It was a Saturday morning. One Saturday closer to getting on with the next chapter of our lives. I’d been up part of the night, unable to sleep because I’d had too much caffeine the day before. I put on a pot of coffee to compensate and continue the unhealthy cycle. But it was going to take something more than a strong cup of Joe to shake me from my stupor. As the brew percolated, I caught a snippet of information on NPR. There had been an earthquake in Nepal. No big deal, there are earthquakes in the Himalayas all the time. We experienced at least a half a dozen in our day. The morning dragged on in the same grey mental fog that had enveloped the preceding several months. Whenever I have a hard time sleeping, my sport of choice is self-debridement. The same doubts and questions percolated from my mind down into my heart and brewed there.
Did you make the right decision?
Is medical school going to be worth it?
Is the stress of all this going to take its toll on your family?
Are you neglecting your commitments and relationships back in India?
Will the donations continue without you at the wheel?
A couple of Facebook posts pointed to something more than just the typical shimmy in Shangri-la. I turned on the BBC and the earthquake images began to pour in. My first impulse was to drop everything and catch the first flight to Kathmandu. The memory that we were under contract on our house dropped like an iron curtain. The door to Nepal closed in response to our “closing.” As a result, the news just made me feel even more depressed and guilty. The grey fog thickened.
Later in the day, Mama and Maiju came to mind. They are the parents of our Nepali neighbors. While they had spent significant time in Erie, they’d returned to Kathmandu the previous fall. That evening I went to talk with Kiran and Anita to find out if they were alright. Anita’s parents had been at a party on the day of the quake. The feast was just getting under way when they decided to leave early. Only minutes after they left, a 7.9 tumbler shook the earth. The building they had just been in collapsed killing nearly everyone inside. Although their own home hadn’t been significantly damaged, they began sleeping outdoors under a tarp in fear of the aftershocks. Kiran looked at me and said, “We may not be able to go and help. But we can still do something. I’m thinking about going around to all the stores and asking for supplies. Perhaps we could use your non-profit to work out the logistics.”
Throughout the week, my stupor slowly lifted. My brother-in-law Butch Lewis, who had just come on as the Executive Director, swung into action. He contacted the Denver Rescue Mission and Project Cure. The nearly 30,000 Nepalese-Americans in the Denver Metro Area began to mobilize as well. Soon, supplies were streaming into Kiran’s garage and volunteers were assembling emergency relief packages. Bureaucracy and poor logistics had clogged Tribhuvan International Airport and all of the land borders, making aid shipments nearly worthless. But scores of Nepalese throughout Colorado were heading home to help. Our plan was to have each of them take a single 50-lb box to distribute. In the end, it would come down to one neighbor helping another.
As the week ramped up, my stupor began to fade. While my frustration at not being able to travel to Nepal remained, I realized that I could still put my drop in the bucket from afar. I still had something to offer. I didn’t have to slowly sink into an egocentric, empty, consumer life just because I was back in the USA for an extended season. In the midst of my improving mood, new neighbors arrived in the house which had recently sold across the street. We’d seen them come and go over the preceding weeks and had our suspicions. There was their stature, their body language and the Ganesh on the dashboard of their SUV. I called to them from across the street in Nepali, “I hear that you are our new neighbors. I’d like to be the first to welcome you to our neighborhood!”
Soon enough, Guatam, Nira and their son Niraj were in our living room, and we all shared hot cups of chai and biscuits.
“Ryan bhai, it is a shame that you will be leaving for Seattle so soon. We would have loved to have neighbors like you here.”
“Yes, we wish we didn’t have to leave our lovely little community behind. But who knows what lies ahead in Washington! At least we will get to be neighbors for a few short weeks. Otherwise we would have never met.
A long lost voice greeted me on the phone, “Hi… Hey, this Shira. I used to go by Ashira. I’m part small Christian community that travels around on bicycles spreading the love of God. I don’t know if you remember me after so many years.”
“Yes. Of course I remember you! How are you? I’m so glad you called. How did you get ahold of us.”
“Oh… well, the number I used to have you isn’t working any more. That’s why we kind of fell out of touch. Then we heard about the earthquake in Nepal and we were all so worried for you and Amanda. So I went over to the library and explained the situation. The librarian was really helpful and found Amanda’s name right away. The number worked and now I’m talking to you!”
“Well, wow! Okay. Where are you these days?”
“We are here in Denver but Paul is in Tenesee. I’ve been here for several years now. I got ahold of Amanda and she said you all are moving to Seattle, right? If it is peaceful for you, we would like to come and visit before you move.”
