Sing to the tune of a new life

Some years back, through the inspiration of the Taizé Brothers in Mymensingh and in conjunction with their Community Centre for the Handicapped, pilgrimages for the handicapped, the disabled and for persons with differing mental capacities, were embarked on. Gradually this concern for marginalized persons has expanded until five different dioceses accepted these special people and their helpers on pilgrimage to their areas. This writer was privileged to participate in the pilgrimage to Danjuri parish in Birampur, Dinajpur.

A walk together in kindness and sharing with each other

Our part of the pilgrimage started from Mymensingh by bus on Wednesday 17 March. On the bus were some forty persons including staff to organize the pilgrimage, plus members of Asha Nir (L’Arche in Bangladesh) and Community Centre for the Handicapped (CCH) as participants. The first stop was to pick up Dug Bhai (Fr. Douglas Venne) in his village, where he has worked and served Muslims and Hindus for some 25 years. It was the first bus to reach Pouli, a Tangail village. As such it was a big attraction. The village people were amazed to see all the crippled, lame and handicapped people get off the bus. After a visit and prayer in the hut of Dug Bhai, they boarded the bus to continue the pilgrimage. The village people were very accepting of the group.

We rolled on toward Dinajpur over the renowned Jamuna Bridge, stopping about noontime at a group of little Doukans (stores) to eat our bag lunch – a roll, an egg and a banana. Four hours later we arrived at Danjuri Parish, hidden some six or seven dusty bumpy miles off the Birampur road. All were happy to disembark and get settled. The priest and staff were very accommodating. Fr. Cherubim, the pastor, led the way.

Thursday was registration day. Some came from afar in a few buses as we did. More people lived closer and made their way to Danjuri by rickshaw or even walked in. Brother Joseph, a Missionary Brother of Charity, came all the way from Khulna by train with about eight members of the thirty handicapped and mentally different members of their community. It was a big sacrifice to care for them all the way. All who registered seemed at peace, but many were not too sure about what to expect from the pilgrimage. Some may think a pilgrimage is a walk to some famous holy place. Our pilgrimage was a walk together in kindness and sharing with each other…

After the simple Taizé style of evening prayer we all ate, served quickly and efficiently by the youth of Danjuri. While we won’t mention the dining part of our pilgrimage again, we want to say it was well done, orderly and on time. The simple food was tasty and adequate. We are very grateful to the whole cooking and serving staff for feeding some 500 people, 3 times a day, plus 2 snacks, those 4 days.

Sharing experiences as handicapped persons

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Thursday after eating, all came together under the cloth tent top in the big space reserved for our gatherings outside the front door of the church. There were mats and benches to sit on. The pilgrimage’s goals and activities were explained in general. All were made to feel welcome and were encouraged to participate. The theme of the pilgrimage was “Sing to the tune of a new life”. The group was asked to catch the spirit, that even though many present were handicapped or mentally challenged, these obstacles were not to stop them from being joyful or to keep them from spreading cheer and encouragement to those around them, including the so-called normal or well people. In order to show some of the spirit right then, groups from different places or even different tribal backgrounds were asked to sing some tunes together, expressing their culture’s riches. The pilgrimage was off to a good start.

In order to condense this narrative about our pilgrimage, the following remarks will be briefer, hoping that the reader will be able to grasp the core of our experience.
Friday after prayer and breakfast, we all gathered under our tent to start the first full day of prayer and sharing. We were fortunate to have with us Bishop Theotonius Gomes, CSC, from the Catholic Bishops Conference of Bangladesh, as a leader and participant. He gave our people encouraging words, words of guidance, all based on the way Jesus would have led us, would have accepted us.

The group was then broken into parts: the adults and those who could understand principles and ways of sharing stayed under the Big Top. Under the guidance of one of the Taizé brothers and members of the staffs of CCH and Asha Nir, they were asked to share their experiences as handicapped persons and as a sometimes ignored group.
The second group of youngsters and those whose minds have remained on simple levels were taken off to the schoolyard. They were to participate with their hands, eyes, ears and voices on how they could work together, even though their talents varied. Under the direction of Naomi, a lady from Japan, the first task was to show that they were all for peace. A large dove was drawn on a mat. Next the kids were to show their own efforts to bring peace, flowers of peace. Bits of different colored, leaf-shaped cloth were given out to each child or grown person who was accompanied by a helper. Next, real leaves were pulled from trees and gum (glue) was handed out. The whole group became engrossed in making cloth flowers according to their ability. They were shown a general pattern. As they finished, each participant took his/her handmade flower and put it on the mat with the big peace dove. The mat was ablaze with color. Peace was growing. Now there was a need to celebrate; balloons were distributed. A few grains of rice were dropped inside the balloons and boys with good lungs blew them up, attached a rubber band and the child had a bouncing noisemaker. A long rope was brought forward. The mat with the dove and flowers march in front. All the children and other participants held one hand on the rope and bounced their balloons while they walked along the village paths proclaiming peace to all.

