Vandanamulu Everyone back home!
This is a very long entry, but I would like to paint you a word picture about what it is like to live in India, based on the observance of everyday life here. For narrative purposes, some of the recollections are from different days, but I will tell it as if I was experiencing it as I write. I will break these essays up into three; Morning, Afternoon and Evenings. Each one is like a small novella, but much of what exists in this alien country overwhelms the senses as an American and I will try to describe it for you as if you were experiencing it yourself.
Morning in India.
As I reflect on the past several weeks of my life in India, I notice how different my time is here now than it was less than two years ago when I was here with Brian Smith. Back in March/April 2010, while we did some similar things as I have done the past 23 days, Brian and I were staying at a hotel residency in Kakinada each night. We would come in the mornings and spend most of day we were here with our hosts, but would return the 45 minute drive back to the residency each evening. While we were guests, we did not get to experience what it is like to actually LIVE as a Christian in this dusty, dark and often filthy land.
It is a hard life. A VERY hard life for most of the people here.
The day begins early, before dawn if you are a woman to begin preparing food for the family. The sun does not come up crisp and beautiful as it does back home. Mornings in America always dawn fresh, wet and clean – a new day of promise in a land blessed with opportunity. But here in the jungle delta of rural India, daylight comes as through translucent plastic, murky and full of haze. The sun must struggle to rise above a horizon of smoke, ash and dust. Here in India, the dawn is nearly the same as sunset; dusty, dirty and often choking with smoke from fires of dried poop patties burning to heat up water and breakfast; smoldering flesh and wood from dying overnight funeral pyres; or piles of straw and garbage smoking along the narrow and pitted streets.
The bustling sound of menial lives often stirs me awake as most Indians are awake and working by the time the sun actually crawls above the smudge of dust. The klaxon sound of truck horns hauling people, hay, steel or rice bales blast aloud at anyone in their way from the street, and it has taken me every day thusfar to get used to the jarring cacophony so early in the morning. My hosts seem oblivious to the din as they are readying the family for a new day amidst their own sounds of pots and pans being scrubbed or wet clothes being beaten on a rock as wash day begins.
As I step out onto the porch from my room at the House of God and look out at the village of Rajupalem still silhouetted in gray as the morning light rises behind the hovels in front of me, the morning is bustling with activity both in the courtyard of John’s home and the street beyond. Women walk in bare feet in the dirt carrying large baskets atop their heads. Men in loincloths with head covers walk or ride ancient rusted bicycles laden with rice bags, or construction materials. Open air jalopy trucks rumble along the street yammering their loud horns up the way. In the back are laborers being transported to the rice fields or some site for manual labor. The ever-present three wheeled yellow auto rickshaws saunter, or careen up and down the road depending on the driver, sometimes the booming beat of a Hindu-hip hop song blasting from a radio follows the yellow buggy and it loudly putters down the road like a souped-up old lawnmower.
The morning light seems to bring the village out of the grayness that enshrouds it and I still shudder at the condition of most of the homes here. It is a crushing weight to see, smell and hear almost primitive living conditions among most of these slum villages. To our eyes, many of the homes look like shelled ruins from last century’s wars. Poor brick and cement walls are covered by thatched roofs of old dried palm leaves that sit grey and in shadow as the light of dawn blurs colors across the sky behind them.
I am then greeted with the sound of resistant oxen, water buffaloes and other beasts of burden driven by thin men with legs so wiry you would not think they could hold their bodies up, driving the giant animals by a stick down these same streets as the sun struggles to get above the constant smoke and h-aze. A naked child runs down the street crying after someone on their way to work or the market.
Nakedness or near nakedness by many of the poor is something that still shocks my system. It is hard to understand the modesty of Indian culture, and the same time notice their indifference to such brazen nakedness, but I am learning that in the eyes of most Indians, the poor and the untouchables of this land are considered as animals, so seeing their nakedness is as if we would look on a dog or cat.
With no running water in most homes and the local people using the streets and ditches as open public toilets, it’s bizarre to see nearly everyone around here with a cell phone. People live in decrepit brick hovels with thatched roofs and literally own only a single pot and dish to cook and eat from – but everyone has a cell phone it seems. India is indeed a land of contrasts and chaos.
The noise in this place is never-ending and often of an insane caliber. It does not matter if you are in the villages, or in the city – the constant blasting of horns from vehicles is a constant cacophony with intermittent tinkling of bicycle bells, shouts, booming bass of Bollywood Hindi musicals from passing auto rickshaws and calls from loudspeakers announcing the latest advertisement or invented god to worship.
There is in all the racket of noise, a wonderful sound that often greets my ears several times a day, this morning being no exception. For even at this early hour, there are brethren in the House of God who are gently singing psalms or praying softly, almost musically to God in morning devotion. Their voices rasp off the smooth marble tiled floors and cement covered walls that create a gentle echo chamber of praise. It reminds me of the scripture in I Kings 19, of that still small voice amidst the roar of wind and earthquake that God is not present in. Amidst the chaos of noise even at this hour, the soft, sweet sound of worship touches my soul, and how fitting that scripture seems to be in this moment.
I sense movement to my right and as I turn, I see Sister Ruth making her way up the stairs towards me. She has coffee in hand for this caffeine-addict and she greets me with a smile and hands me the cup. Often she comes while I am yet asleep to say softly in English “Good morning” so I can awake to open my door and receive the piping hot cup of that which will raise my eyes from a dead sleep to life. She says a few words in Telegu to me and all I can do is smile and thank her for bringing her gift of love and service. I feel frustration in these moments as my ability to understand Telegu is far more difficult than I imagined. But the smiles and love behind the eyes of my hosts comforts me with the understanding they are more than patient with this old American dog who has invaded their home.
She departs to return to the task of preparing breakfast for 12 adults and 8 children, a feat that requires the family to eat in shifts that take about 3 hours to serve everyone. As soon as breakfast is finished, the pots and pans are washed, only to start the process all over again for the next meal.
The coffee is far too hot for me to sip this early, as the milk they use is boiled first before the grounds are dumped into the pot with a lump of cane sugar. It will take some time for this to cool enough for me to enjoy it, and on this morning I can definitely use the caffeine.
This past week I am suffering sleep deprivation because of two Hindu festivals that went all day and all night long, one of them apparently a wedding festival for one of the local gods that engenders a sex festival of sorts, complete with fireworks blasting at all hours of the day and night until dawn. I was irritated beyond measure because it was not enough that loud screeching worship to some ‘kali ma’ god was being blasted out by loudspeakers turned up so loud that the sound was distorted. The banging of tin pots by a team of drunken singers screeching aloud as if their loins were in a pressure vice added yet another level of fingernail-meets-chalkboard irritation. That alone was not enough to raise the dead or dying here apparently, as an intermittent barrage of large fireworks were set off for 24 hours straight. And not just some Chinese New Year firecrackers either, we’re talking the giant M-100 type salutes that resound through your bones at a large 4th of July displays in the US. 12:30 AM. 2:45 AM. 3:30 AM 4:15 AM. 6:00 AM. I know those times because I checked my watch every single time I was startled awake by those canon blasts that would go on for a few minutes at a time, die down and commence again right after I fell back asleep.
Such things do not happen at home. Overnight parties are easily quelled by a call to the police in the USA. But here, the very idea of calling the police to complain against the higher caste drunkards reveling in their heathen worship at all hours would only engender the wrath of police upon the brethren, so everyone is forced to ignore the partying or try to become indifferent to it.
I sigh at the morning smoke, recollecting the absolute disregard for manners or respect in this county beyond the gates I reside as a guest.
Common courtesy does not exist here. It is survival of the fittest, in it’s most literal application. The higher the caste or even the larger the vehicle being driven, the more rights you can exert over others. Everyone else must get out of the way and bow down or you will get smooshed or brought down by those who do not even regard your existence.
As I muse the contrasts over the brightening sky, I come back to my own self and remember that I have less than an hour before Chitti arrives to take us downstairs to breakfast.
Readying oneself for the day in India is a far cry from a quick warm shower, shave and a Pop-Tart before trudging off to work in your car. Most homes have no running water so it is common to see women carrying metal pails of water on their heads from the public village well or river canal or men with a stick on their shoulders weighted down with two jugs fastened at each end. In some homes that are blessed or financially well-off, there may be a well head pump on the property to pump water up from a well or retaining pond. Wealthy homeowners or those blessed with the right connections have plastic water cisterns on their roofs where gravity can do it’s work to allow water to run into the home. Filling those by pail or by an electric pump takes time for the convenience of being able to turn a spigot on. There are no water lines here, anywhere. Not in the city. Not in these slum villages. Most water comes from the same exact place animals and humans bathe and use as a toilet.
Bathing in India is oftentimes a public affair, same as going to the bathroom here. Most of India is an outdoor restroom, and TP is not something anyone uses here or can buy in the markets. For bathing, the poor gather at ponds or canals to get about thigh deep and wash in fetid water. Soap scum floats about as men wash girded with only a loincloth. They bathe as I would in my own bathroom at home without care or concern at passerby. Women get into these waters and wash in full sari, moving the cloth about to wash underneath. The blessed with well pumps or an enclosed gate have the luxury of bathing privately, which usually involves dumping water over the head and soaping up with a gritty green powder and then rinsing by pouring more water over oneself.
As a guest in India, taking a bath or washing usually requires what my daughters call a “bucket shower”, which is essentially a pail full of water and soap at your disposal with a small plastic pitcher to rinse off with. My experience here is actually a happy medium between the blessed and wealthy.
Concerned about my American spoiled rottenness, the Gampalas went ahead and installed a cistern and put running water into a bathroom they constructed in the anteroom next to the worship hall where I am residing. I am blessed with a spigot for water and they even rigged up a flushing toilet for me! Having brought a camp shower bag from home, my only slight discomfort at this time of year is having to dump water over myself that is much cooler than the air temperature, especially in the mornings. But a cold dump of water over the head is definitely a quicker waker-upper than even a hot cup of coffee. In a few weeks I will be eager to dump any water over my head as the temperatures here will soar to well over 100 degrees and drop to only 90 by morning.
