Reflections from India – Saguaro CC People-to-People Pilgrimage
These reflections were written by a recent People-to-People delegation to India
Our First Day in India!
After 24 long hours of travel, we finally arrived in India. We were taken to the hotel through heat and heavy traffic around 1:30 in the morning! Our first day started with introductions and orientation for our time together. We were joined that day by Chhungi Hrangthan, one of the international sisters that attended Quadrennial Assembly in 2010. It was a delight meeting and learning from her even in a short period of time.
We also met Rev. Samuel Jacobs of the Church of Southern India (CSI) who took us around the coastline of Chennai to visit various places. First, we visited St. Mary’s Cathedral and spend some time talking to their lovely female pastor. We were offered sweets and tea, which we certainly enjoyed. Later, we visited St. Thome Basilica were the remains of St. Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus, are buried under the church. Following, we visited a School for the Deaf and interacted with the kids. It was a special time and we were welcomed with more treats and gifts.
We also visited St. George Cathedral were a children’s choir was practicing. We even heard the its powerful organ being played beautifully by one of the church members. We then sat for more treats and gifts were offered to us once more. We finished at a hospital that is doing amazing work treating marginalized people in the area. We toured the facilities and were impressed by its organization and equipment.
The day ended with a time of devotion and reflection. We were so taken by the hospitality of our hosts and the kindness we received everywhere we went. It was a day I will never forget especially the smiles and joy on the children at the school. I am looking forward to attending church services tomorrow.
Last Sunday of January
On this final Sunday of January the Lord has truly blessed us with the hospitality of many, the ability to worship with new friends, and a few eye opening speakers.
We started our day by splitting into two groups, then heading to local churches located in impoverished areas of Chennai. The group I was in was graciously invited into Rev. Jayaseelan’s home by his wife Ramila. There we learned some about the history of the church and their family. They were extremely giving and caring which symbolized the warm welcoming nature of Indian culture. We attended church and were guests of honor. One of the ways we were celebrated was by a dance from the women’s fellowship which we took part in. We were also garnished with Jasmine and schalls. There were many moments of rejoicing and prayer. Following the service we returned to the reverend’s home for refreshments. We learned about their mission during the November and December flooding , which was supplying food to the less fortunate. It didn’t take long to feel the love of this family and know that we were graciously welcomed at anytime.
In the afternoon we listened to three Church of South India (CSI) reverends speak. They informed us of many issues within India and what the church is doing to aid in these matters. We discussed the status of the caste system. Though observing castes has been outlawed, there is currently no inforcement of these laws. Many people are comfortable with this traditional way of life if they are not in the lowest caste of Dalits. This is reaffirmed since the majority of the population is Hindu as well as the government. Many Christians are working toward equality and trying to give these marginalized populations opportunities in the church. Women’s rights are also being addressed, education for men and women, girls and boys is being provided to aid in equality and respect. We learned about the struggles of the farming class and the pressures of big business, the lack of resources, income, and opportunity. It was very informative and moving. The Christian population is making great headway and trying to make a difference though only being about 2.6% of India’s population.
This was an excellent day full of blessings and lessons. The Lord has given us the privilege to meet so many people; and to open our ears, hearts, and minds to what they have to share. We are all blessed with wonderful partners in Christ all across the globe.
“Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.”
Church at Work
Monday, Feb 1, was a long day made longer by heavy traffic (with windshield views and dynamic lane definitions you might not believe), a vehicle problem and wait for replacement, and wonderful hospitality our hosts were reluctant to end and we were reluctant to leave. We left our hotel at 8 in the morning and returned about 9:30 p.m.
More importantly, it was the day we saw significant and life-changing work being done by our Global Ministries mission partner, the Church of South India (CSI). Saturday was a get-acquainted day with the Madras Diocese of CSA, as Rev. Samuel Jacob took us to visit historical church sites. Sunday morning was a time for worship and celebration, as our group split into two parts to visit two local parishes. That afternoon we met with leaders of the Diocese and learned history and current details about how society marginalizes people here, and what the church does in response.
