One of the most remarkable aspects of doing mission work, is the reward God gives of uniting the Body of Christ together, and letting us be part of a family relationship that is not separated by culture, distance or language. Only Christ’s love in us makes this kind of blessing possible. It’s one of the massive perks and benefits of doing mission work that nothing else can match.
The pictures tell the story better than words can.
Pentecost at the House of God
An interesting aspect to when God opens the door for us to go and serve the congregations in India with a mission team, always seems to include a High Holy Day that we are privileged to share with them as they worship and serve the scriptures as the Holy Spirit has led them in understanding.
In 2008, the Mission Team shared Pentecost that year, while in 2010 – it was Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread the two missionaries were able to celebrate with the brethren. This year the team again joyfully commemorated the day on Sunday May 27th, celebrating the birthday of the Christian church on earth with the giving of the Holy Spirit to man. Our ability for Christ to work within us to accomplish the Father’s will is only possible due this great gift of the Helper Jesus promised us.
As with all celebrations, Indian people are zealous and loud in their revelries and the church is no exception. The incredible heat however did keep the normal festivities to a slow simmer as temperatures climbed again over 120 degrees with full humidity. It is a wonder how people can function in such conditions, even more so for us Americans who are not used to such weather. God however always seems to provide an ability to endure such things, albeit they began to take a toll on the mission team later that afternoon.
For the worship services in the late morning and afternoon however, the joys of the brethren to share one last service with the Mission Team on a high Sabbath did lift and carry our spirits as their happiness to be with us was infectious.
Worship celebrations at the House of God are always inspiring with the dedication of the brethren of loving and praising Jesus Christ and the Father. Holy days provide an opportunity for the youth to dance for the congregation, and those dances tell stories that young and old alike benefit in the solidifying of their faith in the midst of Hindu superstition.
Brian shared the sermon of the power of the Holy Spirit to help us live lives that are holy to the Lord. Holiness he explained is something set apart by God for His service. Brian exhorted the brethren with scripture to be mindful that they are indeed a holy priesthood to God, and that their lives should exemplify that holiness.
After the sermon, each member of the mission team was invited to share their love and goodbyes to the entire congregation, as the following day the Mission Team would leave the House of God for their airport at Vishakapatnum to begin the long journey home.
Of course after the worship service, everyone joined together for a congregational meal and shared one last time in full fellowship together on a day the Holy Spirit made such fellowship between brethren from opposite sides of the world even possible.
God’s Increase: Baptisms at the House of God
The Mission Teams that Kardias have taken to India have always been blessed to partake in the ceremony of adding new members to the Body of Christ with baptisms. With baptisms declining and infrequent in our congregations back home in the USA, it is a joy to see God working to provide the increase among the brethren here in India. This is ESPECIALLY true considering the Hindu background and overpowering influence the Hindu traditions have on the mindset of Indians and their culture. It is no less than a miracle in this land to see the Holy Spirit convert the minds of people who will without a doubt, suffer for their decision to follow Jesus Christ by not continuing in the traditions that enslave the rest of their people. These converts know and understand their decision is going to cause them trouble among their family and neighbors who nearly instantly ostracize them for their decision to abandon the paganism and culture of the Hindu faith.
Mission India 2012 was blessed to be able to perform two baptisms during the team’s time in Rajupalem, a continuing tradition that began with Brian’s first visit to India in 2005.
On Sabbath May 26 after worship services, the congregation moved to the back of the House of God, where a retaining pond farms fish and the pastors all took to the hot brackish water to baptize Mahdeve’s future husband Rama and on Pentecost Sunday welcomed brother Raju to the Body with his baptism.
Rama ( who is named after a Hindu god, but whom will change his name within two weeks of baptism), is of a higher caste than the majority of brethren at the House of God. It is always awe inspiring to learn of those who are willing to lower their station in the caste system that dominates this part of India by abandoning the majority religious system to become part of a faith that is roundly rejected and despised by the local Hindus. The Gampala ministry again proves it’s worth as an instrument of Christ to proclaim the Gospel and bring others into repentance to a God they have not known before.
Brother Raju (which means king in Telugu) is extremely zealous for the Lord and to our surprise, revealed this is his second baptism. His first ‘dunk’ some years prior, was under duress within another mainline denomination and not of his own desire to follow Jesus Christ. His own personal study of the scriptures have led his heart to stridently follow God outside of the dictates and traditions that he says coerced him into joining a church rather than into a relationship with Jesus. I never had any doubt that the Spirit of God resided in Raju, and his request showcased at least to me his maturity in understanding that he was striving to do things as best as God leads him to understand.
The zealous Gampala family, always eager to grow the congregation, lamented to us that half of the congregation had moved away to the city of Hyderabad to find work as servants due to the prolonged multi-year drought that has left no rice field work for the men and women of these slum villages. Many of those congregants Chitti had hoped would be able to come for the mission team, several of whom were ready to take baptism.
