Becoming community

w48295194.jpgWhen a certain sound hits, you know something is going down in the slum. I look for the cause of the commotion and see a woman bathing at one of the communal water tanks. A gang of kids has gathered and are harassing her with glee, yelling “Ghost! Monster!” She shouts back at them and eggs them on.

I’m disgusted and hurt by the scene. I get up into the middle of the melee, see that the woman has the scars of a severe burn victim, and tell the kids to go home. Some do, but when the others don’t, I raise my voice. I also chastise the adults who are hanging around, telling them the children are behaving inappropriately and they should be doing something about it.

A principle sits uncomfortably in the back of my mind, reminding me that we are guests here and always will be, that even after five years in the slum it is inappropriate to set ourselves up as judges. As I often do, I ignore this principle, reacting out of my emotions and concern for the woman’s vulnerability. Some sort of middle ground must exist where I can protect the women without judging and berating the community. Often in the moment I am unable or unwilling to find such a middle ground. It is one of my greatest faults.

After a while most of the children have cleared and I return to our room, but when I look outside a few minutes later I see the harassment has resumed. This time Peregrine and Shadia are out there as well. Peregrine tells the children to have more respect and treat the lady like a human, lectures the parents to discipline their children, and attempts to comfort the woman. She affirms the stranger and states that it isn’t her job to protect herself—it is our job as a community to create a place of love and welcome for everyone. I focus on the kids, ordering them to leave. When that doesn’t work, I start grabbing kids one at a time and walking them back to their homes, telling their parents what they were doing and why it was wrong.

While my frustration with the children is boiling over, Peregrine and Shadia continue to talk with the woman at the water tank and lecture the adults who have remained nearby. At this point the adults are nodding their heads and agreeing, and eventually someone even gives the lady something to eat, but it’s still a mess of a scene. Shadia and Peregrine decide to take her to our room to give her some privacy. They sit with her and listen to her story, give her some of our food, and consider what to do next. I remain outside guarding the door from the crowds who would otherwise pile up against it.

Her name is Shimla. She is in her twenties and has a son and daughter, who are 5 and 8 years old. She has devastating burn scars across her head and one arm and fairly serious scars on her chest and other arm. Shimla explains that two years earlier she lit herself on fire when she could no longer take the sexual abuse from her husband. The fire did damage to the point where most of her facial features are obscured; nose, lips, and eyelids pulled back from what they once were. She had lived over 100 miles away but came to our city to get medical treatment, and now she sleeps on the streets,  which explains her presence at the water tank to bathe. When Peregrine and Shadia ask what we can do for her, the main thing she says she wants is work. Shadia says that we should take her to her boss at the NGO and that she’ll know how to help her. Shimla is grateful.

So Shadia, Shimla, and I take a couple rickshaws to Shadia’s workplace. Thankfully the office is active on Sundays and Shadia’s boss has come to meet us. As Shimla shares her story there, I note signals that had escaped me before, and begin to suspect that she has some emotional struggles. In fact, many of her behaviors remind me of Shadia, who herself suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder. Shimla’s mental issues appear to be somewhat more severe than Shadia’s, though there’s no way of knowing what she was like before the kerosene incident and its aftermath. Knowing the complexities of Shadia’s situation leads me to wonder if there may be more to the story with Shimla than we know.

Shadia’s boss tells us of a place that can help Shimla, a government woman’s shelter that provides many services, but they have no intake on Sundays. We’ll have to find someplace for her to stay in the meantime, and I feel it impossible to just send her back out on the street. So I begin making phone calls and get permission from a couple foreign friends to use the extra room in their flat. Peregrine reluctantly agrees to accompany her for the night, doubting how much sleep she’ll get as Shimla has already shown herself to be quite needy. So Shadia and Shimla and I make it back to our friend’s place, with Peregrine arriving later. We try to make Shimla comfortable, I walk Shadia back home, then come back to keep Peregrine company because the emotional and physical output of looking after Shimla is straining her already. Then I rush back to the slum to get dinner for myself and Shadia.

The next morning I’m waiting for the scheduled time to go to the shelter when Shimla shows up at my door. She had told Peregrine she had an errand, but for some reason came back to our place instead of returning to where she had spent the night. I explain to her that she simply can’t come to our place, knowing that she’ll face harassment from our neighbors every time and there’s little we can do for her here. I spend the 20 minutes it takes to walk her back to our friends’ place explaining that this shelter is the one place we know how to help her, this is her shot, and she has to take advantage of it. After a mess of back-and-forth logistics I finally get Peregrine and Shimla and Shadia all into the same taxi and on their way to the shelter. It’s noon, the last 24 hours of my life has been centered around Shimla, and the work week is just beginning…

When they arrive, Shimla tells her life story to the government crew…and then refuses all help being offered. She says that she doesn’t need a place to stay, just a job, and apparently this women’s shelter doesn’t provide employment. Peregrine makes clear that we don’t have capacity to help her, that we don’t now how to get her a job, and that if she doesn’t take advantage of the shelter then we’ll have nothing else for her if she returns.

Every time Peregrine tries to start explaining this she gets bulldozed by Shimla’s rapid-fire requests for both things and attention. Shimla’s story begins shifting in manner that suggests a loose relationship with the truth. She shuts out the rest of the world except for the needs she’s focused on, refusing to listen to advice or instructions from anyone. At this point she has begun referring to us as “mom” and “dad” and seems way too emotionally attached, asking to be fed or for physical affection as a young child would. Unfortunately, Peregrine also discovers that she had stolen some small things from the room the night before. In all these ways she is reminding us of Shadia’s worst moments, only Shimla is like that around the clock.