By the time I am cleaned and shaved, Chitti is usually at my door greeting me with Vandanamulu. The children here are leaving for School. Dina and Johnson leave on their bicycles, while the younger kids, pile onto Pastor John’s scooter and he takes them off out into the dusty street for a 9 hour day at a private school in the nearby town of G. Mamidada. Public schools in India are also mandatory schools of Hinduism, where superstition is taught in conjunction with all subjects as the creation is worshipped here. For Christian children, there is usually no choice but be indoctrinated into the Hindu faith at the public institutions unless they can afford a private school. Kardias assists the Gampalas by providing tuition to send their own children to the private school.
As he does every morning Chitti asks if I am well. Depending on whether or not the night was absent the screech of loudspeakers determines my answer. Chitti then brings additional light into my room which is next to the worship hall at the House of God by raising up and draping the makeshift tapestries over the rods they erected to partition this area into an entryway, main living area and the bathroom area in the rear of my room.
The bright yellow of mid-morning floods the doorway and window of my palace tabernacle at the House of God. Depending on if there is power or not, I will share with Chitti the overnight e-mails and notes from Facebook from family and friends in the USA that are eleven-and-a-half hours behind us, who are just ending their day as mine begins.
This morning there is no power, and therefore no DSL to connect to. Chitti brings the two red plastic chairs in my entry way out onto the porch overlooking John’s courtyard. He tells me to sit a little while and enjoy the morning sun, as two women come from the congregation to clean my room. I offer to help because I explain my wife is haunting me in my mind with her oft-used exhortation: “Your hand’s ‘aint broke – go help”. But the women and Chitti are immediately offended that I offered and their hand gestures for me to sit while they ‘wash my feet’ in service, is one that I reluctantly submit to.
Chitti sits and is perusing a newspaper in Telegu. I notice a cartoon of a man with flames coming out of his mouth and I point to it and exclaim that is me after I eat the kind of curry that Chitti prefers to ingest. He laughs and says to me that I cannot handle the “cobras”, of which I readily agree. While I have been able to handle a few more red chilies in my daily food than I would have suspected I could handle, Chitti’s favorite ‘green cobras’ – the chilies that set mouth ablaze for up to an hour after eating, are not something I allow myself to take much of, despite Chitti’s attempts to sneak a few in my food. This morning I am hoping there are very few or no ‘cobras’ in the food.
I look back into my room as I sit with my back to the sun, and observe the brethren working my room like professional hotel maids. One woman is sweeping up piles of dust that gather every moment of every day into a pile with a short makeshift broom that she must bend down to use. The other is gathering my soiled clothing to take downstairs to wash. My towel is shaken and rehung and everything is checked carefully. After a hand mop with a rag of my floor with some water and some pine-sol like liquid, the room is left to dry and the women step out with trash and the dust, thanking me and greeting me in the traditional Indian way. The love in their eyes being able to serve me is absolutely stunning. I cannot help but say “Dhanyvadamalu” – which is a primitive thank you in Telegu and return the traditional ‘praying hands’ greeting.
As we return the red chairs back inside the room, I hear Ruth’s voice call up to ‘babu’, which is a term of respect. It is near 9 AM and Chitti and I are the last shift for breakfast this morning and she is ready to serve us.
I close the tapestries to the doorway, and depending on whether we are going out or there are workers on the property who are not family, determines whether I put a combination lock on the outside of my door as I close the room. Today is the day we will ride to Kakinada to get the bicycle I bought fixed from the shop I purchased it, and buy tools and other items that are needed. But Chitti says we will leave about 10 AM, so I have time to return to my room after breakfast to change for the trip, so I will not have to lock my room today. I leave my longhi on, which is simply a fabric wrap around my waist which is akin to wearing sweats at home on a lazy Sunday.
We make our way down the cement steps and through the porch area of the front of Pastor John’s home. Another woman who is a hard servant of the congregation is on a tiny stool next to the hand pump well with a wire basket of dirty pots and pans she is washing by hand from the regimen of breakfast. She stops washing to smile and greet me wither hands and I return the greeting.
I step into the ‘dining hall’ and Ruth, who has decreed herself “Amma” (Momma) to me, even though she is several years younger than myself, motions us to the table. We wave past a cloud of flies gathered around the garlic peels Ruth had in a pile on the floor as preparations were already underway for the lunch meal of the day.
I remind Chitti to take his blood test this morning to check his sugar. My wife provided two meters and about a full years supply of testing strips and lances that go into two auto-pens she provided. Because rice is the main staple of all food here, especially among the poor, diabetes is common here. And Pastor John, Chitti and his daughter Dina Grace are beset with it. We have a continuing battle to convince them to eat more protein, meaning fish, eggs and meat since the Hindu doctors here warned them that they should only eat rice and fruits. But on Ericka’s stern insistence via Skype – Chitti thankfully has been eating more meat and fish, and this morning his sugar is normal and he says he feels better than he has in a long time.
He and I then sit at the small wood table, and two plates lie face-down at our places. As is now a custom before eating, Chitti grabs the Purell handwash I had brought from the USA and dumps a few drops on my upturned hand. He then does the same for himself and as I rub my hands together and feel the cool alcohol dissolve away any bacteria I have lingering on them, I recall the Gampalas first encounter with hand wash in 2010. It is amusing to think that back then, the family assumed what I had was air conditioning in a bottle. Since my explanation of what hand wash was for and what it did, Chitti pleaded with me before my current visit to bring a larger bottle of hand wash for the entire family and the congregation. My wife and obliged and bought two giant bottles of hand wash at Sam’s with a few smaller carry-bottles for the road.
Chitti upturns both of our plates and wipes them with a small paper towel as Ruth, Glori, and Anusha bring metal pots and small containers of food to the table. The aroma is intoxicating in a blend of spices and sautéed vegetables that hang thick in the air. Chitti grabs my hand and bows his head for the thanks we will give. It is my turn to pray this morning and I share my gratitude for the service the Gampalas have shown me and give thanks for the food that I know is a precious commodity here.
On “Amen”, Ruth is at my side with a large container she opens as if presenting royalty a rare gift in a basket. She serves what looks to be a pancake on my plate, but I can immediately smell grilled onions and my mind has to unlearn what it has learned of 48 years of American breakfasts. The pancake is a mix of ground lentils and wheat to make a crude ‘flour’. Then some spices and onions are added to the batter and the patty is fried as you would a pancake. This pancake is the base of the breakfast meal that any vegetables or fruits are sopped up with. The women place several dishes about us, several chutneys made from vegetables, coconut and grou-nuts with chilies of various types and heat. Sometimes there are various sautéed vegetables, or my favorite which is potatoes and onions fried in a gentle curry. But today is a very basic everyday breakfast.
Another container is opened and Ruth places 2 small sponge-like discs on my plate. This is Idly, which is like a poached rice cake. Very soft like angel food with almost no flavor of it’s own. It serves as a sponge to absorb the curries or chutney’s desired. Two small hard boiled eggs are also offered from the free range emaciated chickens here at the House of God.
Ruth looks at me with a smile and says “Chaala, Chaala, Chaala, boguundi” while making the “O.K.” sign with her right hand. This is a Telegu phrase I actually learned and can remember – it means “Very, very, very good”. I shake my head in agreement, because nodding is not a gesture understood in the East. Yes is a fast bobble-head shake, and ‘no’ is a slower one. I cannot even now, tell the difference between the two. But Ruth understands that I appreciate her cooking, everything she makes is “boguundi”.
I’m a bit wowed at the banquet before me as this is actually twice as much food as I normally ever eat for a breakfast, which usually only consists of coffee. But I smile back and say “Chaala boguundi” and everyone laughs at my delight.
Yet one more dish is served to me, and it is “Australian oats”, or simply put – oatmeal in a glass. Sometimes Ruth treats me to some nuts and fruit in the oatmeal, but regardless of whether or not it is plain, the small bananas that are ever-present on the table are going to be taking a swim in my oats this morning. The bananas here in India are my absolute favorite food here. Small but sweeter and softer than any you can eat in the States. I always down about 3-6 of these a day.
Ruth gestures me to begin eating as I almost sigh at what is set before me. I know that this is far more food than these people normally eat, and I am still having a very hard time convincing them that the $6 a day for my meals is to be SHARED WITH EVERONE in the house, not just for me.
Ruth is very watchful over me and is, I believe, of lineage to the tribe of Benjamin, Levi or Judah. For I have never met a more “Jewish Mother” than I have in Ruth who is insistent I eat more than I am able to. I think she wants me to put on about another hundred pounds out of fear the Summer heat will wither me to nothing.
Eating in India is also a very alien practice to the observance of any Westerner. Emily Post would have had a major coronary and declared this culture ‘barbaric’ if she saw how the people here eat.
Utensils are used to cook food and serve it to a banana leaf that serves as a kind of natural paper plate here in India. The right hand and the fingers are used as fork and spoon. You will never see an Indian use their left hand for eating here, as the left hand is only used to…….clean, after going potty.
After two weeks I am just settling into using my hands and fingers to eat the kinds of things a fork and spoon would normally suffice for. Breakfast is usually the easiest and least messy of the meals served at the House of God.
As I rip off a piece of pancake and dip it into a little coconut chutney Ruth put on my plate – the spices and sensation immediately wakes up the mouth. In a few minutes, Ruth is back with a pitcher of red liquid and the heat on my lips is eager for the fresh grape juice she is pouring into my glass. And when I say fresh, I mean fresh – as in this juice was made this morning. Welch’s, eat your heart out.
Chitti and I discuss an array of subjects during breakfast, mostly regarding our activities for the day. As I go through breakfast, after each item is finished, Ruth is attempting to put yet another item on my plate, and I have to tell her “chaalu” – which means ‘enough’.