As with all things, we can only do that which is laid in our charge, and it is God who provides the increase at the opportunities He opens the door for.
Still, comparatively speaking, baptisms as often as I experienced them in India is inspiring, while I shake my head in bewilderment when compared to the shrinking congregations and few baptisms in this land of peace and plenty that was once a Christian nation. A place where there is no penalty dealt for conversion to Jesus Christ but all-the-while society accelerates it’s rejection of God and Christianity in the face of a silent and lukewarm church. A church whose brothers and sisters in third world cesspools are willing to suffer to become a follower of Christ.
The church in America is truly neither hot nor cold, and one day we are going to be spit out by no less than the One we call Lord and Savior.
Leaving Love Behind
Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. – James 1:27
If you have been following this blog for the last few months, I have chronicled the plight of widows and orphans in India, their sufferings, challenges and tears. It is truly a heart-wrenching situation that our sensibilities have a difficult time grasping or understanding that the caste and religious culture of India resists changing those conditions. Mission India 2012 allowed us to practice James 1:27, in full – by visiting orphans in the care of Sagar Jalli at Hebron Home, and the widows in the care of the Gampala family at the House of God.
It is the widows in Rajupalem and Lanka that I was most intent to comfort and make smile during the four month plus time I was with them after their tragic expulsion from the House of God by the Hindu political leaders. While I could not master Telugu enough to hold a conversation and comfort them with words, spending time, sharing a smile, giving a caring touch and hands-on prayer was enough to melt years of despair, abuse and even beatings from their worn faces. There was the shock of the entire assembly when I would rise to escort a widow to a chair as an example of how brethren should care for the weaker vessels among them. A witness of how Jesus cares for each of us, regardless of caste and culture. The smiles of these precious gems of the congregation at the House of God revealed that indeed, comfort and love was shared in the short time I was blessed to be with them.
For all the comfort I sought to provide these women, as I became ill during the last month and a half of my tenure in India, I feared being a burden as many of these widows would be in tears over my condition and add their pleas to their daily cries to God from the tiled floors of the church. They never ceased to greet me in love or express joy when I kissed each of them on the forehead each day.
The excitement reached it’s peak when my wife Ericka and the mission team arrived to visit them in person. Since last year, Ericka has garnered a ‘fan club’ among the widows by treating their various ailments long distance via Skype and e-mail to the Gampalas.
Her ‘fame’ as it were, spread when she helped the widow Santhama heal from a serious ear infection some months prior to my flight to India in January. To us the remedy was common sense application of heat compress and cleaning with some antibiotics they were able to fetch at Ericka’s direction. To the widows in India, the treatment was unlike what the Hindu doctors and superstitious health practitioners recommended, but since those regimens were not working to heal, Santhama was willing to follow Ericka’s advice and alleviate the constant pain. Of course with God’s blessing and the application of modern ‘Western’ medicine (aka: common sense), her healing was seen as near-miraculous since Ericka precisely indicated how long it would take before she would feel results from her advice.
As an RN, Ericka has been invaluable to instruct care and some simple remedies to common treatable ailments and hygiene issues that has alleviated a lot of suffering and misdiagnosis by the Hindu doctors that sometimes improperly treat them. Many times I felt completely inadequate to help deal with the many afflictions the brethren and widows came to me for help and prayer with. My urgent calls back home to Ericka over a sickness or injury were almost daily, and the widows and I were more than impatient for the Mission team’s arrival and Ericka’s professional caring hand to see these ailments firsthand with hoped-for advice to treat them.
During the time the Team was at Rajupalem, Ericka held a day-long medical clinic for the women and widows of the congregation, giving John, Chitti and Anusha a crash course in basic first aid and training with all the medical equipment and supplies she brought with her. Ericka took the time to talk with each Widow and member, and helped where she could on site, and gave instructions to the Gampalas for those widows needing a doctor.
While some may see Ericka’s service as putting her profession to charitable use, it was in reality, an extension of love that we have sought to share with what are the very least of Our Savior’s brethren as this world measures them. Their eyes of love and thanks made every effort and moment worthwhile despite some frustrations with having to combat traditions and superstitions that the brethren continue to have a difficult time abandoning.
For the four months I was at the House of God, the widows experienced no persecution from the Hindu leader and his minions. Many of them came in the morning and spent the day in the House of God until evening after dinner, without the fear of being forcefully removed. There were always smiles and love between us, knowing in our hearts that this time together was limited and precious.
Alas on Pentecost afternoon, the time limit was upon us all and it was time for us to say goodbye. Brian, Rienne and Marisa distributed the monthly foodstuffs that Kardias funds each month. And while it is not much more than enough to keep them alive, it is enough for them to know they are loved and cared for by the brethren back in the USA. It was not lost on the team that serving these widows was serving Jesus Christ, of whom such pleasure has no physical value we can place.