We saw the church at work on Monday. We traveled with Rev James Vedaiah (Rev. James) to two rural churches. We were met by a joyful group of villagers at the first stop. A jubilant and energetic drum band kept up the excitement of our arrival as we traveled the decorated path to the church, about 200 yards. Intricate designs, and “Welcome” were drawn along the walk, and we stopped about ten times for a woman of the household to present a shallow tray of turmeric water, dedicate it in a short ritual, anoint our foreheads with it, then pour it on the path in blessing.
We gathered in the church to hear information about the work being done to improve the lives of Dalit women (“Dalit” is the self-chosen political name of castes which the varna system considers “untouchable” – see Internet sources for further description.) Rev. James introduced us to the local pastor, who told about the training being provided to women to sew garments for export in a local school and shop provided by the church. In addition to the garment work, the women, who are organized in about thirty groups of 8-12 women each, raise cattle and goats in order to sell the dairy products. This entrepreneurial activity is a better life than traveling to the city to work in a garment factory at low wages. We concluded the visit in that village with a stop at the shop and lunch at another nearby local church, where we had rice, curry sauce and small pieces of meat served on a banana leaf. We ate local style by mixing and eating the food with our fingers.
The mid-afternoon took us to another church where ministry among Maathammas is being done. The women and children served by this ministry might have no hope for their lives without this ministry. For various reasons often driven by poverty or a child with a health problem, a girl would be given by her family to serve the goddess Maathamma by dancing at temple festivals, and local celebrations. They would be used and abused in this role until they were no longer of any use. Because of their past, no one would marry them. Rarely did the father of a child born to a Maathammas woman remain in relationship. Therefore, women and children regularly faced a life with no support and no hope. The Maathammas program provides food, education, skills training, medical care, and empowerment training to this community of God’s children.
Seeing the work of Global Ministries’ partner, the Church of South India, was both humbling and motivating. It reinforced our commitment to our partnership work around the world, and the importance of the Disciples Mission Fund and Our Church’s Wider Mission as sources of funding for such work that meets important, basic needs of God’s children.
Here, I am Jolly
Today, our Pilgrimage began in a most unique way. After breakfast, we arrived at a modest home in the slum area of Chennai. There we walked into a room filled with a small group from the transgender community. Their eyes and smiles greeted us as we crowded into a small room of one of the rental homes where eight of the ladies reside. In the close-knit setting, we sat Indian- style together on the floor, while a few of us sat on the small twin bed that was against one of the wall of the room. We listened intently as they shared with us about the many struggles that they faced being transgender in a society that is slowly becoming accepting of them and embracing them as women.
Rev. Charles Edwin started this ministry 16 years ago out of empathy for the women. Many of them were rejected by their families and society. However, they found hope and refuge with the Church of South India (CSI). Initially, there was a separate worship service for the transgender community. Now, some members have gradually been welcomed into existing church congregations. The ministry has positively impacted the lives of the women here. One lady stated, “I cannot live with my parents because I can’t be jolly there. But here, I am jolly.”
After having four full days of eye-opening experiences, it was refreshing to be able to simply relax and enjoy an afternoon of leisure activities of our choosing. The day was beautiful, and it was the wonderful setting for swimming, much needed personal care, shopping for traditional Indian clothing in the local markets, and experiencing the inner city Chennai.
Bonding and Learning
On our final day here in this part of India, we were once again able to venture out of the city into the surrounding towns. Today we had the wonderful opportunity to really explore Indian history and industry.
We drove to Kanchipuram, which took several hours due to the heavy traffic of Chennai. Kanchipuram is famous for two things, temples and the silk industry, and our group explored both. Our first stop was a very large beautiful temple honoring the Hindu god of preservation, Vishnu. When the temple first came into sight it was breath taking. It reminded me of how truly ancient and lasting the cultures and history of India is. There were so many intricate rock carvings, each artfully carved from a single stone. Behind one temple was a large pool of water where a statue of the deity was submerged. Originally this was done to protect the statue, but now it is more of a way to honor the past. Every forty years a great celebration is held and the deity is brought above the surface for a brief time (the next one is in 2019 if you’re looking to make the trip).