By the time I finish, (and I am a slow eater to begin with) I am stuffed like a turkey. I thank Ruth and the Sisters for again spoiling me like a Raja, and they laugh as I turn for my room, where I will get ready for the afternoon’s activities, today’s being a trip to Kakinada to repair my bicycle and to shop for tools.
As I ascend the stairs, the morning sun is now bright and hot over the village of Rajupalem.
Chitti informs he that he will be back to collect me in 20 minutes and I tell him that I will be ready. In truth, I am nervous about the day’s upcoming adventure – but I steel myself for what is required, as my life in India continues.
This is the second part of 3 essays I am writing to paint a word picture about what it is like to actually live in India. The recollections are over several days, but I am writing as if narrating my experiences in realtime so you can get a feel of what it is like to live and serve as a Missionary in this Dark and Superstitious land.
Afternoon In India
The day grows hot and the bustle of life and traffic beyond the gate of Pastor John’s grows to an urgent but meandering pace by late morning and early afternoon.
The hustle of morning preparation has given way to the steadiness of the daily chores and activities that occupy the day here at the House of God. Morning dishes and pots are being washed while little Joshua is in the midst of a tantrum of fury and tears protesting his mother’s attempts to give him a bath by the well head pump. He is only partially soaped up, and his little naked body is slippery wet, and hard to hold onto as Kumari struggles to pour some more water over the dark suds that showcase how desperately dirty the little tyke is. My laughter reaches a crescendo while watching this from the porch above. The little 17 month old breaks free of his mother’s grasp and runs screaming from the water that will cleanse him. Kumari chases him like a mother hen would a wayward chick with a small pitcher of sloshing water held above his dodging form. Mother anticipates one of his quick turns and little Joshua is doused with everything left in the pitcher. As the suds run down his little body past his ankles and onto the pavement, he stands still and screams aloud so the entire planet could hear his complaint while mother turns back to the pump, resolute and satisfied.
It is these small moments of family that bring to mind this truth; despite our cultural differences, in reality – there is more commonality among us than one would suspect at first glance. Children are children no matter the race or culture as I mind recalled my own children at Joshua’s age, and parents who love their children laugh, teach and scold them here in the delta of rural India as assuredly as I did my own back home.
After breakfast the Gampala family begins different tasks that establish and keep this House of God working like a well-oiled machine. One of the men will go to the market for the food needs of the next several days. Some have errands to repair equipment or vehicles.
However, of most importance is the daily ministering to the brethren of the congregation and the Hindus of the community that call for prayer or counseling. It is a full-time occupation that consumes every day, and sometimes 24 hours a day. It has taken some getting used to for me, as my own experience back home relegates worship and church activities to once a week, or during the annual Holy Days. Here at the House of God, it is every day, and often for the congregation itself, several times a day – depending on the day.
There are House Visits, Prayer meetings, Gospel Meetings, Youth Meetings, Sabbath School, Cottage worship and prayer meetings, and a youth ministry in 4 different locations and villages not within walking distance. Each event is a church service, some longer and more involved than others. This does not include personal ministry efforts such as Ruth and Esther’s door-to-door preaching or visiting sick Hindus for prayer in the efforts of evangelism.
Such has been my daily routine now for the last few weeks – and today will be a change that I am actually looking forward to, despite the incredible experiences I have been witness to in the ministry here.
I am getting travel clothes together this morning for a long motorcycle trip to Kakinada to shop for supplies and oversee the repair of a bicycle improperly assembled that I bought. As I ready for today’s personal adventure, I cannot help but recall yesterday afternoon’s ministry to the widows and destitute Hindu women who came for me to pray for them.
Because this starkly white, plump American with a giant nose and goofy grin has taken up residence here, the brethren are eager and insistent that we come to visit them in their homes. A few of the visits seemed to be simply for socializing with excitement for a white man to be a guest in the home with a prayer of thanksgiving. Yesterday’s house visiting was for a purpose that I am still digesting and am eager to see the fruits of.
Yesterday’s visit was in Chitti’s village of Lanka. There is not much difference between the slums here except for how dusty or filthy they may be in comparison to others. I rode on the back of Chitti’s ‘Gospel Chariot’ to Lanka, where we left his motorcycle at his home, and collected his wife Esther and John’s wife Ruth for a walk to the home of widow Elizabeth.
It may seem a bit strange to hear Western-sounding names given to Indians in this land. For Christians, it is an oft-used practice because most Indians are named after a Hindu god of some sort. After Baptism, the convert will choose a new name, and often they like to pick names from the scriptures for themselves. They will walk in the newness of life, with a new name.
We walk along the hot and dusty road as cycles and passers by look on me as if I were a white elephant standing out as a bizarre oddity to their normally unchanging tasks. I hear some repetitious shouts and see a man on a bicycle rickshaw calling out loudly down the street in Telegu. In the back of his cart are bushels of onions and his occupation seems to be akin to a primitive ice cream salesman, calling aloud to anyone who wants to rush up and buy his onions.
On the main street in the village of Lanka, the brick and cement dwellings are of an even poorer state than those in Rajupalem. A foul stench reaches up to grab me by the nose and throat and I gag as bile rises up from my stomach over the odor that assaults me. Chitti notices my wrinkled nose and pale look and describes the open trench cesspool that we are passing by. All of the village’s excrement and urine runs down this street and pools in this stained trench he explains. Clouds of mosquitoes swirl over the stagnant sludge and I suddenly worry more about the mosquito bites I am receiving and understand a bit better why things like malaria and other insect-borne illnesses are a plague here in India.
We turn and start down a narrow dusty alleyway in between the hovels people call homes. A hot wind stirs up acrid dust that curl off the disjointed hot brick and cement walls. The alleyway is nothing but ash, dust, sand and excrement. Laundry is hanging low and we must dodge the damp clothing drying in the dust and sun. Watter buffalo and cows sit tied to posts, blinking at me with dumb eyes chewing grass while their ears flop back and forth to swat the ever-present flies that hover in the air here.
We come to another very narrow street and turn left, amidst all the stares from Indian men sitting on crumbling steps chewing on a smoking reed, there is a woman in a bright yellow Sari that is calling out to Ruth and Esther and I assert that we have arrived at our destination.
Another turn and we are walking into a stony area that makes it’s way into an open dirt yard. Chitti describes for me a little detail about the widow we are going to visit.
Elizabeth lost her husband Zechariah two years ago, and the transition has not been an easy one. Widows are considered cursed creatures here in India, and the destitution widows often find themselves here is beyond comprehension to most of us in the West. Her husband was a member of the church in Lanka and as Chitti explained, I recall a picture my daughters brought home from the mission trip in 2008. In that photo two elderly men stood; brother Zechariah and brother Abraham, smiling large at the gifts of metal drinking cups the mission team provided for them. Both men are gone now, and as I recall that photo and my own personal meeting with Abraham in 2010, I suddenly feel their loss in a personal way. It is only by the miracle of the Lord that I have been privileged to experience a type of Agape love I had never known before – and that is a deep caring concern for these least of God’s brethren, as the world would measure them.
Elizabeth is at her doorway and invites Chitti, Ruth, Esther and myself into her “home”. This 5’-5” dwarf actually had to duck to enter the doorway and my first impression on stepping into Elizabeth’s home, was as if I just stepped into the home of a Hobbit. I was stunned at the tiny ‘house’ this woman called home. There are one-room studio apartments for rent by the hour in seedy urban dwellings in the USA that are far more spacious than what was before me. To my eyes, her very small home was like my tool shed out in my back yard in Summer time. The five of us in this room overcrowded it immediately, for there was no room but for a single chair Chitti sat down in while the rest of us sat on this woman’s bed.
The heat was oppressive and there was no power to operate the single light bulb or fan hanging from the ceiling this afternoon. The large source of light from the doorway was suddenly blocked by several forms peering inside as several women had gathered to see this curiosity that came to visit.
A plate of ‘snacks’ and some drinks were served as is custom in Indian culture. It is necessary to show respect to your host and partake of whatever is served, but I must be careful in what I ingest, as food cooked in rancid oil or anything containing the water the locals drink and bathe in can be deadly to me.
After some introductions and some happy recollections of a few women that recalled when my daughters were here in 2008, I offered a short message of the hope we have in Jesus Christ to make provision or to heal us if we ask for these things in His Name, as I have no power of my own whatsoever.
As I spoke a larger crowd of women and children were gathering outside the doorway to get a glimpse of me. I could tell by their forehead markings that these were devout Hindu women that had come to listen. As Chitti translated what I was saying, I could see something in their eyes that to their ears was very different than other priests, shamen, or even other Christian missionaries had said to them before; “I have no power to do anything. I cannot heal you or provide a blessing for you. I am just a man. What I can do is pray the Father of all Creation will open your eyes to see Him, and by your own faith in the true God of Life and His son of Reconciliation can your prayer requests be answered”.
This was something new for them to hear. I prayed for Elizabeth first, knowing her faith in Christ was strong. I laid my hands upon her head and asked Our Father to hear her prayer requests and to ask for an extra measure of His Spirit to comfort her and sustain her in the walk she was on with Christ.
As I prayed several women broke down in tears. There seemed to be a pall of sincerity and sorrow filling the room. An elderly woman named Suriya Kantham was pouring her heart out to Chitti as if she was begging him for some some kind of absolution. Chitti then asked me to please pray for Suriya, because while she was supposed to be a Christian – she admitted she had no faith in Jesus as she should. There was some backsliding into her former traditions and she felt lost and adrift. She cried and complained that the large mainstream church she attended every so often had not said the kinds of things I was saying and she was begging me to pray that Jesus would forgive her.
I looked into her eyes and even though I could not understand Telugu, I implicitly understood her sincerity in what she was asking Chitti of me to do for her. As I laid my hands on her head gently, I poured my heart out for this woman and asked God to hear her request. In the three weeks I have been in India, this one prayer request hit me harder and deeper than the other myriad prayers I have been asked to give. For I recall scripture saying how much the angels rejoice when we lost sheep return to the fold of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Her tears after my prayer and those of several other women were as if they understood every word of my English prayer I spoke aloud. I suddenly had a crush of women entering the house begging for prayer, and for their sick children to be anointed.