Till no shelter remained…

Noon was upon us. After eating and a rest, this being Friday in Lent, the pilgrims gathered for the Stations of the Cross, spread out over the Parish and school area. Led by Fr. Albert and song leaders, the 14 Stations began. A different person carried a light-weight wooden Cross to each of the Stations. A lame person, a crippled man, a lady in a wheel chair, a person who had difficulty in walking, another invalid in a wheel chair and so on. It was an impressive scene for this so-called healthy writer. To top off the Stations of the Cross, we got the dark skies just as in Jesus’ own way to Calvary. First it sprinkled a bit; then it down poured; the earth became very muddy; the pilgrims huddled under trees till no shelter remained. All ran for the school verandas where more than 500 jammed together. The rain let up a little; then it poured again. Somehow each Station was prayed. Some times many song verses were sung, everybody praying that the rain would let up. It didn’t. The amazing thing was that it seemed like everyone that started the Way of the Cross, wheel chairs and all, were there at the end. Again I say amazing. In a so-called well-crowd, people would have more sense (?) to keep out of the rain, and perhaps 10 % would have finished.

The ground was now too wet for any outdoor prayer. So evening prayer was held in church, far too small for all the determined pilgrims. So we jammed in, again the wheel chair people included. Again to add to the experience we had no lights, except for a few candles. But no problem. We had a beautiful and meaningful recitation of the Rosary.
After evening meal, we gathered under our tent top, but now the ground was soggy. No one could sit down. No problem. The young people ran back and forth to the dining area and brought benches to serve a new purpose. Again people of all walks of life and of different experiences shared their plight and explained their hope to carry on. End of the first day.

A kind of freedom breaking forth

Bishop Theo celebrated the next morning Mass and now we were also graced with the presence of the diocesan Bishop Moses Costa. After we ate breakfast, by the ingenuity of the parish people, huge plastic sheets helped to cover some of the soaked ground.

More sharing was scheduled for the morning. Adults who were able to participate in this phase were divided into 3 circles, each led by one of the staff coming from Mymensingh. It was interesting to see people speak up, persons who perhaps were never asked in their lives about what they thought or how they felt. It was a kind of freedom breaking forth. Each one’s disability was no hindrance to the expression of self. This continued for an hour and a half. There were not many moments of clumsy silence.

Again Naomi and her helpers gathered the little ones like pied pipers for more participate sharing. This time they were all engrossed in making pin wheels. Such simple things and what intense attention they gave to their project. Wheels were spinning everywhere. This was too good to keep for themselves. So out came the long rope. One hand on the rope, one hand on the spinning wheel and over a 100 hands strong, they tramped off again along the village paths.

When the procession of the young returned, the adult sharing broke up for tea. Tea was followed by the Sacrament of Confession. All who desired, and there was a good number, gathered in the church. Prayers were said, songs were sung, music played. Seven priests scattered around the church. People knelt, people stooped, rolled up in wheel chairs, hung on their crutches as they sought the Church’s reconciliation and the priest’s absolution. We are all sinners in need of God’s mercy, including the ones who are administrating the sacrament.

New trust that we are accepted

Noon of the second day was upon us. After rest it was time for fun and games. Adults and so-called healthy ones were persuaded to step forward. First, there was a vigorous, rough and tumble men’s shoe race. From a pile of scrambled shoes, one had to race, find his pair, put them on and race back to the starting line. It looked very tough in the scramble. Small presents were given to the first 3 winners. The ladies did the same, but the pace was much gentler.

For the incapacitated and the crippled there were other events. The blind who could walk were pointed in the direction of our famous long rope. When their foot felt the rope they had to stop and with a long stick try to break a balloon on the other side. Some did it. Next the chair bound folks were blindfolded and pushed to the rope line and they too had to hit the balloons. Some succeeded. There were lots of laughs and cheering. By this second day, many formerly lonely handicapped persons had made new friends. And they were enjoying it. Races finished, it was free time until after the evening meal.

The final night of the pilgrimage, of their walk together, of the sharing together had arrived. How would we be able to celebrate the new understanding about our disabilities, about our newfound freedom of expression, with friends who have afflictions similar to ours? We found new trust that we are accepted and that persons who have their health are ready to share with us. Yes, how?

We gather under our tent top, much more closely related to each other than the first night. Bishop Moses is with us. He wants to show that Christians, who follow Jesus, want to serve others, especially the poor and the weak. So he rolls up his sleeves and takes a pan of water and washes the feet of the lame, the blind, the wheel chair folks, the stooped, and the man on crutches. There is no hurry. Each one gets full care. This is the way God cares for us. But we can’t stop here. We have new hope. We must walk with Christ through the way of the Cross to the fulfillment of this hope. And so from feet washing, the disabled and mentally different ones process in song, proclaiming in action: “Sing to the tune of a new life”. As we process around the tent, and back to the altar, we realize our hope is in the resurrection. Jesus won it for us. And so we break into that new sound, celebrating the resurrection with drum beats and music playing, dancing as we do after Easter vigil service. Christ is our Light; Christ is our Light. He is risen. Oh what a joyful end, really what a joyful beginning for a new life.

God accepts the persons bringing up the gifts

Sunday morning, our last time together. Bishop Moses leads us in Mass, the real fruit of the resurrection that we have with us today and for all times. I am not going to describe the liturgy, which was joyful, but only one moment of it.

It is time to bring up the gifts, of flowers, of rice, of bread and the wine. The usual line of persons follows one after another to hand Bishop Moses those gifts. But with a difference; one on crutches, two in wheel chairs, one whose legs want to go in many directions at the same time but he controls them and presents his gift. Would that all could witness that giving! Yes, it is symbolic, but all our gifts to God are symbolic. Everything is already God’s. We only return what we have. In this ceremony we see persons whom some may say have less of the world’s gifts than the so-called normal people. But for God there are no normal people. Each one he made special. God accepts the persons bringing up the gifts just as he made them, fully and lovingly. Yes, “sing to the tune of a new life”.

Douglas F. Venne, MM

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