Monica Rozenfeld moves to Brooklyn with two roommates — a Catholic and an observant Jew — and they each seek understanding of what it means to be religious.
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You haven’t heard from me in a little while. Miss me? School started just a few weeks ago and I’m already in the deep end of reporting. One of my first stories back was on refugees from the country of Bhutan.
Bhutan is this tiny nation nestled in South Asia, a country made up entirely of Buddhists. I was fooled once to believe it is a euphoric territory on earth, but soon learned that the nation had exiled more than 100,000 Nepali people from its land simply because they were Hindu. To add irony to the equation, the nation of Bhutan claims to measure its country on a metrics of “Happiness,” an emotion engrained into their public policy. How then do Buddhists, who claim such perfection, exile a people on religious ground?
This, of course, is not simply a religious matter. It is very much a political one. But the irony remains. The beauty in this story is the faith.
When I interviewed activists who help Bhutanese refugees acclimate to the United States, the most important thing for these refugees, they said to me, is a place to pray.
One activist told me that the first thing refugees do when they arrive to their new apartments is lay down their texts and prepare a space for prayer. Just as important is then finding gathering space for the community, often difficult to do, for service called satsang, where the people come together to sing, chant, dance, meditate and talk.
The people are so close that I was told if you teach one person in the community a skill, the entire community will learn. With 30,000 refugees already in the United States and 30,000 yet to arrive in the next few years, one way to help is by visiting and hearing their story. They are a social people who fear isolation. Many of the refugees once were priests or temple keepers. One way to connect with a Bhutanese refugee is through Catholic Charities, which is responsible in picking the refugees up and bringing them to their new homes.
The elderly especially have the most difficulty with acclimation, mostly because they are accustomed to world of agriculture where not an electronic exists. Many of the refugees were placed into urban environments. For that reason, SEVA International started Project Krishi, which provided two acres of farmland to a small elderly community. Listen to what one activist told me:
“First thing [the refugees] did when they got to the farmland, to the field, is they got down on their knees and they kissed the ground, and they kissed the soil. And they took that soil and put it on their forehead,” said Sai Santosh Kumar Kolluru, founder of Hindu YUVA. “That is how much they love farming.”
I found that line so powerful because despite their being exiled for two decades, living in huts that soft winds can destroy, the simplest of life –earth, farming, family and faith – are the only things they need to be happy; to rejoice. What do we have here in America that makes us fall to our knees? What do we have to appreciate? So much. But we don’t respond in that way.
The Bhutanese refugees make it such a priority to pray, and rejoice, and stand with their community. I close this piece with the idea that even if we don’t have a physical sacred space, I would argue that we are all searching for sacred space deep down inside. We can maybe learn a lot from the people who have so little. We can learn a lot from the people who take the little they have and make it sacred.
A new yoga studio opened up in my reporting neighborhood coincidently called “Sacred.” It’s a place that invites such a diverse community to join around fitness, meditation and internal health and well-being. For whatever reason, all of this reinforces my belief that it’s not about which religion we follow, but where we ultimately want to get to. I believe with all my heart, whether in the corner of our apartment, in a yoga studio in Brooklyn or in St. Peter’s in Vatican City, we are all truly yearning for the same thing, deep down inside, which is a little bit of sacred space. Can it be true?
It reminds me of the Buddhist philosophy (how apropos) that there are six billion (going on seven) doors to heaven, and we each have our own.
In case I don’t get a chance to write a piece on this alone, I’d urge everyone to watch journalist Lisa Ling’s first episode “Our America” for a really fascinating story on faith. My favorite line said by Ling is: “Maybe faith is its own reward.” Think about it.
Also, if you’re interested in helping out the Bhutanese community in any way, reach out to Catholic Charities at www.catholiccharitiesusa.org.
Thanks for reading! Please leave your comments and thoughts. I will respond, promise! Please also feel free to include any story ideas I should look into (or include your own story!).