I do not remember how many I had prayed for, but my earnest words to them were repeated that it is only their faith in God’s Son Jesus Christ – that any such prayer offered would be heard. I was most concerned for Suriya, and told Chitti to invite her to worship with them, for the congregation here are skilled in edifying one another to remain true to our faith and that is precisely what Suriya will benefit from.
As I fondly recall yesterday afternoon’s experience, I wonder to myself what kind of seed was sown among those I spoke, or what the watering of the Word would produce in this crop God is raising here. While yestrerday’s experience was very spiritual, I looked forward to today’s more mundane adventure.
Chitti is once again at my door and says to me “Shall we go?”. I make sure I have my cash, passport and other essentials I will need with me for the shopping trip this afternoon. The main purpose of this trip is to get the bicycle shop that sold me an overpriced lemon of a bike, to fix, repair or replace what they sold me.
But such a task is easier said than done in India. The shop owners are of a high caste here in India. A lower caste member has no rights to complain about what he is sold. If he asks and pays for a coconut, and gets a rock painted like a coconut – the Adhi Andrha cannot complain, only suck up and endure this kind of corruption and cheating. The Gampalas were very nervous of my going back to demand the fixing of my purchase and were unsure I would get any results beyond a call to the police against me.
But God is on my side, and I prayed for favor in the sight of those at the shop. Which required I go back to the shop in person.
But first I will need to overcome a deep-seated radical fear I have had since my teens: getting on a motorcycle. I had been hit by a car on a bike when I was 14, and was nearly killed when I landed in front of another car that barely stopped in time from turning my head into a squashed melon. Shortly afterward I saw a motorcycle fatality that deeply freaked me out considering my own brush with the Grim Reaper and I resolved never to get on a motorcycle. And up until now, I never have.
My wife had bought a Harley for herself in the past year as a much deserved reward for getting through nursing school and obtaining a good job in her new career field. That had caused some issues between my wife and I because I was adamant and resolute I would never get on one. I have to wonder how hard my wife was praying for me to get over my childhood fear, because here I was on the other side of the planet and the only way to get from The House of God to Kakinada without serious cab fare is by “Gospel Chariot”.
The butterflies in my stomach are well placed here in India. Because to ride a bicycle, drive or even walk in this land of chaos, requires the utmost in Godly trust and courage. It’s either that or a devotion to pure insanity and belief that you are invincible. The best way to describe what road travel in India is like, is what Brian Smith suggested I do to get over my nervousness of riding in India. He suggests that you take your vehicle onto the busiest interstate or tollway you know, and get in the opposite lane against the flow of traffic and make sure you zip in and out of all the oncoming rush of cars and trucks and busses. Add a bunch of bicycles, goat herds, oxen and pedestrians all acting as moving traffic cones, and you have a pretty good picture of the reality of driving or riding a motorcycle in India.
I had said some hefty private prayers already for my safety on this excursion, and as I grabbed my sunglasses and locked my room as I left, what I saw taking place down in the courtyard made my heart stop.
One of the young brethren of the congregation, Kumar, a man in his early 20’s was sitting on the back of Prasad’s motorcycle. My son was lifting my inoperative new bicycle and flipping it upside down and attempting to place it on Kumar’s lap so he could hold it for the 45 minute ride to Kakinada.
Now I have done some insane things in my life, like running down runway 14 Right at O’Hare Airport when I was a teen, just for kicks. But this bicycle balancing act on a speeding motorcycle, knowing the risk to life and limb of just WALKING down these narrow and pock-filled dusty streets, immediately conjured up nervous laughter and as I shook my head in a vociferous “no”, I asked if there was some better way to get my broken bike to Kakinada than risking what I was sure would be certain disaster.
We had an auto rickshaw deliver my bicycle to the House of God the afternoon I purchased it. I assumed it would go back the same way. Prasad explained that they could not get auto rickshaws from these villages to go to Kakinada and come back for a reasonable fee. He explained that the circus act he and Kumar were going to perform for me in getting my bike to the shop was “The best way, no cost”.
“No cost except maybe losing your lives in the process?” I offered. Prasad translated that out loud and laughter erupted all around me as I was assured this kind of thing was done all the time.
Prasad smiled, hopped on the motorcycle and revved it up. The insanity of this scene before me required I DO SOMETHING, because I absolutely did not think I could live with myself if anything happened to these two daredevils. I begged them to wait and I exclaimed a prayer out loud, almost humorously that God would send Angels to protect these two. On Amen, Prasad gunned the throttle and off the two went into the street, nearly pasted by another motorcycle passing to their right. I fully expected never to see my bicycle again, and was sure a visit to the hospital was in my near future.
But my fears for them suddenly melted into my own fear as Chitti fired up his Gospel chariot and motioned for me to get on the back. What could I do? If I chickened out – Kumar and Prasad would have risked their lives for nothing. I gulped down a breath of air and swung my leg over the back seat.
The name “Chitti” means small man in Telugu. And while Chitti Gampala and I are not much different in height, we are certainly different in girth. I outweigh him probably more than half, and my weight on the back of his motorcycle almost caused him to lose his balance of keeping the bike steady. Ruth and Kumari laughed as some nervous Telugu from Chitti escaped his mouth. I do not know for certain what Chitti said, but I surmise it was probably something along the lines of “Michael is like having an elephant get on the back of the Gospel Chariot”. He instructed me to move a little bit forward. He revved the throttle, opened up the clutch and we were moving. I popped my sunglasses from my forehead on down over my eyes and we banked sharply out of the gate and onto the dusty, narrow road towards Kakinada.
The sudden rush of air past my ears and body lifted my heart rate for a moment. For the first few minutes I sat tense as Chitti navigated his way down the street and around pedestrians and oxen. The air was hot which made the many stenches we rode past through the dusty slum of Rajupalem seem more offensive than before. A whiff of buffalo manure plopped like pudding on the hot pavement mixed with a rotting pile of garbage hit me upside my nostrils as we drew towards the end of the village. A few bumps in the pitted and pockmarked road had me wondering if I would lose my breakfast. In a moment, a sudden cool fresh breeze greeted my face as we cleared the town proper and sailed on down the road past irrigated rice fields on our left and right. If there is any freshness to be found in India – it is the soft cool air that sits around these rice fields.
It was then I began to relax and trust in Chitti’s driving as I took in the landscape. The rush of wind and the fluttering of my shirt sleeves as we rode down the road added a sensation as I took in the scenery around me. For lack of any better adjective, exhilaration was what I was beginning to feel. I had ridden down this road many times in a hot cab, but being fully in the open, being able to fully see, smell and anticipate everything around me added a dimension of wonder and enjoyment I had not experienced before.
Chitti banked around a curve leading to his village of Lanka and here many more obstacles lay before us. Autorickshaws bobbling towards us; other motorcycles; dogs; men in loincloths with baskets over their heads; young men loitering in small groups; tenders of goats and water buffalo; old women so wrinkled and worn their skin looked like leather wrapped in dingy and soiled cloth. Like an expert skater on a crowded ice rink, Chitti zoomed in and out past each one with a smoothness that told me I really had nothing to worry about.
One major negative was apparent very quickly however, and that was the dust. Every vehicle we passed, or passed us – stirred up a massive cloud of exhaust fumes and dust that choked both visibility and breathable air. Despite my sunglasses, the dust stings my eyes and the aftertaste of the dust in my mouth is as though I just finished cleaning out a horse stall or chicken coop.
We serpentined smoothly past the obstacles in our way, past Chitti’s village and ran smack dab into traffic in the largest “town” of G. Mamidada. It’s essentially a quick stop of sorts for most of the local villages in this district, but there was absolutely nothing quick about getting through the town. A miasma of pedestrians, animals, rickshaws, cars and trucks brought our trip to a virtual standstill as each and every living thing sought the right of way past everyone else. I glanced around nervously as Chitti was almost literally ‘walking’ his motorcycle past the crush of traffic and vehicles that were cutting in front of and behind us. This crazy place was like The Road Warrior’s Bartertown, and for a second the giant golden statue of some dead prime minister made me do a double take to ensure I didn’t just see Master Blaster, Bartertown’s piggybacking bouncer.
Once we got through the town itself, it was back onto the long road through the rice fields. The lesser traffic was a major relief to me and we were speeding along at a pretty good clip. I noted Chitti’s fuel gauge was near empty and suggested that if he stopped for fuel, he should fill it up. As these stretches of narrow road were less crowded with the need to avoid a pedestrian, bicyclist or auto rickshaw, I began to relax a little bit as the feeling of wind in my hair and face felt very good in the constant humidity that hangs everpresent here.
I was scanning the distance in front of us trying to see if I could find Prasad and Kumar, the crazy acrobats transporting my broken bicycle. No sign of them as I wondered to myself how fast they must have been going to avoid Chitti and I to not even catch a glimpse of them. As we curved onto a straight patch of road, I took notice that the fields here on both sides of this road were brown and dry. The cool breeze was not present, and only a hot breeze was greeting my face.
Chitti explained that they have had no rain here for over a year. The early and late monsoons never came and most of the poor farmers have lost their crops. Only wealthy farmers with the right political connections are able to get their fields irrigated. A lot of local villagers were leaving many of the villages to go to the larger city of Hyderabad to find work, such as cleaning toilets or serve as house cleaners.
It was depressing to see these once green and cool fields I had passed many times during my trip in 2010, dried, dusty and desolate.
I looked up ahead again to see if I could spot Prasad or Kumar and saw two upturned wheels careening around a 4 wheeled cart. It was good to see the both of them were still alive and intact with my very expensive lemon. We were drawing very near them as it was apparent they were slowing down as they approached what appeared to be a large crowd of people on the side of the road.
