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I am not a tea drinker. I love coffee, the stronger the better. If I am seen drinking tea, it is directly related to my state of health.
Only illness will drive me to sipping a beverage I consider only one step removed from hot water. For me, hospitality is a shared cup of coffee, perhaps enhanced by a cookie or slice of cake. But, even alone, the “java” suffices.
However, I recognize the import and impact tea has on the lives of many people in this and other cultures. So, the title of a book that chronicles the work of one American who was determined to assist in bringing educational opportunities to war-torn pockets of Pakistan and Afghanistan drew my attention.
Greg Mortenson’s mission was to promote peace, one school at a time. At first blush, it would appear to be a mission impossible, especially since the schools would house young girls as well as boys. That concept alone would cause a stir, if not a revolt.
But, three cups of tea would make the medicine go down.
Mortenson learned, and we can glean the message as well, he had to respect the ways of the people he wanted to serve and help. Effectivity would rest on that reverence.
His rush to get things accomplished and his accompanying hurrying of the local labor force would necessarily be slowed by tea drinking. As his friend Haji Ali reminded him, “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die. You must make time to share three cups of tea.” [p. 150]
Obviously, this sharing was not literally three cups taken in quick succession. It symbolized the process of getting to know those we wish to help and allowing them the opportunity to get to know us, as well.
It is a slowing down to build relationships before any physical edifice is constructed. It is a chance to recognize we have more to learn from people we are assisting than we can ever hope to teach them. It is a pilgrimage into the honesty of profound humility. It is also a voyage that invites heartfelt conviction. It is the trip we all take as God’s people.
Greg Mortenson watched as Haj Ali handed over his most cherished possessions, 12 of his largest rams, to the unscrupulous and dangerous leader of a neighboring village, a man who twisted Mortenson’s vision and mission into a proselytizing venture that was against the will of Allah.
Haj Ali was prepared to make any sacrifice, to pay any price so children could have the education he lacked and they richly deserved.
He knew, without benefit of books, what Mortenson grew to understand more deeply. He knew education of boys is essential, but the education of girls is crucial.
Boys leave and search for work in the cities, “but the girls stay home, become leaders in the community and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.” [p. 209]
We could add to the list: reduce crime, eliminate abuse, erase bias and prejudice. This understanding is by no means a diminishment of the masculine impact on society. It is the recognition of the feminine influence that has always been present, but not sufficiently revered.
Additionally, it brings authentic Islamic belief to the surface by uncovering and discarding the radical fundamentalism that clouds our minds and distorts Islam.
True Muslims, people who practice the true teachings of Islam, “believe in peace and justice, not in terror. Just as the Torah and Bible teach concern for those in distress, the Koran instructs all Muslims to make caring for widows, orphans, and refugees a priority.” [p. 219]
Living with the local people and listening to their stories taught Mortenson a valuable lesson, one that serves all humanity well. He learned none of us could know what people need unless we ask them.
But, we cannot ask until and unless we have established a trust factor, unless we can accept each other as we are without seeking to gain anything from the other, but only to give to them. We have to care for and about others before we can truly serve them with honesty and wholeheartedness.
To do this, we need to heed the words of Mother Teresa. “Let nothing perturb you, nothing frighten you. All things pass. God does not change. Patience achieves everything.”
This kind of patience demands discipline. It means meeting and returning to life’s challenges, time after time—no matter how difficult it may be, no matter how many obstacles are placed in the way or how many “failures” plague us. At one point in his career, Mortenson gave a talk to an audience of three people.
He held tightly to the paraphrase of one of his favorite quotations from Mother Teresa: “What we are trying to do may be just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” He believed deeply in the power of one. His belief was astoundingly contagious.
As he was leaving, he noticed an envelope left on the seat of the last chair in the last row. It contained a personal check for $20,000 dollars.
Mortenson did not always face empty seats. His tenacity struck at the hearts of his mountain climbing community as much as it touched those who lived in the gut-wrenching poverty of the high Himalayas.
When his friend Haj Ali died, Mortenson was bereft. His thoughts drew him into negative thinking. Nothing lasts. Nothing is permanent.
For a moment, all his efforts appeared to die with Ali’s demise. “Then he tried to imagine what Haji Ali would say at such a moment, at such a black time in history, when all that you cherished was as breakable as an egg. His words came drifting back with an hallucinogenic clarity. ‘Listen to the wind’.”
Mortenson listened. He heard the “musical trill of children’s voices” and received his last lesson. “Think of them. Think always of them.” [p. 260]
Think of the children, the next generation and all the generations to come. Think—and drink three cups of tea: one to dispel fear of strangers, the second to become family, and the third to become family, to be willing to lay down one’s life for another.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master's degree in theology and is the author of, “AWAKENING TO GOD: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives” [a trilogy of scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Community Hospital, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four.