Friday, November 15, 2013

The Good Samaritans

       There is a hospital just down the road called the Exempla Good Samaritan Hospital.  Every time I read the name I can’t help but ruminate. The phrase “Good Samaritan” has become such a common cultural reference that it is hard to imagine just how offensive it was the first time that famous parable was uttered.  The Judeans viewed Samaritans as aliens, as half bred heretics who were in league with pagan gods.  Who would hold up such an “infidel” as the universal symbol of charity and holiness?
          “Yes, Ryan Sir we are preparing for Diwali” Binod’s voice crackled over Skype.
          “Dadju, please tell everyone in Daragaon Diwaliko Subhakamana from my family.”
          “Of course Ryan Sir, Devi Didi will miss you on bhai tikka this year”
          “We would love to be there.  How is our new volunteer at the school doing?”
          “Oh, Elizabeth is doing great.  The children love her already and are enjoying all of her games.”
          “That’s good to hear, how about the other staff?”
          “Everyone is good in their attendance and working hard.  Ryan Sir, it is just hard for our village teachers to adopt a new way of teaching.  I just wish they could learn from the example set by Ian Sir and the other volunteers.  Our people are so slow to change sometimes.”
          “It’s okay.  The school is not perfect but it’s growing and improving.  We’ll get there one day. Just remember how far we’ve come.”

          When Amanda and I moved into Daragaon we did something extremely offensive.  We moved in with a Hindu family and not just any Hindu family, they were Sadhu.  Our intention wasn’t to offend but instead befriend… but the small Christian community took offence anyways.  The members of the “Himalayan Free Church” were instructed not to work with us or develop deep relationships with us.  We, the new neighbors, were deemed guilty by association with the old neighbors.  In the end Binod, Tilak, Arjun and our mostly Hindu friends were the ones to work with us in transforming Daragaon.  The Christians remained huddled in their temple afraid of being contaminated by unholy association.
Ten years down the road, it is those Samaritans that I still miss when the fall holiday season rolls around.  I call them every year or visit if I can.
The Namesake of the huddled Christians was tested by the Lawyer who asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The Teacher replied, “Well what is written in those scriptures of yours?”
The Lawyer replied, “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and the second is like it… love your neighbor as yourself.”
The Teacher commended, “Correct.  Do this and you will live.”
Uncomfortable and wanting to save face in front of everyone, the lawyer retorted, “Well just who then is my neighbor?”
          I skipped church on a Saturday evening to go with my neighbor Kiran to a Diwali celebration.  Around 20 Nepali families from across the Front Range had gathered in Longmont to celebrate.  The night was filled with dancing, feasting and music.  After dressing up like a disheveled Brahman priest and dancing like a “joker”, Kiran led the group in playing the back and forth singing game called Deo Su Rey.  The families were smiling ear to ear having been transported back to their homeland for at least an evening.  I was smiling too.
          Traditionally, male Deo Su Rey carolers go door to door singing and are given sweets, Sel Roti and a few rupees. Judging that too difficult in an area sparsely populated by Nepalis, everyone just sang (male and female alike) in the living room of one host family’s abode.  A woman brought out a nanglo filled with treats, Prasad, and lamps and sat it in the center of the room.  Everyone danced around the nanglo and threw down money as they did.  The M.C. jested, “This guy owns a gas station and he’s only given $100 dollars!”  The owner laughed and opened his pocket book again.  Another was jested, “What a $20?  Don’t you have a job?”
          By the end of the evening the basket was full of money… but the carolers weren’t taking home the booty.  They were sending it back to Nepal to build houses for the poor neighbors who they’d left behind.
In response to the Lawyer, the Teacher told him the now ubiquitous parable.  The Samaritan was traveling from his home up north in Samaria down to Jerusalem. He was probably a blue collar guy or at least looked poor enough not to attract the attention of the thieves. Chances are that he was going to city to pay his taxes.  Samaritans weren’t allowed to worship at the temple and had little other business in Jerusalem than filling Cesar’s coffers.  He was traveling into the Kingdom of Judah where “half breeds” like him were despised. Up ahead on the side of the road was a man beaten, bloody, naked and left for dead by thieves.  He was assumedly a “pure” Judean.  A Priest had passed him by.  A Levite had passed him by.  Their excuse that touching another’s blood would render them “unclean” for their religious duties. 
Then came the infidel.  He uses his bandages. This was a couple thousand years before first aid kits, so I imagine he had to tear his own clothes to make these.  He applies his wine and oil as medicine.  He puts the injured on his donkey (which still serves as an ambulance in many parts of the world), and uses his money… maybe even that tax money for Cesar… to heal the man.  And The Teacher asks, “So which one do you think was a neighbor to this man?”
We do, to be honest, have two neighbors who we haven’t met yet.  To be fair, the couple lives in North Carolina so it has been challenging to “stop by for some sugar”.  They are our neighbors none the less and have been a neighbor to so many in the Himalayas as well.  Amanda and I have watched this uncanny juxtaposition develop over the last several years.  Churches and faith groups have let their support of our efforts fade away for various reasons.  Each group has its own.  At the same time Brian and Shawn have consistently risen to the occasion to support ECTA and advocate its work to so many others.  I can honestly say that the organization would have sunk several times without their generosity.  As a homosexual couple, they are considered Samaritans throughout most of the Bible Belt of America… but Good Samaritans they have been none the less.