As we caught up to them, everyone’s attention is focused off the side of the road to my left. Several people were trying to help a man into a sitting position who was laying on the ground. As they sat him up, a fountain of blood poured out of the man’s nose down his chin and chest. Another gash of blood was running down his right forehead and it became apparent quickly that this man was hit by something.
I ask Chitti reflexively if we should stop and see if this man needed help, which was about all I could offer as I looked on in shock at the scene. At that moment I really wished my wife was present, because as a nurse – she would now how to handle such a situation. Chitti replies that there are many people already helping him and the police were called and coming. Prasad and Kumar are pointing to something a little further down off to the side, and the mangled metal and handlebars told the story that indeed, something plowed headlong into this cyclist.
Trying to get by the small crowd is the angry and insistent beeping of agitated motorcyclists, cars, and trucks. They can care less about anything in their way, and one truck seems almost intent to push the throng out of his way. Chitti navigates around to the left to give the truck room and then has a moment of clearing to open the throttle and speed away from the bloody scene.
Life is cheap in India, and respect is something taken, not earned here. I look back at the crowd that was shoved off the side of the road, the man is still sitting but obviously unconscious. I would learn later that this man died, probably instantly, and was a teacher at the school Chitti’s son Johnson attends.
The experience and realization this man was hit on his motorcycle left me unnerved. For my own condition was suddenly brought to mind on these roads of insanity. I heard another motorcycle coming up along side of us and it was Prasad and Kumar. Chitti and Prasad bantered about in Telugu for a minute or two, probably about the accident and then the two daredevils with my upside down bicycle took off ahead of us, no fear – as if life goes on despite the road kill.
It took a little while to get over what I saw behind us. Chitti’s skillfull driving at a steady pace did calm me back down as I again took in all the sights, sounds and smells around me. As we neared another town, Chitti noted a petrol station on our left and he cut in front of several oncoming cycles to try and make it to a pump he just saw opening.
Gone are the days of full service stations in the U.S. The sight of uniformed station attendants is definitely something seen in quaint movies of old. To my surprise, each pump seemed staffed by about four men to each pump.
Despite Chitti’s first arrival at the new pump, another cyclist roared up and cut in front of us, having a newer and nicer ‘chariot’. He was then followed by several of his friends and the station attendants promptly ignored Chitti to wait on them. Rudeness knows no bounds here, and neither does the graft.
I discovered the station attendants are not there to serve the customer, rather they are there to collect the money from you first, demand a ‘gift’, set the pump for the amount of fuel they decide to give you, and then pump it. A good ‘gift’ might get you a few extra rupees of fuel rounded up to the next number.
After a patient wait and finally our own fueling is finished, Chitti takes us out again into traffic towards Kakinada. I begin to complain to him about the rudeness at the station pump. Chitti assures me that this is life in India and one must get used to it. “Not me” I promise, “I won’t get used to that”.
No sooner do I finish my words I look up to see a giant lumbering truck coming right at us. It suddenly swerves directly in front of us to get past an ox and cart. Chitti took the Gospel Chariot over hard off the road shoulder to the left and as the speeding behemoth of dust and heat flew by – I actually felt it brush past my right leg pant. My heart lept into my throat and suddenly every ounce of adrenaline was coursing through my veins.
“That was close!” I shouted.
Chitti seemed unfazed and unaware of how close the truck came to hitting us. Defying death and rudeness on an everyday basis like this is routine. But not routine for me. My pounding heart prompted me to launch into an out loud prayer at the top of my lungs for the Father to send more angels down to protect us from being made into road kill.
Chitti nodded in agreement with my prayer, as fields of brown and dust, then green and wet sailed on by. I see a man with legs so thick my mind cannot register what I was seeing. “Elephant disease” Chitti notes back to me, as if he could read my mind.
India is a living petri dish of disease and malformation. In my time here I have seen leprosy, deformity, Tuberculosis, malaria, yellow and scarlet fevers, lesions, sores, poxes of various types, and a vast array of mental retardation. Some of it is most likely demon possession, but difficult to ascertain in most cases. It continues to stun me the conditions in our modern world that so many people live and eek an existence in.
The chaos and traffic around me begins to reach insane levels and I assume we are getting close to the port city of Kakinada. We are no longer able to travel at a comfortable or constant speed. Stop and go traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway at 4:30 PM on a Friday afternoon in Chicago can’t hold a candle to this Indian mind blower. As absolutely nuts as my trip is to this point – the following ten minutes as we traverse the city is an absolute assault on every single one of my senses. I am exposed on all sides to everything foreign, alien and hostile to what I am comfortable with. Chaos concentrated in the mid-day hot city streets of Kakinada.
Shop stalls wall the streets on every side as merchants showcase their wares. The smells of curries and oils cooking foods waft in the air in front of every mobile cart and shanty that provides meals to hungry pedestrians. Traffic seems to go wherever the flow moves and there are no such things as stop lights or signs in sight.
We make a turn onto what is the main street in Kakinada and soon we again find the shop my bicycle was purchased. Prasad and Kumar are already inside the open stall as Chitti and I try to find a place across the street to park his motorcycle. I discover that task is as difficult as finding a parking spot downtown Chicago after 9 AM. Thousands of motorcycles and bicycles cram the side of the street where parking is permissible.
After finding a place to squeeze the Gospel chariot, the fun part begins: trying to cross the street to get to the bike shop. Having grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, I’m no slouch in running across busy streets. But here in India, I might as well be a toddler. In America one has the advantage of all the vehicles going in a single direction in one or two lanes. Not so in India. In India, it’s street roulette and your peripheral vision better be top notch, because anything larger than you has the right of way in India.
On making it alive to the bike shop, Prasad is in a heated discussion with what I assume to be the manager. As I walk up with Chitti, Prasad motions to me and emphasizes a point or two that I am assuming is the demand they fix what they sold me. The manager fixes his eyes upon me and I greet him with ‘namaskaram’. He returns my greeting and immediately starts shouting orders to his employees. I describe what is wrong with the bicycle and suggest that it was improperly assembled and that the gears, brakes and rear wheel bearings are not functioning at all. His staff worked on my bicycle for well over an hour and replaced nearly the entire bike with new parts; new gears, new rear tire, new shifters and rewired all the cabling.
After the employee determined it should be in working order, they ask me to test drive it, something they did not allow me to do when I bought it. There is no room to test it inside the shop, so my only option is to take it ‘around the block’ in downtown Kakinada.
Now I have ridden bicycles for most of my life and consider myself a veteran of sorts, nothing prepares me for what I find myself willingly doing. In the course of a simple ride around the block I learn how well my brakes and other bike functions operate, and that my heart can keep beating after it stops several times in the course of a few minutes. I give thanks to God I survive and decide riding on the back of the Gospel Chariot is safer in India.
I return to the shop alive and assert to the shop staff that everything is working well. They tighten everything down and Chitti whispers to me that he worries about the amount of bribe they are going to demand of me to take the bicycle home with us. To the Gampala’s surprise, they ask for nothing and apologize for the trouble. Customer service, the American way. Chitti and Prasad sat stunned with their mouths agape and for the first time since my arrival, it was nice to see that expression on their faces instead of my own. They conclude it is because I am American and Prasad told them I write blogs. I like to think my prayer for God to grant me favor in the sight of the manager and employees was more responsible.
Prasad then loads my newly fixed bicycle back onto Kumar’s lap on the Gospel chariot, and they both take off for the 45 minute ride back to Rajupalem. I wave as they turn into traffic and disappear into the miasma of bikes, rickshaws, pedestrians and cabs.
Chitti and I play chicken again with traffic to get back across the street to his Gospel Chariot for a further excursion to purchase tools for the Gampalas. A few days earlier I saw Pastor John trying to fix his well head pump with a broken wrench and a rusted screwdriver. An impossibility since half of the wrench vice was broken off. Ericka and myself along with mission control decided to allocate some of my mission funds towards buying decent tools for the family and ministry.
There are no Walmarts in India. No Ace hardware stores. No Home Depots or Loews. No Kroger’s or Safeways. You have to find little kiosks or shanties shop owners rent that sell their specific wares.
Needle meet haystack, India style.
Lucky for Chitti, he knows where the ‘tool district’ of Kakinada is. I did not notice it at first, but entire streets or areas are ‘districts’ where specific items are sold. There is a banana district, a pot and pan district, a district for carpets and mats and so on.
In our case the ‘tool district’ is very small. Only one side of one small street. We go into the shop where the owner greets me in English and immediately rushes to get me a seat under a fan. As I look around the shelves of cardboard boxes, it looked to me that we found the ‘acetylene torch tool shop’. But Chitti assures me they have the lsit of tools I want to buy the Gampalas. As in most stores in India, you have to tell the shopkeeper what you want. They go to a shelf or in the back to bring out what they have. In Indian custom, a customer is not allowed to touch the merchandise until after he pays for it. I am not Indian and the money I will spend requires whatever tools bought are not a repeat of my bicycle experience.
I ask for two sizes of adjustable wrenches, a pipe wrench, needle nose and electrical pliers, a screwdriver set and a socket wrench set. The shop keeper brings out each item in a cellophane bag that is filled with yellow grease or oil. I ignore protocol and open each package and check the items. Chitti looks on the items I am checking with awestruck wonder. His biggest expression of surprise was when the 60 piece socket wrench set was opened. He had never seen one before and as I explained how the wrench works, his eyes lit up with excitement as his mind was grasping the potential this tool will afford them.
I ask for the price of each item and use my iPod to calculate the exchange from rupees to Dollars. A few things are cheaper but most of them are more expensive. Chitti suggests they might find a cheaper quality that is not as expensive. I do not even consider his suggestion. I’m over the budget my wife and I set for this, but the tools are of decent quality and the added expense will be well worth it, at least to my conscience. I tell the shop owner I want a price on all of them. Chitti does some minor haggling, and we get a slight discount for the lot.
