First Impressions from India – Matthew 5:38-48
Sermon by Kelly Boyte Brill from Avon Lake, OH UCC on 20 February 2011 after returning from a People-to-People pilgrimage to India
Last Sunday, I delivered the sermon at the Christian church in Mungeli, India. I would say a phrase or sentence in English, and then my words would be translated into Hindi. During the rest of the worship service, I was sitting on the raised platform in the chancel area of the sanctuary. I was looking around me, taking in the sights of the place, trying to remember everything. The front doors were open, as were the side doors. You could hear the street traffic from time to time. Once I looked through the side door to see a cow walk by, not 50 yards from where I was sitting. After worship, I was visiting with Nancy Lott Henry, the woman who grew up right here in this church, but who has spent the last fifty-plus years of her life in India. I said, “Nancy, next Sunday I’ll be back in the Avon Lake church. A lot of things will be different. No cows, for example.”
There are so many stories to tell you, and I’m still trying to process my experience. The trip was more difficult, both physically and emotionally, than I had imagined, but just as rewarding as I had hoped. I want to extend my thanks to everyone involved with the Good Neighbor Thrift Shop over the years. Now that I have seen with my own eyes the difference your gifts have made in India, I appreciate you all the more: volunteers, donors, shoppers. Three weeks from today, on March 13, Gregg and Nate wlll be leading worship together, so you’ll hear their perspective that day. And on Sunday, March 20, at 12:30, we will be showing some of our pictures and telling of our experiences, more like a travelogue.
But for today, I want to tell you what has initially impacted me about our time with Anil Henry and his staff at the Christian Hospital in Mungeli.
Monday through Saturday at Mungeli, the workday begins at 7:30 with Chapel. The nurses and nursing students arrive first and promptly, in their uniforms and caps, beautiful hair up in buns. They sit together in neat rows in the front of the chapel. The rest of the staff and any guests wander in as the service begins. A typical chapel service includes three or four hymns. During our stay, usually three hymns would be sung in Hindi and one in English. My guess it that when there are no foreign guests, all of the hymns would be sung in Hindi. A psalm is read responsively. Someone reads another scripture passage and someone delivers a brief message. Prayer is a part of each service, as is the Lord’s Prayer. Everyone present is invited to pray the Lord’s Prayer, each in our native tongue, and it sounds melodic. Then announcements are shared. The service is 30 or 40 minutes in length. Hospital rounds begin immediately afterwards.
Beginning every workday with worship forms the character of the hospital and its personnel. Beginning every workday with worship informs the staff, reminding them of who they are as Christian people, and why they’re working in a mission hospital. The hospital nurses and lab techs and doctors are not just coworkers; they are also people who worship together. It makes a difference, and that difference shows in the way they treat each other and the way they treat their patients.
Working at the Christian Hospital in Mungeli is somewhat, I imagine, like working in the Emergency Room of a busy urban hospital, or like working in a military clinic during wartime. They do not know what each day will bring. We saw patients with tuberculosis, malaria, ruptured uteruses, carcinoma of the face and jaw. We saw double amputations and we saw burn victims. How do you prepare yourself for a patient load like that? What better way than to start each day with worship. The staff members develop an ease with one another and trust of each other. The fact that they begin each day singing the same songs and praying in the same voice is not incidental.
And besides creating a deep bond between people, daily worship shapes the spirituality of each individual, creating a reservoir of strength that can be drawn upon whenever needed, and it is needed. Because it’s a tough place, physically and emotionally. I watched the nurses every morning. We usually sat near the front as well, and I could tell that, for them, worship was not just a ritual. It wasn’t a chore nor an obligation. They sang with gusto and they prayed with feeling. Worship is the source of their hope.
Now it’s probably obvious that I’m not a person who needs to be convinced that worship has intrinsic value. But I saw the power of regular worship in a new way.
Neither do I have to be persuaded that community is important, that it makes a significant difference in quality of life and a sense of life’s enjoyment. But I saw community in a new light, as well. Anil Henry is a master at many things – among them is community-building. You might think that the person who is the head surgeon, the director of medicine, and the director of operations for the entire hospital and school complex would want to spend his leisure time alone, feet up, getting some r and r. But what does Anil do for fun? He plans a trip to the local watering hole – in this case a dam some hour and a half away. He piles as many people as possible into the school bus – way more people than would be legally permitted to ride in this country – and he drives. We get there, we unload, and we make a day of it, building a fire, cooking rice and chicken and mutton and vegetables. Anil and a few others swim. Five or six of the young people paddle an inflatable raft. When it’s time to eat, we sit in a huge circle and sing songs together. I offered grace. At one point during the afternoon, I walked up the hill and looked down on the sight. I saw women in colorful dress, sitting in bunches all over the hillside. I saw children walking around and men tending the fire. It looked for all the world like it could have been a scene from the Bible – the feeding of the five thousand, perhaps.
Last Sunday afternoon, we left church and piled into the school bus again, this time headed to the sugar cane field to watch the process of harvesting sugar cane, making the syrup and then the brown sugar. Anil hosts frequent parties in his home, complete with food and karaoke. Anil’s motto is: “Good fun!” I was always trying to ask him questions about the next day’s agenda – what time we needed to be where, how much money we needed to bring, and he would always say, “No worries, Kelly; it will be good fun!” Building community is smart business, for one. He’s an employer who can’t afford to pay what others do, so he offers other incentives, like fun and friendship. But there’s more to it. Anil isn’t just building a hospital; he’s building a Christian community, and relationships are his brick and mortar.
