The Pilgrimage to India Keeps Giving: An Advent Story

It is December 17, a full month since my return from India.  And today is the first story of what I hope will be several published on the FEMINISM AND RELIGION BLOG.  I invite you to read it.  http://feminismandreligion.com/

Volunteers in Global Service [http://www.volunteersinglobalservice.org/], the organization that helped me connect to Visthar in Bengaluru was also instrumental in suggesting that I continue to write about the journey.  Mary Hunt gave me the suggestion of the Feminism and Religion Blog.  And so here it is!

The blessed rains of winter are watering the San Francisco Bay Area all the way down to Watsonville, where Kathryn and I live. And everyone here seems to be filled with gratitude for the abundance of the water.  May it continue [without flooding of course!].

Blessings to all!IMG_20141012_152526 IMG_20141024_125954

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Nov. 17–19: The Process of Coming Home

Now that I am home, recovering from jet lag, I want to show you the photos that were taken at the end of our week of rehearsals for the domestic violence play.  In my previous blog I talked about how we all were crying….maybe you can see how somber we all were as we were trying to say good-bye….”see you soon?”…..and wondering what that meant….

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And so I left Bhubaneswar later that afternoon and flew back to Bangalore. The women of Salia slum deep in my heart.  They will continue to rehearse our play each evening until Dec. 5 when they perform it for the annual Parichay Foundation fundraiser. Part of those funds will go to projects within their Salia slum.

Returning to the city of Bangalore/Bengaluru from working with these great women, I particularly noticed these signs and the gulf that they represent between the rich and poor in India and the rest of our world.

IMG_20141110_092924 IMG_20141110_093005The one on the left says:  “Here is an apartment that feels like a villa…”

On the right:

“Live large, Live Now!”– shows huge skyscrapers

I will skip the packing I did back in Visthar, and I will skip the 22 hours + it took me to return/fly to San Francisco.  But best of all was returning to Kathryn and spinning story after story on our 90 minute car ride back to Watsonville.  She had a few stories to spin herself since she had traveled to a conference in Germany and a meeting in Minnesota.  Yes, indeed, we are “sisters of the holy road! ” [a term we coined together on our first trip to India in l989]

So what am I to make of this journey to India? And all the various projects I was part of?  First I am taking some rest after this very intense journey and glad to have Thanksgiving week to do that and to indeed give thanks for it all.

I continue to be amazed at how the needs of the non-profit Visthar fit so well with my own.  And I am so very grateful to them for their openness to including me in so many of their projects.

Working so well with Visthar leads me to believe that if I could link up with other non-profits with similar goals [i.e. educational outreach to young girls, gender equity and sexuality trainings and workshops, theatre as a tool for participation and learning, ecumenical and inter-faith projects]…..and perhaps I could offer my skills in the U.S. and in other parts of the world as well. About the middle of my 6 weeks in India I realized this and it energized me, as it does now.  A newly formed group, Volunteers in Global Service, was a kind of silent witness to my journey to India.  As they organize further, perhaps they too will be a resource for myself and others.

And there are circles within circles.  Before I left for India this fall, I helped to create a play at our local Watsonville high school on the bullying of Mixteco young people by other students.  In many ways, that work fully resonates with and built bridges to the work I did in India.

Most of all, as I think it has been clear in my various blogs, the people to people relationships, reaching out to and being so warmly received by the incredible people I worked and created with [women activists, pastors, the young girls of Bandhavi School, seminarians and faculty of UTC, MSW students in Kerala, and the women of the Salia slum in Bhubaneswar….]  each one will stay with me and smile back at me for the rest of my life.  I can only hope that this deep connectivity that I feel will remain a similar point of light and warmth and hope for them too.

