Seeing Souls

A year of my life was devoted to being a ministry of presence and I made it through never trusting it was enough.

Each Friday I bounced along the bus route from Kottayam, the city I lived in, through smaller Indian towns until I reached the village of Kanam where I slept at the boys hostel–a kind euphemism for orphanage. I cherished these bumpy bus trips. I always walked to the bus stand in time to get a seat, ensuring I could get lost in a book for the hour, pausing every few minutes to glance out of the open window: hills smothered in green, grey houses hidden behind mango trees, women washing clothes, the river up to their knees.

Each trip I was also exposed to signs of poverty and pollution bleeding into the lush land. Once my eyes paused on the trash suffocating the river or the thread-bare sari of a poor woman, it was time to return to the dreamworld of my book.

A couple chapters later the bus would pause on the road through Kanam. I would step off and cross the road to enter the open gates of the hostel where 45 boys, dreamers too, would greet me with shouts of “John Uncle,” the limits of what many would attempt with me in English.

My weekends there were spent walking along back roads as we ate fruit picked from nearby trees, eating meals cooked by a jolly couple that lived nearby, getting to know a few older boys and the stories of the families who left them, lounging on a narrow bench with a book, and tutoring a couple of the boys who wanted to learn English–what felt like my only real asset.

Yes, asset. I never escaped the belief that I had to earn my keep. It was an understaffed orphanage after all and I was a Westerner of means. In my more pliable moments, the hospitality India subjected me to wore me down, molded me, and forced me into the resignation that I didn’t need to be special, simply welcomed. Still, most of that year I felt like a half-ass who could always being doing more.

Before my plane landed that cloudy September morning in Kerala, staff and alumni of the Young Adult Volunteer program tried to prepare our fresh faces for what was to come: among other changes, a drastic shift from doing to being. At the time it sounded quaint and respectable. I was sent primarily to learn, not fix the complex issues of a nation who has had her fair share of outside meddling. It would all be very zen, I told myself.

By the end of the year I could only gather the energy to go to Kanam for half of my weekends. The boys’ constant tugging and jabbering left me depleted and consumed by a sense of uselessness.

Marilynne Robinson, well-known in my circles for her novel Gilead and its Calvinist pastor, writes in her rigorous new collection of essays When I Was a Child I Read Books that the root of strife in today’s America is that “we do not deal with one another as soul to soul.” I was afraid to look those boys in the eyes long enough to see their souls.

So I distracted myself with concepts and principles of justice. I told myself that being present to their abandonment didn’t give my young friends new homes full of adults who love them and food that would help them grow strong. In my mind justice remained a dream and my trifling presence a failure.

The next Spring, back in Texas, I remember hearing rumblings about Marina Abramović. I would love to tell that it was first through reading an artsy periodical, but it was probably because Lady Gaga, looking particularly fabulous, visited Abramović’s exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. As part of a retrospective on the Serbian performance artist’s body of work, Abramović performed a new piece called “The Artist is Present.” The premise was deceptively simple: for three months, during the MoMA’s open hours, she sat frozen in the atrium and looked into the eyes of whomever sat across from her.

Though I wouldn’t move to the City for another two years and missed her performance, last week I saw the documentary filmed about the preparation of the retrospective and her new performance. The award-winning HBO film offers a surprisingly intimate look into a vulnerable Abramović’s life and art, impossibly intertwined.

As diverse a group as I have ever seen was invited to sit one-by-one in the chair across from her. Between each person’s visit she closed her eyes, bowed her head slightly, and then lifted it, reopening them to devote her entire being to looking at the next guest in her presence.

People also came simply to sit and watch at the edge of the barrier, a square on the floor in the middle of which sat Abramović. I sat on the edge of the couch and watched woman after man after child descend into timeless moments where their faces showed through tears and smiles what it meant for them to be seen, to have their soul and worth acknowledged and honored. In rare moments, Abramović’s face also transcended her focused concentration to mirror her visitor’s emotion.

By the end of the film I was left stunned by her brilliance and strength. Abramović devoted three months of her life to staring into the souls of others and laying her own bare. In the stark atrium of the MoMA, Abramović created a space where we dealt soul to soul. In watching Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present, I too was brought to tears, transformed. I have no doubt she and those other seen souls were changed as well.

I no longer wonder if a ministry of presence is of any value. I no longer wonder if the time I did spend with those boys mattered. It did. Seeing the soul of another is the first step to justice. Being present and doing justice are incomplete without each other.

Abramović and my Indian friends leave me dreaming again, this time about how justice would be manifested if we took more time to look into the eyes, the souls of others. Maybe churches should swap the passing of the peace, those few minutes where everyone smiles kindly and shakes hands like hot potatoes, for a few minutes staring into each other’s eyes. It would be neither comfortable nor a popular decision, but it would be powerful.

I always look down, allowing myself to glance at nothing more than their shoes. But could I ignore the person begging on the subway if we locked eyes? I act like a child who believes they don’t see me if I don’t see them see me seeing them. Could we vote against the Violence Against Women Act after spending a single day looking into the eyes of women who have been abused? Could you make transphobic jokes after seeing the soul of a trans person for a single hour?

I honestly wonder if it would be possible.

Read John Russell Stanger’s follow up essay at the Huffington Post on the lessons Marina Abramović has for pro-queer communities of faith.

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