Not long after Joel and I got engaged, I promised the women in the drop-in centre that as per Bengali custom I would bring them sweets so that we could celebrate together. If there is ever any reason to indulge in sugar-soaked sweets then Bengalis will find it; working with 250 women and having had a tooth removed in an Indian dental chamber just last year, I would know! This time however, I thought I would give my friends a taste of New Zealand and so instead of buying a couple of boxes of rosogulla and khirkodom from the local roadside store, one night I stayed up until eleven thirty baking a chocolate cake in our makeshift oven. The following day I carried the sticky, icing smeared tin, wrapped in a piece of cloth, into the middle Asia’s largest red light area and laid it on the floor of our centre so that as my friends came in to sit and chat, they could take a piece and enjoy a break from the demands of their work for a moment or two. My Nepali friend Tara took a second piece, while most of the others screwed up their faces after the first bite, which I hope was less of a reflection on my cooking skills and more of a reflection on their insatiably sweet taste buds. Who knows, but I have been reassuring myself it was the latter ever since!
Kundola, a coworker and friend, suggested that we take some cake in a tiffin box to a woman that we had noticed had not come to the drop-in centre for a few days. She too was a dear Nepali friend who Kundola and I visited regularly, sharing drinks of fizz and hearing little by little how she ended up in such a notoriously pain-filled, misunderstood neighbourhood. It was early evening and having decided that she too deserved cake, we made the short walk out of the main strip and down her shoulder-width lane, which at five in the evening was already full of foot traffic. It was a walk I had done countless times, and yet it was never any less confronting, less haunting, less heavy; never a simple stroll. The courtyard of her brothel building was bustling with men moving up and down the stairs, sari-draped women leaning in darkened doorways, and children being shooed out of rooms. For a day that didn’t have any particular significance that I was aware of, the volumes of people perplexed me and I gave a quick, “Cheers God!” that our friend’s room was on the bottom floor, meaning I didn’t have to climb the precariously steep, wet, crowded staircase with cake in-hand to a room several floors above.
The drawn curtain across our friend’s door was soon disturbed by two young men exiting her room. Kundola and I waited patiently outside. It took all I had within me not to throw the tiffin box at the boy-ish customers who, with such an air of entitlement, had nonchalantly exited her room, smoothing back their hair and holding their belt loops. Tensing my grip on the cake, I breathed deeply, wrestling with the notion of loving my enemies; a biblical concept, a Jesus-spoken command, but a really, really difficult thing to actually do. Soon enough our friend poked her head around the curtain, smiled, and called us into her room just in time for me to not have to dwell on that thought for too long. Thank God.
We sat together on her bed and as usual, she pulled a couple of stainless steel cups down from her shelf and poured a little fizz into them for us to enjoy. I laid the tiffin full of cake on the bed and Kundola opened it, proclaiming proudly that I had baked this mishti especially for the women of the drop-in centre. Despite her unfavourable opinion on the taste, I suspect that as a Bengali woman she was just relieved I would lovingly be able to cook for my household in the years to come.
Handing the box around, I quickly realised that there was another person in the room. A third young man was still present sitting on the bed, and it would soon become very obvious if I didn’t hand him a piece of cake too. He was a customer that I had not seen before and honestly, the last thing I wanted to do was to eat cake with such a person because by many accounts I guess I saw him as an enemy. Live long enough in a neighbourhood so explicitly broken as the one I was in and life renders you in one of two ways, with compassion or with cynicism. I was beginning to teeter on the edge of a dangerous place, one that I had promised myself I would never even flirt with. The thing was, I had promised myself that before I had ever actually rubbed shoulders with characters. Loving your enemies sounds quaint before you actually have to eat cake with them.
Taking a piece of chocolate cake from the tiffin box, the young man asked, “Is this homemade?” A little taken aback, I answered by saying that it was, to which he replied, “My mother used to make homemade sweets too.” Time seemed to pause for a moment as something in his response caused his humanity to jump out at me. I had been reading a lot of Father Gregory Boyle’s writing around that time, and it seemed inconvenient at first, but his words on kinship and compassion came to mind:
“No daylight to separate us, only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognise it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonised so that the demonising will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”
Dorothy Day, the great 20th century Catholic grassroots social activist said it a little differently, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” I suspect she understood Jesus’ command to “... love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Mt 5:44; Ex 23:4; Prov 25:21-22; Lk 6:27; Rom 12:20) a lot better than I did. A command so explicit and tangible as that can hardly be ignored nor romanticised, and so although hearing the young man muse over his mother’s sweets didn’t necessarily make me want to give him cake any more than I did in the first place, the radically inclusive call of Christ’s kingdom to love without regret and without agenda changed the way I saw him. More importantly, it shifted the way I understood myself; from someone who was capable of harbouring disdain and cynicism, to someone who just might have been created to reflect even a minuscule part of the expansive heart of God.
I have lived in these badlands for a number of years now and one thing I have come to know is that our view of love can get small if we are not careful. Our belief in the capacity of God’s love working in us and through us can too, I guess. Sit in a room with someone you strongly dislike, realise your mutual humanity, and then share cake and you’ll quickly realise how messy and uncomfortable that kingdom call is. Remain there a little longer and you become less concerned with pointing fingers and more aware of just how little separates you from one another. Less distance, more kinship. Maybe that is why Christ called us to break bread together, or to cut cake for that matter, so that we can realise how deep love can go.