While other factors including the heat, illness and culture shock focused my attention on getting home, for the widows our goodbye was a terribly sad occasion. It did not strike me how much so, until it was plainly written on the widows’ faces through many tears.
I gave a small talk on what the last four months in their presence meant to me, and how I was taking them all home with me in my heart. I would miss the early morning prayers that would often wake me, whispers like wings or branches brushing on the floors and walls. But I know they continue daily, as is their custom, even now. My hope was that they had some comfort, laughter and love during the time we had together, and the bobbing heads and smiles assured me that they had.
Brian and I both then closed our service to the 29 Widows in prayer and exchanged our vandanamulu’s and well wishes to them all. The reluctance to leave and finalize the farewell was heavy in the air, but time was continuing to march on and it was decided to conclude all our farewells to all in the congregation and Gampala family by Sunday evening.
The six widows that are ‘adopted’ by the Gampala family via support from brethren in the USA, we had an additional gift and moment together. Carol Wilson crafted some stitched Bible verse bookmarks for each of the widows and the Gampala women. Carol is the wife of our 7th Mission Team member John Wilson who while unable to physically travel to India, served the Team as our ground control and lifeline to the congregations back home.
We presented the gifts to each of the six widows and read them the inscription that Carol had sewn for them. Gifts of any kind are a rarity to women and the outcast in India, so a token of love from the brethren in the USA is a cherished thing and it was our joy to share the love of the brethren back home to these widows.
One widow in particular was not in the House of God when the others were presented with their gift, and this one to me was very special as she is in some ways, even the lowest among the widows here. Meerabi has a very hard existence, but the delight in her eyes when I greeted her daily was addicting. She did not know about the gift we had for her so I sought her out and brought her upstairs where my wife and I were able to present it to her and say our final farewell.
Meerabi’s reaction summed up what the widows were all feeling, but that she was alone with just my wife and I, all inhibitions were laid aside and her joy of a gift followed by her kisses and hugs of goodbye left a mark on our hearts. Often we do not realize the impact we have on others until a time late in the relationship or much later, even months and years after we have last seen them. Meerabi left no doubt of Mission India’s impact on her, nor her impact on our hearts.
Within the next several hours of these pictures, the Mission Team and the Gampalas would be thrust into several sets of trials that beset individuals as well as the Ministries Kardias came to serve during 2012. It was as if permission was granted to afflict and challenge the Team. The chaos, worry and stress of the following night and day marred the bittersweet farewells and temporarily erased them from the atmosphere Mission Trip.
While our departure would be in haste, we left love behind. Hopefully it will last in the hearts and minds of those we sought to serve and comfort as does their love for us, as this world grows ever darker, uncertain and more dangerous.
A Hasty Exit and Departure From India
This is the last (and longest) blog essay and entry I will write for Mission India 2012. I wasn’t cognizant of how much I have written in the last six months, but going back to January on this blog, it is nearly the equivalent of a medium-sized book. This essay is covering two and a half days of time that conclude the 2012 Mission.
It is not possible to completely convey the experience of what it is like to be in a third world country and serve the Gospel amongst the poorest and least of people on earth as society measures them. I would like to think that the essays, pictures and videos on this blog help create a glimpse into the culture and experience of serving poor brethren and preaching the Gospel in India. How it affects you personally, is a subject all it’s own – one I am as of this writing, still digesting.
Six months of living with and serving the Indian congregations leaves a big impact on the heart and mind. The greatest positive is that only with God can a family relationship like this be established among people from diametrically opposite cultures and language.
The time to do all things decently and in order is a challenge in India. However farewell occasions and ceremonies are a large part of Indian culture and among Christians this is especially so. The Goodbye Meeting in 2010 was a gut wrencher that I dreaded to repeat again, and I got choked just thinking about the day we would have to say farewell after such a lengthy stay.
Perhaps was God being merciful to our hearts that did not want to break when saying goodbye, for trials and situations suddenly beset the Mission Team in the last days of Mission India 2012.
It may have been the extreme heat and humidity that acted as a trigger for Ericka and Marisa’s health battle, but difficult to ascertain for sure as sickness is one of the traits one often is beset with after visiting rural areas of India. Noah already suffered a couple of losing battles with his stomach while at Hebron Home. The rest of the team was fortunate to be free of that ailment, however after spending Friday afternoon in superheated temperatures in the House of God doing crafts for the kids camps, both Ericka and Marisa fought nausea afterward. Ericka missed Sabbath worship over some cramping and diarrhea that kept her out of her sari and out of services. The trouble seemed to abate later in the afternoon and it was hoped that she only was suffering from heat exhaustion due the previous afternoon.
The team had a respite Saturday night with dinner out at an air conditioned restaurant in Kakinada that seemed to be a high point of spirits for everyone. It was decided that it would be best for Ericka and the team to spend the night at the hotel in Kakinada, where power and air conditioning would help keep their health and countenance up for a day of services following. Michael returned with Prasad and Anusha to the House of God to prepare for the following day.
