It’s like the evenings I spent in Central Asia years ago, sprawled on a stiff hotel bed and journaling until darkness fell. In my headphones the refrain would play: in your presence, all fear is gone, in your presence… And it’s all I could cling to, because that month-or-so in that land was one of the loneliest I’ve had.
That first week, as I was climbing onto the bus, a trio of teenage boys rushed off and shoved me to the side as they exited, so close you could feel the heat radiating off their brows. I thought them rude, but then caught myself and reminded myself that they’re just boys. The thought lasted about two seconds; that was the first time I had my wallet stolen.
I still think about the feeling of Sosho and I crammed in the back of the bus, clutching our bags tight (myself, in particular), watching the spires of mosques pass by and watching Muslims pray on the sidewalks during afternoon prayers, their foreheads pressed into the concrete and lips moving in fervent prayer. I remember seeing a diseased boy, his arms both amputated and his face marked with sweat and soot, pleading with his eyes for his throat was parched. Our Muslim friends were generous: they gave alms to the poor, they believed Allah would reward them for their generosity.
The city is one of the most polluted cities in the world; it lies in a dry valley and is reputed as the most landlocked city in the world. Soot and ash from surrounding factories linger over us in a haze. Day by day, thousands of new immigrants arrive by train. The city is exploding; everybody is covered in soot; it is hot; tempers flare, a bus tire explodes and the people begrudgingly walk off the bus and wait for another to come along.
I also remember wandering the parks of that city, and watching the people mill about, their faces blank (as strangers generally are to other strangers), and trying to think about God but constantly being interrupted by the heat and smog, thoughts flitting back and forth from prayer to a red bean popsicle (glory!).
We would hear stories of busloads of South Korean tourists who would come into the city. One of the missionaries told us that they were actually followers of the Way, who would circle the great square in the center of the city and blanket it with prayers. She knew because she would see them walk about, their mouths moving inaudibly and their eyes locked onto the heart of the city and its people. She would see them and her heart would explode and she told us that she would want to shout we’re here! we follow the Way too!
The weather here is impetuous; one day it’ll be 80 degrees and in the evening it’ll be below freezing and snowing. It’s much like the food, bursting with spices and seasonings and cooled with a dollop of frosty yogurt. The food, oh, I still do dream about it, the lagman and lamb kebabs, the feeling of growing dizzier with the sights and smells of the food stalls at the bazaars.
I wasn’t very spiritually-minded on that trip, and I felt that God knew it was okay. I couldn’t shake my homesickness on days when I’d want to run from the oppressive heat, when the blathering of denizens would take its toll on my patience, and my stomach would rebel at the stream of foreign food I kept trying to feed it with. But still, there was that feeling—
It’s like the mornings I’d take a jog out onto the deserted streets, watching the sun rise and hearing the burst of an oven igniting, the flapping of pigeon wings, the distant car horn and the slight hum of towering cranes, unofficial city guardians. And though I couldn’t shake the homesickness, I knew I was in God’s presence. Even today, I look back and know I was with the one they call Allah. I’d have these visions of his grace gathering in storm clouds and falling like rain, clearing the air, turning streets into creeks and sprouting trees on their banks.
Soon the ash would fill my lungs and force me, coughing, to turn around and crawl back into bed.