varanasi and Bhopal). Here’s an update and reflection I wrote during our last stop in Bhopal (it’s adapted from a personal blog post I wrote):

I’d like to shed light on an issue that the world has been reflecting on for 29 years. On the night of December 2nd 1984, 30 tons of methyl isocyanine gas as well as other toxic chemicals escaped from the Union Carbide (now Dow Chemicals) pesticide factory in Bhopal. Some numbers say that between 2,000-3,000 people died that same night. The exact number of how many died that night varies depending on whom you ask, but it all doesn’t matter when we find out that damage and struggle continues to this day from exposure-related illnesses or drinking severely contaminated water, poisoned by the 347 tons of hazardous waste that lie exposed on and around the site.

Union Carbide Factory

Our SJPD group visited the abandoned Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India where the gas leak occurred in 1984.

Bhopal is a place significant to not only the community of people affected directly who reside here, but there is a great significance to our global community as well. In efforts to raise awareness and prevent another big accident like the gas leak in Bhopal from occurring again, the phrase “No more Bhopal” was coined. Today, the phrase has shifted its perspective to now focus on the slow contamination that is concerning not just for the people in Bhopal, but also for everyone else in this whole world. The current Hindi phrase used (Hindi is the prominent language in this region) is “We are all Bhopalis” and the English translation is “We all live in Bhopal.” We all live on the same Earth. The direct contamination in Bhopal is knows no limits. The disaster in Bhopal is not an isolated event.

Our whole SJPD program group is incredibly amazed by the Bhopal gas tragedy survivors’ strength to continue on this long running campaign for justice and the courage they have to stand up and demand justice. Achieving justice in Bhopal should be regarded as a public health initiative with the potential to inspire significant and widespread change. The survivors and efforts for justice in Bhopal show how it is possible to generate opportunities for hope through creative and collective intervention in a situation of despair. In moving forward, a starting place a lot of us have been reflecting on is how and in what ways “we ALL live in Bhopal.” It’s been 29 years since the Bhopal crisis – it’s time to demand justice and join in solidarity with those who have been demanding.

Bhopal was a moving, inspiring and powerful last field visit for myself personally and I know for many others as well. Our time in Bhopal encompassed all of what we’ve been learning about this whole semester. It’s the last stretch here with our time in India and I’m soaking it all in! Hope all is well with you, from wherever you may be reading this from!

-Nicole

Curious to learn more about the long running campaign for justice in Bhopal?

Check out these great resources: Students for Bhopal & www.bhopal.org 

Chingari

Over the course of the semester we have all seen and experienced some pretty spectacular things. I worked on an organic farm for five days, saw the Taj Mahal, watched the sun rise on the Ganga, and stayed with an Indian family for a weekend, but I’ve been most inspired by the work I’ve seen various NGOs doing throughout the semester. One NGO in particular has stood out to me: Chingari.

One of Chingari’s many functions is to serve as a rehabilitation center for children who have mental and physical disabilities and birth deformities due to the Bhopal gas leak and water contamination tragedy. The rehabilitation center has only been around since 2008, but it has over 600 registered children and serves 180 children each day. The facility provides physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and special education.

The past two summers I have worked at a residential home for kids with special needs. The facility where I worked is called Faith, Hope, & Charity. I did direct care, which included everything that a resident does in a day from taking care of basic needs to taking kids on outings to places like the pool, park, or library. This summer job had a huge impact on my life. I became interested in disability and ableism, changed majors, and I am now considering a career working with children with special needs.

We visited Chingari twice while in Bhopal. Once when none of the children were there and once when everything was in full swing. Having the children there definitely made it come alive. We had the opportunity to interact with the kids there for a few minutes before they were rushed off to their next activity.

Before my experience working with kids who have a disability, I always thought of disability as a flaw—something sad and undesirable. Now I am able to think of disability as an experience, an identity, as diversity. When we stop pitying people who have a disability, we are able to recognize their humanity. Seeing the kids at Chingari and hearing of the work that is being done there filled me with hope.

Here’s the link to Chingari’s website:
http://www.chingaritrustbhopal.com/services.html

Thanks for reading,

Emma

Little Things

Street chai – 5 rupees
Fresh pomegranate – 50 rupees
Auto-rickshaw ride from Big Market – 80 rupees
Clean air and water – priceless
For Everything Else there’s MasterCard

The above may seem a little silly, but it’s essentially true here in India. Throughout our time here, we have been exposed to new and unfamiliar styles of food, dress, forms of transportation and even religion (which our current course focuses on). For the most part, these new experiences are under our control. We plan what cities to visit, what to do there, where to stay, what to buy/eat… One of the only things that is truly outside of our immediate control is the environment that surrounds us. Particularly over the last couple weeks, I believe that many SJPD students have gained a new appreciation for things like truly clear air without dust or pollution.

For those of you reading at home, there’s no reason to worry. Everyone is alive and well (if a little weary from travel) and where we do encounter things such as heavily polluted air it is only for brief periods of time. The point that I’m trying to make here is that many people in the United States don’t appreciate these “little things” that don’t seem so little once they’re gone. Growing up in Richfield, a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis, I can’t remember a single instance where the air seemed to singe my lungs unless I was directly behind some sort of industrial truck or old/worn down car. Similarly, I was able to drink water drawn from an underground reservoir that didn’t need to be filtered/softened out of the tap. Coming to India has made me appreciate those things more.

It’s hard to imagine how different life would be if those simple things hadn’t merely been briefly taken away and instead were a way of life for me growing up. It probably would have been more difficult to concentrate on my math homework if I had to walk 3 kilometers to fetch water in a pot every morning, and if I had been sick more frequently due to poor air quality. That’s why things like clean air and water are truly priceless – or should be. Out in the real world, though, there is a clear price to them. Some people we have encountered can afford to buy medical-style masks that filter out most of the muck in the air. Others have electric water filters in their homes or have clean water delivered to their homes by a tanker periodically. The luckiest are able to live in an area where problems like these aren’t issues, places like Richfield.

So as I write this on the day of Thanksgiving (though it won’t be posted until we next have internet) I’m hoping that those who read this take a moment to be thankful for these “little things,” and perhaps to re-consider how we make a wide plethora of decisions in our own society and communities. Decisions such as where to put new fossil-fuel burning power plants and whether to continue letting fracking contaminate groundwater across the nation. Not everyone in the United States, after all, has access to clean air and water – these problems aren’t confined to developing countries like India.