Pentecost Sunday started with a seemingly rested and better spirited team, but as the day wore on it became apparent that Ericka was soon suffering both nausea and vertigo that left her prone on her back late in the day and into the evening. The Gampala family was in a state of prayer and concern over Ericka’s condition, which seemed to worsen as the twilight faded into night.
While Ericka refused to be moved and preferred we try to make her comfortable on the roof of the House of God where it was cooler. Most of the family had gathered for an exchange of gifts provided by brethren in the USA and the Mission Team, and it was decided that again – it would be best for Ericka to spend a night in air conditioning, rather than in the 95 degree ‘low’ forecast for dawn after a high again over 120.
As the team made plans to return to Kakinada to pack and prepare for the next day’s journey home, it became apparent that Ericka was in no condition to travel. A discussion was held to determine priorities, and getting Ericka able to travel home was the main concern. Our flight from Vizag to Hyderabad was at 7:45 PM Monday evening and we scheduled 5 hours of travel time from Rajupalem to the airport. We figured that a good night of sleep out of the heat and humidity was the best thing for Ericka.
That priority suddenly seemed minor when several sets of frantic phone calls were received on Chitti and Prasad’s cell phones. News was spreading about a political situation that just occurred that threatened to keep the Mission Team stranded in India for an undetermined amount of time.
A congressional leader of Andrha Pradesh, was arrested on bogus charges by an opposition radical Hindu opposition party and the majority of the rural peoples of Andrha Pradesh planned protest and strikes beginning the following morning. A former popular president of the state, Y.S.R. Veddy, was assassinated several year prior and his son Jagan was rising fast in the ranks of political leaders as a popular figure among most of the labor and low caste peoples of the state. Jagan’s arrest was said to be an in-the-face example of corruption by a radical party and completely warrantless.
Strikes and protests in India are nothing like they are here in the states. As the Gampalas were on the phone garnering as much information as possible, it was explained to us that such general strikes shut down everything; roads, towns, villages and all business. Nothing would move, and nothing would be open. This in effect shuts down all travel and business as millions take to the streets, depriving the government the tax money it gets from normal business life. The protest strike of this man’s arrest was being called for to begin in all areas of Andrha Pradesh beginning the following morning.
It was not lost on me from my study of Indian culture and witnessing small examples of it, that angry mobs can and do form fast in India. We were warned that we would have to move immediately and get on the road to Vishakapatnum for our flight to the international airport in Hyderabad overnight instead of 2PM Monday afternoon as planned if we hoped to make it to our scheduled flight – at all.
A confirmation call to Sagar Jalli at Hebron Home to ascertain the seriousness of the situation revealed that indeed – there was a serious risk that the Mission Team could be prevented from traveling to the airport to catch our flight home. Sagar said plainly that such strikes can last even weeks and months, a statement that alarmed even the unmoved stoic Rain Man mannerisms of Brian.
Due to Ericka’s condition it was ruled out that the Team would get on the road for Vizag overnight. Sagar Jalli informed us that he would contract a small bus with A/C for the team to travel together and he would be at The House of God from Palakol Town by 6 AM. He determined that if the team left before 8 AM, we could make it onto a national highway for Vishakapatnum and he reasoned those would most likely be open to traffic. But he warned the village roads and state roads risked being shut down by 9-10 AM.
A plan of action was put into effect, Ericka was going to be made ready to travel and be put in the back seat of the cab hired for the mission team to travel to the hotel in Kakinada. Brian and the girls would follow in an auto rickshaw. I would stay behind and pack, readying everything for Sagar’s arrival the morning. Prayer was held that Ericka would recover enough to be able to travel and get onto the flight for home, and that God would keep the roads open for the team to make our flight Monday evening.
With a firm plan put into motion, and Ericka on her way to Kakinada with Anusha, I put all my focus into packing for the trip home. The heat inside my room at the House of God left me literally dripping sweat onto the tile floor as if I just stepped out of a shower, but I was determined and concentrated on getting everything packed and staged for home. Within an hour I was handed Chitti’s cell phone, and as crazy as our situation was up until that point – I suddenly learned it was going to get worse.
The call was from Anusha, who informed me that “Mommy” was so sick, that she wanted to go to check herself into the hospital and they were detouring there at that moment. My heart sank. I asked her to keep me updated on my wife’s condition after they got to the hospital and hung up. My eyes suddenly welled up with tears and a cringe of fear took ahold of my heart. I had been to the government hospital in Kakinada to visit one of the brethren after surgery – and it was not any place my mind could comprehend as a place one would overcome sickness. Just the opposite. I joked with myself during the weeks I fought illness that should I end up in that hospital, I would never leave there alive.
As sick as my wife was, I had no trust of Indian doctors given what I seen of the brethren and their hospital and doctor experiences. At the same time, my mind began to contemplate Ericka being unable to travel the five plus hours in a van, much less get onto an airplane for a twenty-plus hour flight back to the U.S.
