Crossing Borders

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon & Elizabeth Rabia Roberts



When the pilgrim’s road comes to an end and her goal is reached, she finds she has traveled only from herself to herself, and that the God whom she reached was all the while in her, around her, with her, and beside her.                                                                                                                                                             –Annonymous

After these years of pilgrimage we are truly becoming pilgrims – engaged in a kind of “exteriorized mysticism” – an outward union with the sacred. We’ve found that the pilgrim’s identity has a quality of peacefulness and kindliness about it. When you tell strangers you are a pilgrim, they relax. They are curious about your story and they consider you harmless. To the people we encounter there is something reassuring about our willingness to cross borders, to respect cultures and religions that differ dramatically from our own, and to open ourselves to the multiple realities through which we pass. They want to hear about our experiences.

To many, the pilgrim’s way seems counter-intuitive during times like these. Anger, suspicion, violence are on the rise. We hear advice like, “You should know who’s on your side and who the enemy is;” and “You should know where you are safe and where you are not;” and “It is important to stay with your own kind.”  But is it?

In these comments we’d like to express a few of our observations as “border-crossers,” noting both the need for borders and the need to cross them, the dynamics of safety and fear that borders create, and some of the simple, human ways we’ve found useful in both respecting borders and pointing out their essential non-existence.

Intimacy and Distance
The 21st century has produced a great paradox: the closer we come together, the farther we are apart. Never before have human societies shared so many things in common – tools of all kinds, clothing, music, knowledge, historical points of reference, words, media, and proximity. Everywhere there is an intense interchange of images and aspirations.

In this accelerated process of technological and economic change, everything human societies have done over the centuries to mark differences and establish frontiers is now under pressures that reduce the meaning of those differences and borders. Despite the hopeful talk about emerging global civilization, global commons, global ethic, and global consciousness, what we sense most strongly as we travel is the need by a great many people to remember and assert their distinctions from one another.

A related challenge faces all the countries we have worked in: how can their different populations, each of them asserting their distinctiveness, live together harmoniously?  What is the “art of intimacy and distance” in a global civilization? This is a design concept referring to how an architect establishes zones for people to be both together and separate in a space. It is also important psychologically. For example in the simple tents of the Berbers a wool wall symbolically separates the male from the female realm. Likewise the wearing and removal of the veil, as strange as it seems to western sensibilities, establishes realms of intimacy and distance. The courtyard design of old houses and the delineation of market areas and neighborhoods from wide thorough-fares all speak to the importance of knowing what is expected as one crosses boundaries. The 21st century’s impulse for global markets and expansive political structures asserts itself intimately into the lives of individuals, families, neighborhoods and whole societies without much regard for the consequences. Likewise, the increasing physical proximity of different ethnic, racial, and religious groups is creating psychological distances that breed distrust and suspicion. The need to learn the art of intimacy and distance may be the central spiritual and political challenge of our time.

Identity and Fundamentalism
On a personal, as well as sociological level, the desire for secure borders translates as the search for a secure identity. This search is an attempt to locate ourselves in a complex, chaotic and changing reality. We want to affirm the coherence of our experience. We want to feel solid and real and safe. And we want to feel we belong to something larger than ourselves – a tribe, a religious group, or a nation.

But the actual dynamics of identity are not so simple. Every individual is a meeting ground for many different allegiances. No single affiliation defines all of me. At the same time I cannot divide my identity into portions. I don’t have several identities: I have just one, made up of many components combined together in a mixture that is unique to me. Sometimes my loyalties conflict with one another and confront me with difficult choices. This is part of the truth of the complexity of my belonging.

When one of our affiliations is threatened, that aspect often arises in us as predominant. The wounded part is felt as one’s core identity, even though it is in actuality only a part of a larger web of affiliations. When my religious group feels threatened then it seems to be natural to define myself by my religion. When a group urges us to “assert our identity,” we usually are meant to seek and define within ourselves this alleged core allegiance. This is one aspect of the dynamic that leads to fundamentalism. But there is another important element in this equation.

Humiliation and Identity
When a person’s or a group’s borders (identities) are violated, humiliation is most often the result. At the core is a feeling of being “put down” and perceiving this as an illegitimate assault. People experiencing the relentless reach of consumerism and western media (especially if they do not have the funds to partake of this consumer lifestyle) can feel their own culture’s honor or dignity has been violated.

As pilgrims who make a habit of crossing borders we saw this in almost every non-western country we worked in. Among the ethnic peoples in Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, and throughout our travels in the Middle East, people feel humiliated  by the West’s flaunted superiority and economic control. The fact that America has been founded on and purports to champion human dignity and the ideal of human rights only makes the wound deeper.

The assertion of identity – personal and social – and the underlying pain of humiliation intersect to create the distrust and violence America now is confronting. One consequence of this humiliation is a kind of apathy and depression; another is an urge to retaliate by inflicting humiliation in return, evidenced by suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, Muslim uprisings in southern Thailand or the crashing of airplanes into the World Trade Towers. The cycle is self-perpetuating as each victim rises up to inflict humiliation on their perpetrator. Identity becomes defined by opposition to “the other.”

Admittedly this is a simplified description of complex cross-cultural tensions. Nevertheless, we continue to witness these crises of identity and humiliation as we cross the borders of the world. It is in this context that our particular form of activism as pilgrims finds its relevance to the West. Our experiences traveling from one country to another, through areas of tension and conflict, have taught us a few common-sense approaches to responding to feelings of threatened identity and dignity-humiliation. The following comments describe these.