After visiting these beautiful works of art, our next stop was a more modern version of Indian art. Kanchipuram is very famous for its silk industry and we were able to learn about this process as well as see hundreds and hundreds of beautiful silk sarees. I felt very welcome here, as I have everywhere we have visited. A man who was working hard weaving silk was happy to take time to stop and demonstrate the process with a smile on his face, despite the fact that it takes weeks to finish his work. I am continually humbled by the kindness of the people in this country.
Along those same lines, we stopped briefly for a wonderful lunch at the church of a Rev. Francis and several members who were so very welcoming and were determined to make sure we ate as much as we could. I am not always sure what the food is here, but I am sure that it is very good and I am thankful for the hands that prepared it.
Our final stop were to visit ancient rock carvings and temples in Mamallapuram. The first carvings are known as the Five Rathas. Rathas are chariots and so these carvings were named because they look like chariots and are dated around 650 AD (again showing how ancient this country is). After a final stroll exploring the shore temples, temples dedicated to Vishnu literally built on the beach of the Bay of Bengal, we headed back to the hotel.
For me this was a very important part of the trip itself. On these long rides we have had time to talk with and learn from each other. Our Indian travel companions ask us about American politics and we do the same about the Indian elections. We talked more in depth about the caste system and how deep the roots go religiously and politically. And of course we told jokes, and we laughed and smiled. To me these are the most important parts of our people to people pilgrimage. Bonding and learning from people who are from what seems like a totally different world and bringing our worlds just a little bit closer together.
The night ended with a final meeting with several members of the Dioces of Madras who joined us for dinner. As we prepare to leave Chennai tomorrow, I cannot give enough thank you to these people who made it possible to have all the different experiences that we had. They are truly doing important and magnificent work in the Church of South India and I am glad I was able to witness it.
A very long day as we left our hotel in Chennai at 4:00am for our 6:00am flight to Raipur. We had a near disaster at the airport when told at check in to place bags and carry-ons on the scale and discover we had too much and needed to check some carry-ons. We were sent back to the x-ray machine with our carry-on and when we came back to the counter the gate was closed! We were quickly ushered through security, divided by males and females, and a security guard removed us from the line to run us to the plane as they were holding it for us.
We were met at the airport in Raipur by Arun and taken to the Guest House on the property of the Christian Hospital Mungeli, Rambo School and the Nursing School. There, we were met by Dr. Anil Henry, and after much needed coffee, he gave us a tour of everything! We visited were the ICU, labor and delivery room, maternity ward, a new cancer center, to name a few. Dave, Rebecca and I were excited to see the X-Ray and CT Scan room where Sarah Williams, a Global Mission Intern, works. (Sarah is from our home church, Saguaro Christian Church in Tucson, AZ).
We enjoyed a delicious Indian lunch at the Guest House, then off to another wild ride! It was a 4 hour ride from Mungeli to Kanha National Park where 13 passengers fit in an ambulance driven by the Rambo School principal. We will wake up early tomorrow in hopes of seeing tigers. The ride here was almost a game hunt as we dodged people, monkeys, cows, water buffaloes, goats, trucks, motorcycles, and buses on a road that was barely a road.
The day has been as full of sights and sounds, sickness and wellness, and joy and sadness as we experienced the lives of many people in India in the rural areas. We were touched by the passion of the Henrys and of all who serve here in healing, teaching, and showing God’s love. What a joy to be able to witness the lives touched in partnership with Global Ministries.
After a day of traveling yesterday since 4:00am, we woke up in Kanha National Park surrounded by the loud sounds of birds and other creatures. It was a very cold morning, in contrast with the heat we have experienced so far, and we jumped on a jeep that fits 6 people plus a driver and a guide. The main attraction of Kanha National Park is the tiger. We were hoping to see one as they are very elusive and only can be seen early in the morning or the evening.
We saw a bear, a jungle cat, peacocks, different types of deer, wild boars, elephants, birds and monkeys. The scenery was breathtaking! The whole ride took about 3 hours including a stop at a gift shop and education center. There, we learned about the work of the rangers in keeping the animals safe from poachers and other dangers like fires. Their work is very dangerous and many have been attacked by tigers and bears. After a nice lunch, we journeyed back to Mungeli which took us another 4 hours. We were very tired and ready to take much needed showers.
