My parents had immigrated to America when I was a baby. Now I was back as a grad student to spend a year in the city of my birth, Kolkata, India, doing research to try and eradicate poverty in the slums.
I rode a city bus to make my visits, and dressed in sarees like the rest of the women. But in the standing-room-only ladies' section of the bus, I towered over the shoulder-high heads surrounding me and felt suffocated by guilt. Why had I been so fortunate? I'd been given opportunities galore in America. My strong, tall body was the result of years of access to good nutrition. Meanwhile, undernourished Indian girls had to work long days scavenging on the streets or sewing in garment factories. Maybe the only godly response was to sell my stuff, renounce my citizenship, and spend my time and money serving the poor.
Yeah, right. What I really wanted to do was escape the guilt, rush back to my comfortable life in America, and forget these poor women altogether. That voice in my head continued to accuse me: And YOU call yourself a 'Christian'?
That's when God reminded me of what He expects of me. The bus careened to avoid a bicycle rickshaw and bounced over a stretch of potholes. I grabbed a sturdy metal bar suspended from the ceiling. The women around me teetered and stumbled, clutching each other and calling out for help.
Oh no! I thought. They're going to fall like ninepins! Should I let go of the bar and try to catch some of them?
Before I could make a move, about a dozen of them reached up and grabbed my arm to steady themselves. For the rest of the journey, everybody in the ladies' section hung on for dear life — me to the bar and them to me. Somehow, we all managed to stay on our feet.
I get it, God, I thought, exchanging grins with the other passengers. I'm not the Messiah, You are. All I need to do is stay put and hold on tight to You. I can manage that.
I didn't eliminate poverty in Kolkata that year (surprise, surprise), but God showed me ways to bless a few women while I was there. And I learned a big lesson when it comes to responding to global suffering, one that I hope to pass on to my kids. Godly sorrow spurs us to life-saving action. False guilt makes us cower and flee. When we encounter disasters, wars, homelessness, hunger, disease, I pray that we as a family will be able to stay put, hold on, and wait for the Master's next command.
Photograph courtesy David Primmer