Holy moments in an unholy disaster

Marilyn Gardner

Marilyn is a nurse and a mother of five nearly grown up children, living in Massachusetts. She spent several weeks in Pakistan last year helping victims of the floods that killed and displaced thousands of people.

I am the first to admit that given the choice of a 5 star hotel or camping I will pick a 5 star hotel anytime. I tell friends that anyone who grew up in the developing world with a commode for a toilet and one bath a week would appreciate my love of luxury so it has been with some surprise that I found myself so eager to work in flood relief in Pakistan.


When I first heard news of the floods I felt sadness that was somewhat distant and removed. Raised as an American in Pakistan with the call to prayer as my alarm clock it was my childhood love and home, but as an adult I have been more connected to the Middle East than Pakistan through work and travel. My memories of Pakistan are primarily relegated to occasional emails from friends and to those moments on the subway when I close my eyes and the rhythmic movement transports me back to the Pakistani trains of my childhood. That changed when I saw a picture in the New York Times of the city of Jacobabad under flood waters. Jacobabad in the Sindh district of Pakistan was home to my family when I was a very little girl- it was there that I broke my leg and where my mothers artificial flowers were stolen. Stuck into the ground around our house to add color to clay that would never grow anything, they provided a source of joy for a few hours and then they were gone! The NYT photograph hit my heart in a way I had not anticipated and through what could only be a work of God an opportunity came about for me to participate as a nurse in Medical Relief with internally displaced persons in that area. I never imagined that I could be a tiny part of this or that my life for a short time would resemble a National Geographic feature story.

Although I grew up in Pakistan and then lived as an adult raising my family in first Islamabad, Pakistan followed by 7 years in Cairo, Egypt my current reality is that I work in downtown Boston and drink a starbucks coffee daily. I shop at Ann Taylor and get frustrated when my hot water runs out or I don't have time to put on my eyeliner - this my friends is the somewhat unfortunate truth. Early September suddenly the idea of working with victims of the flood began to become real and I began to be cautiously excited, knowing I may not have what it would take but being willing to take that chance.

On October 15th with thirteen thousand dollars worth of donated medical supplies, numerous bottles of vitamins, accompanied by my sister-in-law Carol, I boarded Etihad airlines and flew via Abu Dhabi to Karachi, Pakistan ending the journey in Shikarpur, Sindh. Just outside the Shikarpur gates, a kilometer from the hospital where we were staying we saw the remains of the 'Pictures of the Day' from the October 1st online edition of the New York Times - 27 burnt convoy trucks! I realized then that I hadn't paid as close attention to the location of that picture as I perhaps should have.

The two weeks that followed were filled with what I will call holy moments - watching a mom point to Heaven in thanks as food was distributed to her family, laughing with children at my own mistakes in Urdu and Sindhi, praying in the depths of my soul for the baby who looked like a skeleton at 4 months of age and the emaciated mom who held that child with the love only a mother could have, putting shoes on an ancient woman with a million stories written into the wrinkles on her face to guard the ulcerated sore on her foot against infection, delivering a sewing machine to a widow who danced with it on her head and seeing so clearly that people are created in the image of God. These women and children in their unwashed yet beautiful bright colored clothing were dear to the heart of God and "no mere mortals".

The team of a doctor, two nurses, a community health worker, interpreter and food distribution team were like a mini United Nations from 6 people groups with 6 languages but a unity in purpose and spirit that gave us efficiency as well as times of laughter and joy. We covered 8 villages in 14 days with surveys of needs, medical camps and food distribution. Mud huts, tents provided by USAID, and charpais combined with chickens, roosters, water buffalo and cow dung completed the setting and tested our nostrils and stamina but everyday provided a new adventure and new moments of awe.

There was for me an added bonus. Almost anyone who has been raised in a country other than their passport country (better known as a third culture kid) can relate with the immigrant experience. The sense of isolation, nontransferable skills and being 'other' can creep up at the oddest of times and result in a deep loneliness and sometimes conflict with one's passport country. The two words 'between worlds' best describe our lives and feeling most at home in Heathrow Airport waiting for a connecting flight is very common. For the past two weeks I was not other - I was home. Seeing friends who knew me when I was young, receiving blessings from men who worked with my father and women who had deep friendships with my mother, walking through compounds to the embraces of old friends, and being woken yet again by the call to prayer were more holy moments that I had not anticipated as I prepared to go. I was told a couple of years ago by a wise friend that there are times in our lives when we need to remember who we are. I was given that gift these past two weeks.

Since leaving Pakistan as a child, I, perhaps like many of you have had to redefine my faith and it has often been a painful process as I struggle with those unanswerable questions of life and God. This trip back was a humbling reminder that this God who sustained me when I was 6 years old at boarding school crying into my pillow is a God who provides holy moments in places where real life happens.

I arrived back in JFK International Airport in New York City after 23 hours of travel and within a few minutes felt 'other' again - there was a moment of confusion as I looked at the Immigration line options. Was I a resident alien? An alien? No - I was a US citizen who had been shaped by cultures and moments that were not of my own doing. In that moment I recognized that the peace of belonging happens deep in my soul and that peace can transcend the outside circumstances.

I don't know why I was given the gift of going and not others - that is a mystery to me but I know it is nothing I did and really simply Grace