As we are leave the tool store, Chitti’s cell rings – and he answers. I gaze out at the bustle of insanity on the street and sigh as I consider the long trip back to my House of God Palace. Chitti ends his call and informs me that Sister Ruth was wanting to know if while we were in Kakinada, I could buy her a new LP gas stove for her to cook on. I mused the idea for half of a second and immediately considered what my wife would say – and suggested Chitti get me to an ATM, and I would withdraw some cash to make the purchase for my Indiana Momma caretaker.
We trek through the city streets once again to the stove district of Kakinada. We stop at a shop that seems to have a wide selection. These are essentially like Coleman camp stoves, but for most Indians – this is the modern kitchen appliance. Sister Ruth is suffering from a displaced neck bone, and the pain often makes her ability to stand for any length of time, painful. This stove will allow her to sit on a small stool on the floor and cook for the family.
Repeating nearly the same process as in the tool shop, we leave with a nice new extra large stove in a box that will have to be transported back home with us. While nowhere as inherently dangerous and risky as holding an upside down bicycle on the back of a speeding motorcycle – I will have to swallow my fear, put trust in God to get us and our packages back safely to the House of God.
I am learning every day, such trust is always well placed. In just a little under an hour’s time we are back in Rajupalem entering the gate of the House of God, a bit tired, dusty, and sweaty but all in one piece and intact with all our purchases. I look up and find that my newly repaired bicycle is already sitting pristine in the courtyard.
The joy and excitement of the Gampala family at having the love of the brethren in the U.S.A. make the kinds of provisions we have been blessed to provide them, is priceless. The gratitude, happiness and appreciation they show is beyond my ability to describe in words except perhaps; priceless.
Chai is brought out in small metal cups for everyone and the air is filled with the aura of celebration and thankfulness. The hot and sweet spicy tea is a daily treat in the late afternoons as the blistering heat of the day finally breaks and gives way to a more tolerable atmosphere from the hot white of afternoon to the comfort of yellows and oranges.
There is no power still, and I glance at my watch. It is after 4 PM, and in less than an hour I will start what is becoming a ritual of evening’s arrival in India; exercise with Chitti in the form of a brisk walk or taking a ride on our bicycles through the poor dusty towns at sunset. Since my bike is repaired, I am looking forward to being able to see a different aspect of this land that is my home for the next several months to come.
The day is passing and the cooler evening is the part of the day I look forward to here in the delta of Southeastern India.
This is my last of three essays that vividly describe an average day in the life of a missionary with the Gampala family in rural Andrha Pradesh, India. The essay is intended as a word picture to help you experience in a small way, the incredible experience and work God is doing in this backward and dark area of the world.
Evening In India.
As the anvil of heat from the high sun of afternoon gives way to the cooler colors and breezes of evening, my energy picks up from the hot laziness that the heat commands of you during the day. The bright white and bluish aura of mid-day light are now the soft yellows and warm oranges casting longer cooling shadows over the courtyard at the House of God.
It is near 5 PM and as I hear the bicycle bells and then the voices of Johnson and the other children arriving home from a day at the private school Kardias helps to send them. I take some short steps to the porch from my oven-like room, and in the cooler breeze of the porch, look down into the courtyard. Johnson is there already looking up hoping to see his American Dad. “Hello Daddy” he exclaims with a bright smile and wave. I reply with “Hello back, how was school?”. Johnson shakes his head rapidly side to side and by now I am learning the difference in ‘yes’ and ‘no’. ‘Yes’ in his headshake indicating that it was ‘good’.
Beyond the gate, the rural life of Indians is again picking up pace to begin closing the day. A bicycle rickshaw slowly makes its way down the street towards us. The rider is calling out loudly in Telugu and to my delight he is weighted down with bananas. Ruth is already making her way out to the street to buy a bunch from him as my voracious appetite for these delectable treats are my favorite food here in India. I almost feel guilty as I am eating more than the banana tree in the courtyard can produce. Much smaller than the bananas seen in U.S. groceries, these bananas are far sweeter, softer and more wonderful than any I have ever had anywhere else.
The street itself is busy. Men with hay bales on bushels over their heads walk in loincloth down the street past other men in loincloths driving or dragging beasts of burden back to night dwellings. Pastor John is suddenly at the gate on his motor scooter slowly puttering his way into the courtyard. On his chariot seated in front of him is precious cargo; Aksha Stephanie and Nelson, the two youngest Gampala children, in blue school uniform laden with backpack. John waves up to me and rasps out a “good evening”. I return the greeting as the children dismount, excited to be home.
Sister Glory is then in the courtyard with silver tray and small cups of chai for everyone’s refreshment. John is served first still on his scooter, and then on down to the youngest. I still find myself in amazement that everyone is able to down the small cup of almost always piping hot tea in two or three swallows when I have to let mine cool for several minutes. I remember my own chai that was brought up to me about fifteen minutes earlier and fetch it from the desk in my room. It is just above warm and I am able to now gulp it down as the rest of the Gampalas are downing theirs below me.
As I finish my chai I notice the time, it is after 5 PM, Chitti will be here again very soon for our daily exercise and I need to change into clothes I am willing to get soaked with sweat and dust.
In the months preceding my trip to India, we would both imagine the things we would do together while I was here with him. Chitti had asked me if I knew how to ride a bicycle and I assured him that I did, as that was my own major form of transportation for 20 years of my life. I showed him the mountain bicycle in my office via Skype my wife bought for me on our 25th anniversary last year. He marveled aloud and said that if I could buy a bicycle in India, we will go riding every evening together. That became a vision I would imagine to myself nearly every night in the months leading up to my departure for India after retiring to sleep; of riding through the rural jungle delta of India with my God-given brother in Christ.
Now that reality was here. My new bicycle was fixed and ready to make those oft-imagined trips a memory. Today is truly an evening I am looking forward to.
For the previous week, due to the fact I was sold a lemon of a bicycle (welcome to India), Chitti and I would go walk about 3 miles through one of the nearby rice field roads near to the House of God. On these walks the family dog ‘Sweetie’ would always lead the way for us, to sniff and mark his territory and find edible morsels of scraps along our way. The brisk walks were lovely. I had never been in a rice field before. They stretch horizon to horizon between the rows of palm and coconut trees that demarcate property lines. The air in these fields seemed a bit cooler and cleaner, a sea of green as the sound of kerosene pumps and the spout of water gushing out in each field’s corner to irrigate them is a waterfall of synchronicity.
Workers would dot the way, waist deep in the fields tending, fertilizing and maintaining their crops. The sight of a white man taking a stroll through these fields appears to be as odd to them as if we saw an elephant taking a leisurely walk down Main Street. Yesterday we came across a church member Krupamandam, whom saw us coming and stood to greet us both with a look of surprise to see us both in these fields.
This is the main staple of work and food for the people who live here in India. Most of the poor and low caste make a living by being hired to work these fields. Some to plant, some to irrigate, some to fertilize by hand. As menial as this life may seem, a two-year drought has added multiple miseries on an already dispirited people. Many rice fields are dried and crusted, while wealthy field owners can afford to pay for irrigation. When most of the fields dried up, so did the only source of income for many of the slum poor in these villages on the edges of the rice plantations. There is currently an exodus of the poor to travel to larger cities such as Hyderabad, where they have feeble hopes of being hired as house cleaners or to shovel up waste and trash to the sides of the roads.
Mr. Krupamandam is one of the fortunate ones to still have a field to labor in and he rejoices aloud to the Father and Jesus before us that he has been provided for. As a field worker the days are long, the work backbreaking, and the pay menial to the point of providing food alone, but this man rejoices in thanksgiving for the provision he loudly attributes to God.
As the sun goes down and twilight arrives near these fields, swarms of mosquitoes rise from the pools of water and plant shelter to hunt for a warm meal, and Chitti and I exited the fields more swiftly than we entered to avoid the nasty pests that we will have to deal with more vociferously later.
This evening should be a better experience for me as I will get to travel with Chitti to other areas I have not yet seen.
He arrives with his punctual “Vandanamulu Anna” meaning ‘elder brother’, and asks if I am ready to go. I show him I have donned my cargo shorts, a tee shirt and sunglasses. We exit my room and head downstairs to the courtyard after locking my door with a luggage lock.
My new bicycle and Chitti’s new bicycle that we bought for him, sit gleaming in the late afternoon sun side by side. Johnson is excitedly pawing at the light, bell and handle shifters, signifying to all who are watching that he is claiming this bicycle for his own after I leave back for home in three and a half months. I shake a warning finger at Johnson and tell him that his school grades have to come up before I consider if he will be gifted the bicycle. Otherwise I inform him I will give the bicycle to Prasad, and Johnson will have to ask for permission to ride it. That information does not sit well in Johnson’s eyes and I can see tears welling up a little bit in the corners of them. Being a pastor’s son has benefits that Johnson likes to exploit to his advantage, and I am hoping to show him that even though God loves each of us, He is no respecter of persons and does not see caste or station. He will learn that neither do I. Obedience bears the fruits of Godliness.
A quick cursory check of tire pressure and seat height confirm for me that the bike should serve me well and not fall apart as it had the first time I tried to ride it over a week earlier. Prasad is down in the courtyard to capture our inaugural journey on my camcorder. Chitti looks over at me, as he is astride his new one speed green machine, and I tell him I am ready. Chitti and I are then through the gate and we turn right onto the dust of the narrow road in front of the House of God and I begin to experience the dream I often imagined.
I shift into a low gear and let Chitti ride slightly ahead, but he slows so he is side by side with me. This makes me nervous, as I am already having to adjust what is familiar and ride on the left side of the road AGAINST traffic, and I am used to riding single file back home. Chitti’s eyes are fixed on my rear gears and derailleur. He smiles and then says bluntly “I do not think this is good one” motioning to my bicycle, “this is better one” he says noting to his own one speed ancient model-T era bicycle. Chitti had never seen a multi-speed bicycle before. Indeed India is about thirty years behind the curve of bicycle technology. The bike I bought was something brand new to this part of India, and I discovered the shop I bought it from – is the only one in the state that carried them.