          Before our daughter’s birth in September, my mom made up a bunch of frozen meals.  We knew that we’d be busy and tired after the baby came and thought this would be a good way to lessen the load.  After returning home with Juniper, we set out a meal to thaw one evening.  Around 4 o’clock Kiran’s mother, whom we call Maiju, stopped by and informed us, “We are cooking dinner for you this evening.  Don’t start cooking.  Just rest.”  The meal was delicious and the left overs took care of lunch the next day as well.  This gave our frozen meal time to thoroughly thaw for dinner the next day as it waited in the fridge.  Around 4 o’clock that next day our Tibetan neighbors showed up with a huge tray of momos and biryani.  As we sat down to enjoy the feast that evening, our Afghani neighbors swung by as well with a pressure cooker full of the traditional chicken soup that is given to mothers during the post-partum period in their homeland.
Who are these people?  Who are these folks “in league with pagan gods”?  Who are these CNA’s who change the bed pans, gas station owners who count the tills behind safety glass, factory workers who drive the forklifts and used car salesmen who tie the balloons at the corner of their lots?  Who are these Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims?  Who are these homosexual philanthropists?  Who are these aliens, immigrants and… Samaritans?  Who are our neighbors? 
In response to the Teacher’s question, the Lawyer… not even able to say the word Samaritan… responded, “The one who showed mercy.”
Who would hold up ones “such as these” as symbols of the holy life we are to lead?  Well Christ did as much in his parable.
          The Samaritan was probably 2-3 days journey from his home.  A stranger in a strange land, unwanted and despised.  These days, thanks to the transportation revolution, we can reach almost any spot in the world in 2-3 days journey.  So now I ask, in this new paradigm, “who is our neighbor?”  What are we to do now that the suffering of an entire planet is within an arm’s reach, flight, phone call or wire transfer?  If we are to follow the “Exempla” of the “Good Samaritan”, we should embrace those who have been passed by the legal and religious institutions, to tear our shirts to bandage those left bleeding on the side of the road by modernity, to uncork the wine, to cleanse the wounds and pour out the oil of healing liberally.
We named our first ambulance “The Donkey” for two reasons.  It was a donkey who bore Mary to Bethlehem as she was in labor and the second is like it… it was a donkey the Samaritan used to take the broken man to the inn.  This year Colorado Gives Day falls on December 10th and it is our hope to add another Donkey to our herd.  It is ECTA’s goal to raise $20,000 dollars to purchase an ambulance for the village of Daragaon and the surrounding region.  I’ve personally assisted in carrying multiple patients on stretchers from that village... including my own wife and first born son... and I would have given anything then to have even a four legged donkey at my disposal.  A vehicle road is being built to Daragaon and should be completed in 2014.  Our plan is to install the new ambulance when we return next May.
While Dashain and Diwali have already passed us by, there is still a chance to dance, sing and throw down your offerings in the basket this Holiday Season.  I invite you to come to the party December 10th.   This year may we all be “the ones who show mercy” and when we do we will assuredly receive the true blessing assured in that parable which is “do this and you will live.”  Not only will you live but others will be given the chance to live as well.

