The following post was written by Laney Ohmans, membership coordinator at the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis and member of Unity Church Unitarian in St. Paul. She is currently taking part in a service-learning trip to explore justice for rural India with the UU Holdeen India Program.
Of all the things I’d imagined would seem welcoming about my return trip to India, the smell of the Mumbai airport had not been one of them. As soon I stepped out of the plane, though, there it was: a thick bank of turmeric and musk and damp. I felt a mix of recognition and surprise, of the familiar and the foreign, that would follow me through my time here.
Four years ago I came to India on a similar quest from my home congregation, Unity Church, to volunteer for two months as an English teacher in the school run by Vidhayak Sansad (VS), a Holdeen partner in rural India. This trip was a return to the familiar VS campus with a service-learning group of 10 Unitarian Universalists, all connected through the UU College of Social Justice. I had initially agreed to the trip — a gift from my minister, who realized at the last moment that she would be unable to go — with no hesitation. As the departure date ticked closer, though, I grew more and more uncomfortable.
I’d returned from my initial time in Usgaon overflowing with admiration for the work of our Holdeen partner, ready to offer, as Dag Hammarskjöld says, “the chalice of [my] being to receive, to carry, and to give back.” Four years had passed since that trip, however, and in the interim I felt that my chalice had slowly emptied. The realities of my life had seemed much more pressing and had demanded so much of my attention. I’d lost pieces of that passion in the struggle to find a job, find a new job, find another job, balance three jobs, finish my bachelor’s degree, move to a new city. I worried that the girl who had gone to Usgaon years ago had become a stranger to me, and that my life would seem completely foreign to her.
But when we made it to the Usgaon campus, I found that my face ached from smiling after an hour. I saw my former students and hundreds of repetitions of hokey pokey and “thank you, madam” and shared lunches and breakfasts and dinners came flooding back. I sat with my trip mates in meetings with activists from the Shramajeevi Sanghatana union and felt again the powerful force of their convictions and the clarity they brought to their struggle for justice in their block, district, city, and state. By the end of the trip I felt truly full of purpose again, renewed by the energy of the place, with every intention of keeping the part of myself that holds those memories close. I hope that she is never a stranger to me again.
On my way home, though, I feel I’m faced with a larger problem of recognition and connection. It’s easy to be resolute when everything around you seems so clear. When the distractions of your daily life are 15 hours away. When you’re surrounded by people who share your values and amplify them. What is difficult is to force yourself to be changed while everything around you remains as it has been. When I get back to the United States, all my jobs are waiting, as are my friends, my family, my car, my computer, my iPod, my gym membership, my favorite bar. How can I hold on to this feeling in the midst of all that familiar?
Clearly I don’t have the answer to this — if you do, please leave it for me in the comments! — but I did find one thing. As I was writing this post, I searched for the Hammarskjöld quote I mentioned earlier. I know the first piece by heart because I often use it in our membership classes at First Unitarian Society. What I didn’t know was that there is a second stanza to the poem. After urging us to hold out the chalice of our being each day, Hammarskjöld reminds us that each day it must be held out empty. I’ll leave you with his words:
Each day the first day: each day a life.
Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being
to receive, to carry, and give back.
It must be held out empty —
for the past must only be reflected
in its polish, its shape, its capacity.