Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mind the Gap

I’ve spent time in places with great economic disparity. In Haiti, I’ve been approached by children with bloated bellies begging on the streets of Port-au-Prince, only moments after arriving on a flight with Haitians who had traveled to Miami to go shopping for the day. 
In South Africa, I stayed in a nice home in a gated neighborhood while only a half-mile away, people huddled in blankets on the open veld in the bitter cold.
In Indianapolis, I serve a church where you never know who will walk through the door -- a multimillionaire in business attire or a gentleman who sleeps in the park and uses the church shower to clean up for the day. 
But India rattled me again with its economic gap. In a season where most of the world is struggling economically, India’s economy increased nine-fold in the past year, mostly due to technology, call centers, and software development. While that boom has offered incredible technological advances, it hasn’t transformed Indian lives in the ways the world had hoped. The United Nations reports that more Indians now have cell phones than toilets.  There were 670 million cell phone connections in India at the end of the summer, but only 366 million Indians have access to a private toilet or latrine. 

While we did not spend time in the slums of Mumbai or Calcutta, we saw plenty of tenement  housing in Amdavad and rural poverty along the gut-churning mountain roads of Kerala. The ragged streets of major cities are piled high with trash and reek of a nauseous combination of raw sewage, rotting food, exhaust, and curry. These poor conditions permeate the Indian landscape because development and infrastructure are impeded by government corruption and internal security threats from a Maoist insurgency. 
In the midst of this struggle, we met faithful people striving to bridge the economic gap. The Swaminarayan Hindu women at the BAPS temple in Amdavad work diligently on empowerment issues and have donated time and money to rebuild areas of the country afflicted by natural disasters like earthquakes and flooding. In Kerala, the Anglican  archbishop heads a church where 30 percent of the members are former dalits (Untouchables).  Even though the caste system was allegedly overturned in the 1950s, the dalits still struggle to meet their basic needs.  The Anglican church reaches out to these precious children of God through education, job training, and employment assistance. 
If you’ve ever ridden the London Tube, you’ll notice a lovely British voice telling you to “mind the gap” as you step on the train.  That’s what I believe these Hindu women and Anglicans are inviting us to do -- to mind the gap between us, whether in India or our own neck of the woods. As we gather throughout the next few days to feast and give thanks, I hope we'll remember that gap and be inspired to a greater generosity, a deeper passion for justice, and a longing to see the world flushed with compassion -- one toilet at a time. 

Friday, November 12, 2010


I come from strong women. Before I could hold up my head, my mom and her friend were dressing me in a “Ms.” onesie to mark me as an ardent feminist.  Their empowerment left indelible marks on my life. At church, I still sip tea from a mug that says, “God is not a boy’s name.” 
A recent trip to India reminded me how much I have taken these roots for granted. We spent time with two different sects of Swaminarayan Hinduism, where I felt the confines of female disempowerment in ways I’ve never experienced before. Women in the main temples are totally separate from men. They remain behind a rail and cannot perform darshan, gazing on the deities, with the men.  They cannot serve as leaders, speak in assemblies where men are present, or hold positions on committees. 
While these restrictions are present in many Christian groups as well, there is an added twist for the Swaminarayans: Women do not receive the same religious instruction as men. They are forbidden from approaching male religious leaders, who hold the knowledge and power, and are only allowed to receive the highest spiritual blessings as an afterthought. 
Women worship among themselves in the haveli, a separate part of the temple where nuns live. It was there we spent time with our hostess Moto Gadiwala, the retired female religious leader who received her position 40 years ago through an arranged marriage to the acharya, the male leader of this sect.  Through marriage, Gadiwala is also considered divine, and so her female followers constantly try to touch her, receive a blessing, kiss her feet, or sweep up the dust from the ground where she walks. 
While we were asked to keep the details of our time together confidential, it is common knowledge that Gadiwala lives in purdah, meaning that she cannot be seen by males outside of her home, a sprawling compound surrounded by a high wall topped with barbed wire. She cannot go shopping at the mall or strolling down the street. Her main outing is to the temple each day, where she travels in an SUV with tinted windows lined with a curtain. When she leaves the vehicle to perform darshan, she is covered by a huge Mary-Poppins style umbrella and a flowered sheet. The women push and shove their way through the crowd to try to get near her, to receive the blessing that flows from her touch. 
This is the only life Gadiwala has ever known, and she faces it with remarkable dignity and grace.  She offers impeccable hospitality and genuine warmth to her guests. Yet after a week of being around her, I would sense my chest tighten every time I walked in the home or the temple. I couldn’t breathe. I felt suffocated by the powerlessness of Gadiwala and these women. 
Their powerlessness is deeply ironic, especially when you consider that Swaminarayan himself was a 19th-century reformer who actually helped the status of women by forbidding widow suicide and female infanticide. Currently India has gone beyond the United States by swearing in their first female president in 2007.  The Indian parliament also has guaranteed seats for women. 
I’m not sure what to do with this irony, other than to live with it and to recognize the irony of gender gaps around me in my own community. But there remains a part of me that wishes I had enough money to buy a half-billion “Ms.” T-shirts. I'd send them all to India for the women to wear as tops under their saris.