I will end this blog with 3 pictures and brief story.  Dr. Molly Abraham and her husband KC Abraham [a retired eminent liberation theologian] built a home for their differently-abled daughter Lisa and other women like her.  They called it Lisa’s Home.  Molly and KC live next door.  One of the young women, Hazel, sang a song for me when I visited entitled “One Day at a Time.”  It was a beautiful testament to living fully in the present moment, one day at a time. Lisa’s brother, Ajit Abraham, is the reason I found Visthar.  Ajit teaches in Kathryn’s department of Global Studies at CSU Monterey Bay.  I mused one evening over dinner how I would like to volunteer my services/abilities somewhere as part of my sabbatical.  Ajit immediately said, ” I have just the place for you! Visthar!.”  In fact he had written his dissertation on Visthar.  And so, with gratitude,  I close with pictures of Lisa’s Home, Hazel, and Molly and KC Abraham….and a grateful nod to Ajit.

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Nov. 14: Last Day in Bhubaneswar & Domestic Violence Play

Dear Friends,

FRIDAY Nov. 14  Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India

Rehearsing everyday this week, I have found that life intervenes with each of the women and causes some to be late or not show up at all.

Today, the last day we will work together, I arrive at rehearsal space at 10am.  My idea is that we will work from 10—12 due to Smita who has a family function she must attend and will leave at 12. However….when I arrive I hear from Jarona, Sunonda and Gitonjoli that Smita who plays Laksmi/wife left last night at 11pm for her village, as a last minute decision. Also, Shruti/Manu had not yet arrived because she usually came with Smita. Hmmmmm.

I began work anyway with the three who were present, doing character work, building life stories for each character.  From our work together we constructed:  Jarona is now Tita Swang [phonetic spelling] who started her own self help group in the Salia slum. Sunonda is Lucy, a member of the self help group and Laksmi’s [abused wife] best friend and has seen her abused many times and always come to her aid. Finally Lucy has had enough and insists that Laksmi move from the village to Bhubaneswar and start a new life. They do.  Naryan [abusing husband] hears that his family is doing well and comes to Bhubaneswar to see and decides he wants to rejoin the family. But the abuse continues. And that’s when Laksmi and Manu [her daughter] find the self help group in the Salia slum. In our conversations with Shruti who plays Manu we found out that since the age of 7 she has been abused by her father.  She is very afraid of him when he comes through the door because she never knows how he will be, drunk/abusive or sober.  In our conversation creating the character of Naryan [husband], he works as a laborer and earns 200 rs. a day. His family needs 100rs to eat. He drinks 50 rs each day, and smokes 50 rs each day. The family has no savings. His life is going nowhere. He is angry. He drinks trying to feel good. But he doesn’t feel good, in fact he feels more angry. He hits his wife often and even broke her arm once. Lucy [friend] always comes to help.   Laksmi is getting angry now too and begins to stand up to him. Still he hits her. Then she finds the self help group.  They offer Laksmi strategies for dealing with the husband.  They begin to teach her about domestic violence and alcohol addiction. She sees this will never stop with Naryan.

Meanwhile, in the rehearsal……Gitonjoli is taking calls, Sunonda takes a call….and I ask them not to, firmly. Minu/assistant literally turns off Gitonjoli’s phone. [tomorrow is a festival that honors the eldest in each family, and so there is food to prepare and puja/worship to do, and family members to visit…..clearly that’s what the phone calls were all about!]  It is also very clear, they are all VERY VERY tired…probably only getting 3-4 hours sleep a night since due to our rehearsals, they were “working” from 11—2p, their usual additional nap time. We finished the character work, and then ran through the play once. Stopping and starting to fix things. The character work really helped them go deeper into their characters and feelings.  Then it was 12:15 and time to stop.

Gitonjoli, the person who was the most ambivalent to begin with, and now was also the person who with Jarona jumped into exercises and enjoyed their freedom…..was the first to cry. Then Sunonda, another ambivalent one, but now fully on board. Then the rest of us. The pictures taken at that moment have a kind of somberness to them because of that. We were all feeling so much.

In a sense, this work and play we’ve created with the women of the Salia slum this week…..has been a bookend to the work I did in Koppal with the 12–16 year old girls when we created another play together.  These women, wearing their  finest sariis to rehearsal, are empowering themselves and the women and children of the Salia slum through the various self-help groups they have started and are part of.  For example, the woman who played Naryan/the drunk husband, thanks to the “bank” of her self help group, has started a small grocery store.   Each is an amazing example of the great odds they face and struggle with.   The Bandhavi girls are just beginning their lives, and are being educated to know they have rights as women and as human beings. They each have a dream for their life.  They already have a “leg up” due to their education and thus, hopefully, will able to break the cycle of poverty that seems to surround so many women here in India.

