Click on the photo below to view the first of several photo essays from Nepal on my photo website, Flaneur.Guru
KATHMANDU, Nepal—The Boeing 737 loaded with relief supplies and caregivers touched down at Tribhuvan International Airport six days (nearly to the minute) after the first of two cataclysmic earthquakes wrecked havoc on the tiny Himalayan nation of Nepal.
Joining me aboard the flight from Singapore were a few other journalists from the United States and Europe, a team from the China Lingshan International Rescue in their distinctive fire engine red uniforms, and several dozen surgeons from South Africa who had come to Nepal with Gift of the Giver organization, an NGO founded in 1992 by a Sufi sheik from Istanbul.
Among us were Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains—people of good will of many religious traditions and none at all. What we had in common was a desire to help the gentle people of Nepal (one of the poorest nations in the world) who had suffered through the devastation of an earthquake on April 24 so massive that it actually moved the global satellite positioning of its capital city by nearly 10 feet.
For some of us, that assistance took the form of pulling corpses and a few miraculous survivors from the concrete and brick ruins of homes, businesses, and even houses of worship leveled by the first earthquake. (A second earthquake of nearly the same size—7.3 on the Richter scale—struck Nepal on May 11, the day after I returned to California from Nepal.)
Others—the healers from Africa and elsewhere—would offer relief to the traumatized during grueling shifts in Nepal’s overwhelmed hospitals, in surgical theaters, setting broken bones, stitching wounds, and compassionate bedside care.
Interspersed among us, undoubtedly, were those hoping to offer some kind of spiritual aid, solace, or direction to the Nepalese. In generations past, we might simply have labeled this cohort “missionaries,” visitors hoping to share their version of the gospel truth with the broken and brokenhearted.
Continue reading the entire report at Religion Dispatches HERE.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
My latest is up at Religion Dispatches where I offer my take on the extraordinary third season of FX’s The Americans, which concludes tonight with the episode titled, “March 8, 1983.”
Here’s a taste:
It’d be a stretch to say Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric defined my faith, worldview, or burgeoning political sensibilities at the time, but the idea of the godless, Communist Russians being “evil” and us god-fearing evangelical Christian Americans being “blessed” or even “chosen” was a spoken and unspoken mantra throughout my teen years.
How I emerged from the 1980s with what I hope is a humble Christian faith, decidedly left-leaning politics, open-minded stance toward the world, and openhearted approach to “the other” is nothing short of miraculous. Well, that and some excellent parenting by a mother and father with a deep faith matched only by their curiosity and wanderlust who went through life cancelling out each others (political) votes, inhaling and debating the news of the day, teaching my brother and me to think for ourselves, and to lean hard into our educational pursuits.
So it’s been with great interest that I’ve watched season three of The Americans unfold.
Read the post in its entirety at Religion Dispatches HERE.
Loooooong time no write (in this space at least.)
Well, I’m back. For realsies and when I’m not noodling in this longtime space (11 years!) you can find me over at my new gig on Religion Dispatches.
To wit: announcement time (via RD and our host family, the University of Southern California — Trojan Country) —
As senior editor for the daily online magazine about religion, politics and culture, Falsani will lead the three-year “Remapping American Christianities” project. She will work alongside Lisa Webster and Evan Derkacz, the magazine’s co-editors.
Besides launching the new initiative, Falsani will work with students at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who are interested in covering religion and spirituality.
The Christianities project is funded by a $1 million grant the Lilly Endowment Inc. awarded to USC Annenberg School in December. The magazine is overseen by Diane Winston, holder of the Knight Chair in Media and Religion.
Cathleen is one of the country’s leading religion journalists.
~ USC/Annenberg Knight Chair in Media & Religion, Diane Winston
“Cathleen is one of the country’s leading religion journalists,” Winston said. “She has an unerring sense of how people live out their spiritual commitments and find meaning in their daily lives.”
Falsani was religion writer for the Chicago Sun Times from 2000-10 and most recently religion columnist for the Orange County Register, where she covered the election of Pope Francis in Rome and his first pontifical year. She served as Web editor and director of new media for Sojourners magazine and she has been a longtime contributor and columnist to Religion News Service.
Her writing has appeared on numerous media outlets, including Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune,Christianity Today, The Atlantic and TIME. Her sixth and most current work explores the spiritual, social, cultural, political and technological reasons for Pope Francis’ popularity.
“I am thrilled to be joining colleagues who are passionate about serious journalism at the intersection of faith and culture.” Falsani said. “The Remapping American Christianities project will explore the root questions behind shifting cultural expressions of identity, meaning and lived beliefs that are inextricably tied to the American experience.”
Falsani, who holds degrees from Northwestern University and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, was honored as the 2005 James O. Supple Religion Writer of the Year by the Religion Newswriters Association and twice has been a finalist for the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year award.
Launched in 2008, Religion Dispatches has been nominated for a Webby Award three of the last four years. In 2014, it had 2.7 million unique views. The site moved to USC Annenberg in October 2013.
And all the people said SQUEE.
You can read the entirety of my first piece for RD, “The Gospel According to Frank Underwood,” HERE.
And you can read a few bars I hummed about the passing of the Rev. Robert H. Schuller HERE.
My latest from Religion Dispatches
“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral,” the French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery, wrote.
When the Rev. Robert H. Schuller saw the concession stand of a southern California drive-in movie theater in 1955, his imagination bore the blueprints for a crystalline cathedral and thoroughly-modern ideas about spreading the Christian Gospel via television.
Schuller, founder of the now-defunct Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., and the long-running spiritual television program Hour of Power, died Thursday after a lengthy battle with esophageal cancer. He was 88.
A native of tiny, rural Alton, Iowa, Schuller was an ordained minister of the Reformed Church in America and served a congregation in Chicago before his denomination asked him to move to Southern California and plant a church.
With his wife Arvella (who died last year) serving as organist and “$500 in assets, he rented the Orange Drive-In Theatre and conducted Sunday services from the tarpapered roof of its snack bar,” according to Schuller’s biography on the Hour of Power website. “One hundred persons attended that first Sunday, all in their cars. Dr. Schuller, who believe[d] this outdoor ministry experience helped inspire him to later build the all-glass Crystal Cathedral, often state[d], ‘It was there I fell in love with the sky!’”