by Jade Lakin
It took me a couple of weeks after my return to find the drive and the clarity to sit down and write about my experience in Pakistan. My head has been swimming with ideas and I’ve been overwhelmed with anxiety about where to even begin.
Writing about a trip that has so many complex social, religious, political and cultural elements is not easy, and I’ll barely be able to scratch the surface on how it has impacted me and my world view.
My journey began with a Facebook message from Chris Tumilty, diocesan youth officer, that read, “Wanna go to Pakistan in April? For free?” Well, if the bishop is footing the bill for me to travel to a foreign country, I say, send me anywhere. Even Pakistan.
Three other delegates — Victor Eichhorn of St. Mark’s Church, Glendale; Christina Lopez of St. John’s Church, La Verne; and the Rev. Nathanial Katz of All Saints’ Church, Beverly Hills, and Holy Spirit Fellowship, Atwater Village (Los Angeles) — and I were chosen to attend an international youth conference April 28 – 30, organized by the Church of Pakistan in Lahore, the second largest city in the country, which sits at the eastern border of Pakistan and India, in the Diocese of Raiwind. The conference was titled “Dawning of a New Day: A pilgrimage of youth toward reconciliation and justice” and gathered more than 100 delegates from all over the country as well as two from Scotland and the four of us from Los Angeles.
Almost everyone I spoke to regarding my trip was immediately skeptical and hesitant for security reasons. “Is it safe?” “Haven’t there been bombings?” “Why would you ever want to go there?” I was told by my family not to dye my hair back to my natural blonde before I go and not to wear makeup, because “the less I stand out, the better.” An American tourist, especially a young, white girl with green eyes will obviously be a target for Muslim extremists who are crouching around every street corner, right?
Not to say that their hesitation and words of caution weren’t unfounded, as Pakistan is still a third-world country that’s seen its fair share of political turmoil, social injustice and religious violence. According to the mainstream media (and the U.S. Department of State that “strongly advises U.S. citizens against all non-essential travel to Pakistan”), I would be making an extremely dangerous decision.
It seemed that everyone around me was much more concerned about my trip than I was, which can probably be attributed in part to my adventurous spirit as a 23-year-old who wants to experience the world by any means necessary. It also had to do with my faith in the people who chose to sponsor me, because I knew that my bishop and my diocese would never seek to put my life in danger for any reason.
So, as Rev. Nat Katz preached so eloquently during his (impromptu) sermon at the Cathedral of Praying Hands in Lahore, I packed something else with me besides my toothbrush and head scarf. I packed trust. Something inside me knew that this trip was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I would exponentially regret if I did not take. I knew that God would be with me on this journey and that we would all be well cared for by our sister diocese on the other side of the world.
So, with my three fellow delegates who have now become my friends, I hopped on a 19-hour plane ride to Lahore, Pakistan with a full heart and an open mind.
Warmth and generosity in Pakistan
Any apprehension I had about this trip was immediately dispelled as soon as I was greeted at the airport with warmth and friendship from our Pakistani hosts, especially the incredible team of the Diocese of Raiwind who made our trip so inspiring, entertaining and memorable. I truly will never be able to thank them all enough for their companionship, authenticity, overwhelming generosity and curiosity. They greeted us as new friends instead of just guests or delegates and brought us into the rawness and vulnerability of their realities and the problems they face in modern Pakistani society.
In addition to sharing about their own lives and struggles, these people and many other participants of the conference showed boundless interest in our lives and issues as Americans; asking our opinions on the new president, the Muslim ban, feminism, gay marriage, police brutality and several other societal topics of conversation our country is currently engaged in. It was refreshing to hear new (even if not always positive) perspectives discussed with honesty and respect on all sides.
We learned just as much during our time at the conference as we did outside the auditorium walls, experiencing this new culture and world view from real young people trying to understand the world and make a change.
One of the aspects which surprised me most about the young people I met in Pakistan was their will to work toward the greater good. Coming from a self-serving and individualistic society in America, hearing about their pursuit of justice and the personal sacrifices they have made to pursue it gave me hope. Most of these young adults know that they could receive better opportunities and quality of life if they left Pakistan and moved abroad, but they choose to stay. They have such a deep love for their homeland and their people that they choose to try and heal the wounds of their society instead of abandon it. If they do leave Pakistan, it’s usually only to gain education, skills and/or resources to return and make real change at home.