Over and over again, I have been educated by these women.  Over and over again, I hold their stories in my heart…..and hope that the work we all have done together will keep being a source of light, empowerment, connectivity….and love for themselves and their worlds.  It certainly has been so for me.

November 13: Bhubaneswar, Odisha + A New Play with Indigenous Women

Hello Everyone!   It is Thursday morning here.  I’ve just had breakfast of tea and toast and cornflakes and bananas and an apple.  In a few minutes I’ll be picked up by a driver for the Parichay Foundation.  This is the ngo I am working with here, headed by a woman, Rosalin Patsani.  They work with indigenous women and children all over this state of Odisha, running 2 schools and having various self help projects in the largest slum outside of Mumbai which is here in Bhubaneswar.

I am here to create a play with immigrated indigenous women, which means that since they’ve immigrated to this city they have lost much of their indigenous culture.  Other indigenous people in Odisha live in the mountains, dress very differently from most Indians, and have little contact with Indian culture out of choice I gather.  I asked if indigenous people are the same as Dalits/Untouchables in the caste system.  Evidently not. And evidently there is enmity between the two groups.  Why does that part of the story always sound the same? Those at the bottom of the social structure always fighting among themselves.  It certainly helps those on top.  Hmmmmm.

I am working with 5 women and one young girl/14.  On this past Monday night when I arrived and met them, they had already created the story they wanted to tell.  It is their story/stories.  It is that of an abusing husband, alcoholic, his wife and daughter who are beaten/abused by him, a best friend of the woman, and a self help group that reaches out to help Laksmi and her daughter Manu.  When I heard the story, I knew immediately that it would be a good one on the stage.  I went back to the guest house that night and created an outline for the script.  Next day Tuesday, we began rehearsing  and “putting flesh on the bones of the story.”  At the same time, I am encouraging the women through theatre games that help to stretch their idea of who they are.  Simply making funny faces at each other was a HUGE and happy/funny time that they talked about for some time afterward.

It is also clear to me in watching their behavior that they judge each other a great deal.  Each time a woman does a scene the whole group tries to critique her aferward, even showing her what not to do and what to do.  Of course this grates on me and the very practice of theatre making as I know it.  So as a group I have tried to talk with them about this several times.  But as Rosalin said to me, this is a way of life for them, and a habit you will probably not break.

One exercise I did initially with them was “what are you doing each hour of your day.”  I started with 3am. They immediately all put themselves onto the floor to show sleeping.  4am? They all got up and began walking, praying, cleaning.  [this is when it still very much dark outside!], 5, 6, 7, 8……all cleaning and cooking and eating and taking care of their families.  At  11am they all got back on the floor and slept….until 2p.  Then up and off to their self help groups in the slum where they live, then later fixing food….eating dinner at 10p!  To sleep again at 12 midnight.  They asked me to do the same exercise. I sleep until 7/8, go swimming at the YMCA, breakfast, prepare classes, teach, return home etc.   Their remark to me was “we think you sleep too much!”

Yesterday I gave the English script we had worked out together to Rosalin assistant and today she will bring it back translated into the language of Odisha.  I think most of the women read, but we shall see today.  We will work all day today as we have every day:  10:30–1:30, lunch, 2:30–5:30p.  And as you can see this cuts right into their usual sleeping time. So they are getting very tired and I think today and tomorrow, our last days of working together, I will suggest they sleep on the floor ofour rehearsal space after lunch until 3p at least.  We shall see what they want to do.

When I leave tomorrow, they will continue rehearsing each evening and the 12-15 minute play which does not have a title yet will be performed on Dec. 5 at a fundraiser for Parichay Foundation here in Bhubaneswar.

