Chapter 24- A long way from welcome

This is from my journal on the long sabbatical walk from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh while memorizing the gospel of John.  The following took place over June 30- July 3, 2008, at a campground near Pittsburgh.

Entry for Monday evening.  We are camped on a hillside, not surprising since there is nothing but hills near Pittsburgh. At the foot of this slope is a dammed pond surrounded by grass.  This evening a few boys are fishing, and there’s a wooden dock with a rowboat.   I walk my dog, Chester, around the pond before bed and notice a group camped in tents in a field close to the water.  It seems to be a family reunion with lots of celebration and cooking going on.  I head back up the hill to my own quiet campfire.

Entry for Tuesday evening.  Sometime during last night there was a downpour.  This morning’s light reveals that the field next to the pond has become a marsh.  There seems to be a lot of commotion among the tent campers as we leave for the trail to continue the hike to Buena Vista today.  By the time we return in the late afternoon, the drenched family has moved to a location up the hill near us.  They have set up their tents again in this new spot, and are drying sleeping bags and clothes over bushes and makeshift clotheslines.  They are located next to a small pavilion and have strung lights around.  The women are busy preparing supper and the men are playing with the children.  In spite of spending the day moving and drying out, they certainly seem to be the happiest group in the campground.  They play games and are talking well into the night, but I am too tired for their laughter to keep me awake.

Entry for Wednesday evening. After walking today, when Rick picks me up in McKeesport, he tells me how one of the young men, Chandra, had invited him down to the family’s site for chai.  He learns that they are originally from India and, in fact, their older parents have just come to America a few weeks ago to live permanently.  Their camping expedition is intended to be a celebration of siblings and cousins and grandchildren welcoming their parents’ arrival.  In the conversation Rick has told them about our daughter, Becca, whom we adopted from the Missionaries of Charity orphanage in Delhi.  A friendly acquaintance has begun, he tells me, as we drive back to camp.

Once “home,” I sit outside writing in my journal.  The boys and men in the family start a pick-up cricket game in the gravel road not far away.  There is not a lot a room for the game to get too intense, so it peters out before long.  Chandra drops by, and I get to meet him.  We talk about soccer, and I try my best to keep up with his thick accent.  He invites us to join his family later for dinner.

When the food is ready to be served, Chandra comes to fetch us and introduces us to people.  We all take off our shoes and sit down around the edges of  a mat spread on the ground.  I am one of the few women sitting down.  Most of them are dishing out food or chasing a child or doing this or that. The food is delicious: a spicy tomato-dried pea-onion stew with papad, which is a cracker-like spiced bread.  Tonight the papad is served with a relish of chopped tomato and onion.  More Hindi (?) than English is spoken this night, but Chandra translates and is careful to keep us included in the conversation.  They tell us what they do for work.  Chandra is a jeweler specializing in diamonds.  His cousin is a computer programmer.  The recently immigrated grandfather was a farmer back in India before he sold the farm to come to the U.S.

The laughter and banter slows a bit when Chandra announces says that the family has been asked to leave the campground tomorrow.  Apparently there have been complaints and misunderstandings. They have been too noisy.  Their campsite is too messy.  They have taken over the pavilion instead of using it only temporarily in the rain to dry out.  When the communication with the owner occurred earlier in the day, none of the men had been there.  The women, who do not speak English well, had been confused.  They are trying to remedy the situation.  They have moved their things out of the pavilion, picked up their children’s toys, and taken dried clothes off the makeshift line.  Chandra is going to try to talk to the owner himself.  What will you do if you have to leave? I ask him.  He tells me that most campgrounds are full because of the 4th of July in two days.  Maybe they will go to West Virginia to a temple where they would be welcome to camp out.  Or maybe they will just go home.  He says all this with a smile and without complaint, but I can sense their puzzlement with their adopted culture.  We all know, but leave unspoken, that the real problem is the way they talk, the color of their skin, the unfamiliar brightness of their saris, the spilling over of their boisterous celebration, even though their celebration is about their family living in the United States and observing the first 4th of July with their aging parents.  My goodness, the campground should be throwing a party for them!

Entry for Thursday evening
Rick and I climb into the truck to go visit his mother in Cleveland for the day, and  Chandra stops us, bringing over two cups of hot chai, thick with buttered milk and the aroma of spice. We thank him and his family, wish them well and share our hope that the situation works out so that they can stay.

We do not tell them of our plan, but on our way out of camp we stop at the office, determined to put in a good word for our Indian friends. When we had checked in the first day, the owners had taken note that we came from a college that their daughter had considered attending because it is a Christian college.  So now we were hoping that some of these faith connections might help in a conversation with them about Chandra’s family.

Inside the camp store, we tell them we understand that there may possibly be a problem and difficulty in communicating.  We say that, although our campsite is in close proximity to the family in question, we have not experienced any problems.  On the contrary the Indian family had been wonderfully friendly and hospitable. We have been their guests at a delicious meal, we say. Our acquaintance with them has, in fact, been our most rewarding experience of neighborly camping in our seven weeks on the road.  But there have been complaints, they say. We respond sympathetically: we know they are trying to run a business, but that we believe the family wants to abide by any rules of the campground, and we hope some consideration can be given.

It is long after dark by the time we return.  As we drive up the hill, I look in vain for our new friends. Their campsite is dark and vacant.  We unload our things out of the truck quietly, and I notice an extra bag of charcoal sitting by our picnic table.  I feel defeated, a sadness weighing me down.  I miss the sparkling lights around the pavilion, the laughter around the game of cards on the blanket.  I am embarrassed to be a part of such an ungracious culture, and wish I had at least taught my new neighbors how to roast marshmallows and make s’mores before they had to leave.

The beloved disciple writes that, the night before he was crucified by the authorities, Jesus said to his disciples: “I am giving you a new commandment that you love one another.  If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.  If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own.  Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you….It was to fulfill the word written in their law, “They hated me without a cause.”  (John 15.18-19, 25)

This pilgrim prays: I am sad, Lord, that this family, which befriended and welcomed us, could not fit in to the unwritten rules and the unbending camping culture around them.  Their situation reminds me of what you said your disciples might face if we decide to take seriously your command to love one another.  You warned us that your way will never be popular or practical when it is lived out to the fullest.  You noted that your disciples may always be considered foolish and at odds with expectations and priorities of the world around. Your words seem pessimistic, but understandable, seeing how you would be crucified the next day. Still, you remind us that there will be many times when “loving one another as I have loved you” will in no way be rewarded by those around us and can be a lonely pilgrimage.

Meanwhile, for tonight I would feel more at home with my outcast neighbors traveling to an Indian temple than with the people playing patriotic songs loudly in the next campsite. I put on my headphones and listen to Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.  My eyes close and I’ll soon be asleep.  Here is a great irony: we, your pilgrims on earth, do not belong to the world, and yet in order to love one another as you did, we still must care deeply about the world, your whole world, and not just our own little corner.