I began to despair. My mind was contemplating staying behind with my wife and telling the Mission Team to go on home without us. I had a list of questions for Brian about what to do to be able to get home at a later date, including whether our tickets would be forfeit if we missed our flight. I seemed to be choking on tears and sweat. Kumari came into the room to help me fold Ericka’s clothes and she began to cry seeing my tears.
Here I was supposed to be lifting these brethren from tears, and all I was seeing was tears from the Gampalas, enhanced by my own as we all worried about the situation that seemed to be growing worse with each passing hour.
“So sad for Mommy” I heard Kumari say as she put another folded sari into the suitcase. Her face was wet from crying and I wanted so desperately to comfort us both, but I had nothing in my own heart to comfort myself, much less another. I was becoming fearful of being stranded in India with a sick wife and little left in our finances to support ourselves. There was the great unknown of how to handle things if indeed we were unable to get to the airport.
Taking in Kumari’s tears to heart, I told her and myself to trust in God – that He who brought us here for His purpose, would see to it Mommy would get better and we would be able to go home. But they were words only, intended to comfort a woman whose own sadness and worry was feeding my own. I truly wanted to believe what I had said, but knew my worry and fear betrayed my lack of trust in those words. I knew that all trials were used by God to build in us His character, but head knowledge alone is little comfort when in the midst of real trial with little experience in the kind of trust I needed to have.
I was angry with myself because I was supposed to have faith, and clearly I had little at the moment. Here I was, the proclaimed missionary pastor, and I was helpless in the situation, lacking faith. I was stuck in a super heated room, packing for an emergency trip that would begin soon after dawn to avoid a mob scene that could prevent our flight home. But now, my wife – falling ever worse to vertigo and vomiting was going to the hospital, and how she and the team would make it back in time for an early morning departure to race against a state-wide strike, seemed doubtful.
All I could do was pray in my head and ask for strength of faith and focus on the task of packing as if for certain we would be on our flight home as scheduled. An hour or so later Chitti was again up with his phone. It was Brian who informed me that he and Prasad were going to the hospital to check on Ericka while the girls were at the hotel packing. We talked about all the concerns I had, and Brian confirmed my sentiment that it was important that we focus on the plan already in motion; to pack and be read to depart with Sagar when he arrived for Vizag as best as we were able. We would figure out what to do if and when it became apparent some or all of us would not be able to make our flight.
Around 2 AM, the phone came again – and while I was expecting to hear Brian, it was my wife’s voice. Not only was the sound comforting, but what she said immediately melted my fears for her health in an Indian hospital. She said simply that she told the doctors she was an RN working on her Masters and that everyone at the hospital was doing exactly everything she was telling them to do. While I had little faith in what I had seen of India’s medical profession, I certainly had faith in my wife’s ability to treat herself. That Ericka was hopeful her instructions would get her vomiting and dizziness under control certainly helped everyone’s countenance. Brian and Prasad were going to try and get a little sleep, and Brian informed that he would call in the morning on her condition.
There was little sleep to be had as I staged all the packed luggage and trudged on up onto the roof to lie down on the air mattress to get a little rest. Several elders were already up there lying down on matts and discussing the situation with as much worry in their voices as I had felt in my heart. Johnson and the kids were already fast asleep on the concrete, their youthful breathing almost synchronized in sleep. The stress left my own eyelids heavy and mosquito bites notwithstanding I drifted off for a short while before Raju came to wake me up shortly after 5 AM to another dusty and hot sunrise.
I shaved and gave myself a bucket bath to wake up and prepare for the day’s travel. As I came downstairs, Chitti, John and Ruth were still sitting in the chairs in the courtyard where I had last seen them. None of them retired for the night, trying to keep abreast of the evolving political situation. Sagar had called a short time earlier to inform Chitti that there was already some delays in his getting from Palakol to the House of God and he would be about an hour later than planned. Brian called shortly after 7Am to inform us the the hospital had not yet released Ericka but he would call when they had discharged her.
The tension was now mounting as morning drew on further. It was nearing 8 AM and Sagar had not yet arrived and no word on whether or not my wife was released. I drew up a contingency in my head and asked Chitti to call Brian and tell him and the team to stay put in Kakinada, and when Sagar arrived I would meet them at the hotel and head onto Vishakapatnum from there. To my surprise, Prasad informed Chitti that they had just left the hotel and were already en route to Rajupalem with Ericka, another forty minutes out.
Sagar Jalli and the van arrived some ten minutes later. With the team already on it’s way to the House of God from the hotel, I began to hope, despite the lateness of the hour that we might indeed make our flight. The team began arriving in two different vehicles, everyone looking the worse for wear, my wife looking like she just ended a tour in a combat zone. Everyone was glad to see her, and while moving slow she was not in the same condition they saw her last. The Gampalas in their time-honored tradition of hospitality began working on making a major breakfast for everyone, but Sagar informed Brian that the window to make it to a national highway was closing fast. He warned that the protest would begin in earnest around 10 AM, and if we were ahead of traffic, if stopped by a mob, we had a chance to ask them to let us through. But if we delayed any longer, we risked being stopped behind miles of trucks, cars, oxen and goats with no ability to go forward, or even turn around.