I must go and get my things ready for rehearsal today……may I say that the work I am so happy to be doing here feeds my soul and sense of justice as I watch these women, and a few weeks ago the young women of Bandhavi, struggle to become confident and strong as they tell a story about domestic violence….which I know each of them knows so well.

Nov. 7, Rehearsing Justice: Theatre, Sexuality and the Sacred and Nov. 8: Another Eucharist and Visits

Hello to All!  On Nov. 7 I delivered the Kappen Memorial Lecture in downtown Bangalore, a yearly event done by Visthar [the NGO I am volunteering with].  The lecture commemorates the life and work of Sebastian Kappen who was a Jesuit priest here in India, and a radical one at that.  He died in 1993, but left behind a legacy of living with and working in the midst of the poor.  He also wrote many books and was on the “to be silenced” list of JPII  had Kappen not died.  He often spoke of releasing Jesus from the constrictions that have been placed on him by the church.  Truly I have encountered in his writings a brother. And so it was an honor to give this memorial lecture.

Amazingly enough, I am the first non-Indian person to give this lecture, and the 16th person to give it [Vandana Shiva is one of the former presentors].  My forty minute talk focused on theatre and feminist theologies as arenas in which to dream and rehearse trans-formation and trans-figuration.  Justice. [built on Boal’s phrase: the theatre is a rehearsal for revolution].  There were approximately 150 people present and from all walks of life.

I have some pretty wonderful pictures of this event, as well as pictures from the previous post on this blog—and can you believe it, the server here at Visthar will not upload them.  I am eager to show them to you….and will put them up as soon as possible.

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Saturday, Nov. 7:

Again, no pics uploaded, but the SECOND ECUMENICAL EUCHARIST this morning, Saturday, at 11:30am.  Some 30 people in a lovely large circle with a table in the middle in an outdoor space here at Visthar completely surrounded by beautiful fruit trees.  A perfect place to celebrate a Mass of Women Mystics:  from Mira Bai, to Hildegard of Bingen to Sufi women mystics!  On the table were also beautiful “dolls” made by Francoise Bosteels showing a boy, Ravi, searching through garbage for food, a woman on her back, sari torn away, raped….and a woman holding the cup/chalice and a man the bread [women shedding their blood and sharing their life blood for the life of the world].  [ http://francoisebosteels.blogspot.in/ ]

We used chappati for bread, a flat round freshly made chappati…..and water so precious, so part of us.  Our liturgy as usual de-centered the priest, and instead raised up the voices of all present as leaders of the liturgy.  The comments afterward were rather extraordinary:  ‘I am Catholic and I always have a hard time at Mass because it is so controlled by the priest….but this had all of us involved and participating;”  “We are going to have more Eucharists like this one now and new ones that we want to dream up, maybe an actual meal next time…”  “You know, worship in India prior to colonization was very free….but when the West came it became so stilted and stiff….this Eucharist today didn’t feel like that, it was free.”

Perhaps the most moving thing said to the whole group at the end of our Eucharist was by a young girl named Aruna.  “Today” she said “I received my first communion and I am so happy!”  Her mother was beaming next to her.  Evidently she had asked her mother as the chappati was being passed around the circle and we were all feeding each other–may I?–and her mother had said “yes.”  Oh how wonderful this was, we all laughed and clapped and hugged her.  And of course I have a wonderful picture of her, but cannot upload it dear friends!!!!!  Soon I hope.

Continuing our Eucharist we all shared a lovely lunch provided by Visthar.

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This afternoon, at 3pm I visited “Liza’s Home”…..and KC and Molly Abraham [he is a retired, well-known Indian theologian, an authority on Third World theology, a Marxist scholar and propounder of the theory of “liberative solidarity”…..and she a retired medical doctor].  Their son, Ajit, was the person who gave me the idea of coming and volunteering with Visthar. Ajit teaches in Global Studies at CSU Monterey Bay, the same department that Kathryn [my spouse!] chairs.  KC and Molly’s daughter, Liza, is mentally and physically disabled/differently abled.  Molly started this home for her and for other women who are differently abled.  There are 24 women there.  Pictures to follow.