Later, we met some of the student nurses for a meet and greet. It did not take long before it got really laud with laughter and interesting conversations. The highlight of the night for me was a mendhi session. Mendhi is an art form that uses henna to adorn one’s hands and feet. I had both may hands done and it looked beautiful. The color lasts for about a week and a half and then disappears.
We had a very long day, but one that I will cherish forever. The scenery and the people of India are beautiful. This is truly a magical place full of extremes. But the joy, hope and hospitality of the many that have so little is inspiring and humbling.
Another Full Day in India
Today, we attended chapel with the student nurses for the first time at 7:30 a.m. before heading to the Christian Hospital at Tilda. The chapel service consists of several songs interspersed with scripture readings and ending with a prayer. The singing was lovely, with the beautiful clear voices of the students expressing their love of God and reliance on Him. We also had the chance to introduce ourselves (which we are getting very good at!) and express our gratitude for the chance to be there.
The trip to Tilda was long and bumpy (which we are also getting used to!) but well worth it. Tilda is quieter, with fewer patients than Mungeli, but we were equally impressed with the dedication of the staff and the way they do so much for people with very basic resources. I was particularly struck by one doctor’s discussion of their study of the malnutrition among people in their area. He said that they discovered that fully 50 percent of the people are malnourished, some of them severely. They can provide minimal treatment, again due to resource issues, and have tried to encourage the people to change their diets. However a lot of factors, including poverty and tradition, affect how much change occurs.
On the way back from Tilda, we stopped at an annual, weeklong Christian festival at a lake, where people can listen to preaching, pray at prayer stations with large crosses, shop, eat and generally socialize. We were told that this can be a time for families to do some matchmaking as well. Our two Global Ministries staffer from Mungeli, Kahala and Sarah, purchased Bibles written with Hindi on one side and English on the other. Our day ended with a late party and dinner at the home of Dr. Anil and Teresa Henry. We had fun doing Wii dances and karoke singing before being treated to a delicious dinner at around 11 pm. Anil said “I know you never eat at 11 pm, so you can write that down!” So I am! Life India style!
God’s Beauty Around Us
The daily activity at the Christian Hospital Mungeli started long before the People to People Pilgrimage group woke up. A woman struggling with a difficult delivery arrived at 3:00 a.m. Another arrived at 5:00, and a third around 7:30. Health care cases such as these are typically women who have not been to the hospital before, and for whom no information about pre-natal care is available. Several of us looked in the window of the operating theater as the third delivery was nearing completion and saw a healthy-looking baby girl being cleaned up.
Our main activity for Sunday, February 7 was a picnic at a lake about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Mungeli. The picnic was multi-purpose – to welcome our group and a few other newcomers, to recognize the class of first year nursing students, and to enable nursing faculty and other staff members to visit socially with the nursing students. An advance team went to the lake at 7:00 to secure a space for us and to start cooking.
We rode in two school buses and experienced what has become common for us traveling in India – bicycles, commercial trucks, motorcycles, cattle, goats, people, a few family sedans, all sharing a two-lane, two-way road. Four-wheel vehicles typically drive in the middle of the road until an oncoming vehicle requires that they move the left hand side of the road (left side driving probably was established by the British when they ruled). The other signal for a driver (of anything) to make way is the honking of horns, which is near constant.
At the lake, we enjoyed beautiful scenery and a nearby park and garden. Several people went swimming, and our group launched an inflatable boat with a small motor for a brief cruise on the lake. After enjoying a hot meal prepared by the advance group, we boarded the buses for our return. On the return, we went through a nature preserve and made brief stops at two Hindu temples.