That warning alarmed Brian and the time to depart was urgently announced. We gathered and joined hands for a hasty and sincere prayer for our journey. There was scarce time to say goodbye to all, a few quick hugs and vandanamulus as Brian herded us onto the van. Due to Sagar’s generosity, my brother Chitti and Prasad were joining us for the trip to the airport. As I began to step into the van I looked back at the showering of love my wife was receiving from the women wishing her goodbye. It was was heartwarming to see the care and love she was receiving, but we had to cut it short. There was simply no time to draw out a long farewell.
As we started out the gate at the House of God, we realized we were missing my daughter and Marisa. I looked back and did not see them, and Johnson was yelling at us that they both walked down the street to Sagari’s home with Mahdeve to say goodbye. As we turned down the road to intercept them, my concern for our two girls did not afford me the time to longingly look back and wave at the family who took care of me for four months as they waved to us outside the gate as the van pulled out onto the road.
Ahead down the block we saw the girls in the street, hugging and saying their vandnamulus. The van stopped to let them on, and the tears from Mahdeve and Sagari for Marisa and Rienne were unabashedly pouring down their faces. They furiously hugged one another and the moment made me pause to consider that I had no such tearful goodbye of my own after such a long time of joining the family. My eagerness to get on the road to make our flight, buried the closure of a meaningful goodbye under the pressing urgency of the present situation. I suddenly felt the loss of that closure as I looked back up the road we came down to see Ruth, John, Anonda, Mercy, Glory, Kumari and little Joshua all waving at us still. I felt pangs of sorrow that in my dash aboard the van was left behind. A tearful Rienne and Marisa climbed aboard at Brian’s urging while Sagari and Mahdeve sobbed goodbye.
Sagari was not ready for us to go as she jumped on board the van and cried aloud “Bye Daddy!” and she rushed forward to hug me goodbye as I rose from my seat. Mahdeve followed with hugs for Ericka in a veil of tears. “We should go very soon” I heard Sagar gently state and once again, an emotional moment had to be cut short.
As we all furiously waved goodbye, the van lurched down the road kicking up dust in the hot morning. I noticed Meerabi’s straw shack as we passed on by and the widow sitting on an overturned pail in her doorway. Our passing she did not register, and soon the sign to Rajupalem zipped on by the window and a quick glance back at the slum village I called home for the last few months, was fading into the hazy distance.
Normally I would absorb the sappy moment and think on my time and all whom I loved that I would not see again. But my focus was now forward, and the possibility of difficulties getting to the airport and making our flight pressed my attention ahead and not what was behind me.
We drove on past familiar sights that I grew accustomed to seeing during four months of living there. As the minutes passed on, we meandered down the narrow road towards the state highway through the villages and towns and soon the surroundings became less familiar and I no longer recognized where I was in relation to the House of God.
There did not appear to be anything different in the aura of the people as we passed towns and villages in that first hour that would indicate the potential for protests. Women walked with ceramic or metal jugs atop their heads. Men drove goats and cows with sticks and some were bathing in the shade of their brick homes near the sewer trenches.
The winding district road eventually came to a T-intersection. The van driver was on his cell phone and as he leaned over to talk to Sagar who sat up front near the door, I deduced that the driver was getting directions or informing Sagar of road conditions ahead. The driver began to make a left turn and soon Chitti and Sagar were urging the driver to go right. Ericka was concerned over the disagreement on direction but Chitti’s urging prevailed. Asking for clarification as to what just happened, Sagar said plainly that the driver suggested we stay on the district highway. Chitti interjected and said that the highway was too long a detour that would add too much time to our travel. His suggestion was taking the village road to the right was a short-cut direct to the state highway we sought to intersect.
Ericka admonished Chitti that the driver and Sagar were talking to others that may have a better handle on conditions ahead, but Chitti insisted. Ericka half-jokingly warned Chitti that if we became stopped by a protest, she would be very angry with him.
As we came upon a larger town some ten minutes later – Ericka’s fears and ours, became reality. A line of traffic stood idle in our lane stretching into the distance towards the town. Nothing was coming back the other direction.
“I could just strangle you Chitti” Ericka said aloud. For once, Chitti sat quietly – perhaps contemplating the fact that his decision led us to what everyone hoped to avoid. Sagar had the driver go far over the right shoulder to get ahead of the line of trucks, cows and auto rickshaws. As we came upon the town center, a sea of people were before us in the middle of the road. Rows of men and women were already sitting down in the middle of the intersection as many more ringed the group that were chanting angrily. There was no way to go around, and by the intents in the faces of those in the street, they were not going to permit us to do so.