KC has been ill.  He is 75.  He spoke of the feeling of vulnerability, being fragile….but at the same time said he felt fearless because of what he believes will happen after death.  It was a very beautiful conversation, peace-filled….but also probably difficult for his wife Molly, who also sat with us.

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Returning from my visit, I spent an hour with a Minnesota student who is part of Concordia College’s semester in India, part of which is spent at Visthar.  She wanted to speak about faith and what it is…..and what it means for me to call myself a Catholic.  Her mother is Catholic, but does not practice.  She wants to be a social worker and will spend next semester working on a Native American reservation in North Dakota.

TOO BED DEAR FRIENDS!!

Nov 5: A Feminist Ecumenical Eucharist and a Biblical Drama Workshop

Hello Everyone!  In this very very busy last week here in Bangalore before I go to Orissa to do a week’s work……each day brings new opportunities.  On Wednesday Nov. 5 at 9am in an outdoor patio of Visthar, I had the opportunity to con-celebrate an Ecumenical Eucharist with all the women pastors and theologians I had worked with the previous day in a theatre workshop. I have lovely pictures, but can’t seem to upload any of them today.  Seems the server is having problems……

The Eucharist honored all women mystics, such as Rabia Basri,  Lalleshwari or Lall, and Mirabai.  One of the readings was from Hildegard of Bingen.

In the shared homily I spoke of de-centering the priest/minister in favor of shared leadership as one of the hallmarks of our movement of women priests.  And while the women pastors nodded yes, and some even shared that they like this idea very much, nonetheless they said, they are constrained by the patriarchal leadership of their church.  They feel caught between what they would like to do and what is expected of them by the men at the head of their churches.  Thus, the services they conduct mirror not only Western models of liturgy, they mirror a very traditional approach to Protestant worship as well. As many have said that I have talked to, the traditional Christian denominations are dying in India because there is no life in them.  However, the evangelical and fundamentalist churches are gathering many followers because they have life in them.  Which is certainly very true in our own country and in South America as well.  We also spoke of the importance of using water instead of wine in our Eucharist. How our bodies are 92% water and how precious water is becoming.

We used chappati for bread….. And all spoke the words “this is my body, this is my blood….” but we invoked Mary’s body as giving sustenance to Jesus through her milk and water.

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Wednesday evening at United Theological College [UTC], the leading Protestant seminary of South India, I conducted a Biblical Drama Workshop with 25 students of theology.  What surprised me was there were 21 men there–and 3 women, two of whom had to leave early! Turns out that the gender of seminary students in India is VERY different than that of the U.S.  And no wonder since women are frequently denied education.  India’s law says you must educate girls up to the age of 14 only.  They are often married soon after.  Of course this is largely a question of caste/class with Dalit women/ the former untouchables being the vast majority of Indian women and the least educated of all.

So back to the 21 men in my workshop. I told them they were going to have an opportunity to do cross gender work, since the story I planned to work on  with them was that of Sarah and Hagar and Abraham in Judaism and Islam.  They gulped, but actually they did quite a wonderful job in portraying with sensitivity the lives of these two women without calling on stereotypical behavior!  In one exercise I had 5 Sarah’s using only gesture and movement “talking” with 5 Hagars about the news that Hagar was pregnant.  The men as Sarah decided that they wanted to help Hagar in her birthing process….but we actually didn’t go there in terms of acting that out.  The purpose of the 5 and 5 was to allow many different emotions to surface in each character.  We did the same with G-O-D and Abraham–hence the complexity of humans and the divine.

[I have such great pictures of this workshop too!!!  Ugh.]

This evening, Nov. 6 ….. off to show “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican” at UTC and have a Q & A about women priests.

Nov.1–Nov. 5: Students, Women Pastors & Theologians in India

Hello Everyone!  This is the busiest and yes the last week in Bengaluru/Bangalore…..so I attempt to show you images and narrate what has happened the first half of the week.  [and I am anxious to read about the elections back home–when internet permits!]