Our group was immediately welcomed in to the Mungeli community. We felt at home instantly, and we soon realized that our greatest gift, and our main purpose in coming, was simply our presence. They appreciated everything we brought – the posters for the school, the tools, the candy and games, but what they appreciated the most, by far, was the effort it took took to send us, and the fact that a delegation from Avon Lake was there in person.
Most of us have had the experience of living through something traumatic and difficult – keeping a bedside vigil for a loved one who’s ill, or walking the journey of grief – and in those moments no one can do much to help us, except just be there. Having someone who will sit with you quietly, though, helps immeasurably. It’s not easy being a missionary in Mungeli, India, whether you’re a doctor, a nurse, a school principal or teacher. It’s a dirty, dusty place in a remote part of India, and there are all kinds of political and economic obstacles to progress. When guests come just to visit, the message is, “We support you. You are not alone.”
Friday I received an email from Anil, in which he said:
‘Mom and Dad have really been touched by your step in faith to come and be with them and now I know that when Mom or myself come and speak at Avon Lake, it will not only be some pictures on a power point on the wall but of feelings and emotions which have people’s hearts. Please do keep us in your prayers as we try are best to do with our lives what God has asked us to do. We know we are not alone.And lastly, now you know that we REALLY do not have a problem with people coming and sharing with their lives and talents as well as being brave to take something back. We will always have place for as many who come and we look forward to having you share the joy that we get in doing God’s work here. Of course you must not feel that you have to bring so much. That was really overwhelming.’
The word that describes the current philosophy of mission is the word, “accompaniment.” Missionaries don’t sweep into a place with all of the answers, all of the equipment, all of the money. Rather they talk to people about what they need, and help them find the ways to achieve their goals, walking alongside them. Mungeli was grateful for all that we brought, and the projects we accomplished, and the next group that goes will probably be able to accomplish more, but the main purpose of our mission trips is the building of relationships. Guests rarely come to Mungeli in the summertime; it’s just too hot and humid, so the guests that come November through February help encourage and sustain the community for the rest of the year.
We had the opportunity to travel several hours east to visit the mission where Anil’s parents worked for 29 years. It was, as Dave Witzigreuter put it, the most encouraging part of our visit because we saw what Mungeli could become. Anil and Teresa have done remarkable work in 8 years, but the challenges are enormous. It will take persistence to achieve the kind of ministry and programming and staffing, and the physical complex that are a part of the hospital Anil’s parents ran. Persistence that means, day in and day out, year after year, working faithfully in difficult circumstances.
So I have been struck by the meaning of worship, the importance of community, the challenge of persistence, and one more attribute to share this morning, and that is the courage of conviction. While we were in Bissamcuttack, Anil received a phone call. The minute he began talking, his voice changed. He was speaking rapidly, in Hindi, and we could tell he was agitated. When he hung up the phone he told us that a pregnant woman had arrived at the doorstep of the hospital back in Mungeli, a pregnant woman who is HIV positive. The doctor on call wanted to turn her away and called Anil. Anil told him, in no uncertain terms, that this mission hospital treats all patients. There are no exceptions. The woman was admitted and her baby was delivered over night. The next day, when Anil was conducting rounds, he asked if the baby was HIV positive. Blank stares around the room. “Who tested this baby’s blood?” he demanded of each staff member. No one had. He was livid. Babies who are born HIV positive can be administered drugs that reduce their risk of developing AIDS, and the sooner the better. You can believe that the baby was tested the minute those rounds were over. There was no question about how Anil felt about the way the HIV situation had been handled.
The next morning in Chapel, during announcements, he walked to the side of the chapel. A portable blackboard was in the corner. He asked two nurses to wheel it front and center. On it was printed the mission statement of the hospital. He read it aloud: “The whole community of Christian Hospital Mungeli is committed to providing holistic health care through excellent service, quality care and respectful treatment in which the spirituality of each person is honored.”
Anil made his point, loud and clear. Mungeli is not just another hospital. Mungeli is not about profit, it’s not even just about good medicine. Mungeli is about treating persons with dignity and respect, showing forth the love and the values of Christ.
The courage of conviction is the reason Mungeli treats everyone, regardless of whether or not they can pay. The courage of conviction reveals that Anil is more concerned with character and mission than with being popular or liked among his staff.
Our last day in Delhi we visited the Gandhi museum. I read this quote: “Whenever you are in doubt (about how you’re living your life), apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person you’ve ever seen and ask, ‘is what I’m doing going to be of any use to that person?’ ‘Can I help that person restore control of his own life and destiny?’ ‘Am I acting in a way that will benefit the hungry and spiritually starving millions?’ Answer these questions and you will find your doubts melting away.” (paraphrase) I don’t know if Anil is familiar with these words of Gandhi, but I know he lives by that philosophy. And because of our support of his mission, we promote it, too.
When I preached last Sunday, I tried to think of words to encourage the mission workers in Mungeli. I said to them, “The Christian life is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. It’s a long haul. And you are not alone.”
We don’t have any cows on our lawn, but our lives are not fundamentally different from the lives of people in rural India. We, too, are sustained by worship and by community. We, too, face the challenge of persistence and living up to our convictions. Thanks be to God for the examples of those who accompany us on the journey, in this place and halfway around the globe, thanks be to God that we are called to meaningful service, wherever we are, and thanks be to God for the ties that bind us in Christ Jesus.