Chitti’s doubt about my bicycle’s capabilities were about to be addressed. “For me Chitti, THIS one is better one”. With that I put my new machine into its proving trials. I change up into higher gear and pump the pedal, immediately I am pulling away from Chitti. I smile to myself. Here now, I am in my element. All the years in my teens of racing through crowded supermarket parking lots, dodging pedestrians, cars and shopping carts was going to be put to the test. I shift into the next gear and while the drag on my legs is stronger, my speed is increasing. I glance back quickly with a smile on my face to see Chitti standing up on his pedals to try and keep up with me.
“Not better huh?” I shout back. As I shift into the next gear, I feel that this will be a good cruising gear to be in. A jostle and bump as I careen over deep pocks and holes followed by a beep-beep from a motor cycle behind that sails on by to my right, returns my whole focus to the road ahead of me.
This should not be called a road. Roads in India might as well be goat trails with bits of asphalt here and there with piles of misplaced gravel at varying sizes and pits, holes and crevices that make any travel on these dust filled paths, arduous. I have to swerve to avoid a pile of ox manure sitting like hot pudding in the street from the cart being pulled right in front of me. There are basket carrying pedestrians, other bicyclists and a litany of obstacles such as piles of brick, straw and human excrement among the pocks and divots. As my focus increases, my child-like mentality takes over, and suddenly all of these things are part of a game in my head, and I swerve, dodge and challenge each thing, wary of the cars and auto rickshaws I hear rattling up behind me, swerving back left to give them enough room to pass me. I am the Millennium Falcon in my mind, and everything in my path are asteroids, with lumbering Star Destroyers looming up behind me that I have to make way to pass me.
One such large starship, a heavy truck carrying dirt clods booms up speedily over the pot holes and lays on his air horn at me. I immediately swing hard left off the road and onto the sand, straw and poop on the side just as the speeding behemoth blew past me with merely inches to spare. Then life brings me back from outer space in my mind to reality as the dust and ash this truck whirled up as it past me, blows into my face with the rear exhaust that is at head-level. I choke on stinking acrid dust and exhaust and my eyes are now stinging with the dust mist swirling about me.
I grab my brake bars and come to a halt. Even though I have sunglasses atop my head, I failed to put them down when we took off from the House of God. Now I am paying the price of being a daredevil with no fear or respect to the reality of rural India here. I wipe my eyes and feel the grit of dust and soot in my mouth. The taste is as if I just stepped into a petting zoo or chicken coop that has not ever been cleaned out all Summer. I spit a few times to get it out of my mouth when I hear Chitti pulling up next to me. As he stops his bicycle he asks if mine is broken. “No” I reply. “Getting dust out of my eyes and mouth”.
Chitti confirms and adds, “Yes, much dust here”.
I spit again and Chitti cautions me against doing so. “There may be some problems if when spitting”.
“You are not allowed to spit?” I ask incredulously.
“No” Chitti confirms. “If you spit, it is considered as insult to Hindus and there are many gods worshipped and many arts done on street to honor them” he explains, noting the chalk drawings that exist everywhere to ward off everything from spirits to bugs.
My eyes blink in incredulity at this news. “Look at that!” I point to a pile of ever-present stinking garbage strewn about the landscape.
“There!” I point to a pile of poop floating in a brine of urine. “You can squat and take a crap right here, or pee publicly with everything hanging out for the world to see wherever you like, but it is an insult to spit??????”
“Yes” Chitti says plainly. “Welcome to India!”
“This is so bass ackwards” I say to myself, knowing Chitti will have no idea what I’m saying. Chitti laughs out loud at the look on my face and ends my moment of bewilderment with “Shall we go?”
Chitti takes the lead again and I keep pace just behind him. We come up a small incline to a four-way crossroad before a bridge over what is a dry river canal. There are street vendors all set up on the corners and a throng of people and motorbikes congregate there buying fried vegetables that smell like they were fried in rancid oil. Something about this looks very familiar to me and Chitti confirms my memory. “To the right is where we did baptisms in 2010”. As I look right I remember this road we walked down to baptize five new members. The river canal was full then, alive with fish nibbling at our toes. But there has been no rain since that time, and to see it all dried up was almost depressing.
Chitti heads down the road to the left and I follow. On our right is the dried river canal, and on our left is a dilapidated slum. This slum is more filthy and poor than what exists even in Rajupalem. The people who live here I assume are Adhi Andrha, lowest caste. The saris of the women here are as rags, and the old men are nearly naked. Chickens cluck about and goats are tied by rope to carts or sticks in the ground. Water buffalo lay near grass huts built to keep them cool as their masters sit cross-legged on stools, doing double takes as I pass.
Children and dogs run about darting in and out of the passers-by on the road. They see me and stop as if seeing a ghost to stare. Other children who saw me from afar are running up from the side crying aloud “Uncle! Uncle!” denoting that some English is in fact taught in the schools here. I wave at them and say “Hello” which brings a chorus of laughter and more furious waves and beggings for us to stop. But I know better than to do that in this place. I continue to pedal on.
Smoke from a burning pile of garbage and filth piled up to our right near the embankment to the canal stings my eyes and obscures the road for a few moments. I emerge from the smoke, three women are walking with jugs of water in front of me and I swerve right after ringing my bell. Almost as if in answer, a furious beep comes at me from a motorbike coming in the opposite direction with three people on it, driven by a man clad in dark shades. I feel the pressure wave as they pass me very close, followed by the wind of their passing. It is not unusual to see an entire family of five all piled onto a motorcycle here, going from one place to another.
Unlike the fear I had while being a passenger on Chitti’s Gospel Chariot, I have none here. I am fully feeling the capabilities of the bicycle and am confident in my years of riding to be able to navigate, slow, stop or avoid whatever is coming at me.
I hear a bicycle bell behind me and assume it is Chitti. I turn and see a young lad on his rusty bicycle with a giant grin trying to keep pace with me. He pulls up to my left along what one would normally consider the shoulder and furiously pedals to pull ahead. He wants to race. Fine, I say to myself – ‘you may be ten years old or so, and I’m pushing 48 – but check this out kid’. I lever up into the higher gears and pull away dodging this and that, – beginning to enjoy the thrill of the pits, holes, poop and oncoming traffic to challenge me. I do a quick look behind me and the little guy is pedaling so hard it looked like he would pedal himself right off the bike. He raises his hand in defeat and slows down and I see Chitti note him as he passes to pull in again behind me.
Chitti is shaking his head while laughing at me. “Not bad for an old fat white guy eh Chitti?” I ask rhetorically. “No” Chitti replies. I was sweating pretty good now in the constant humidity here.
“It is better to go steady” Chitti advises. I feel sweat run down the small of my back and the discomfort of being overheated due to showing off notified my brain to use some sense now.
I keep the slower pace with Chitti as he continues to marvel at this new type of bicycle. We are along a straight patch of road now, and just ahead is one of the largest trees I have seen while in India. I like the way the bark twists in the trunk and I exclaim my enjoyment at seeing what appears to be the first hardwood, leafy type of tree I have seen here. “Is tamarind tree” Chitti says. “In a few months it will produce much fruits”. Tamarind is a pod of beans with a stringy sticky sweet meat covering the seeds that is used in almost every kind of curry here in South India.
I declare that this tamarind tree is my marker on this road of exercise. Chitti laughs and shakes his head in agreement. Up ahead we turn right and cross another small cement bridge over the dry river canal and make another left at a T-intersection. The road before us now is very straight with the river canal on our left. To my surprise, on this side of the bridge, there is a little bit of water in the canal, dammed up by what looks to be rice bags. Rice fields then appear again on our right – and while I am cruising with Chitti on my right, I reach an euphoric state. A flock of some kind of white gulls take off up into the warm sunset sky and the scene before me is as a postcard. This was my dream now alive. I am in India, riding a bicycle with my Thammadu (younger brother) and before me is that hidden beauty I had glimpsed but a few times back in 2010.
Since I arrived several weeks ago, this was my first real serene and beautiful moment – despite the fact that as I look left, I see a man totally naked squatting on the edge of the embankment relieving himself of his bowel’s contents.
Welcome to India.
The ride is a ten kilometer trip that passes many of the same kinds of depravity and filth I was becoming accustomed to. The ride reaches it’s mid-point just past a sugar cane plant that is spewing dark acrid smoke into the air. The smell is not pleasant at all, and stinks of rottenness akin to what decaying wood pulp at a paper mill smells like.
We ride back following the same path that brought us. Before me is the setting sun, going behind the smudge of dust and haze in a blur of brilliant yellow that soon turns red. The twilight sky is almost surreal in its colors and I make a mental note to remember the colors and blending, as I have never seen a sunset quite this unique before.
By the time we again reach the Gate at Pastor John’s and the House of God, my battery headlight is on as the landscape is almost two dimensional in contrasting sharp blacks and fading colors as evening now fully arrives in India.
We push open the gate and walk our bicycles inside the courtyard. Anonda is loading the heavy speakers and keyboard for worship into a rickety bicycle cart they bought to transport items from one place to another. Preparations are already well underway for setting up for the Gospel Meeting tonight.
As attentions are diverted to Chitti and I, waves of excitement greet me from everyone about our inaugural bike ride. The adults are anxious to know if the bicycle is fixed well and the children want to know if I rode well. Anusha is surrounded by most of the children on the ground floor porch with the fluorescent solar lantern casting its soft blue light on everyone. The power has not come yet, and as I muse to myself – men shall know the time of Jesus’ return with more certainty than one can ever know when the power will come and go here in the rural slums of India.
Anusha is busy forcefully instructing the children as she goes over the homework for ALL of the Gampala children and those in the congregation. I smile to myself, reminded that this scene is similar to the memory of my own wife with my girls as she homeschooled them. Like my wife, Anusha has no tolerance for laziness and tears are of no affect as Anusha swats Aksha Stephanie with a ruler for refusing to do her lesson. Standing before her is one of the boys from the congregation whose arms are folded in front of him in the Indian sign of respect. He is reciting in English what the Indian Flag’s colors represent. Anusha returns to her student and corrects him where he misses and the lessons continue.