Driving back in the dark, we noticed multiple instances of three kinds of fires. First was the occasional fire in a home (or outside of it) for cooking a meal. Second were the fires, from small to large, to burn off the stubble of a rice field to start preparing for the next crop. Third was the occasional sugar cane processing station. We saw about ten of these. We stopped at one on the way to the lake to see how the process works. A machine similar in size to a wood chipper takes the canes in through a hopper, and a large flywheel driven by a chain from a motor pulverizes the cane, forcing the liquid sugar out a chute on one side. The leftover fibers are chopped and carried by a conveyer belt to a waiting truck, in which they are transported to the adjacent field to dry and be used as fuel for fires. The liquid goes to a series of shallow pools about 6feet in diameter. There the liquid is stirred over a hot fire. From pool to pool the liquid moves, thickening as moisture is evaporated from it, until it is a thick, dark brown product. It is put into three-gallon containers in that form, and shipped to the next stage of processing. The station we stopped at is shipping to Bengal and South Korea.
The plant we visited is staffed by 60 migrant workers from further north in India. They live in small tents on the field, and run the plant 24 hours a day until the crop is finished. Their living conditions are substandard compared to the local norm, and North Americans would consider the local norm as impoverished. The sites are visible at night due to three or four chimneys at each site that vent the fires under the evaporation pools. It is hot work in a hot place. We saw children of the workers playing in the field of drying fibers from the processing machine, pushing each other on large saucer-shaped bowls that serve workers as shovel and carry tools, and serve children as sleds.
Overall, the day was one of hospitality and welcome, deepened relationships, appreciation of the beauty God places around us, and awareness of the challenges life brings to many people.
We are able to share this news and experience with you because of your church’s gifts to Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM), and to the Disciples Mission Fund. Please continue to give generously.
We a had a very early start to an incredible day as Sarah, Dave and I Todd the 6:00am school bus for nearly 2 hours. We drove through villages and countryside, gathering 105 students for the Rambo School. Before long, there were 5 kids joining me in one seat! Each child boarding the bus was sparkling clean, and I marveled as I saw the houses they emerged from. It was chilly this morning and we passed a field where several families were homeless – just pieces of plastic or cloth, sitting around a small fire in the open for warmth and cooking.
Arriving at Rambo School we joined the 920 students and their teachers for opening ceremonies. One young boy stood out as he was the only one not wearing a school uniform. We learned it was his birthday. Later in the morning, everyone gathered for a celebration and inauguration of the new water treatment/filter and drinking fountains for the Rambo School – a gift made possible by the Brady Endowment Fund of Saguaro Christian Church in Tucson, AZ. After the ribbon cutting, Niraj, the birthday boy, was selected to take the first drink.
We had time later to go on our own to areas of special interest. I was able to spend an hour in a classroom with Anil’s mother, Nancy, and 15 first year nursing students as she taught English class. She is delightful and a story all her own. She want to India as a missionary nurse when she was young, met and married Dr. Henry, and together they served the rest of their lives in India. Dr. Henry passed away this December, and she continues to serve as an important part of the Christian Hospital Mungeli.
Dave and Rebecca enjoyed their opportunity to teach in a 5th grade classroom, and I spent more time with the nursing students, hospital wards, and baby time in the nursery. Lorna, Dave and Rebecca also joined a group of students putting together PET carts that had been donated, shipped and will be distributed tomorrow. We ended our day with a large gathering at Anil and Teresa’s house for dinner and celebration.
A Day Full of Blessings
Our last day at Christian Hospital Mungeli started off beautifully with 7:30 am chapel service. Sweet melodies of songs, combined with tambourine and drums, filled the air as we clapped to the beat in unison. Two first year nursing students led the entire chapel service, which also included responsive reading from Psalm 119:41-48 and scripture reading from John 14:25-31. Phyllis was asked to give an impromptu message in which she so graciously obliged. At the conclusion of service, Mr. Mohammed Latif, a representative from USAID, graced us with flowing words of appreciation for the work that is being done at the hospital and the work that the Lord is doing in India and at mission hospital like CHM.
Following chapel, we all gathered together at the location where construction will soon begin for the Ground Breaking ceremony of the new hospital block. It was a joy to have an opportunity to be a part of this special event which was made possible through the international support given by USAID. After Mr. Latif’s moving remarks, Kahala offered a prayer for the new construction. Our spirits were high as we then walked over to the Springer Ward for the Ribbon cutting ceremony of the newly renovated staff quarters. Lorna offered words of blessings and a prayer of thanksgiving before cutting the ribbon of the lower floor of the building. Then, Dave was given the honor of cutting the ribbon for the upper level. The ceremony ended with a song of Thanksgiving and sharing of snacks among friends.
