Close up of the piercing blue eyes of the Buddha on the Boudhanath Stupa just outside of Kathmandu, Nepal.
For nearly 30 years, Nepal has occupied prime real estate in my imagination. It began the summer of 1987 when I spent the summer in London as a “mime for the Lord.”
I recognize the look on your face, so let me explain …
I was 16 years old and traveling with a Christian missionary organization called Teen Missions International that, for decades, has arranged for hundreds of teens to spend six weeks or so of their summer breaks in locations circling the globe, mostly performing construction and other manual labors as a means of spreading the evangelical Christian Gospel. Having inherited my parents’ chronic wanderlust, I couldn’t wait travel, but I was’t a so sure about spending July and August sweating in the jungle. So I chose what was at the time a new missions “team” that would attempt to spread the Gospel using truly awful street theater in the exotic urban jungle of London’s West End. And so began my sojourn in white face, red suspenders, yellow bow tie, black Dickies trousers, and Red Wing Steel-Toed Work Boots (which were a requisite or every member of Teen Missions, no matter where you went, although we did get special dispensation to wear ballet slippers whilst “performing.”)
That summer in London, I learned many things, not the least of which was how repellant and ineffectual “cold-contact witnessing” — which is, ostensibly, accosting a stranger with the Good News of God’s Love and Grace by trying to engage them in conversation that has, ideally, been provoked by the miming and other street performances — is. I returned home from England convinced that literally throwing Bibles at the heads of passersby would have been more effective than what we’d been trying to do — a conviction I hold to this day.
Before my tenure as a MFTL came to its merciful end, my “team” spent a long weekend in (if memory serves) Oxfordshire, England “debriefing” with another missions team that has spent its summer working at an orphanage in Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu. I spent hours in the English countryside talking to the members of the Nepal team about what they’d seen, heard, and experienced. A couple of the girls came home with nose rings or hennaed hands. More than a few of the Nepal team members returned to the West with a kind of enlightenment London had not afforded me.
Nepal had changed them, not the other way around, and that was a good thing.
A few snapshots from my Teen Missions tenure as a “mime for the Lord” aka MFTL as a member of England Drama Team 8746. Bonus points if you can pick me out in all four photos.
With their stories and anecdotes, they painted mental pictures of a deeply spiritual, difficult, sometimes brutal and staggeringly beautiful land that took hold of my teenage imagination and have never let go. They also instilled in me a healthy skepticism about faith-based organizations working in the developing world, particularly in locales (such as Nepal) where proselytizing is (or has been for long stretches of history) illegal.
Although I have traveled fairly extensively, both privately and as a journalist, I never had been able to arrange a trip to Nepal. As most of you know, the focus of my nearly 20 years as a journalist has been religion (defined broadly to include faith, spirituality, beliefs, ethics, philosophy, and identity) and where it intersects with culture — including politics, education, development issues, justice issues, and gender issues. Of particular interest to me is where those two things — religion and culture — overlap in the developing world where they so often are intertwined with extreme poverty, women’s rights, healthcare, education, and food security. I have looked at these issues through the religion-and-culture lens on several occasions in Ethiopia, Malawi and Zambia, where I traveled to as a journalist and in my capacity as a member of the ONE Girls and Women advisory board at the ONE Campaign.
I’ve recited this lengthy preamble in the hope that you will understand why, when one of my great friends in Laguna Beach, the artist Iris Bourne (who had traveled with me to Malawi and Zambia a few years back) said she was going to Nepal with a new Fair Trade not-for-profit from our hometown Laguna Beach that is working with women artisans in the Democratic Republic of Congo and, most recently, in Kathmandu, I heard myself say aloud, “not without me you’re not,” before I could even think.
I said I’d go and write about the work the organization The Peace Exchange is doing on the ground, tell the women’s stories, raise some consciousness, maybe inspire readers to help or do something to change their corner of the world.
Iris and The Peace Exchange’s founder, Katie Bond, set about making their plans for a month-long visit first to Congo and then to Nepal, while I tried to figure out how to get myself to Kathmandu without having to sell a kidney. I applied for a journalism fellowship and for grant money to do an independent reporting project related to the Millennium Development Goals and how Nepal’s prevailing religious culture (Hindu) influenced, supported, or hindered progress on the MDVs and how is it might be shaping and preparing for progress to be made toward the Sustainable Development Goals that will follow the MDVs that expire this year.
In one application, I explained that I hoped to pay particular interest to then status and welfare of women and girls in relation to development goals — i.e. are women and girls in Nepal better off now than they were 15 years ago, and what influence has their religion and the prevailing religious culture had on that status. Harkening back to my MFTL days, I said I also wanted to look at Christian NGOs in Nepal and how they have played a role development, the status and welfare of women, the education of girls, food security, health care, and, in turn, the socio-political climate in country.
But as I look back now on those applications for funding, a couple of lines stick out to me as vital. I said,
Most often, I find the most powerful stories to be those of ordinary people and I’d imagine the same will be true in Nepal. Telling the universal through the specific, making the obscure or theoretical personal in the voices, faces, and stories of “regular” people is, in my experience, what makes the most indelible impression on readers and viewers. I’m certain Nepal will not disappoint.