Sagar stood up and said for Brian to come with him. Ericka suggested I go also, considering the sounds among what was clearly a protest. My adrenaline suddenly surged as mobs are unpredictable, and something I would prefer to stay far away from especially considering I had read our State Department’s warning about avoiding protests in India. The unknown suddenly confronted us as we had no choice but to petition for passage or remain stuck where we were. As I rose to follow, Sagar instead said that Ericka should come with them and that I should stay on the van. His reasoning was that perhaps a white woman could help soften the leaders of the protest into letting us through. I was nervous of the decision, and Ericka looked uneasy as well, but I was in no position to argue. Sagar knew his people and country, I certainly did not. The trio got out of the van into the bright, hot sun and dust and into the sea of people.
I kept my eye square on my wife. She and Brian followed behind Sagar as he asked several people to point him in the direction of those who were organizing the protest. Chitti and Prasad were also soon out of the van and into the crowd. Amidst the multitudes in the streets, many curious Indians peered into our windows to see just who we were. The shouts and clear agitation of the mob of people pushed my heart rate up as I focused like a hawk on my wife in the midst of the crowd. Several people stood around them as Sagar talked, motioning to them and the van. I uttered a one sentence prayer to God for protection as Chitti and Prasad were engaged in a shouting match with several men not far from the van. In a few minutes, Sagar, Brian and Ericka were making their way through the sit-ins on the road back towards our vehicle and I sighed in relief. Chitti and Prasad were finishing their argument and Sagar moved over to talk with one of the men who was arguing with them.
As Brian and Ericka got back on the van, my query of “What’s the story?” did not provide a hopeful answer. “I’m not sure exactly, but I do not think we’re going through” Brian replied. After a few minutes our Indian hosts came aboard and Sagar explained the situation. The crowd was not going to relent and let us through, because to do for us would cause more problems with others now stranded and unable to pass. What they were going to permit us to do, is turn around – and make our way through the alleys of the town to go another way down the equivalent of an Indian rural road connecting villages through the rice paddies.
It took time and patience for the driver to navigate around the crowd that continued to grow in size. He skillfully backed up and then made a hard left down a narrow alleyway in the town center. My hard worry was that another crowd of people would block our ability to get down the narrow alley. After ten minutes of nervous navigation through the town’s alleys, we soon found ourselves on an extremely narrow and pitted road that opened up into the rice fields on either side.
I assumed we were going back the way we came, to the intersection we made a wrong decision to turn, and go the way originally intended. Sagar explained that we could not go back that direction, but our goal was to make it via back roads to the state highway which would lead us to a national highway that Sagar was confident would not be shut down. Sagar said the risk was along the roads leading into each town and village, with the larger towns being more apt to be involved in protesting.
So in my mind, we had goals; to reach the state highway, and then the equivalent of an Indian interstate highway to make it to Vishakapatnum where our flight was scheduled for that evening. The next two hours were slow, jostling and bumpy as we traversed dirt and pits and holes in the rural road. I worried that all the bumpy travel would set off Ericka’s poor stomach or bowels. I was not as worried about mine due to sheer will power to deny and ignore them. The Team tried to rest and sleep as we were jostled around, but my attention was fully forward. I could feel tension arise in me each time a village and small town came into view on this one lane road. I scanned for any hint of a crowd that might again block our way. As we bumped along slowly, almost painfully, my eyes continually hunted for the better highway that would hopefully lead us to a more certain road to our destination, having no clue whatsoever where we were, or what direction would lead us to our goal.
Everyone was clearly exhausted, including our hosts. Our heads shook as the van bounced into one pothole into another but as I looked over at everyone, all eyes were closed, except the driver, Prakash and myself. Time dragged and my assumption of the day gone by into afternoon revealed when I looked at the time, that it was only late morning.
Soon to my delight, we came to the better road I had been hoping for and turned onto it. We were on the state highway, paved and in better condition that permitted our speed to increase. The smoother road afforded me time to also nod off for nearly a half hour. As we came to a stop, I awoke alarmed and scanned our surroundings quickly. No crowd or protest in sight – but the black and white stripes of center median that informed me that we had, at last – made it to the national highway. A collective sigh of relief was exclaimed and Sagar smiled at our blessed fortunes. “No problem” he said looking in my direction with a smile.
We enjoyed 90 minutes of smooth road and consistent speed. As I popped awake after dozing off, I noticed our surroundings had become more urban. Sagar noticed me looking around and said “We are in the out areas of Vishakapatnum.” Relief washed over me as I checked the time and saw it was still early afternoon.
As we arrived in the city itself, the Team was awake and relieved. At this point, even if there was a large protest here in the city, we could conceivably walk the 4 kilometers to the airport if needed and have time to spare. Sagar clarified that the main roads would be prohibited from blocking because of the airport and said we should stop to have lunch as we now had time at our disposal.
The good news of our situation revealed to me that for the first time in the past few days, I was indeed feeling some hunger. We pulled into a parking lot of a major restaurant that advertised A/C. As we piled inside, the bathroom was everyone’s first priority.
