By the time Ramazan rolled around, my husband Andy and I had been living in the slum for less than a year, but it felt like much longer. The community had welcomed us in, and we were quickly pulled into the beauty and chaos of everyday life: births, deaths, weddings, crises, festivals. During this holy month, we decided to participate in the fast for a day, just to see what it was like for our neighbors.
That evening, friends invited us to break the fast with them in their home. The mother of the family waited patiently for the azan, lost in silent prayer, while the younger children restlessly awaited the voice over the loudspeaker that would signal it was time to dig in. The call rose from the nearest minaret in melodic Arabic, “Allah hu akhbar, God is great…” Along with the thousands of others sitting together in their own homes throughout the community, we broke our fast with a date, then lemonade, fruit, and all the deep-fried goodness on the plates in front of us.
Andy and I didn’t continue fasting after that first day, but we did continue to be welcomed into celebration with our neighbors. I never ceased to be amazed by the generosity of the poor, and by the willingness of our impoverished Muslim neighbors to include us in their family meals and even their sacred celebrations, despite our differing religious practices. They never made fasting a prerequisite for our partaking in the feast at the end of each day. The same attitude extended to communal prayers, Qu’ranic readings, circumcisions, or other ceremonies. Our neighbors didn’t require us to become like them in order to be with them; they simply wanted to include us in the things that mattered most to the community; to share with us an experience that they treasured for themselves.
After a full month of fasting came three days of celebration: Eid. In preparation, everyone cleaned their homes from floor to ceiling, painted their walls in bold colors, and decorated with shiny paper cut into geometric designs. Women stayed up all night preparing sugary desserts and spicy food, and then everyone donned expensive new clothes and went out visiting one another, dressed like sequined royalty. Andy and I ate in fourteen different homes the first day alone, which made us feel very included and happy – but also VERY full, and a bit sick.
On the second day, we participated in another Eid tradition: big family outings to public parks and attractions around the city. We went with some neighbors to the zoo, and since one of the sons in the family made his living as an auto rickshaw driver, all thirteen of us piled into his auto for the half-hour trip—the more the merrier. Eid was one of the few times that children and adults in our community got a day off work to do something fun together, and the zoo was one of the few sources of entertainment that were cheap enough for almost anyone to afford. We enjoyed going around to all of the different exhibits with giddy kids (and excited parents) who were so impressed by the mere statues of animals near the entrance of the park that it was hard to tear them away to look at the live animals that were the main attraction. As we walked around, they were spell-bound by each new creature we happened upon. Most of them were visiting the zoo for the first time in their lives
The third day of Eid was thankfully a bit more low-key, although house-to-house visiting and eating continued. We were glad to have been able to share another important cultural experience with our friends in the community, but we were also tired enough to be happy that all the festivities were over! Three consecutive days of exuberant celebration were intense for a couple of understated Americans who had grown up never celebrating a holiday more than one day in a row. It was not lost on us that my neighbors – people who had lived difficult lives and who had weathered more tragedy than we could even begin to imagine – had mastered the art of celebration in a way that we had not.
We had come to India to share life with the poor. We had read mother Teresa’s words about poverty being Christ’s “distressing disguise,” and we had joined a network of Christian communities living in Asian slums. Over the course of the years we spent there, we would indeed discover God in the midst of suffering – but Christ was not only present in our neighbors’ pain and grief. We recognized his joy in the way our neighbors celebrated with abandon; his obedient love in the way they trusted God with an uncertain future and offered sacrificial hospitality even when resources were scarce.
But we would also discover ourselves in ways that we could not have imagined or planned for. Receiving hospitality from people who were poor – who sometimes fed guests like us instead of eating themselves – made us realize how beggarly our own hospitality was. We realized how rarely we had even had opportunity to be truly generous or sacrificial because of the privilege and wealth that insulated our lives against the threats of hunger, violence, and illness that affected our neighbors’ lives.
The difficult circumstances of our life in the slum became a threshing floor on which our subconscious motivations of guilt, ego, and fear were separated out from compassion. The raw intensity of life in close community frequently forced us to evaluate how far we were willing to commit ourselves, and what was really driving us to help others. Genuine compassion was certainly one impetus, but more times than we wished to admit, we also acted out of enslavement to the opinions of others, or a desire to preserve a certain image of ourselves.
We also came face to face with our own limitations as human beings, with the ways we fell short of our own ideals, and with our own brokenness and spiritual poverty. Much harder than the call to love and serve other people was the eventual call to acknowledge our own wounds and to receive God’s love for ourselves. Our experiences in the slum reinforced our conviction that it is impossible for one human being to help another or to significantly give without being willing to receive in return. Rich and poor need each other, and it was through mutual relationships rather than through any service provision or charitable hand-out that both we and our neighbors were transformed.
Although my husband and I are no longer living in the developing world, our friendships in India have left an indelible mark on our lives. We have continued to live simply and to be cognizant of the ways in which our lifestyle either resists or feeds into systems of injustice that perpetuate poverty.
But most importantly, we have come to understand that we cannot ever be truly whole or truly human without remaining close to the heartbeat of suffering in this world and seeking connection with those on the margins.