ECTA – That all may be born into love, live in hope and die with dignity.
Ryan Phillips
Executive Director -

Monday, October 28, 2013

Bittersweet Realities

Pulling out onto Arapahoe just after midnight, I felt awash with conflicting emotions.  It was something I’d done countless times but it felt so different.  The pavement was smooth and black.  There were street lights. The avenue was broad.  Driving women in labor to the hospital was, of course, my job for quite some time.  Next to me, Amanda held her belly through the increasing contractions as we quietly rolled towards Boulder.  In between the pains, we joked and made light conversation.  In the back of my mind a reel of images began to play; a road washed out by monsoon rains, casually edging an ambulance along the crumbling rim of a landslide, a young husband rocking back and forth holding the mother-to-be.  In the background of my mind a subtle track hummed in time; the sound of creaking leaf springs, the groans of the mother as we hit a deep pothole, the squeak of seat and rumble of road.  In the foreground, there was barely a sound.    
I thought of Puran, Simon and Saran who were, more than likely, engaged in that same activity half a world away.  “More than likely” is appropriate to use here given the political climate in the Darjeeling District.  During the month of August, the roads and shops were open a grand total of 6 days.  The rest of the month had been disrupted by “general strikes” which are used as a tool to demand separate statehood for “Gorkhaland”.  During these protests, only hospitals and pharmacies are allowed to open their doors.  Only ambulances are allowed to ply the roads.  Our drivers were running non-stop,  ECTA’s ambulances being the only link for rural villages in times of emergency.  Saran alone transported 36 laboring mothers in August, each trip requiring 6-8 exhausting hours. His wife Binnu is expecting their first child herself later this year, so he can appreciate the need of those he serves.
As a cordial nurse, checked Amanda and I into the calm, quiet, clean and comfortable L&D at Boulder Community Hospital my mental screen played on; memories of having to bang on shuttered gates and locked doors in the middle of night, memories of terse nurses annoyed that we hadn’t “waited till morning” despite the emergency, memories of scared fathers thumbing through their rupees wondering how they would eat.  Our room was spacious and homey complete with TV, DVD and free WiFi… not to mention a private bathroom.  Despite being overjoyed that we were about to meet our new child, an ache crept into my heart remembering… remembering a single overflowing latrine for 60 women, remembering no running water, remembering women laboring on soiled mattresses strewn on the floor of the Government Hospital.  Not only did Amanda have a large, clean adjustable bed… but I, with no medical needs at all, had a sofa sleeper to retire on incase I fancied a little shut eye.
The equipment at the ready just in our room, just for Amanda, exceeded what would be available in an entire L&D at the tertiary level in our District of W.Bengal which sees 40-50 deliveries a day.  In comparison to the 3-4 nurses on duty for all those women, an entourage was assembling for Amanda’s VBAC.  Hospital policy required a surgeon and anesthesiologist to be on call.  Three different nurses assisted us throughout the night and a nurse midwife was present for the delivery.  After a short and beautiful labor, Amanda gave birth to our first daughter, Juniper Sahara, at 5:16am.  Finishing the requisite phone calls and postpartum care, Amanda rested in her clean warm bed.  I, with a grateful heart, drifted off to sleep on the comfy sofa with my baby girl tucked in beside me.  Later, I awoke to the visit of the Pediatrician.
