For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard
In early 2002 I spent a couple of weeks in India. With most of my visit in Mumbai, I stayed in a house that at one time may have been considered opulent. When I was there, though, the paint was peeling from the walls, the plaster was falling from the ceiling, and the toilet had to be flushed with a bucket. All of the water needed for cooking and cleaning — and flushing the toilet! — was stored in large plastic bins that were filled via a garden hose from an outdoor faucet only at a certain time each day. Outside the house, traffic crowded the streets. Loud and smelly three-wheeled taxis wove around equally loud and smelly trucks and buses, not to mention cows and the occasional elephant, as well as people. And there were lots of people, everywhere. Every job that could possibly be subdivided was subdivided, employing at least three men instead of just one. Women in brightly colored and somehow spotless saris worked as manual laborers, repairing roads, building walls and picking up trash. Children stood at intersections, begging.
I spent a few days of my trip in Bangalore, which involved taking a twenty-three-hour-long train ride from Mumbai. It was an education simply being on the train. In urban areas, there were the shacks that were all the home that some families had, built of whatever materials they could find, crammed in wherever there was space along the side of the railway. Further out, every available acre of land was cultivated, with plantation after plantation of palm trees growing dates or coconuts. Every so often, the train would need to stop because there were animals on the tracks. I saw countless monkeys along the way; more than a few were missing limbs, perhaps from too close an encounter with a train, but that didn’t stop them from seeing if there was any food to be had.
During my time in Bangalore, and much to the embarrassment of most of the members of the family with whom I was staying, the Miss India pageant was in full swing. As with such events in this country, the contestants were hardly representative of the general population of the sub-continent, being taller than average and with strikingly pale skin and light eyes. I remember one of the commercial breaks because there was an advert for a particular brand of soap. In that advert, a young woman was interviewed for a job she wanted, but was turned down; back at home, her parents gave her the soap being advertised, which she used on the basis that, so her parents informed her, it would whiten her skin; reapplying for the job and being interviewed again, the woman, now with supposedly more pale skin, was successful.
One of the relatives of the family hosting me was home on a break from university in Baltimore. Much to the disbelief of family members who had never traveled outside India, she described the discrimination she had experienced in the United States. Perhaps, in a country where restricted amenities and crushing poverty are so many people’s lived realities even in the midst of such natural abundance, where classism relating to skin color is so accepted that it even informs the story lines of television adverts, perhaps then it’s hard to imagine how there could be anything similar within the mythically ideal society of the United States.
It’s said that travel broadens the mind, and I’ve always found that to be true. And it’s not necessary, of course, to go half way around the world to have one’s mind broadened. It was a result of my own privilege that, at the time I wanted to go to India, I had the wherewithal to do so: working for a university where my modest “post-doc” pay was slightly more than adequate for my frugal life-style, I had the flexibility in my schedule to take such a trip as well as the money in savings to pay for it. But I have also had my mind broadened without having to travel so far away, without even having to leave the town where I was living. It’s when, in particular, we are willing “to cross the borders of race, culture and social class,” as UUA President Peter Morales puts it, whether volunteering at a food pantry run by Muslim women or participating in an interfaith Habitat for Humanity project, that we learn things about other people, about ourselves, and about the world we share with one another that not only broaden our minds, but also deepen our spirits and open our hearts as well.