Our host and organizer of the conference, Raheel, described his tireless efforts toward building peace as an addiction. The rush of adrenaline he gets from bringing reconciliation and understanding to young people makes his heart swell with God’s love and gives him the passion to continue his work at any cost. I felt that many of these young people were wise beyond their years, but maybe it’s because they have no other choice if they want to thrive in a society that inhibits their growth and prosperity. They are forced to look at the bigger picture so as not to be discouraged by the injustice and suffering they witness around them.
I met a 17-year-old Muslim student named Danish during a peace building session who spoke about his hopes to pave the way for a brighter, more peaceful future for the generations to come. He was not interested in following the path his parents urged him down of becoming a doctor or an engineer, and he didn’t listen to the criticism from his friends and family for associating with — or worse, becoming friends with — people from different faiths or nationalities. Despite opposition in almost every direction, Danish stays true to his convictions of seeking peaceful and positive relationships with those different from himself and is slowly but progressively nurturing the foundation for a better Pakistan.
The Christians I met in this country do not only read and study the gospel; they live out the gospel each and every day. In a society where they are a persecuted minority of only about three percent, their faith is what holds them together and keeps them pushing toward a vision of a more inclusive and just homeland. All of the passionate and enlightened speakers that I had the privilege of hearing at the youth conference educated me on the issues faced by Pakistani youth and the ways they are seeking to overcome these issues.
Lack of opportunity, lack of education, unemployment, blatant poverty, no minority representation in government, lack of healthcare, etc. were just a few of the issues mentioned. Groups such as the LGBT community, the mentally and physically disabled, Christians and women are especially targeted minorities. The appalling quality of life that millions of people in this country face made me realize how deaf we Americans are to the cries of the third world.
In Lahore, statistically there is about one policeman per 900 people, one doctor per 1,200 people, one nurse per 3,000 people and one religious leader per 200 people. Clearly, something about that picture is terribly off. As Bishop Samuel Azariah said in his opening statement to the conference, “We are wrestling against the rules of darkness, not against human beings. We are fighting against a power, a system, that is dehumanizing God’s creation. The mission of the church is to fight against darkness and corruption; even inside the church itself.”
We quickly realized that the progressive views held by Bishop Sammy and the Diocese of Raiwind did not translate to all of the Pakistanis we met at the conference. The role of women in the church is still a hotly debated issue and the ordination of women in the Church of Pakistan still seems a long way off. The Rev. Khushnud Azariah, wife of Bishop Sammy, was the first woman to receive a seminary education in Pakistan in the mid-1970’s. Although it was her dream to succeed her father and grandfather by becoming a priest, she was told over and over that “there is no place for women in the church.” Although it took only eight years for her husband to become bishop, it took 32 years for the church to recognize her as a priest and she was eventually ordained in the United States by Bishop Jon Bruno. Mother Khushnud, now rector of St. George’s Church, Riverside, stressed the importance of listening to one’s heart and to the call of God despite all resistance, even from the Church. “The Church closed doors for me,” she said, “but God opened them.”
Pakistan was definitely a culture shock is almost every facet. The heavy and spicy food, the bustling (and terrifying) traffic in a city of 12 million people, the rich history and cultural traditions, the vibrant colors and patterns that covered every woman and child — but was most astonishing to me was the way Pakistanis treated us foreigners. I was anticipating more glares than stares and waited for the moment I would feel targeted and unsafe, but that moment never came. The positive attention and gracious welcome we received did not end at the conference, but rang true for almost every Pakistani we met on the street.
Yes, the staring was excessive, but they were just gawking at the rare sight of Westerners rather than being hateful or judgmental. We were asked to take more selfies with strangers than I could begin to count and we all basked in our 15 minutes of fame. The 75-plus Facebook friend requests and messages I received at the conclusion of the conference showed me that these people weren’t simply being polite and inquisitive, they truly wanted to begin a relationship with their new American friends and were excited to share in each other’s lives.
I hope to continue this new and blossoming friendship with the Church of Pakistan and to open the hearts and minds of Americans who hold an inaccurate and negatively slanted view of this beautiful country and its people. We have the power to foster change and reconciliation where it is needed most, and I believe it is our duty as God’s people to help and to love our brothers and sisters around the globe regardless of skin color, language, nationality, religion or politics. I hope to return to Lahore someday and share hookah, some laughs, and a story about a goat with my new family at 17 Warris Road.
Shukriya. Thank you.
Jade Lakin is a lifelong member of Grace Episcopal Church, Glendora, and a 2016 graduate of Cal State Fullerton.