Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Consistent Compassion

Published in the Fiji Times - "Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan" Wednesday, 29th February, 2012

Anneyong Haseyo! Bula from the “Soul of Asia” – Seoul, South Korea!

I recently fulfilled a promise I made to my mother – to fence the only property we own, which happens to be in Nasinu. Nasinu Cemetry to be precise. The promise was to put a railing around the grave in which my grandfather (and namesake) and my father are both buried.

It was an outsanding promise. One which had made years ago, not long after my father had died. On a visit to tend to the flowers and shrubs my mother and the family had so lovingly planted, we had found the grave stripped of the plants. My conscience was pricked and I was reminded of this promise, when on my arrival in Fiji for semester break I visited the grave. There I found the remains of a drinking party: broken beer bottles, empty mixed spirit drink cans, on my father and grandfather’s grave. I was deeply saddened to see this. I was deeply disappointed.

Broken bottles and empty cans on my father and grandfather's grave

 It wasn’t the lack of security in the cemetery – no one can watch the whole place 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; and our correctional officers have a more important job to do. It wasn’t the fact that the paths and roads in the cemetery are used regularly by nearby residents as a shortcut to the shops in Nakasi and to the various housing settlements in the area. I could even (at quite a stretch) understand why the offenders would have chosen that part of the cemetery as a drinking spot – its quiet, under the shade of an old tree and at the old entrance of the cemetery which is now closed to vehicles. What I could not understand is the complete lack of respect and compassion – not just for the dead, but for the living who mourn, remember, celebrate and honour the memory of their dearly departed.

I stood at the graveside for some time, trying to understand – to put myself in the shoes or flipflops of the people who had smashed their empty bottles and strewn their empty cans in such a disrespectful manner. Did they not have a loved one buried here, or anywhere for that matter? Would they not feel what I was feeling and what others have (unfortunately too often) felt if this had happened at the grave of their loved one?

Then I reminded myself that perhaps I could have prevented this situation if I had honoured my promise to my mother. I silently vowed that the next time my family visited the cemetery and before I returned to Seoul, the railing would be up.

In a quick family meeting I shared my intention and other members pledge to play their part.  The officers at Nasinu Prison were very helpful and permission for erecting the railing and plans were forthcoming.

Feroz (closest to camera) and Ricky in the M I Motors
workshop, putting final touches on the railings
Zameer checks the level of the
railings before we pour in the
Some weeks later, at this grave of two Christian servants, I was joined by three non-Christians to install the railings. My friends, my brothers – Zameer, Feroz and Ricky of M.I. Motors, had helped me by advising me on the materials and in the construction of the railings. This they did at no charge, not just as part of their community service, but out of their love and respect for their “Uncle,” my father – who had not just been a regular customer at the garage, but a mentor and, despite the generation gap, a friend to them all. Together we installed the railings, taking turns to dig holes, mix cement and joining hands.

After the work at this grave was completed we went to pay our respects at the grave of Zameer’s father. An emotional Zameer shared with me how after erecting a similar railing for his father, someone had come and broken and stolen the iron decorations on the railing to be sold as scrap  metal.

Mum looks on as her granddaughter Sian prepares to plant
some flowers at the now protected grave.
When my mother and the rest of the family visited the cemetery the next day, the tears in her eyes and the small sad smile on her face told me that this was not just a promise I had made to her, this was a promise she had also made to the memory of her dear husband.

On my last night in Suva, I went for a stroll to the Toorak shops, to buy some suki (local tobacco) for my pipe. On the way I came across a little commotion on Amy Street. Dudley Church is located next to the Ministry of Health Headquarters on Amy Street. Across the road from this is a nightly makeshift camp where a few men who prefer to live rough spend their nights.

I saw a crowd of Toorak residents, on their way back from church or on a similar evening stroll or on duty as a watchman for the offices in the area; surrounding one of the street dwellers. I recognised the man, probably in his 60’s, known to some as Mohammed (whether that is a real name, nick name or code name, I am not sure) lying on an old carton, covered in a blanket, whimpering, groaning in obvious pain. Some the concerned crowd checked him and tried to speak to him.

We managed to alert one of the officers from the Toorak Police post and sent him to fetch an ambulance to take this man to hospital. Sensing the man’s apprehension, even in his state, of being taken to any institution, I told him that if this didn’t happen it might very well be his last night on earth. He was too weak to argue and so he was bundled up into a St. John’s Ambulance and taken to the hospital accompanied by the police officer and some of the concerned people. As the crowd dispersed, I overheard a comment that it was a shame that this man had been lying they for some days right across the road from the Ministry of Health.

These two events have a common thread. On one hand we find those who disregard even the basic respect of the dead, to drink and smash their empty bottles on a person’s grave, or to steal from graves. We have people who just can’t be bothered with, for example, a sick homeless person lying on the footpath.

On the other hand we find those who have compassion for the stranger, the other: the Muslim and Hindu who make and erect a railing on the grave of a Christian; the young i-taukei who worry and provide care for an old Indo-Fijian street dweller.

I often write: “Simplicity, Serenity and Spontaneity” at the end of my column. It is a reminder for each one of us to be simple or humble in our words and deeds; to be at peace with ourselves and each other; and to be able to respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit, or our consciences when the need arises.

Is that so hard?

Rev. James Bhagwan is currently a student of the Methodist Theological University’s International Graduate School of Theology in Seoul, South Korea. Email: or visit

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