We then had the opportunity to join in the distribution of the Personal Energy Transportation (PET) carts. The hospital distributed about 20 PET carts to those who do not have the use of their lower extremities due to various disabilities or injuries. The recipients were very grateful and beamed with joy as they received their carts and rolled away. These carts will allow all of the recipients to enjoy a new life of independence that they did not have before.
After experiencing a day full of blessings, it was finally time for us to leave CHM. We loaded up the ambulance for a road “adventure” from Mungeli to Raipur. The special memories that we shared as a group will truly remain with us for a lifetime. We continued to reminisce about our day at CHM during our journey to Delhi. Here in Delhi, we will begin another phase of our pilgrimage in the morning.
February 10 was our first day in New Delhi, which was a stark change from both Chennai and rural Mungeli. Much of what we saw of the city is wealthy and modern. However, we also saw the increasing reality of urban poverty in India in the people living in some median strips and in a huge slum (home to more than 11,000 families, we were told) that almost defies description – hovels and squalor that no person should have to endure. It is among Dalit children from this area that the Indian Samaritans organization we visited does very important and compassionate work, providing after school care that reinforces and expands on school lessons.
We sat in some of the classrooms, and while the language was foreign to us, the children’s smiles were not. The Samaritans, led by Rev. Santosh George, also provide training and employment opportunities for young women, especially in sewing. Two of us had sari tops made by the young women from fabric we had purchased elsewhere. We also visited a Samaritans’ education program in the slum itself and enjoyed talking and singing with the kids. We taught the younger ones “Itsy Bitsy Spider”!
In the evening, we met with the General Secretary of the Church of North India, Alwan Masih, who taught us about the persecution Christians face there, including mob violence resulting in many deaths and great property destruction. He said there is a rally March 10, 2016 about this issue, and I assured him we would be praying for CNI that day. Afterward, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner hosted by Mr. Masih and continued our conversation about many things. It was another long and full but very satisfying day on our pilgrimage.
“Caste and Christ Cannot Go Together”
One of the benefits of travel is learning the stories and the circumstances of people in other places. Today’s activities opened our eyes to horror stories in tragic circumstances.
In previous days we learned that the caste system, which has its origin in the Hindu religion, is active and strong in India. We learned that the lower caste people, long referred to as untouchable, choose to be called Dalit. It translates to ‘broken people’. We also learned that the reality of Dalit life often results in broken dreams and no hope for a better life.
Such broken dreams played out in national news on January 17, less than two weeks before our arrival. A PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide after experiencing what he perceived as Dalit discrimination since the previous July. More sadly, his is not an isolated case. Among other effects, the caste system determines what kind of work one will do. In one real-life story, a woman was a sanitation worker. She died, and her son, who holds a master’s degree, was offered her job. He asked about a better job and was told that his caste dictated that he should do the same work as his late mother, regardless of his high education level. So what, you ask? Let’s dispense with the euphemism “sanitation worker” and the related term, “manual scavenging”. The work this man’s mother performed, and which he was expected to perform because of his caste, was to collect and dispose of human waste by hand from homes and city sewage systems!
To gain further insight into the caste system in India today, I urge you to take 11 minutes to watch a YouTube video, “I’m Dalit How Are You”. Click this link:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBxy1R0jitM or search for the title on YouTube.com.
The information we learned today came from our visit to the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion (CSEI), where we met with Annie Namala, the Executive Director. We also met there with N. Paul Divakar, Chair of the Asia Dalit Rights Forum. Part of the work of the Asia Dalit Rights Forum is watchdog activity to see that funds budgeted to help the Dalit people are spent for the intended purposes.
The weekly news magazine India Today for February 16 included an article, “The Dalits: Still Untouchable”, that coincidentally reinforced the information and stories we learned at CSEI. Statistics include the following: every day, 2 Dalits are murdered, 3 Dalit women are raped, and 2 Dalit houses are destroyed. Dalits are denied entry to police stations in 28% of villages, and Dalit children are required to eat separately in 39% of government schools. They are denied access to water sources in 48% of Indian villages.