I’ve experienced this intense bittersweet emotion with the birth of each of our children.  After Asher’s birth via emergency C-section, I tasted the joy of my first born as well as the realization that, if I’d been born a Nepali villager, I would be a widower.  With the miscarriage of Leaf Anjali, we experienced the bitter reality of substandard care and lack of access to emergency services as well as the sweetness of finding redemption even in that traumatic event.  With Shepherd Ketan, Cedar Milan and now Juniper Sahara we experienced the joy of competent compassionate care in three very different contexts; a homebirth in America, a homebirth in a remote Indian village and a midwife assisted hospital delivery in Colorado.  My joy and gratefulness in these 3 births has not been diminished by but instead tempered with the reality that my friends, neighbors and loved ones in India still do not have access to the standard of care they deserve.  Our projects have brought them a few steps closer, but there is still a long journey to actualize holistic maternal/child care in South Asia.
A few days after Juniper’s birth, an unprecedented storm settled in on Boulder releasing a year’s worth of rain in under a week.  Roads were washed out in this ‘monsoon’, landslides cut off mountain routes, people in remote towns had to walk hours in the rain to reach the nearest vehicle accessible road.  Sounding very familiar, it dawned on me how similar Boulder is to Siliguri.  It is the last town in the plains before the mountains.  It is the place to come for all the essential services the folks “in the hills” need.  For two weeks, our home in America tasted the reality that our home in India faces for 5 months of every year.  The effects will last for months, maybe even years but there are some stark differences.  This was a hundred… and some even say thousand… year flood.  There is nothing on record which even comes close.  The Himalayas will experience six times the rain this every year, not to mention every summer.  Where we have emergency airlifts and FEMA, Himalayan villagers have their own two legs and arms.  I do not mean to diminish the suffering which Coloradans have experienced but simply hope to elucidate the unimaginable reality of so many living half a world away.
One huge leap Amanda and I were able to make in linking Himalayan mothers with the care they need (especially in the heart of monsoon with all its perils) was getting “The Donkey” recognized as a Matriyaan Ambulance.  Through this government sponsored program we are able to provide free transport to mothers to and from the hospital.  One huge obstacle we’ve faced has been political grid lock in the region.  ECTA/HIMserve has not received any reimbursements for our services since March.  The cost for over 150 maternal transports has been flowing out of pocket and eroding our budget for the school and Community Health Volunteer training program.  Some other local Matriyaan providers have buckled under the financial burden.  Our vehicles have been able to provide unbroken service thanks to the support of our donors.  Matriyaan has been tremendously successful in ensuring free access to essential medical services for families of every income bracket… but a government shutdown forced by partisan politics is threatening to reset the only tangible progress which has been made in the last decade.  Just as the acute emergency of the Colorado floods reflects the chronic state of emergencies caused by the monsoon in India, I awoke this morning to find that our national politics are not so very different than the perpetual division and corruption which paralyzes India.  Now Americans face a government shutdown as well.  In both contexts, public health seems to be the collateral damage.
While it is tempting to focus on the bitter we can savor the sweet just as easily.  We can do more than savor it; we can share it.  We can do more than share it; we can create it.  Here at ECTA we hope, pray and work to ensure that every mother, father and child can be “Born into love, Live in hope and Die with dignity”.  Please take time to consider your roll in supporting this endeavor.  ECTA needs to raise $1,500 dollars of recurrent monthly donations by the end of the year to make up for the Matriyaan deficit, maintain the organization and lay the groundwork for future initiatives.  Every little bit helps.  Automatic recurrent donations of $15, $25 or $50 dollars add up to meet our monthly goal.  Donate at knowing that no one can truly be healthy, unless there is health for all.
Ryan Phillips – Executive Director of ECTA International

