Two Days Of Infinite Love In South Texas
Apr 6, 2013
Four mothers started Infinite Love in Southern Texas, as a way to transform the suffering in their own lives into compassion. One went through a tough divorce, another's son fell off a third story and is now paralyzed from waist down, another lost her husband to cancer. As biological sisters, they nurtured each other but the tipping point came when their 30-year-old nephew, Vishal, passed away from a rare form of cancer he had been fighting since he was 18. "He was a bright light in our family, and as it got closer to the time when we knew we were losing him, he would remind us -- 'I'm not leaving you. I'm just merging into the grass, the trees, the stars -- I will be part of everything.' We sat down and on Valentine's Day of 2012, we decided to honor him by spreading love in the world. And our movement was born," Pooja Chugani said.
Really, they were just holding space and nurturing the seeds. They started doing "Wednesday" meditations and invited their friends. Silence alone started to build synergy, and now 40- 50 people come each week. Locally printing Smile Cards, they started doing acts of kindness. After watching the movie Conversations with God, they decided to serve the homeless - which they now do Tuesday and Friday of every week. That organically mushroomed into a clothing donation drive on the park bench and rent assistance for those trying to break out of the cycle. After serving 100 meals just once, a volunteer broke down while saying, "I'm obese and don't stop eating, and here are these people who struggle just for one square meal." Another nurse told them a story of how a cancer patient came up to her and cried, "Please, I'm so hungry. Can you get me some food?" So the nurse got the man a sandwich and noticed that he only ate half of it so he could save the other half for dinner. The patients often do not have money for basic expenses after spending most of it on cancer treatment, so Geeta Thadani now leads a team of volunteers who take lunches to the patients Monday through Friday every week. Another member suggested reading to children at the cancer hospital, and that is emerging now. To bring inspiring ideas into the larger community, every year they started to host a big event at the city's Civic Center. This year, Elizabeth Gilbert - author of the famous Eat, Pray, Love book - and I were the invited speakers.
Everything is volunteer-run. For each activity, a natural leader emerges, like Reynaldo and Ninfa who started feeding the homeless. "My husband and I meditate and volunteer together, and it has brought us closer together," Ninfa says while describing that she actually receives more than she gives. Or Jonathan, who anchors every Wednesday and notes that he's really started to open up, feels more connected and shares more after attending the gatherings. (He had baked 300 cookies on the day we met!) Or Adrianna, who was previously homeless herself and now helps anchors the scope of Tuesdays and Fridays with clothing exchange.
"What's amazing to watch is how service is changing our whole family," Sunaina said of her Sufi family. She was my original connection, and has been silently liaisoning the spirit of ServiceSpace into the local ecosystem of Infinite Love. When Vik fell off the third floor of his apartment complex and became wheelchair bound, he was devastated. It took him four years to accept it. Then, finally, he went sky-diving and said, "This time, I'm falling consciously." He pursued his dream of becoming a comedian and now happily jokes about his condition: "Hey ladies, perk #172 of being with a guy on a wheelchair? Rockstar parking." And his own jolly laughter can fill any room with joy.
Priya, whose brother Vishal passed away at 30, decided to send everyone a letter on what would've been his 33rd birthday. "While having a hell of a time living his life, so many continue to come forth and tell us stories of how Vishal spread kindness. Let us come together to celebrate his life with kindness. In his honor, I'm sending you 33 Smile Cards. Do a random act for a stranger, leave a Smile Card behind encouraging that person to pay it forward, and let the love ripple. I'm also enclosing a packet of seeds that you can plant after your first deed. The growing plant will represent the kindness you are spreading in the world." She custom-made Smile Cards whose explanation read: "Smile. You've just been tagged. In the name of a loved one, I have reached out to you with a random act of kindness. Now it's your chance to do the same. Do something nice for a stranger, leave this card behind, and keep the spirit going." On the back was Vishal's favorite quote by Dr. Seuss. Attached was an empty sheet of paper with 33 blank lines. At the end was a line from a Beatles song played at his funeral: "In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."
When I visited McAllen this week, I didn't know any of this. Yet when I landed at this tiny airport, the first thing I saw were four women waving at me (none of whom I had met before) - and Vik in his wheelchair. You don't need to bring two cars and five people to pick up someone at the airport (and that too on the eve of a massive event they were organizing). Yet they came. Infinite love. They dropped me to my hotel room, and then insisted on changing my room since there was a mild smell of smoke. In a white grocery bag was home-made food (even though it was 11PM!). Bit by bit, I realized that's just how they are. Next day, there's another welcome goodie-bag with chocolates and cookies with Infinite Love written on them. They thought of every little detail and offered it all with such care.
At lunch, I complimented the smile of our waitress (Noemi), soon we all became friends, and by the end, she shared stories of her alcohol addiction and these guys tagged her with a ticket for the evening event! But of course. (And she came! Next morning, she thanked the Infinite Love team “for the uplift” and for reminding her that through the struggles of life, there are always caring people to surround and support you.)