My melancholy self was able to return as I moped to Chitti that this would be our last lunch together. We enjoyed our time for the next hour or so over lunch. Our host’s attentions were mainly focused on the television that were reporting on the crisis that was effectively shutting down the state. I asked about the ability of the Gampalas and Sagar to get home without being stranded, and they all smiled and said that there was no need for us to worry about them. These kinds of things are common in India they said, and I was told a few stories of such instances that made this one a mild happenstance. “Of course we had no plane to catch” Sagar said with a smile.
After lunch, it was a short drive to the Vishakapatnum airport. I fully expected our hosts to drop us off and begin the journey home themselves, but it is Indian custom to remain with your guests until they depart. While we had airline tickets, Chitti, Sagar, Prakash and Prasad had to buy an admittance ticket to the airport where they would wait the last several hours before we could check in and board our flight to Hyderabad.
It was strange to go from such stress and urgency, to having a lot of time to kill by simply waiting. Our luggage was all piled up in carts ready to go through security and the team and our hosts found waiting area seats. We suddenly had time to fellowship and visit. With the hectic schedule at Hebron Home, it was nice for us to get to know Sagar and Prakash better. Prakash was absorbed by the unfolding crisis displayed the televisions and Ericka decided he was a great target for myriad questions. Being the Dean of the college at Hebron, Prakash delighted in all of my wife’s questioning about his country and culture.
While Brian and I chatted in depth with Sagar, Prasad fell asleep next to Rienne while Chitti also took in the story on the TV. He returned some time later to let us know that the army and the police at the behest of the party that arrested the congressman, were beating protesters to clear the streets. I was glad that our contact with the situation was coming to an end, and only slightly worried about my brothers as they continued to remind us that they would be just fine.
Daylight was fading and soon the time to check in for our flight came. The goodbye was more of what I thought we would experience as we left the House of God. It hurt now to say goodbye to our Indian brothers, most especially Chitti and my adopted son Prasad. The reality that the adventure of the last four months was ending, flooded my mind. Long hugs through tears made the moment difficult to let go. Suddenly, I did not know what my future would be in terms of India, if I would return or if world conditions would create difficulties none of us could yet even grasp. I knew looking into Chitti’s tear filled eyes that if we were unable to meet again in this life – there was the Kingdom of God to be assured of. I have no doubts of their being in God’s Kingdom and am very certain that their station will be far greater than mine, deservedly so.
As we prepared to go through security, my last view of the family that had taken such care of me were waving us on and their smiles are burned into my memory. It suddenly hit me that I was on my way back, and my time in India was over.
The long series of flights home afforded me time to think and reflect. Our exhaustion was also a springboard for some much needed silliness and humor. We found simple things funny, and made nearly everything a cause for humor. I had gone from large crowds of Indians on dusty roads to large crowds of weary passengers in airport queues.
But in the quiet moments on our trip home, while everyone else slept, I was surprised that I felt in a state of limbo.
I was glad to be on my way from the chaos, heat and backwardness of a land I knew I did not belong and probably could never feel comfortable in. But I also no longer felt as though I was ‘going home’. A life of privilege and plenty in comparison to what I had lived for the past few months was in conflict in my mind. How can one return to a “normal life” after everything I had experienced showcased the shallowness of my own culture and faith before God? I was going from daily worship and dependence on God in communal fellowship, to a once-a-week gathering with other brethren where church life is only a few hours a week. At the same time, the pagan culture surrounding our brothers and sisters in India, the backwardness, the disease and filth repulsed me. I was reminded daily that India was the Devil’s playground with millennia of tradition and superstition that seemed impossible to break, even with the Gospel and I was intruding on his territory.
I suddenly felt like I had no country to call home for a multitude of reasons my mind still as of this writing has not been able to digest and understand. Perhaps time will bring into focus what I cannot clearly see and understand now. Perhaps feeling like we have no ‘home’ is where our minds as Christians should be since we are not supposed to belong to this world.
The contrast of cultures, church and Christian life from India to America will continue to reverberate in my mind as I struggle with questions and bewilderment. I have read of Americans kissing the ground on return after long-term mission work or serving tours of duty overseas. I had no such reverence on my return. Perhaps it was the brusque and unwelcoming arrival at the customs desk at O’Hare. Perhaps it is a recognition we are no longer what we once were as a culture and Christian people now accustomed to government disdain and abuse. Perhaps it is the contrast of faith from a people who have nothing in terms of possessions, to myself who has everything.
The one notable difference, is that there are still millions in the two-thirds world who have never heard the Gospel or the Name of Jesus Christ. There are millions suffering from abuse and neglect where a kind gesture could change a life. There are millions still steeped in religious confusion and superstition that keeps them in misery, bondage and confusion.
Then there are millions of professed Christians in a country blessed with every advantage known to man.
And there is the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20.