The Lotus & the Graham Cracker: Finding unexpected joy.

INDIAN LOTUS, Nelumbo nucifera, the national flower.

THIS WEEK’S TRUE STORY about interfaith friendship comes from Paula Drewek, a retired professor of humanities and comparative religions. Over the past two decades, she has made many trips to India to spend time at the Barli Development Institute for Rural Women in Indore. Her story speaks to a larger truth: Sometimes, great joy comes in the midst of unlikely circumstances. Here is Paula’s story …

When you reach a certain point in life, you realize that many individuals have made a difference in shaping the person you have become. Among those people in my life is a couple I met in 1993 when I first visited India: Janak and Jimmy McGilligan. Janak is a former Hindu who became a Baha’i shortly before taking on a position at the Barli Development Institute for Rural Women. Jimmy is a Baha’i from Ireland who was doing some community work in India when they met and later decided to marry. I met them on my first visit to India when I was doing research for my doctorate and I have since been back every three years because I can’t bear to not be in touch with these wonderful people.

When I first arrived, Janak and Jimmy met me at the airport and it was a delightful meeting; we met, we hugged and they welcomed me. I was like a dear sister who had come to learn about them and the Barli Institute—and, of course, I do dearly love the Institute now because of the work it’s done and the many lives it’s changed.

Together, Jimmy and Janak help to run the place: Jimmy manages the farm and land, and Janak takes care of the program and curricula. In my visits, I usually spend anywhere from two weeks to a month. Although it may seem like a remote place from our American perspective, I’ve been amazed at how often I’ve met people from around the world who have been to their doors. Myself and people from India, China, Britain, Australia, America, Sweden—we all funnel through this Institute because, since it was founded in 1986, it has grown and become very well-known in development circles.

The women of the Institute continue to give me joy every time I go. They are rural—from village life, from low castes, generally between the ages of 15 and 25 and they don’t even know the local language of Hindi. Our means of communication are very limited to things that are visual and auditory, because language isn’t an option. We dance together, we sing together, and they take such joy in the ordinary things of life, like listening to a piece of music and picking tamarind from a tree. One time when I was there, we made tamarind pickles and rolled out papadums, and to these women, every little task was just so much fun. They do all of their cooking with solar cookers; they raise all of their food on the three acres that are cultivated as part of this Institute.

The one thing I remember the most is from my earliest visit. There were a couple of trips we took to places outside of Barli and, in one case, we went to a village that was very remote—about four hours away. The man in that village who had been a Baha’i the longest had come right up to the door of the director’s house to invite us to come and celebrate a holy day with his village. I had to ride in the back of a jeep for four hours over Indian roads and when I got there, I was carsick! But the people of this village were so welcoming.

We met outside, and they had a number of charpoys—traditional Indian beds made of woven strips in a wooden frame. They had brought these outside, arranged them around a fire and invited us to sit down. We did a lot of singing and we formed a procession around the village with big torches. After we had processioned through the whole village, we came to an area where they had an oven in the ground, where they were cooking bread balls. I’m not sure that I could have eaten the bread balls or drunk the water, so I ate what we had brought along—a few things like peanut butter and jelly and graham crackers. But that whole celebration with the people of that village— everyone seated on the ground, with the fire going at night—was so filled with spirit and love and the joy of being together. I will just never forget it.

What sticks out in my memory is that the experience started with sickness—I felt really yucky after that awful ride along bumpy roads. But, what an evening! What an evening!

So, the people in that village—and friends like Jimmy and Janak—continue to teach me about the spiritual principles of unity and how to relate to people of different cultures. I continue to learn from friends like these.

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