21 June 2011

Friday Night at the Welcome Cafe

18 June

I didn't realize it, but the slender bearded middle-aged man seated on the cushion next to mine was in charge of the entire event. He was, I discovered shortly, a Jew from Brooklyn, "a little place in New York City with only six million people." I gave him license to mock me like the others had when I remarked dryly that six million is twice the population of Utah, a feigned serious response to a flippant statement that did, in fact, lead to more compliments on my English: "it's really almost like you're a native speaker!"

We were a crowd of extraordinary diversity. We were African, Indian, and Caucasian, American, French, Russian, and Austrian, Jewish and Mormon and Protestant and maybe even Hindu. We were gathered in a small cafe perched on the top of the mountain, seated on cushions around five low tables, looking around in the dim lights that blended smoothly into the surrounding darkness and cast strange shadows around the room.

The generous cafe owner tapped the Jew on the shoulder, prompting him to begin. The Jew welcomed us all and explained that he would pray first in English and then in Hebrew. The prayer was as familiar to my ears as it was foreign--our faiths are thousands of years apart but they still resonate in the same way. He then said a prayer from his own heart, thanking God for life, and split a piece of chapatti to pass in both directions around the table. He himself drank the Coke that he had substituted for wine. Outside, the two lit candles still burned and flickered.

The we feasted on falafel and chicken and rice and chapatti and hummus and cucumber jalapeno tomato salad. I do not know who paid for that food but I know I didn't. Someone's generosity allowed us to observe the Jewish Sabbath quite comfortably.

Religion has long had a complex relationship with travel. I think many early travelers were missionaries--the Spanish in Mexico, Belgians in the Congo, the English in India--which unfortunately fed a feeling of superiority among Christians. This sentiment is beautifully expressed in Kipling's poems "The White Man's Burden" and "Recessional" and has subsequently been buried by advocates of cultural sensitivity. Today it is as repellent to any Christian as it would be to Christ himself to refer to a foreigner as "half devil and half child."

Before our feast in the Welcome Cafe that night, as we sat outside listening to a drummer, guitarist, and singer making music, I looked around at the group of us and wondered how we all came to be there at that moment. When Devin, a college student from Georgia, started talking to me I learned that he and a small group of guys are here for a month, hanging out and having their own Christian worship service every morning. I heard Kyle, one of his friends, zealously telling a young couple about his conversion and faith. Sarah, the singer from Ohio, told me that she is traveling here by the grace of God. The Jewish man from Brooklyn said he is here for a good time and good food. Outside of that gathering, many Westerners come here on a pilgrimage to see the Dalai Lama and practice or learn about Buddhism. The other Jew, you may recall, was searching for God, and that search brought him here.

I, of course, am here as a student researcher and not a missionary, but I've several times reflected on the fact that my group and I are the only LDS presence in northernmost India. That might make a difference for one Columbian traveler who asked for "an application to be a Mormon" and instead received a pass along card, and perhaps even for the South African woman traveling with him.

Religious communities today are no longer concerned with the White Man's Burden and all its racist implications but with freedom and tolerance. The thirty of us at the Welcome Cafe exemplified that. In the words of Joseph Smith junior, "we claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may."

1 comment:

  1. What an experience!
    You are such a beautiful writer!!
    I loved reading this!!