On Thursday night, Elizabeth Gilbert and I spoke to a crowd of 500 McAllen and Laredo locals, with live Spanish translations. Elizabeth, whose one book alone sold 10 million copies (let alone her other talks), had many fans who filled the halls. :) I spoke for the first half hour and felt a strong resonance in the hall. After I finished, Elizabeth was the first one to thank me with a huge hug. She went on to share some stories of generosity, including an incredible episode of going to a remote island for a 10-day silent retreat, only to get terribly sick and be rescued by a woman who didn't speak a word of English. "I went around the world to be independent, only to discover our inter-dependence." It was a beautiful event. All attendees got a goodie bag, with Smile Cards and a Smile Deck, and a program booklet - which featured our Why We Serve article, Yes Magazine's profile, local stories and more. As we departed in the later hours of the night, Elizabeth joyously remarked, "We're destined to meet again." :) She was very touched by the work of ServiceSpace, just as I was quite touched by her sincerity, humility and light-heartedness.
I stayed the following day for an Awakin gathering with the local volunteers. Throughout the day, we had various smaller group conversations, which often turned profound. At one point during our lunch, we all fell silent for a few seconds. Alka and Malka, two of the founding mothers, at one point say: "I can feel something happening in my heart right now." We spoke about retaining the spirit of Infinite Love, even through its success.
Since it was a Friday, I went to serve the homeless with them. We gave out a hundred nutritious meals, while receiving so many blessings. There were a lot of generosity stories floating around, even amidst this population. And instead of calling it "feeding the homeless", it has now been renamed "Fellowship in the Park."
The Awakin gathering in the evening was really powerful. Something about the silence that just surfaces a different kind of ambiance. Our theme was about returning to ordinary and anchoring everyday moments with a spirit of inner transformation. Several folks teared up during some of the ServiceSpace stories I shared. Seventeen year old Gabriela was grateful to hear her mom narrate a story of how she moved to the city long back, without any money or contacts. "My plan was to knock on doors until someone accepted me, and the first door we knocked on, it worked out," she said. "And I realized I have never been thankful for that lucky break." A woman who drives to these gatherings from a city an hour and a half away shared a story of how she spent the two hours of her bike-riding workout as an opportunity to just bless all that came her way; subsequently, during the meditation, she saw a lot of light and then the face of a Catholic saint. Richard (whose Native name is "Rich Heart" :)) added, "Breath is one of the biggest gifts of my life that I don't take for granted." He wants his band to do some gift concerts. "Thanks for inspiring Mo, my son," a woman told me; Mo is going to figure out a way to tag unsuspecting customers at his Yogurt shop. Avinash, who runs a coffee plantation when he's not doing med school, was inspired to go to a meditation retreat and go deeper. Maria couldn't wait to implement a kindness program with the kids. Many ripples are bound to emerge. It was a sweet ambiance and hence, the rest is inevitable. :)
While about 25 folks are remaining in the clean-up part of the evening, there's a phone call. "Hi, this Vanessa and Maylissa. We had just come for the meditation, and my intuition told me that I had to take a U-Turn and come back to make an offering. Are some of you still there?" We sure were, and both the sisters came back to sing 'The Rose'. It was just the perfect conclusion, with goosebumps in tow.
Some say love, it is a river, That drowns the tender reed
Some say love, it is a razor, That leaves your soul to bleed
Some say love, it is a hunger, An endless aching need
I say love, it is a flower, And you it's only seed
When the night, has been too lonely,
And the road has been too long And you think that love is only,
For the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed, That with the sun's love,
In the spring, Becomes the rose
This community embodies the spirit of giftvism. In recent years, the violence in these largely Hispanic communities has skyrocketed due to lot of outside drug cartel and gang influence. Poverty rates are saddening. Lot of people I met had never been outside Texas. Laredo, for a while, was the biggest city in America without a bookstore. It's hard for many to envision a path out of large systemic issues, but while there are many tragic stories to report from South Texas, the beat of love is certainly alive -- thanks, in part, to four mothers, and an ever expanding posse of love warriors. On the first year anniversary of Infinite Love, Feb 14th 2013, they did a wonderful Smile Card campaign across the city, where simple acts of generosity yielded some deeply joyous transformations.
At the end of two days, which felt like a whole lot longer, it was time for me to leave. As Karina said, "You feel like you're part of our family." I certainly felt like that, and I'm guessing everyone who comes in their orbit of Infinite Love probably feels the same way. Geeta inquired about buying a be-the-change kurta for her son, so I gifted it to her (with the usual "laundry before use" warning :)). Although my plane departed early, the gang insisted on coming to drop me off. Infinite Love. We hugged. At this small airport, there's no one in the security line before or after me, so it was natural to ask the security guard himself to take a group photo for us. :)
The smiles radiated out and infected rest of the airport staff. As I check in, a cop asks me: "You seem like a lucky guy to have all these lovely people drop you off. What's going on?" "Infinite Love," I summarized.
If I had told the security guard that I didn't know these people just two days before, he wouldn't have believed it. I'm not sure I still believe it. :) What I'm sure about is gratitude I feel for Nature that always brings good people together to keep the candle lit.