It was, of course, alright. Like Paul’s perfectly timed arrival at the train station, I was amazed that this reconnection was about to occur at another pivotal moment of transition for us. The stress and mayhem of moving and preparing to start Medical School had left me feeling rather entangled “in the world”. I was tempted for a second to think that their reemergence might be a sign. Then I balanced my emotions with all I’d learned over the years. Several days later Shira arrived with two other community members in a compact white station wagon. Shira’s cycling days were over. On a cold rainy May morning, a hot cup of chai was waiting for them inside.
The women greeted us with an “air hug” as unmarried men and women do not touche in their community. We swapped stories and asked about each others journeys in the years since our last meeting. As we chatted, it seemed to me that some of the hard edges of their convictions had softened not in the direction of mediocrity… but of grace.
“Since we aren’t cycling as much, we now spend our days just finding simple ways to help our neighbors and bless them with the peace of Yeshua. I really like spending time with the refugee communities, especially this one old Bosnian grandma. Anyway, when we heard about what is happening in Nepal we wanted to do something to help. The stories are so heartbreaking. Some brothers and sister came together and we wanted to give you this.”
Her extended hand held a hundred dollar bill. I received, not only the money but also, confirmation of so much that I’ve learned. Those who have the least to give often give the most
It was a sunny afternoon, and I was feeling good. That morning, one of my old college roommates had invited me to give a five minute talk at the little church plant he was a part of. As I stood up in front of yet another room full of strangers, the sorrow and grief over an ever-worsening situation in Nepal began to well up from inside. The cold grey fog had lifted from my heart, the pain had melted it away. Warm, wet tears softened my callous face. I sat back down in the tiny congregation and listened to a message on the Sermon on the Mount, a message on complementing our faith with deeds. Later, as I drove home, I counted Fathom Church’s donation in stunned silence. A church of only fifty or sixty (more than half of which were children), a church which had only formed a few months earlier, had given over five-thousand dollars towards relief efforts for the earthquake victims. Fathom Church had done something unfathomable. They’d dared to love strangers half a world away and had faith that their love would make a tangible difference in real lives. They’d given recklessly. They’d given joyfully. My frustration and cynicism continued to melt away.
I was working on our minivan when Gautam came shuffling across the pavement towards our driveway. “Oh bhai, I was wondering … what do you do about the yard? We lived in the bazaar in Pokhara and have only lived in apartments here in America. Looks like the grass is getting long. Do you have one of those machines to cut it?”
Since Gautam’s family had emigrated from Nepal, they had overcome linguistic barriers, jumped through relentless bureaucratic hoops, suppressed the yearning for family and homeland and smashed through countless economic barriers. They had started a Nepali restaurant and built it into a success. Their American Dream was finally coming true, they’d bought a house. They had five-thousand square feet of soil in the U.S. of A to call their own.
“Oh yeah, we have a lawnmower. You are more than welcome to use it.”
My neighbor stood silent for a moment, shifting awkwardly. “I was thinking that maybe you could do it first, and I could watch?”
Putting down my molding tape and box cutter, I rose up and said, “Of course.”
“What is the white bag on the back for?”
“Oh … that catches all the grass after it is cut.”
After a brief tutorial on pull-start engines, I began to cut a ring around the postage-stamp sized yard. “See it’s easy!”
“Okay, let me try.”
Gautam grabbed the handlebar and began tracing concentric circles around the yard. As he did I set to cleaning out the neglected flower beds. After a couple of minutes, dadjyu stopped moving in the corner of my eye. He had finished the job but was uncertain how to wrap things up. He clung to the mower with a firm grip, keeping the safety lever depressed. Gautam reached down for the pull cord, hoping that it would shut off the engine.
My hands were in the soil. A pile of damp leaves and weeds were already beside me. Watching Gautam struggle with the machine, it suddenly struck me. Laughter rose up from deep within and my joy returned like a long-lost friend. By the time I reached my neighbor, he was confused and anxious. Over the drone of the engine, he couldn’t hear my simple instructions. I pantomimed to simply let go. It was a lesson I’d only recently learned myself. He reluctantly followed along, and the Briggs & Stratton puttered to a stop.
“Why are you laughing, bhai?”
“When I moved to my first village, Daragaon, I didn’t know how to do anything. I was like a child. My neighbors there had to teach me how to do everything … even to cut grass with a sickle. Now here you are, and I’m teaching you how to cut grass in America!”
Gautam reached out as if to shake my hand and then pulled me in for a hug. We embraced for a moment and sat there, laughing. There was no need to discuss it further. Our laughter and smiles told the story. He had spent twelve years in America. I had spent twelve years in the Himalayas. We had both crossed borders in search of something. We had both struggled, both searched, both failed, both succeeded. We’d both sought a better life. Our journeys had taken us both halfway around the earth, even if in opposite directions. Suddenly, our separate journeys converged on a suburban sidewalk in Erie, Colorado. Two men, who by all indications should have nothing in common, became brothers. Nira came around the corner of the house and Gautam called out to her.
“Come over here. I want to tell you something wonderful .…”