Two Jews and an Episcopal missionary walk into a bar. In Uganda. Really.
A little backstory: My husband and I were doing two months of volunteer work on behalf of American Jewish World Service. We’d become good friends with “Samuel,” the American missionary doctor who’d left his practice in Southern California to provide urgently-needed medical care — no religious conversion required — in the middle of nowhere in Uganda. He’d built a clinic with no water or electricity, at least not at first. He was the real deal – not two months of volunteer work like us.
Every evening, we’d walk along a red-brown laterite dirt path through the greenest hillside I’d ever seen to have a post-workday beer at the nearby fancy hotel. We always had stimulating conversations about the problems of the world and their complexity, as well as how they might be fixed. Plus enjoy some laughter. Just casual conversation among friends, right?
Over one of those cold beers, Samuel casually referred to our “mission.” Geoffrey and I made eye contact. Hmmmm, what to do?
We didn’t want to feel like we were pretending to be something we’re not. Then again, he was a missionary and we really liked him, so we didn’t want our fundamental difference to divide us. Even so, we had to be honest.
“We’re not on a mission, Samuel; for us it’s just volunteer work.”
“Oh really? What’s the difference?”
“We’re not believers.”
“You believe in friendship, kindness, compassion, brotherhood, peace, charity, things like that?”
“Yes of course.”
“Then you’re believers.”
Ordinarily, I bristle when someone tries to tell me what I do or don’t believe, feeling they’re just trying to validate their own belief with the appearance of unanimity. This time, though, was different. What Samuel said made sense to me: regardless of the source of our impulses, they were the same.
Now that’s the kind of religion I can believe in: Be kind to others. In fact, the Dalai Lama once said, “My religion is simple. My religion is kindness.”
And so, in this holiday season of 2015, when the world sometimes seems too awful to contemplate, when we hear about fanaticism of all stripes and see consumerist frenzy wherever we look, I’d like to bring us all back to what it’s about. Whether you celebrate Chanuka, Christmas, Kwanza, Bodhi Day, the solstice, Id al-Adha, or nothing in particular, it’s about being kind. Not because God will punish you if you don’t, not because it’s a sin not to, but simply because……. Well, I don’t know what the because is (any ideas?), but I know it’s right.
Perhaps because, in the end, it’s the only way we can all get along. And survive.
So Happy Kindness to all!
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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, published by Indigo Sea Press. It’s a murder mystery with a musical undertone, set in West Africa. Some of its characters are kind, while others….. not exactly.