LITTLE ROCK Each week parishioners at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville offer free meals to those in need through the Community Meals ministry. Now, they’re hoping to extend their reach quite a bit farther - halfway around the world - to India to help Tibetans living in exile.
The idea of helping the Tibetans came from Milton Burke, who volunteers as a dishwasher for the Community Meals outreach. Burke and his wife, Mimi, spent eight months teaching and volunteering in Dharamsala, India, this year. Milton Burke, 63, had recently retired from teaching honors English at Fayetteville High School and the couple were looking for volunteer opportunities.
“I thought we’d have an adventure of some sort abroad and go somewhere where I could so some teaching,” Burke said.
The couple discovered a nonprofit organization working with Tibetans in India. Lha Charitable Trust provides a variety of resources to the refugees, including classes for those interested in learning to speak English. It seemed a perfect fit.
“They needed English speakers to come teach English to the Tibetans, so that was attractive,” Burke said. “It all fell together.”
While working with Lha - which is, according to their mission statement, “the Tibetan word for our innate nature of fundamental goodness” - the Burkes met Tibetans who had fled from their homeland, which has been under Chinese control since the late 1950s. They shared stories about the arduous journey over the Himalayan mountains and the trek to Dharamsala, the home of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
When Milton Burke found out the staff at Lha wanted to start a soup kitchen to serve students and refugees he immediately saw the parallelsbetween that idea and Community Meals in Fayetteville. And he saw the potential.
“I knew how well it worked here,” Burke said.
Community Meals is a long-standing, cooperative ministry of two congregations - Central United Methodist Church and St. Paul’s. Originally, meals were served only at the Methodist church, with volunteers from both congregations helping out.
“Our volunteers liked it so much, it was a big motivator for the building project that led to construction of our parish hall and kitchen,” said Lowell Grisham, rector of St. Paul’s. “Our kitchen at the time had been built in 1952 and still had some of the original equipment. It looked like Ozzie and Harriet and didn’t pass code or have the capability of feeding a largenumber of people.”
The new kitchen allowed the churches to expand the ministry to a fourdays-a-week project. Meals are served Mondays and Wednesdays at St. Paul’s and Tuesdays and Thursdays at Central. Each day at least 100 people are served, and sometimes many, many more.
“Our congregation lovesit and in a real way it has created a new community,” Grisham said. “It’s been a good way to cross some cultural and economic boundaries and make friendships.”
When Burke came to him with the idea for a cooperative project between the church and the Tibet-focused nonprofit, the proposal resonated with Grisham. St. Paul’s Community Meals: Tibet-in-Exile Branch soon began to take shape. Lha estimated the cost of food per month would be $2,000, and Grisham began encouraging parishioners to commit to helping out with the monthly expenses.
“It seemed like something we could raise,” Grisham said.
Grisham said he had often thought about ways he and the church could help those living in exile in India.
“The Tibetan people I’ve met, I’ve found to be people of such great heart and compassion,” Grisham said. “This seemed like such a down-to-earth, concrete way to do something to contribute to a wonderful culture and religion that is threatened with extermination by a very powerful, atheistic culture.”
Grisham said he feels a spiritual kinship with the Tibetans and their leader.
“I find the Dalai Lama oneof the most compelling religious figures on the planet,” he said. “For me, he is one of those people who exhibits a Christ-like spirit.”
For now, the parish is accepting donations to cover the monthly food bill for the soup kitchen. They’ve received pledges for more than $500 per month for 2011 so far. The goal is $2,000 a month.
“My f irst hope is we would be able to fully fund the food costs for the kitchen,” Grisham said. “And, second ... it would be wonderful for some people to have an opportunity to go and visit there and make a direct and personal connection.”
Grisham said the project will also complement other work being done with Tibetans by members of the Fayetteville community, including Geshe Thupten Dorjee, a Tibetan monk who teaches at the University ofArkansas, and Sidney Burris, director of the Fullbright College Honors Program and the Tibetans in Exile Today Project, which documents the stories of refugees in India.
Burris said a soup kitchen will help those fleeing from Tibet because they often arrive in Dharamsala with nothing.
“It’s a long and difficult trip they have to make,” hesaid. “They typically arrive in Dharamsala in pretty bad physical shape. Frostbite is a problem and hunger is an issue.”
Those leaving Tibet take only what they can carry, Burris said, and if it becomes too much they leave it behind. Otherwise, their guides will go on without them.
“They have to pack fairly light. It’s a survival hike and the young ones even have trouble, so you can imagine how difficult it is on the older ones who attempt it,” Burris said. “It’s a very tough hike.”
Burris said those who survive the trek usually cross the border into Nepal or Bhutan, and from there many go to Dharamsala to be near the Dalai Lama.
“That’s where they want to go because they can get an audience with the Dalai Lama,” he said. “They file through and he gives them a blessing.”
As for Burke, he and Mimi plan to return to India. He’s partial to the fall, which he says is the best time to go.
“It’s incredibly beautiful there,” he said.
Information on the project and a link for donors is available online at stpaulsfay.org. Information about Lha Charitable Trust is available online at lhasocialwork.org.