CSEI works for justice and equity for Dalits, Muslims, and tribal people, all of whom are discriminated against in Indian society. They also address patriarchy, which operates at all levels of society, and makes the situation of women even more difficult than described above. About 200 million people are affected by the caste system, out of a national population of 1.3 billion, or about 15% of the population.
One might point out that the India Constitution, adopted shortly after the nation’s 1947 independence from England, outlaws discrimination against untouchables. That’s true, but those provisions are not enforced. The effectiveness of those laws might be compared to the effectiveness of anti-discrimination laws in U.S. communities in the 50’s and 60’s where the law enforcement officials were active members of the local Ku Klux Klan. Government officials are usually higher caste people, and there are many reports of police taking part in the violence against Dalits listed in the news article. The human suffering is systemic – a deep, deep stain in the fabric of the culture.
In the afternoon we visited a local slum built on occupied government land. We met with children in a program that supplements their education and promotes their self-esteem and formation of dreams. Some high school students stopped by also. One of them had won a singing competition, and another was well along the way to becoming a teacher. Seeing the attitudes, behavior, and achievement of all the students – hopes and dreams revived – was a breath of fresh air, and a testament to the strength of human character in such surroundings. It is also a tribute to the leadership work being done by CSEI.
A puzzling reality of the slum is that the government doesn’t acknowledge the right of the people to live on the government land, and it provides no services for sanitation, public health or safety, or anything else. However, they send a tanker truck of potable water every several days. Outside the homes (hovels) in the community, 5-gallon jerry can style containers could be seen chained up, ready to take to the entry of the community when the next water truck arrives.
The best summary of a Christian’s perspective on the sobering information we learned today came from Rev. Deenabandhu Manchala, our Global Ministries Executive for South Asia, who said, “Caste and Christ cannot go together.”
The agencies we visited today are related in part to the Church of North India. Your individual donations to Global Ministries, and your congregation’s gifts to Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM) in the UCC, and to Disciples Mission Fund in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), help support the fight against the injustices of the caste system in India.
Toward the end of our trip we were really fortunate to be able to see some of the beautiful sights India has to offer. On February 12th, we traveled to the city of Jaipur also known as the “Pink City”. As the name suggests, Jaipur is a beautiful city filled with historical culture.
One of the monuments that stuck out most to me was the Amber Fort – built to its current magnificence by the Hindu King Raja Man Singh in 967 CE. And wow, was it magnificent! Built on top of a large hill, the fort overlooks Maota Lake. It is surrounded by 8km of walls that snake up and down the hill side, like its own mini Great Wall. To even get up into the palace, some members of our group took elephants up a narrow passage through the “Sun Gate”. A rather bumpy and uneasy ride, I did feel bad that this elephant had to carry me on its back up such a steep hill. I found some reassurance that I was the last ride of the day, as all elephants only make around 5 trips to avoid over working them.
Inside the palace, it was hard not to be mesmerized. Everywhere you looked there was a new stunning piece of architecture. One room was covered in glass paneled artwork so that it sparkled in the sunlight. Entrance ways were colored with ground up jewels in the paint for same effect. Stone carvings of elephants and flowers etched with great detail. Interestingly, the elephant was always on the top, the lotus flower on the bottom. Man Singh was Hindu, and the elephant is a great symbol in the Hindu religion. However, he was confronted by the great Muslim conqueror Akbar. When confronted, Man Singh was faced with a choice, surrender or die. Man Singh chose a third option. He befriended Akbar, married him to his sister, and became one of his most trusted generals. Akbar went so far as to even call the Raja “son”. But Man Singh never forgot his religion. So throughout the palace you will find elephants, a symbol of Hinduism at the top and the lotus flower, a Muslim symbol, at the bottom. That was just one example of the complicated, rich and ancient history of India. Just trying to understand how old this city and country is makes my head hurt!
We also had time to visit some of Jaipur’s biggest industries of rugs and fabric. Jaipur boasts of everything being handmade. All in all, it was an incredible city that I wish I had more time to explore. That night, as I was going to sleep, across the street from a palace built on a lake, I could hear loud drums and music filling the air. I assumed this happened every night, the city’s way of singing its visitors to sleep.