Monday, Nov. 3 I spoke with students from Gustavus Adolphus College and Concordia College.  They are here at Visthar for a semester and traveling throughout the country.  The talk was on Religion and Sexuality.  Of course I showed them the film “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican” which documents the movement of women priests in the Roman Catholic Church. And then spoke of my own story of coming out…which of course leads me to talking about the issue sexuality and the Catholic Church and being a lesbian priest.  Good questions from them which included “what does Catholicism mean to you.”  I started with the notion of incarnation, not as one time event, but an ongoing process. Incarnation: en-fleshment of the human and divine.

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In a sense this was a warm up for the afternoon, which was a series of close door interviews with THREE different major newspapers here in India/Bangalore.  Here are the results of those interviews– links/or url’s……

The Hindu: http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/seeing-religion-through-womens-eyes/article6561394.ece

The Times of India: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bangalore/India-has-to-respect-the-LGBT-community/articleshow/45027785.cms

The Deccan Chronicle: http://www.deccanchronicle.com/141105/nation-current-affairs/article/church-must-heed-women%E2%80%99s-voice-gay-catholic-priest

The purpose of these interview was to give publicity to the lecture that I will give this Friday in Bangalore at 5:30p–the Sebastian Kappen Memorial Lecture.  Kappen was a brilliant Catholic priest, Jesuit, who wrote not only of liberation theology but lived with the poor.  One of the gifts of this journey has been to get to know some of his work.

Following that rather strenuous process, I met with some 25 people of the NGO– Sangama– is a sexual minorities, sex workers and people living HIV human rights organization for individuals oppressed due to their sexual preference.Sexuality minorities include, but are not limited to, hijras, kothis, doubledeckers, jogappas, lesbians, bisexuals, homosexuals, gays, Female-to-male/male-to-female transsexuals and other transgenders.

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Above is Rajesh who is a consultant to Sangama and helped interpret and translate some of the stories I heard from people as they went around the room and told many of their stories.  I took note how many people had been thrown out by the families, or chased down by their families attempting to force them into marriage.  Still others had lived on the streets and had become sex workers to survive. All are working class.  They’d come to Bangalore hoping to find community and hoping to find some kind of work. Sangama is attempting to give them new skills.

I felt after my newspaper interviews and hearing their stories that I was indeed the “middle class white girl lesbian” speaking. The work of Sangama is truly extraordinary and I congratulate ALL of them in working to raise their visibility and acquire their rights. I am hopeful that on returning to the USA I may find ways to assist this important organization. Thank you to B.David for arranging the entire afternoon!  [http://sangama.org/]

Tuesday and Wednesday morning I spent with women pastors and theologians visiting Visthar for a training on Gender and Religion.  One workshop I witnessed on intersectionality led by Mercy Kappen was quite extraordinary in its techniques of using a ball of string to connect institutions, social groups and one woman’s story that offered the intersections of all of them.

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Wednesday afernoon I gave a religion and gender and empowerment workshop with this same group.

They successfully broke into 5 groups to make up 2 images that showed constraints they had experienced as women: we saw child rape, a woman slapped by a church elder, a Dalit woman denied entrance into the church by a sexton, the denial of women’s ordination in the CSI in Kerala [though in other states they are allowed to be ordained], a woman told to stop preaching because her hair was not covered, and a woman pastor who is offered a bribe and rejects it [which led to a long discussion of bribery at the highest levels of the church and how government and church often shake hands with bribes].

We developed strategies for two issues: women’s ordination and corruption.  We had a good discussion of various strategies for women’s ordination in Kerala. Then we turned to bribery and corruption….and it became a huge discussion….a woman even said that when she bucked the system of bribery as pastor in a rural community, she was threatened with an acid attack….it was clear that bribery is often an unavoidable problem for the church as it must often pay officials who demand bribes for its very existence.  I don’t think this is peculiar to the church, here in India. I think bribery is often used in government as well.  And of course we in the USA know absolutely NOTHING about this, right?  We just may use a different name, but yes, sisters and brothers, the corporate handshake with US politicians, plus the wink and nod hand shakes of the Vatican Bank too……all this ……we know as well.

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