Encountering the Other
Pilgrimage is a practice of taking repeated plunges into the unknown. As pilgrims we call on our faith to overcome the fear we all have of “the other” – the one whose difference challenges the security of our identity. Armed soldiers, poor working women, angry young men, ex-prostitutes, complacent officials – all have been part of our journey and our learning. In the segregated communities and workplaces of middle class America it is easy to avoid getting to know those who might call into question our beliefs. Their interests do not become our interests. Their life is unrelated to our life. They are “the other.”

However, the opportunity to encounter those we forget and acknowledge those who may feel humiliated stretches our hearts to embrace more of the world. We are called out of our comfort zone. Our own identity moves beyond narrow definitions and latent prejudices. This is the crucial movement: we let go of what we think we know and in this way make possible real encounter. A bridge is built and one is no longer a private person concerned only with taking care of me and mine. We become less fearful and touch the compassionate heart that is the ideal of all religious traditions.

Bearing Witness to This Truth
Once we encounter the other, we do not try to “fix” him or persuade her to be different. We listen. We bear witness to their truth, their reality. In the early years of our work in the tribal lands of northern Thailand and Burma, we asked a village elder, “What can we do for you?” We were expecting a request for money or medical supplies. The village elder replied, “We want our story heard.” That became one of the primary lessons of our pilgrimage. Throughout our travels we found that powerful healing is evoked in simply listening to a person’s story. Without comment or contradiction or advice something magical happens when people feel truly heard.

Over the years we have given special attention to witnessing and respecting people’s religious beliefs. In Morocco we took a month-long retreat with a Sufi sheikh reciting Muslim zikrs for hours at a time. In Syria we bowed low with thousands of men and women at the Abu Nour mosque, and joined Orthodox Christians celebrating their mass. In Saudi Arabia we prayed alongside (Rabia a few steps behind) members of the Saud family and their drivers on the side of desert roads. In Israel we prayed at the Wailing Wall and in peoples’ homes. In Burma we joined in Sunday Baptist meetings and in Thailand we participated in Animist ceremonies and chanted with Buddhist forest monks. Our experience was that we honored our own traditions by honoring their traditions and beliefs. We allowed ourselves to be disturbed as well as up-lifted. In this time of religious fundamentalism, honoring the gifts of different religions is a step toward healing our world.

Waiting for the Moment to Ripen
Going on pilgrimage requires a lot of waiting. One waits for buses, for translators to finish, for clean water, for something we recognize, for someone to find us. This waiting has the benefit of slowing us down. We learn to hold a focus without needing to “drive the agenda.”  We learn to wait – for hours, months, and occasionally years – for the moment when right action is clear.

When we are building bridges across values, cultures, or religions we do not know at the start what “success” will look like when it is finished. Working to repair an ecosystem in northern Burma or mediating among competing NGOs in Palestine are two examples of creative acts that defied our pre-designed plans and solutions. Making friends is an equally organic process. It does not come about all at once. The next step is often only apparent when the previous one is completed. It is an iterative process with its own appropriate pace. Tempting as it might be to think otherwise, none of us really knows what a positive future will look like. We can only make our gesture in this grand play in the spirit of faith, curiosity, and patience.

Sharing Stories
We all need inspiration. People everywhere want to know they are part of a whole that is greater than its parts. In this time of divisiveness most of the people we talked with wanted to know “what’s happening” beyond what they see in the media.

In medieval time scholars, teachers, monks, and bards would travel from place to place bearing news and ideas from afar. But they also did something else: they advanced the narrative of their time. They were at civilization’s edge, weaving meaning, value, and insight across cultures. Though our pilgrimage is in itself a small effort, we believe an important role is played by simply “showing up” as human beings – caring, listening and spreading the alternative visions that are not yet seen on global television. Then with time, collaboration and commitment, activities and projects begin to arise organically until a critical mass of involvement makes substantial transformation possible. This is happening through a vast network of people working for peace and social and environmental justice throughout the world.

Telling their stories is a process of making the world intimate to itself, something the mass media does poorly. We believe this is a role many of us can play today – to show up to the “other” in spite of all that divides us, and personally bear witness to diverse visions for a more just world. This allows for a sense of solidarity with unknown friends in other places. It gives everyone’s personal effort greater meaning.

Start Wherever You Like
It is not uncommon in the United States for people ask us, “What can I do to make things better?” “Where am I most needed?”  At a recent interfaith conference in which we spoke about our pilgrimage work, a white-haired Paulist priest, Father Tom Nelson, gave a talk on social action. He sketched the terrain in a way we had not heard before. He distinguished between two types of social action. There are acts of mercy, he said, through which people feed the hungry, give blankets to the homeless, comfort the sick. “The people who do this important work, like Mother Theresa, are almost always loved and applauded.” And then there are acts of justice through which people challenge the structures of violence and injustice that cause the above problems. These acts usually involve organization, confrontation, and protest. “And the people who do these important things are usually vilified, or like Dr. Martin Luther King, killed.”  Both acts of mercy and acts of justice are the “real” work, both bring about transformation.  Both require coming into the presence of, and learning from, the other. Both expand the heart. It’s a matter of doing what you love and are called to.

These simple approaches to crossing borders are not all that is required to heal the suffering caused by dominance, greed, and fear. But in our experience, they certainly help. And to be among human beings struggling to be their best under difficult conditions is a joyful thing. There is an experience of human solidarity, of belonging, that cuts across racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries. It opens the heart and expands our self identity. We know who we are and there are no others to fear.

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