Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | January 8, 2012

A Center of Love

Kolkata, India to Katy, Texas

I returned home from Kolkata yesterday after two long flights on Emirates Airlines. No matter what route you take to or from Kolkata, it’s a long trip — one that I’ve made several times. As usual, I not only had time to try to sleep a bit on the flight home, I also had lots of time to think and reflect on my most recent visit to the City of Joy. Part way into the trip home, I had a nice conversation with two of the flight attendants. One was from Nairobi and the other from, of all places, Kolkata! Needless to say, I had a long conversation with the young lady from Kolkata and learned new things about some of the older parts of the city. She smiled and nodded in agreement when I said that there is nothing boring about Kolkata. Whether you are a resident or a visitor, Kolkata offers a kaleidoscope of constantly changing scenes that will sadden and amuse you or that will provoke you to anger or action. The bottom line is that it is nearly impossible to be passive in Kolkata.

My life in Katy, Texas is so different from life in Kolkata. Suburban life is designed to protect our privacy, maximize our security, and in a way, isolate us from others. We can manage our exposure to other people in the suburbs. I hardly see any of my neighbors during the week. Most of them park their cars in their garage. So, they leave for work or school in the morning and return at the end of the day without ever having to use the front door of their homes. Our boulevards are clean and pleasant and the only time we see a homeless person is when we are closer to the interstate highway that bisects our community. And even then, we don’t have to interact with the folks holding their cardboard résumé that tell us they are homeless and hungry. We essentially live day in and day out with few things that challenge us to think deeply about our faith and its application. Not so in a place like Kolkata.

A typical Kolkata sidewalk.

One of the reasons I love Kolkata is that it puts me in direct contact with humanity. Like most people in the city, I have to depend on public transportation that forces me to get over any notions of personal space. Whether I board a bus or a trolley or get into a cab or climb into a rickshaw, I am face to face or shoulder to shoulder with others. And then there are the multitudes of beggars with filthy hands and longing eyes — mostly little children, women, or the elderly. It is absolutely impossible to avoid them. I also do a lot of walking from place to place while in Kolkata and get to see life on the streets in slower motion. No matter how you get around in Kolkata, you can’t avoid the people and you can’t avoid having to think about them and their spiritual and physical condition and how to live out your faith among them.

Traveling to places like Kolkata has challenged me to become more intentional about developing peripheral compassion in my own community. You develop peripheral compassion by slowing down a bit, taking the time to look to the right and to the left, looking for clues that lead you to discover need, noticing and talking to the people you encounter every day (including those behind the cash registers of the places where you eat and shop), and thinking deeply about how God can use you to develop relationships that will open doors to share your faith with others. We must look for ways to maximize our exposure to humanity in the places where we live. We must learn to feel the pulse and listen to the heartbeat of our community. Just because human needs and suffering are not as obvious here does not mean that they do not exist.

I recently read a story about a rich man from Holland who asked Mother Teresa if he should give up his big home and his big car. Mother Teresa replied, “No. But what I want you to do is to go back and see more of the lonely people who live in Holland. Then, every now and then I want you to bring a few of them at a time and entertain them. Bring them in that car of yours and let them enjoy a few hours in your beautiful house. Then your house will become a center of love — full of light, full of joy, full of life.” (from “Reaching Out in Love: Stories Told by Mother Teresa,” pages 151-152). That’s great advice for those of us blessed and privileged to live in comfortable and safe places. Purpose to make your home a center of love where God’s name will be glorified and made famous throughout this new year and beyond.

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