I wonder, “Are we looking at where Shadia would have been in five years if she never found us?”

But that’s speculation. What we do know is that we can’t stretch ourselves to help another person like this right now. Peregrine and Shadia say goodbye to Shimla at the shelter and go their separate ways. But we suspect that, despite all the trauma of her visit, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Shimla.

Two days later, 10:45pm, there is a loud banging at our door. Peregrine and I were already in bed and the lights were off. I open the door and there she is.

It upset me to no end. After everything we had done before and then her refusal to accept any meaningful long-term help in the end, she was NOT supposed to come back, and definitely not make a scene in our alleyway in the middle of the night. We told her she couldn’t come in. We told her we couldn’t give her more stuff. We told her she had to go, that we had tried to help her and she had refused to take it. This was a season when other demands were already stretching us to the limit, and we just didn’t have more of ourselves to give. It still took forever to get her out, and it was a huge mess as we were constantly forcing the growing crowd of neighbors to disperse.

The thing that bothered me the most is that it was setting a bad example for our neighbors. I imagined them thinking, “See, they tried to help her and look – she makes their lives difficult. Look, we told them she is crazy and they said she wasn’t, now they can’t handle her. Look, we were right all along.”

Another two days, Shimla is back again, this time 9pm and we haven’t quite gone to sleep yet. This time was less of a scene, but still not easy. Our neighbors “protect” us (they had warned us she was coming and told us not to open the door). Peregrine hears the neighbors interacting with her. They actual seem ready to help her in small ways, while still encouraging her to leave quickly. It may just be the community not wanting to be “one upped” by the foreigners, but we can hear them showing some actual respect.

The next Sunday I run into Shimla randomly in the business district of the city. She’s so happy to see me, hugs me several times, but then keeps asking me for things that I’m not willing to give.

Two more days, and Shimla is at the house again. Again we don’t let her in, instead keeping our conversation to the alleyway. But here’s the weird thing. Shimla is now being engaged by our neighbors normally. And she’s responding back to them normally. The conversation turns to the fact that she knows how to write a little in English, which impresses the hell out of them. They begin producing paper and Shimla writes for them. There is a distinct shift from her first visits here. Is something good happening?

Another couple days pass and Shimla shows up in the middle of the day. Peregrine isn’t around and I have to head back to work so it’s fairly easy to turn her away after a brief chat. But this time the difference in her respect of our boundaries is striking, and she is engaged in another normal conversation with our neighbors as I go off to teach.

Two weeks after our first encounter with Shimla, she comes while we’re hosting a foreign guest. With the guest there we aren’t as quick to keep Shimla out and she invites herself in and sits on the floor. We introduce them, and then tell her she can’t stay. Shadia shows up at the door to share dinner with us, gets angry that Shimla is there, confronts her about broken promises. They both get angry and become emotionally disregulated. Shadia screams, “Who are you to think you can come in here like this and take their time. They’re my mom and dad, not yours! Don’t call them that! Don’t call them anything familiar! You have no right!”

We’re eventually able to usher Shimla back out to the alley. Out there she engages into normal conversation with neighbors. This time a small crowd has gathered due to the yelling (the last couple times Shimla has come there’s hardly even been a crowd anymore), but despite the ruckus Peregrine hears two different children say something to the effect of, “She’s not really crazy, is she? She’s pretty nice. She is a person too.”

In this total mess of our lives and limited ability to help, has a small miracle began? I don’t know what the lesson is – have we shown the wisdom of keeping boundaries or the wisdom of going the extra mile? Or was it all just luck, or just God, and has nothing to do with what we did at all?

All I know is that two weeks ago Shimla was a monster who was only the subject of harassment, and today she is a normal person with relationships in our community.

It’s not quite a Jesus miracle. But I do feel a little bit of the image of the demoniac in the hills of Mark 5, raving and screaming and rejected by the people and alone, but who now is just sitting peacefully and talking to the people around him to the astonishment of all present. Or the woman at the well of John 4, once shunned by the community but now openly going to the people who had shunned her and receiving a special status.

And I note that in this case (and perhaps in those?), the greatest change has not occurred in the one afflicted, but in the ones that had been doing the afflicting.

3 thoughts on “Becoming community

  1. ostomacadel

    As you say, tough to know how to balance averting violence and harassment without judging the perpetrators and community at large. With an issue like honesty, and the low cultural valuation of it, I often wonder whether it is reasonable for me to think ‘my emphasis on truth is good, and your culture’s affinity for deception is problematic’. Or should I engage in cultural relativism and say that this culture’s low value on truth is just as valid? It tends to be politically correct to say all cultures and societies are equal, but the rubber hits the road with issues like honesty, sexism and domestic violence, when I would like to think my beliefs are better in some absolute sense than this culture’s.
    Nice article.


  2. Melissa

    My heart breaks, but at the same time is filled with awe and wonder at the mystery that is God’s power and grace to change lives.

    I know this is an old post, but I’ve been reading backwards through your blog since yesterday and can’t read a lot more without commenting and communing with you guys somehow. I am inspired by your life and appreciate the reflections you share with us in your blog.

    I am wondering if perhaps some of the emotional disregulation you notice all around you is caused by trauma. PTSD can often manifest itself in many ways like emotional disorders.


  3. Thank you. Yes, I think trauma is definitely a factor in many cases. As is just the fact of inherent issues that are left untreated without a meaningful support system for mental illness. Sometimes it’s hard to disentangle the two.


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