by Robert Johnson
Even if Christmas in the U.S. in stressful, we all still pretty much know the drill. Wacky sweaters, iced cookies and a tree (or something that looks like a tree) being placed in the living room. At any other time of year, people would wonder what mass insanity had gripped us, but since we all know what is going to happen, we are OK with the slightly demented practices that occur between Thanksgiving and December 25 every year.
But what if nothing is familiar?
When we went to Pakistan in 2005 as PC(USA) mission coworkers to Forman Christian College, we had no real idea what was going on around us for the first year. The kids couldn’t figure out how to fit in at school, being two of only about 10 non-Pakistanis in the so-called Lahore American School. Our first housekeeper, who was illiterate and spoke only Punjabi, would come and go at odd times, deliver long and heartfelt speeches that meant nothing to us, and would erupt into loud, unintelligible, highly distressed protests when we paired food for the evening (say eggplant and potatoes) that broke what we came to call the “Pakistani food rules.” Once, after someone threw a car door open into my knee as I was running by and I limped to the couch in our living room, our cook disappeared into the kitchen and came back with an omelet and three dishtowels. He proceeded to put the omelet on my knee, securing it with the dishtowels.
But the thing that surprised us most about the Pakistanis (besides using breakfast foods as health care material) was how generous and smilingly helpful they were. From what the news said about the country, we had no idea what to expect when we got there (maybe we would live in concrete bunkers wearing flak jackets?), but found the country to be full of giving, welcoming people.
This applied to no one more than the grounds and service staff at the college where we taught. Uniformly Christian, and thus poor and oppressed in Islamic Pakistan, these men and women had nothing, but would come running if they even thought we needed something in House #20. Sometimes, we would wonder aloud about a small repair,or some minor change to our property. This was always a mistake, because it would mean several smiling members of the maintenance crew would show up to work outdoors in 120 degree heat to make sure our air conditioners were in top condition or to move a piano with a crew of eight hoisting the beast up on their shoulders to place it in the exact position we wanted.
After these episodes of lightning-fast, always happy personal service, we wanted to give something to our helpers. However, the administration forbade it, saying that if we started treating those who came to our house to anything extra, there soon would be fistfights about who could come to serve us next. So we profusely thanked our helpers while they beamed uncomprehendingly at us, simply glad to have been helpful.
One Christmas, after a crew had toiled in our yard to fix a particularly unpleasant problem with the sewer system, my wife Marianne and I hit on the idea of throwing a big reception for the grounds and maintenance crew. Nothing elaborate — samosas, pakora, biscuits and tea, but something for the hardest working and least recognized. The administration said that would be fine since it treated everyone the same, and so the planning started.
On the appointed day, they began to show up to receive a cup of chai and a plate of cookies in our back yard. And boy, did they come! Sweepers, guards, gardeners, plumbers, electricians — all the invisible people who made life work at the campus. My mother-in-law played Christmas carols on the piano they had moved in, and we donned Christmas apparel to carry the food to them as they stood and talked. They looked alarmed when we served them — an unimaginable reversal of roles — and some even tried to take the trays away from us and make us sit so they could serve us. But eventually they understood: today was their day to receive. They were overjoyed at the end of the event, and we “bohoot, bohoot shukriyah” (Many, many thanks!) more times than we could count.
Well, at that point, the event took on a life of its own! The staff began to look forward to the reception, and it grew! The other missionaries joined in and helped, and soon students from the chapel program were volunteering to serve, and the Salvation Army brass band came to serenade the assembly with their ancient instruments and all-too-highlyfunctioning bass drum. It still goes on each year, nine years after it started, and is still the social highlight of the year for the service employees.
However, of all the things we did not expect about Christmas in Pakistan, the fact that Christmas was to come way early in 2008, in April as a matter of fact, was the one that caught us most off guard.
We were getting ready to move back to the U.S. after our term was over. Moving was as much a desperate flurry as you would think, with the added stress of an international move with a teenager and a preteen — and nowhere to live when we got back (thank you Elva and Tom Jefferson for solving that one for us). As the week was grinding to it its manic end, and with 1,001 things still to do, the administrator in charge of maintenance and grounds came to the door on Thursday afternoon. “The staff have a surprise for you,” he said. “Be home tomorrow morning before chapel.” Friday was our last day. Everything not done would have to be finished up that day — and there was plenty still not done! Besides, we need to leave for the airport at 5 p.m. and there was no way that would change a single second. So here was one more thing.
We imagined they would all show up at the door with a bouquet of roses sprinkled with glitter (the usual gift of respect) and perhaps give us a plaque we would have to stuff in the luggage somewhere. But, that morning, we received instructions to stay in the house and not go in the back yard. Then, about 11, there was a knock, and two smiling gardeners led us to the back of the house. And there, the entire maintenance and security crew was gathered, beaming — in front of a huge table loaded with samosas and cookies and hot chai.
After the Christmas parties we had given honoring them, they had come to give us a party.
Now, understand, these are people who make very, very little. Many make less than 60 dollars a month, which doesn’t go very far even in Pakistan. Everyone in that yard had to make every rupee count simply to survive, especially in households of nine or 10 people, with everyone from babies to grandmas and grandpas living in one or two rooms. Yet they had, on their own initiative, been pooling their money to give us a party. Those with the least gave selflessly and joyously to those who have everything. And all because they wanted us to know what our generosity had meant to them. To see the pride and joy and love on their faces as they did this was almost too much.
We spent the morning getting our pictures taken, hugging and listening to brief, simple translated speeches honoring us. And — they insisted on serving us, as they always had.
Who would have guessed a Christian minister — one with a Ph.D. in theology — would have to go to an Islamic country to really understand what Christmas meant? But that is just what happened. It was the best Christmas ever.
ROBERT JOHNSON, a minister member of the Presbytery of the James, is presently serving as executive director of the Friends of Forman College. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.