Today was a day of travel and sight-seeing. We started at a hotel in Jaipur with breakfast, then we boarded a bus headed to Agra. The beauty of the Earth God created was phenomenal. We drove through wealth and poverty, this was another display of what is all too common throughout the world, especially in India.
After our four hour drive, we arrived in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. As we approached these incredible monuments, the excitement was building on the bus. So many dreams were about to come true! As we walked through the gates, everyone was taken aback by the breathtaking sight of the Taj Mahal. We took plenty of photos and learned some of the history. We crossed paths with Santosh George from Indian Samaritans, and founder of the We Teach, We Transform, and We Grow projects, that we learned about earlier in the week. He had brought 90 impoverished children to see this world wonder. It was rejuvenating to see their joy and appreciation, also to visit with them again.
Later, we went to the Agra Fort which was splendid. The tremendous beauty of these structures and the history that must have taken place in Agra is profound.
We then boarded the bus and headed back to Delhi. We all are trying to unwind from an educational, emotional, and inspiring two week trip. It has been a blessing in so many ways. We will carry our experiences with us and share them with others. We have all been graced with God’s presence of joy, sharing, and beauty today and every day of this journey together.
This was our last day in India. We started our day by gathering to pray and offer words of appreciation for an amazing time together. The van was waiting to take us to Old Delhi, a section of the city that is mostly Muslim. It was a market day and we found crowds of people on the streets getting produce, carpets, shoes, and many other things. The crowded market streets took us to the entrance of the oldest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid. This mosque had an open concept and it was impressive. The females from the group had to wear robes to cover ourselves in order to enter.
Later, we visited Mahatma Gandhi’s burial site. He was cremated there and some of his ashes remain on site. The grounds were clean, peaceful, and beautifully kept, and the colors of the flowers were very intense. It was a sharp contrast from the noise and the slums just outside of it. We also visited and took photos of the India Gate, a war memorial to 82,000 soldiers of the Indian Army who died in the First World War. The gate has been compared to the arch outside the Coliseum in Rome, the Arch of Triumph in Paris and the Gateway of India in Mumbai.
Before heading to our last sightseeing of the day, we said goodbye to Sarah Williams, Kahala Cannon and Ben Lyvers. Sarah and Kahala were going back to Christian Hospital Mungeli and Ben was heading back to the Evangelical Hospital Tilda, both in the state of Chhattisgarh. We were very sad to part our ways, but deeply appreciative of their time with us. We promised to keep them in our prayers for the remainder of their time in India.
Our last stop was the Qutb Minar, the tallest brick minaret in the world, and the impressive Lotus Temple. This temple, like all other Baha’í houses of worship is open to all, regardless of religion, or any other distinction. Soon after, we made a quick stop to do some last minute shopping and headed to our hotel to rest before our flight home at 3:30am!
I found myself with mixed feelings as I packed my suitcase and reflected on my experience in this magical place. On one hand, I am ready to go home to my family, but on the other hand, I am sad to leave behind all the beautiful people that we met along the way. You see, India is a country of extremes, of contrasts and contradictions. In many ways, India can be an assault on your senses, from the vibrant and intense colors, smells of spices, flowers and sewage, to the street noise and incessant honking. However, you cannot help but fall in love with its people. The people of India are extremely welcoming and hospitable. They do not know what personal space is! Honestly, they know how to make you right at home with their delicious food, coconut water, spellbinding music, and colorful traditions.
This was a hard pilgrimage in many ways as we encountered a lot of poverty, pain, and suffering. However, in our encounter with the people of the margins, the abused and oppressed, the Dalits, we experienced the most honest and pure joy, inspiring hope, and incredible resilience. We experienced God’s love and hospitality from the margins, a love that surrounded us as we shared a meal, danced and worshiped together.
Our partners in mission in India are doing very important and difficult work through initiatives and collectives of people trying to make a difference. We will be forever grateful for their hospitality and gifts, and for arranging opportunities for learning wherever we visited. It is up to us now, to tell these stories of hope in our own communities at home, and most importantly, to have the capacity to see our communities with a different lens.