Why go to Pakistan?

Sr. Roberta Ryan
February 25, 2011

Moving Forward in Hope

“Freely, you have received, freely give. Go in my name and because you believe, others will know that I live.”

This hymn, along with the awareness that we are called “to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with our God,” has inspired me down through the years. When I went to Pakistan, after having been on mission in Korea for over 20 years, some of my friends were celebrating their early retirement!

Many thought that I was crazy to be begin at the bottom again, to face the challenge of learning yet another language and culture, this time in a country where Islam was the dominant faith. Yet, to me, it was simply a matter of following my heart and our missionary call that invites us to enter into the dialogue of life with people of other cultures and faiths.

Yes, there is the searing heat to contend with in Pakistan where winter temperatures average 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) and summer 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

The food is hot and spicy. The poverty is stark, and the needs are great. In addition, three months of language study left me confused and inarticulate. My early utterings and mutterings required a high degree of intuitive interpretation on the part of any listener, while many found my signs and gestures far more intelligible!

Missionaries have personal experience of what it is like to be a stranger in a land where often our physical features and mannerisms mark us as different. Standing in the queue in Immigration, I found myself in the line for ALIENS!

It is not a comfortable feeling to be on the outside.What changes this perception is the experience of being welcomed and included which often happens through the warmth of unexpected gestures of acceptance and friendship, such as a smile, a handshake or an offer to help.

In Pakistan, as in Ireland, hospitality centers around a cup of tea, or chai, as it is called in Urdu. The leaves and water are boiled together, a large quantity of sugar and a good drop of milk are added and the boiling process continues until the right color and fl avor is achieved. It is in the waiting for the tea to be made, and in the drinking of it, that so much of life is shared and questions raised and answered.

“Why have you come? Where is your husband? How many children have you raised?” When people hear that Sisters do not marry, they are absolutely flabbergasted for in the Muslim way of life it is the purpose of women to bear children.

The dialogue has only just begun…. Sitting with both Christian and Muslim women in moments of deep joy at a wedding or a birth, or in the sadness of an illness or death, have been privileged moments of grace. God uses both the happy and the painful experiences in life to crack the protective shells we wrap around ourselves and to break through the barriers that divide us.

Except in the most modern cities, Muslim women keep a low profile and are rarely seen in public. When they do venture out they are usually covered in a burkah, a head-to-foot mantle and veil. Few women work in restaurants, shops or the civil service. The men also go to the market to shop for vegetables and daily family needs. Christians and other minorities often find themselves on the fringes of society because of poverty and social discrimination. They value the presence and active support of missionaries who work on their behalf and for the common good of the wider community.

I am often asked by those at home, “What is the point of going to Pakistan when 97% of its 140 million people are Muslim, and the Christian community is so small?” I believe the need for dialogue with non-Christians becomes more evident when we reflect on the fears and prejudices that have been compounded by such events as 9/11 in New York, 7/7 in London and the situation today in the Middle East and Iraq. Dialogue is a way to build bridges so that we can move forward in hope. In welcoming Christ in the stranger, I am drawn ever deeper into the heart of God, the Maker of us all.

Columban Sr. Roberta Ryan lives and works in Pakistan where the Sisters still are dealing with the after effects of the flooding

The article originally appears in the February 2011 issue of Columban Mission.