A Tribal Code of Hospitality
… So he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29
I’ve never been to Afghanistan and probably never will go. It is a long and dangerous way from America. Especially hostile is the mountainous area that serves as the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is the area where the Taliban still is active and strong.
If I could travel there I’d want to meet a shepherd named Gulab. Gulab is a shepherd in a village in Kunar province, a rugged area of northeastern Afghanistan. This man is a real hero. I’ll tell you why later in this story. Then maybe you’ll understand what a simple Afghan shepherd has to do with an evacuation shelter in Louisiana.
After hurricane Ivan in 2004, our staff at Dry Creek Camp sat down with the American Red Cross to look at the process of becoming an official evacuation shelter. Their representatives were very helpful and open to working with us. Eventually we decided to pass on the opportunity. Our reason was due to restrictions on religious services and the ability to choose our own menus and cook our own food.
I want to be the first to compliment the Red Cross. After Rita they delivered thousands of meals in Beauregard Parish. Due to the loss of water, power, and stores being closed, coupled with gasoline being scarce, their delivered meals were lifesavers.
But we were, and still are, comfortable with our decision to be an independent shelter. Due to our current arrangement, we work closely with the authorities and organizations but still have some final say in what we do.
Throughout the weeks of Katrina and then Rita, many tough decisions had to be made. But our staff had the latitude to make these decisions. Here was the toughest one:
Camp Program Director Todd Burnaman came to my house at 3:30 a.m. It was the third night after Rita and conditions were rough. It was hot and hard for everyone to sleep. Todd was still sleeping in the camp office where we had all earlier ridden out the storm.
A deputy had awakened him telling him that all shelters had to be emptied within an hour. This was an order “from The Red Cross and FEMA.” According to this “messenger with bad news,” buses were waiting in DeRidder to carry all Beauregard Parish shelter residents north and out of the parish.
This confused both of us because we had been at a planning meeting the day before and nothing specific was shared concerning our shelter. The shelters at the schools in DeRidder were having problems due to the lack of adequate setup to house evacuees long-term.
Our situation in being a camp where our mission is to provide food and lodging for people connects easily with being a shelter. So we felt comfortable with our situation.
I love Todd because he is a young man of integrity and character. He had not agreed to rouse up our evacuees. Instead he came to get me. When we returned to the camp the deputy was gone. Todd and I both knew he was just doing his job and could not have been fully informed on the situation.
We both agreed that no one was going to tell us when to have our evacuees leave. We would make that decision with the help of the Lord. These folks from the New Orleans area and Cameron Parish had come to us for shelter and we were responsible for them. They were under our care and protection.
We had already faced this in a similar way before Rita hit. Beauregard Parish did not have a mandatory evacuation, but in the two days leading up to the storm, most of our parish residents did wisely leave.
The tough decision was concerning our evacuees. There was no lodging until you reached Arkansas. All other camps were full to the north of us. We contacted several churches with family life centers but they were full. The only two options were to hunker down and stay or to turn everyone out to fend their own way north. To our staff, that was not an option. We would stay and so could they if they so chose. They had come to us for shelter and we could not neglect or abandon them now.
So that early Tuesday-morning wake-up visit from the deputy did not change our mind on the operation of the City of Hope shelter.
As Todd and I visited later, Gulab’s story came to mind and I shared it with him as I’m now telling you:
In June 2005, Taliban insurgents in the mountains of Afghanistan ambushed a four-man reconnaissance team of U.S. Navy Seals. They were badly outnumbered and fought a fiery battle with the enemy. When the Seals radioed for help, a MH-47 helicopter with 16 men aboard was dispatched. It was shot down by insurgents, killing all aboard.
Three of the Navy Seals were killed in the fighting. A rocket exploded near the one surviving soldier, knocking him off his feet and down a mountainside in steep terrain. He somehow managed to stay out of sight from the insurgents. Despite multiple leg wounds, the American was able to walk over three kilometers.
Four days after the gun battle, an Afghan shepherd named Gulab found the soldier and hid him in his village of Sabari-Minah. The wounded American now came under the care and protection of this village of seemingly poor and uneducated shepherds. Fortunately for him, these villagers were Pashtun, who are honor-bound to never refuse sanctuary to a stranger.
At some point in the next few days, the Taliban insurgents sent a message to the village demanding that the American be turned over. “We want this infidel.” A firm reply from the village chief, a man named Shinah replied, “The American is our guest, and we won’t give him up as long as there’s a man or a woman left alive in our village.”
Evidently no pleading, intimidation, or threats could persuade the village of Sabari-Minah to release the American. The village leaders and the specific host, Gulab, refused to budge.
It is a story that shows that human dignity, even under the worst of pressures or situations, can win out. I wonder about how this Afghan tribal code has played out over the generations in the rugged, harsh mountainous conditions of this area. How many lost travelers and wandering shepherds had received this same tribal hospitality in this same place?
A tribal code of hospitality to strangers. I like that. “This is my guest and I’ll decide what to do with him and when I’ll do it. Thank you kindly and goodbye.”
Kind of like “This is our shelter, these folks are our guests, and we’ll decide ourselves what to do with them and when we’ll do it.” I’d call that the Dry Creek tribal code of hospitality.
Hospitality—what a positive word in the English language. It is defined as “generous treatment of guests.” In Spanish, it is called hospitalidad. It is a word that our Hispanic guests used for our community and camp.
In the Afghan language of Pashto, Gulab’s dialect, it is closely related to their word for neighbor, “hamsaaya.” A word of compassion and action. A word of responsibility that says, “You are now my hamsaaya and I will, and must, take care of you.”
Finally, Gulab’s story and the intertwined story of the Navy Seal has at least a partial happy ending. This villager made the six-hour trek to the U.S. base at Asadabadf to escort the wounded American to safety and reunite him with his jubilant comrades.
That’s a good story. That’s a good tribal code to have. I believe it will work in America just the same as in the mountains of Afghanistan.
It combines two words that are special to make society work: hospitality and responsibility.
Let’s practice it here.
Hospitality… a beautiful word
Exemplified by an Afghan shepherd named Gulab.
The ending of Jesus’ parable that we call “The Good Samaritan” is this:
And Jesus said, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Luke 10:36–37