An Hour Before Sunrise

                Whenever I travel via Kolkata (Calcutta) I have a tradition.  I like to wake up an hour before sunrise and walk the alleyways.  My path often leads me past the large market near Sudder St.   The streets are full of thousands of the homeless sleeping under porticos, on top of food carts, along the sidewalks or, during the hot months, in the middle of the road.  After waking, they rub their aching backs and then their lives unfold entirely in public; they bathe in the street, brush in the street, dress in the street, buy a cup of chai and start their day in the street.  Where will they go to work?  What will they do all day?  I watched one such man put on his sandals, roll up his mat, tuck it in the bottom of his food cart, pull out a stove and wok to start cooking atop where he’d spent the night.  He was still there cooking pakora when I passed by late that evening.  When I walk by in my sneakers and travel pants they probably wonder why a “man of privilege” is sauntering around their sphere of poverty.  Perhaps they think I’m just there to “slum it up” for a morning… as yet another passing diversion.
                Here in America I now have a new tradition.  I wake up an hour before sunrise and ride the streets.  On my bicycle, I short cut through the Walmart parking lot on my way to work.  The homeless are there sleeping in old Buicks, ramshackle RV’s, old vans with black garbage bags taped over the windows and in the backs of pick-ups covered by homemade plywood toppers.  Few realize that the Walmart parking lot is one of the only places that people are legally allowed to camp in their vehicles overnight for free.  As I ride by, they wake up.  Where will they go to work?  What will they do all day?  They rub their backs, which ache from sleeping in the passenger seat, before wiping the condensation from the windshield.  As they look through the fogged glass perhaps they see me as just another “man of privilege” out for some morning exercise on his road bike.  But I’m not out for exercise, I’m going to work as well.
                Many of the men who seem so poor in the streets of Kolkata, view themselves as one of the ones who’ve made it.  They’ve left families behind in the far flung villages of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.  They cook samosa and sell chai all day.  They sleep in the street to save money… so as to send it home to their families.  Their families often have no fertile land or are uneducated and therefore unemployable.  Their kin are eating while many of the neighbors are not.  While the tourists to Sudder St. view them with pity, they may actually feel a sense of pride.  They are feeding large families back home thanks to those four rupee cups of chai and two rupee cups of “ice cold lemon water”.  Even better off are the bicycle rickshaw drivers.  Many, myself included, grimace as they see an emaciated old man pedaling and sweating, in the kind of heat that only Kolkata can produce, conveying a fat merchant to his shop.  But how does that rickshaw-walla feel about himself?
                Yesterday, the sun was hot as I picked vegetables.  The sweat ran down and stung my eyes.  I work on a local organic farm making just a bit over minimum wage.  Few realize that there is no overtime pay or health benefits in the agriculture sector.  It’s codified.  The pay is meager and the work is hard.  Occasionally, a volunteer will come that wants to work a few days to get his or her hands dirty, to ‘reconnect’ with the earth they are estranged from or perhaps just, ‘slum it up’ for a few days.  Recently, a professor of songwriting from a large university came to work with us.  We became engaged an interesting conversation about modern life and incomprehensible trends in our culture.  At a certain point, he gave me a quizzical glance and asked me about my educational background.  After giving him a very abridged account of my studies and work he responded in a rather surprised tone,
“Oh… I guess I just expected that those working on a farm were, you know, high school drop outs and those who didn’t have any other option.”
I responded, “Well Nick over there just finished his Master’s in Biochemistry, Leah has a P.H.D in the clarinet, Steve used to play Tuba for the New York Symphony and, as far as I know, all of us are here by choice.  We love our jobs and prefer a rich life to a rich pocketbook.”
The truth is that I actually do like picking vegetables out in the hot sun.   I like getting dirty, sweating and not having a car to drive to work in.  I like my life, even with all its discomforts and many frustrations.  I’m free to live according to my convictions about the environment, society, culture, agriculture, nutrition etcetera.  Leo Tolstoy put it best when he wrote, “There is nothing more intolerable for a man than to live in contradiction to his convictions.”  So, I feel rich.  I feel like a man of privilege.  But when others see me riding home from work in my muddy Carhartt’s, on a hand me down bicycle laden with blemished vegetables… they probably assume me poor.  By most governmental and social indicators, I am poor.  I earn less than the national poverty threshold, take classes from the community college, my kids eat ‘free lunch’, we shop at Goodwill and receive WIC and MEDICAID.  The experts say I’m poor and many members of the political establishment and public consider “folks like me” a drain on society and the economy.   So am I? 
The numbers do not reflect the environmental value of choosing to live simply.  The public health stats do not assume that my kids eat better, and by better I mean healthier not more, than many of those in higher brackets.  Those who suppose the poor to be parasitic do not know that I run a non-profit on a volunteer basis.  The social workers would not guess that I’m prepping for med school as well with the intention of bringing high quality healthcare to the Himalayas.
                Occasionally, as we lived in remote villages in the Himalayas over the years, a western tourist would stumble across our path… literally.  More often than not, I’d be wearing the same Carhartt’s muddy from building a school, trail, a health clinic or just simply farming.  Like the professor volunteering at the farm, their curiosity would be peaked and would want to know my backstory.  Amanda would often invite them over to our mud floored cabin, lacking electricity or running water, for a cup of tea.  Almost everyone had the same reaction, “Man, I’ve always wanted to do something like that, something that really mattered.  To live someplace like this.  I’ve just… just… never been able to.”  By all indicators we were poor in that context, so why were we considered rich by our guests?
                I’m a rich man.  I’m rich because I’m healthy and loved, have incredibly supportive family and friends, am the citizen of a country which supports its citizens in all seasons, am able to live according to my convictions and have the freedom to pursue a better life for myself as well as my neighbors near and far.  I have found again and again, around the world that the poor have a beauty and a richness to share.  Like the rich, the poor want to share that richness but have “just… just… never been able to.”  When we co-founded ECTA, our mission was to show rich and poor alike that we are “able to.”  The lines between rich and poor are blurrier than we imagine, highly based on context and perception.  Unfortunately, most people allow the narrowness of their contexts to invisibly limit the possibilities.  Throughout the years we have worked with an incredible array of characters.  We’ve seen patients become caretakers, struggling students become teachers, farmers become community developers, mothers become midwives, drop-outs become ambulance drivers, the malnourished become strong healthy individuals, the poor become rich and the rich become poor to make it all happen.
                I’ve had to reinvent myself as of late as an “older student” and now the Executive Director of ECTA International.  ECTA is growing, changing and reinventing itself as well.  Check in on our website, to see our redefined mission and vision.  Follow us on Facebook to keep up with current events and to discover articles on issues related to our work.  Look to yourself to discover what your part is in ensuring that “All can be born into love, live in hope and die with dignity” rich and poor alike.