By Rev Steve Parelli,
Written July 30 - August 3, 2011
Royal Goan Beach Club, Baga, Goa
The following event occurred in Kottayam, Kerala, India, on Friday, July 22, 2011
Traveling by hired car-with-driver and carrying with us our 500-plus copies of the Malayalam book on the Bible, sexual minorities and inclusion, we arrived in Kottayam from Trivandrum (a three and a half hour trip) on a Tuesday afternoon in late mid-July, 2011. Our budget hotel was tucked in behind street-front stores, back off from the main street, with a short alley way for its vehicle entrance. As our driver circled the same area of streets a second time in search of the “hidden” entrance way, it became obvious to me that our place of lodging was situated very close to our targeted recipients of the book – clergy, religious students, and lay leaders. Once we arrived, we saw just how close.
The hotel was virtually in the shadow of two large churches and a gated Catholic college for women. My first impression of the women’s college was how impregnable it would be to us; most likely an off-limits area to two men distributing free literature to women-only in a tight conservative environment. And though I made a mental note of the women’s college as a possible place to visit, I put it low on our list of priorities.
Was I in for a surprise: I would have a window of opportunity to distribute there, and I would be assisted with my on-site activity by a very progressive, forward thinking Sister and teacher of the women’s college.
Here’s what happened.
On this particular morning, I rose early (as is my habit) and quietly told my husband Jose (who was sleeping) that I was going out to do distribution work at the near-by Catholic church. I was hoping to meet college students there. On the day before, I had seen college-age young people attending morning Mass. Taking my bag filled with books and literature, I passed through the darkened lobby of our hotel and stepped out onto the yet still streets of Kottayam. A short walk away stood the Catholic church impressively high above the smaller establishments, clean-white in color, with its three set of double doors wide open calling the faithful to enter.
I arrived at the church while the early Mass was soon to end and a second Mass was to follow. I watched as young people arrived late, assessing the best location for distribution. I was standing on the street, a bit down the road from the main entrance to the sanctuary, at a place where parishioners passed from the street to the side of the church and then to the main entrance.
Suddenly, emerging from the sanctuary at the main entrance of the church and coming down the steps to the street was this huge mass of white – students and Sisters (faculty, so I assume) all dressed in white garb (though the faculty were definitely distinguished from the students by their type of garb). They made their way with a bit of hurry in their step. They were gathered together like a flock; their white garments were wide and broad from head to foot, giving the appearance, from a distance, that they were somewhat tightly pressed together, one up against the other, moving en mass like geese following a narrow pathway, their motionless bodies carried about by their unseen feet. I saw them just as they started their exit from Mass and immediately noted their intended destination: the gate to the Catholic women’s college across from the church. Without a moment’s hesitation and with a walking pace a bit faster than theirs (since the distance I had to cover to the college gate was greater than theirs), I arrived just ahead of them with my Malayalam book in hand, holding it out to them, audibly announcing my free offer.
I made my appeal directly to Sisters, who I assumed were faculty, who were walking interspersed among the students – all walking not in any kind of formation, but simply keeping step with one another within the flow of their own group movement.
When I first crossed the road to meet-up with the students and Sisters at the gate, I had imagined that my white flock of scholars would be small, and my opportunity brief. However, as I stood there giving copies of the book to passing Sisters, I saw that the flow of white-garbed students and teachers was still coming from the church, crossing the street to the women’s college gate where I stood. It amounted to a steady stream of what turned out to be, no doubt, a sizable representation (if not the total school body) of the students and Sisters.
Then it happened. One of the Sisters stopped to ask me questions. She was more than appropriate and very polite. If she was apprehensive of my presence and the book, she did not show it.
Quickly looking over a copy of the book and assessing my objective by the answers I gave to her questions, she immediately began pointing to other Sisters (faculty, I believe) who were passing us in their march to their next function of the day, saying “Give her a copy . . . and her. . . and also her,” getting the individual Sister’s attention while directing mine. What a remarkable experience. This Sister was taking my small window of opportunity to hand out copies of the book to passing Catholic teachers and helping me by making sure they actually got a copy.
After everyone passed by, and having pulled aside two other Sisters, the Sister who had assisted (and insisted when it came to giving the book to particular Sisters) discussed very briefly with me her experiences with sexual minorities and wanted to learn more about my own personal experience as a sexual minority. On her part, as a psychologist, she had knowledge of and firsthand experience with transgender people and was involving Sisters and students by increasing their awareness and understanding of transgender people. When I told her that I was gay and married to a man, she wanted to know if I was a transgender person. When I explained that I was not, she became very interested in wanting to understand more. She exchanged contact information with me, and learning that “my husband” and I were planning only one more week-day in Kottayam, she invited us to speak to one of the classes if she could get permission on such a short notice. She immediately assigned one of the Sisters to speak to the supervisor about granting permission. Unfortunately, the meeting never did materialize. The Sister texted me that no word had returned from the supervising department and so one had to assume, therefore, that permission would not be granted at this time.
My early morning, brief meeting with this Sister who so quickly embraced me and my task of distribution will always remain with me as a found memory of how walls-of-institutions-branded-with denominational-titles do not necessarily limit as to who or what ideas may be found within; there are, as I am always thrilled to find, people – in whatever religious denomination – who desire to be intellectually honest and genuinely open and interactive with today’s social realities; yes, even on the matter of sexual minorities and inclusion. And so it was with this dear Sister.