The last year has perhaps been the most difficult one of my life.
Last summer, my husband Andy and I began to seriously discuss abandoning our life plan of forever living among the poor in the slums of India. As we talked, we stood on a rooftop garden overlooking the snowcapped Himalayas and the small villages nestled into the slopes of several verdant valleys below. I took in the expanse of the sky and the fresh, cool breeze blowing across my face.
Then I thought of the hot, crowded city we had left behind for this retreat—the same one we would return to in a week’s time. I pictured the narrow, dusty alleyways of our neighborhood, the black, sludgy canal next to it and the squalid shacks that hugged the shore. I heard the angry voices through thin walls, the blows falling on innocent women and children, and the endless pleas of my neighbors for help in crisis after crisis. I remembered not only the suffocating heat, but the crushing weight of feeling responsible for so many people in whose chaotic world my own life had become enmeshed.
“I don’t want to live there anymore,” I said aloud, bursting into tears. What I felt about continuing our lives there was not apathy—it was closer to panic, or suffocation.
We had been transformed by the relationships we had developed with our neighbors in the slum. They were people of great tenacity and faith who did not share our religion or our culture, but who humbled us with their hope, courage, and hospitality in the midst of grinding poverty.
Andy and I had followed God’s call to live in solidarity with people on the margins, seeking to love and serve Jesus in the people we found there—and despite the challenges and intensity of our living situation, we had found a home in the community of rural migrants. But we were not ready for the second call: the invitation from God to acknowledge our own inner poverty and need.
By the time we entertained the possibility of leaving, I’d succumbed to compassion fatigue. I was emotionally exhausted from powerlessly watching tragedy unfold in the lives of my friends; traumatized by all of the violence we witnessed and in which we intervened. Unable to separate who I was from what I did, I was buckling under the pressure of real and perceived expectations from myself, from others, and from God. I realized that although I was committed to sharing God’s love with others, I had yet to internalize that unconditional love for myself.
Leaving the slum a few months later was not a decision to walk away from seeking community with people in poverty or working for justice. We still wanted to live out Jesus’ teachings, but we didn’t want to do it from unhealthy motivations. We knew that we needed to more deeply experience God’s love for ourselves. Only then could we live with genuine freedom and compassion.
The night that Andy and I left the community, our friends gathered to say goodbye. I attended several funerals during my time in the slum, and my last memory of the place is like a dream in which I am present for my own. The call to prayer from a nearby mosque sounds wistful overhead. A somber crowd of all the people I have known over the past two years surrounds me. We move silently through the alleys where we have played, argued, laughed, and cried together. The procession pours onto the road and stops traffic while everyone weeps as they say goodbye. The separation feels unbearably final.
Although our departure meant a respite from the hardships of living in the slum, being cut off from the people who had become like family to us in India was an immeasurable loss. It was the right thing to do, but it meant the death of dreams and plans, the end of deep friendships, and a near total loss of identity for Andy and me. Who would we be without everything that had come to define us?
Nine months later, we’re still figuring that out. I sit on my bed with my eyes closed, trying to let go of my thoughts. I will spend the next twenty minutes in silent meditation. Sometimes I am able to release my worries and enjoy simply being present with God. Today, however, centering prayer is an exercise in frustration: my thoughts run in all directions, especially towards the future.
On my best days, I feel that I’m detoxing: from the illusion that my worth comes from my hard work and sacrifice, or from my usefulness to others. As much as I resist it, all of the silence and unstructured time allows space for healing to take place; for the truth to sink into my bones that God loves me now, and now, and now, and now.
I know that this fallow season will not last forever, but it seems to me God is determined that it last long enough to crucify my illusions so that I walk forward resurrected in my identity as beloved. The road to life always passes through death.