To make a long story short, I didn’t get the grant money or the fellowship, and so, a month away from The Peace Exchange’s departure date, I thought (momentarily) that my long-awaited journey to Nepal was dead in the water. But then a friend said, “why don’t you do a GoFundMe camapaign to see if people donate to get you there as an independent journalist?” A couple of hours later, I launched the crowd-sourcing campaign and six days after that was fully funded and booked my tickets from Los Angeles, through Singapore, to Kathmandu.
Last Friday night, just before midnight, I was all packed and ready to leave the next day at noon for LAX. As I reached to turn out the light on the nightstand, I heard the laptop open to my Facebook page on the bed, go “BING!” I looked and found an instant message from my friend Vicki that said, “There was just an earthquake in Nepal?”
The 24 hours that followed were a blur of activity and anxiety. How bad was it? Should I stay or should I go? If I go would I just be in the way? I’m neither a doctor nor an engineer and I don’t want to be a burden in an catastrophe. What help would I be? My inclination was to go, but was that ego or some misplaced bravado talking?
The prospect of walking into an disaster of the magnitude of what happened in Nepal with the 7.9 earthquake and 6.6 and stronger aftershocks, the photos of collapsed buildings and UNESCO World Heritage sites destroyed, gave me pause. Bodies pulled from the rubble. Chaos and terror in the streets. All of the unknowns and potentially perilous variables.
“I’m saving the starfish,” the child replied.
“Why waste your time?… There are so many you can’t save them all so what does is matter?” argued the man.
Without hesitation, the child picked up another starfish and tossed the starfish back into the water… “It matters to this one.”
After they breathed a sigh of relief that I was still safely in Laguna, I began to hear from some of my true-north people — the ones I trust with my life, whose judgment is sound, who know me best, who are prayerful, thoughtful, rational, and love me. To a person, they were getting the same thing (I don’t know what to call it exactly) as I was: Go.
My son, Vasco, has veto power on such things. He took a while to think about it and then told me that he thought I should go, just not right away (by which he meant, don’t take the flight you’re booked on that leaves 12 hours after the earthquake; wait a few days.)
With that, I unpacked and began assembling what I’d need for a very different journey from the one I’d had planned. There would be no trek on the Annapurna range below Everest’s base camp. There would be no occasions to wear that cute boho dress. But the new hiking boots would do just fine as work boots if the need arose.
I started to put together bundles of first aid supplies, some medications, and then I thought about what else might be helpful. That’s about the time news that I still planned on going to Kathmandu began to spread through our little seaside hippie town. Friends and neighbors were calling, emailing, stopping me on the street and asking what they could do, handing me cash, offering their prayers and contact numbers
“You can’t go to that party empty handed,” David, one of my very best friends, said as only he can. I think he was emailing from the other side of the planet — Shanghai, maybe? I lose track of his Where’s Waldo work schedule. But what he meant was, let’s do something significant to help. Within what felt like seconds he was texting me and Jon Rose, the pro surfer and founder of Waves for Water, an NGO that provides these ingenious portable water filters to crisis spots all over the globe.
The next morning, after David’s brother Joel took care of the logistics, I drove up north of LA and picked up 40 filters that will provide enough clean drinking water for 4,000 people. FOUR-THOUSAND PEOPLE. And they all fit in one duffel with room to spare.
Forty water filters from Waves for Water that will provide potable water for 4,000 Nepalese.
Another friend bought dozens of bottles of eye drops and sunglasses for me to hand out as I move about Kathmandu where the normally horrendous air quality has been made a million times worse by the brick and concrete dust from collapsed buildings and ongoing excavations.
I needed a satellite phone in case of emergencies but didn’t have the time or cash to rent one. Within two hours, the brother of a friend from the church community my family is a part of lent me his.
Lisa and Dr. Love, a husband-and-wife team that runs a holistic health and chiropractic practice in Laguna, handed me hundreds of pre- and post-natal supplements as I was headed to the airport. Four duffel bags packed to the hilt with supplies bought and paid for by friends and even a few strangers.
The MARVELOUS Singapore Airlines (Thank you Joseph and Matthew!) helped me rebook my non-refundable ticket and then persuaded the airline to waive the $500 in fees for excess baggage. All the while, people continued to donate money to the GoFundMe account, which allowed me to buy more Bandaids, maxi pads, antiseptic spray, salves, face masks, sterile gloves, and even six packs of UNO cards for the kids at one of the orphanages I’ll be visiting.
There are times when all the cliches are true. This is such a time.
“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” – a.a.milne
It does take a village.
We are all connected.
I am because we are. (UBUNTU)
And there but for the grace of God go I.
We can’t do everything, but what we can do we must do.
If you build it, they will come.
I’m typing this from the airport in Singapore waiting for my flight to Kathmandu. I hope to report and tell the stories and do all that I can.
Thank you all for helping me show up.
Namaste for now,