Geeta Pradhan, President and Chief Executive Officer, Cambridge Community Foundation, speaks at Morning Prayers on March 28, 2019. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
My reading this morning is a poem by Maulana Jalal-ad-din Mohammed Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic. Rumi wrote some of the most beautiful poems that have become a powerful source of inspiration making him a beloved poet in America and across the world. This poem, titled “Only Breath” speaks to the essence of what we share across all human-kind — our one-ness, our humanity.
Translated beautifully by Coleman Barks, a Rumi scholar who said that Rumi’s poetry was about – quote “trying to get us to feel the vastness of our true identity…like the sense you might get walking into a cathedral.” His translation goes as follows:
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen.
Not any religion or cultural system.
I am not from the East or the West,
not out of the ocean or up from the ground,
not natural or ethereal,
not composed of elements at all.
I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
My place is placeless,
a trace of the traceless.
Neither body nor soul.
I belong to the beloved,
have seen the two worlds as one
and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner,
only that breath breathing human being.
There was this man I knew when I was a little child. He made his living doing work none of us would ever imagine doing. Day after day, he collected human waste in large pots and carried them to the dump. We called him Jamadar Sahib – loosely translated as: “Mr. Servant.”
His poverty shone through his tattered clothes. But Jamadar Sahib rose above his menial, demeaning work, his wretched poverty. His job did not define him, nor did his economic standing. He carried on himself – his personhood – with a sense of self, of dignity and grace. As though forcing you to contend with his human-ness. It was the way he treated people ... with kindness, compassion, and respect, dignifying himself and his humanity by stripping away the differences. He left an indelible impression on my mind. Fifty years later, that memory, that image still guides me, pushes me, challenges me, and in some ways, it disturbs me!
As I have aged and matured, I am disturbed by that image of Jamadar Sahib. It is both a reminder of all that is good and a growing concern that those ideals of kindness, compassion, and respect for human dignity are eroding in our world today. Intolerance, fear of the other, hate and violence are taking hold visible starkly in the treatment of those living in poverty, our immigrant friends and neighbors, those of different religious or ethnic backgrounds, or who hold beliefs and value systems that are different from ours.
On the one hand, the world is becoming smaller and more connected, on the other more complex, more divided. And as these complexities grow, cities, communities and institutions will have to lead with their values. At these changing times, I am at once guided by Jamadar Sahib, Mr. Servant most appropriately named, serving and shaping my mind, my work and my attitude towards the world.
A couple of weeks back, this sacred space hosted a concert to benefit the Cambridge Community Foundation’s United Legal Defense Fund for Immigrants. And as the divine music rose to fill the space, the image of Jamadar Sahib loomed large in my mind, as did my gratitude for what he taught me about being a good human being.