Day Five: The Perils of Simplicity

The week has just begun, but it seems I’ve heard this song a hundred times already. It would help if it wasn’t the same verse, over and over, time after time. No amount of adding hand motions changes the fact that it’s the same, monotone chant in constant refrain. On a day like today (clap, clap) on a daaaaay like todaaaaay (clap, clap) on a daaaaaaaaay like tooooodaaaaaaaayyyy (clap clap) oooooooooooooh, I need Jesus!

The children love it. Really, they love Matt, who leads the song with palpable joy, waving his hands and clowning about. Some people lead children’s songs with pasted smiles, but you can feel Matt feed on the laughter. His smile gets bigger, his arms swing wider, so wide that he clocks Sarah in the stomach as we finish a verse (she won’t stand next to him during the song for the rest of the week). His singing, unfortunately, gets worse, as he abandons the notes altogether and develops a tuneless yell for the last half of the song. ON A DAAAAAAAAAAY LIKE TOOODAAAAAAAAAY! Some of the older kids abandon the hand motions in order to stick their fingers in their ears.

We spend the morning coloring and passing out cookies and bracelets. The children’s minister, King, does a magic show in flowing Hindi, adapting each trick to tell the story of God’s love. He leads kids in a prayer, then with a wave of his hand, he makes Sin disappear. It’s a textbook picture of what ministry is supposed to be, I think. The gospel is given, the people respond. Lives are changed. Frowns are turned to laughter. The story is simple. Except the story’s not simple.

It’s time for the Bible story. Betty pulls the easel out of the box, sharp black metal against a yellow wall. The kids recoil and grow silent. King jumps forward and says something, and the children relax a little, but tension still races about the room like a thousand taut strings.

Betty turns to King in confusion. “The sticks,” he says. “They think you’re going to beat them. I told them you were not going to.”

Our exhilaration seems to disappear inside us, like the signal on an old television after the plug has been pulled.

After the children file out, King tells us their story. Most of them have told him that their father is beating their mother, beating them. Their parents don’t know that they’re here. They lied and told them they had school today, even though school is cancelled because of the festival.

“What happens if their parents find out?” I ask. King shrugs, whether because he doesn’t know or just doesn’t want us to, I cannot tell.

We want the story to be simple, because it helps us. It helps us to understand it. There is pain and hunger and suffering, and we bring the light of Jesus, and then there is hope. We don’t talk about what happens to the pain and hunger and suffering after that. Maybe we don’t want to know.

But this world is not like our world. This morning in the paper, there was an article about how government officials were considering lowing the age of marriage for girls to 16 to try and slow the stream of rapes. One official suggested that perhaps the rapes were from “people eating too much chow mein during festival season.” Apparently, after consuming greasy food, men are simply helpless to their animal urges.

Today I traveled through the market with David, one of Peter’s staff members, who had gotten this assignment as their most technically savvy employee. He points out interesting things for me to photograph, but after I make the mistake of expressing delight at the sight of a cow leisurely crossing the street through traffic, he then takes me to see twenty more cows, most of them in unexcitingly characteristic cow places. After we end up in the empty lot behind some abandoned buildings with a pair of Brahmans, I finally put my foot down.

We wander for a time in the marketplace, snapping photos of fruit vendors and men carrying straw bales, until David waves towards a side path along the banks of the Ganges. I follow, and the bustle of festival-season Patna dies away immediately behind me. A tiny village stretches out on either side of the uneven brick track. I am in a sea of greens and reds and warm browns. Children rush up to me with arms wide, begging to have their pictures taken. I seem to have traveled a hundred miles in a footstep.

It’s peaceful here.  The setting sun stripes the path through gaps in the houses. Women peek out the doors and smile shyly as I pass. Bare-chested men rouse themselves from their stoops and walk out to meet me. I feel at home here. Life feels simple.

In two days, we’ll come back to bring some of these people blankets. We won’t have enough for everyone, and people will get angry. Because a lot of people died last winter because they didn’t have blankets, and more will this year, too. Life feels simple because these people have nothing.

We want to love the simplicity of this life because we want things to be simple for us. We want to believe that this world is carefree and happy because that’s easier for us to deal with. We want to anesthetize their suffering, make it into a happy tableau, a place without worry, a place of bright colors and bright smiles. We want to dial it in to a single problem. “If we can just buy them some mosquito nets…” we say.  “If we can just solve the AIDS problem.” “If we can just find them a source of clean water.” “If we can just teach them to grow higher-yielding crops.” We want one problem, one solution, and our minds work to crowd the other parts out.

“If we can just bring them the Gospel,” we say, turning our heads away from the hunger, the thirst, the poverty, the beatings, the rapes. “We can change their lives.”

And I believe that. I do. But I don’t want to be scared to look at the rest of it.

I don’t want to be scared if the world’s more complicated than I want to make it.