Chitti informs me he is heading home to take a bath before tonight’s Gospel Meeting and suggests I do likewise. I am a sweaty sticky mess, and a bucket bath is definitely going to feel wonderful.
As I unlock my door and enter my room, the heat is almost oppressive as the cement wall of the House of God are acting like a kiln. I fetch my small LED flashlight from the shelf and pop open my door and the rear door to the sanctuary to get a cross breeze flowing through the room.
As I begin to gather my towel and shower supplies, there is a buzz and I hear the fan in my room come to life. The central switch light is now red, and it indicates the power has indeed come. I go to the wall to flip on the light to my room. The CFL bulb flickers and brightens.
Since the power is on, I decide to check if there is any e-mail or messages from friends, family or supporters. I have a deep desire to talk with my wife via Skype as I have not spoken to her in almost a week and I am missing her terribly. I try to connect the laptop to the DSL, but alas – the DSL is not able to get a signal to the internet. Welcome to India. I will have to wait and try later.
While I have my laptop open, I open the sermon message I have prepared to give tonight atop the roof of a Muslim woman who has invited us into her home to eat and share the gospel as thanksgiving for the service John and Chitti performed some weeks back for her family.
As I go over my notes, the frail forms of three women appear in my doorway. “Vandanamulu Babu” I am greeted. I rise as these are three of the six precious widows whom were forcibly thrown out from living here at the House of God by the Hindu caste leader who lives across the street.
Kardias has been sponsoring six specific widows to be adopted by the Gampala family to live and serve here at the House of God out of the 29 that Kardias keeps alive with monthly support for foodstuffs the Gampalas distribute to them. In November of last year, a tyrant I affectionately refer to as “Pharaoh”- hardened his heart against the widows and the Gampalas. Because higher caste Hindus consider widows to be cursed creatures, Pharaoh is hunting for any leverage he can find to have the House of God torn down. This man uses his political influence and stealth, to influence the government of India to demand the Gampalas publicly expel the widows from this place and remove the name of the Lord from the building Prasad had hung on the façade. It was the first time I truly felt the pain of persecution that our brothers and sisters face here daily.
Despite the expulsion and the desire of the Hindus that these widows suffer and die as their religion demands of them, we reminded the Gampalas that it is better to obey God than men and to continue to serve them by feeding them and caring for them as they are able.
The three in my doorway are soon joined by a fourth, whom I recognize as Santhama. I greet each one with a kiss to the forehead, something that breaks every cultural and caste rule here in India. But I do not care. These women have lived a life of sorrow, one of them since she was widowed at 19, and the pain of their recent forced expulsion needed the comfort that the brethren in the USA wanted me to share with them. They chat at me excitedly in Telugu, raising their hands to heaven saying “Alleluia” – and patting me on my arms. They gather around and cover their heads and it is time for me to pray for them before they will go in the Worship hall for prayer before joining the family downstairs for prayer and then their dinner.
As the widows leave, I close the door behind them as I get a good whiff of myself and decide now is a good time for the evening bath. I literally have to peel the sweat-wet shirt and shorts off of my body. I notice on the shirt that it is discolored a mustard yellow, and as I look, I can see that where I was sweating during the bike ride, the acrid dust and smoke that clouded and was whipped up around us, pasted itself to my shirt and dyed it this funky mustard color.
Stepping into the bath area, I fill a pitcher with the well water coming from the cistern on the roof. As I douse myself from head to toe, I sigh in enjoyment over the coolness that is wetting me down. A good shampoo and a scrunchy body wash soap scrub – I feel clean again and dump pitchers of cool water over myself to rinse.
Stepping out and drying off, I feel like a new man. I am glad I remembered to grab my bottled water from the Berkey filter I am using, as using only bottled and filtered water to brush my teeth is a vital thing I almost forgot.
I put on a clean shirt and for the present, I decide to only wear the new longhi Chitti bought me. It’s a simple fabric wrap men in India wear and I am finding it very comfortable around the house.
At 7:30 on evenings when there is no ministry activity, the Gampalas all gather on the ground floor porch for family prayer and worship with the widows and all members of the family. Several hymns are sung and clapped to for about thirty minutes, followed by a reading of scriptures, usually in the Psalms. Then prayer for the needs, the sick and thanksgiving are then recited out loud. Last evening was my time to pray and I had a nice opportunity to lift up the family of God USA in prayers, and for the mission team everyone here is excited to receive in May.
Thursdays I enjoy, as after 8:30, the youth come for a bible school lesson which also involves songs sung, worship and a biblical message. I have had fun being myself at these meetings having an opportunity to explain the scriptures in a more relaxed and less preaching sort of way as I sit with them and make our time together interactive and creative. I stop for a moment to consider how busy in the work of God I have been since I arrived here several weeks earlier, and I would almost assert to myself that if I added up all my time in the church over 24 years, this past month outweighs the amount of work I have done in God’s service.
I finish putting on my longhi, Chitti is at the door. He is wearing all white and he looks at me disapprovingly. “My brother there is Cottage meeting tonight” he reminds me. “Oh Yes!” I reply. I hit myself upside the head and say I am sorry for losing my mind upon getting out of the bath. Chitti laughs and I tell him it will only take me a moment to put on a belt and the new pants and preaching shirt they tailor made for me.
The Gospel meeting is in the slum village of Lanka, near to where Chitti lives and the Gospel meeting is outside on the roof in the night air. I make sure I douse myself with plenty of Deep Woods Off to keep the White-Meat-loving-Mosquitoes from dining too liberally on me.
As we head on out the door to my room, I can see the Pharaoh sitting in his chair across the street looking up at us. I fetch the luggage locks remembering the stories Chitti has told me about how Pharoah hires street urchins to break in and steal or break things at the House of God when he sees everyone leaving.
I say a quick prayer for God to have Angels watching over this house as we go to preach and teach His Word. We go outside the gate and using the headlight of the Gospel Chariot, Chitti latches an old keylock on the gate. We mount the Gospel Chariot, Chitti slowly opens the throttle and off into the night street we go.
Evenings is when India comes alive in light and sound. The heat of the day makes it uncomfortable to do most activities, so most shopping, feasting and worship occurs at night. We pass the many shacks on wheels that open after sunset, a single yellow bulb shines dim lights on snacks and cans of soda at one stand. Next door some old rusted pots are steaming with rice and curries for anyone seeking a quick meal.
The booms of distant fireworks can be heard as Indians use any occasion to light them off. Weddings, birthdays, dedications or political speeches. Music from multiple sources sail through the air along with the songs, bells and screeches of various forms of temple worship.
The previous evening Chitti took me to see a massive Hindu festival in the local town of G. Mamidada so I could document it for the DVD I will make of this mission trip on my return home. In a land of 300 million major gods, there is literally a festival nearly each night for one god or someone else’s god. But last evening was a celebration for the major deity of Shiva – the god of destruction. The town of G. Mamidada is known for its devotion to this god and his subordinates. They spend millions of rupees to decorate the entire town in lights and built a giant tower in the middle of the road that houses thousands of little bowls of oil that individual Hindus can light in homage to the god of destruction.
I ask aloud if worshipping this god of destruction appeases this god’s wrath for those who worship him? Chitti affirms yes, but also says that any destruction or death is Shiva’s doing. So I guess by that reckoning if you get killed in a house fire, that Shiva was not impressed with however many little bowls of oil one lights. Why do it then? Well that’s easy to see I tell myself, look around – everyone else is doing it.
As Chitti explained the rituals and temple worship associated with this festival, I could not help but muse that the tower of flame looked like the Towering Inferno, and noted out loud that I suspect it was a fitting tribute to the ‘god of destruction’.
Tonight will be different however, for we will be worshipping the True God, the Creator of all things and the One sent to redeem mankind to the Father. It will be primitive and simple, and while we will not have flaming vials of oil, a laser light show would be pretty awesome sometime in the future at one of these night-time Gospel meetings. Ahhhh, my childishness yet capitalizes my thoughts as I recall what I witnessed the previous evening.
We arrive at our host’s cement pillbox home and I can see from the ground that the lights strung and the speaker systems on the roof are already vying to compete with the Hindu temples that have their loudspeakers blasting their worship. Anonda is playing recorded Telugu worship songs from his cell phone into an amplifier that has the music blaring into the night air. As we walk up a mound of dust and dirt, Chitti removes his sandals and I do likewise before we enter the home. For a land of dirt, dust and filth – the amount of cultural rules is mind altering, and most of them make no sense at all.
Gospel meetings or ‘cottage meetings’ if they are at someone’s home, are events where hospitality rules and other traditions come into major focus. It begins as many things do in India with ritual greetings, followed by the host feeding the guests. The main event itself is an amplified broadcasted worship service via loudspeaker, as all religious worship in India is conducted. Hindu, Muslim, Christian. The air is ablaze with shouting and screeching over whose god is bigger and badder than the other one.
The cottage and Gospel meetings the Gampalas conduct contain messages that are more geared toward preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ to the Hindus who live nearby as the Word is blasted out from loudspeakers to anyone within earshot. Such is the air-war that India’s religions wage against one another. The battle to force people to hear this belief and that god is an air war fought in decibels. Even for the Christians here, it often is the only vehicle they can afford to preach the Gospel to more ears that God may reach with His Word.
But Christians have no rights here, and any worship they are able to conduct is usually when they are tolerated. And here, it is barely. For the Hindus, a screeching temple service can go all night long, and often weeks long with teams of screaming and singing eunuchs overlapping one another to keep the worship to the pagan gods, constant and non-stop 24 hours a day.
But if Christian worship is suddenly unwanted, the Hindus can order the worship silenced or stopped. During the opening night worship at the Feast of Tabernacles at the House of God in 2010, Pharaoh had police armed with batons come into the sanctuary, beat and arrest John, Chitti and Prasad for offending the Hindus, and they confiscated their worship instruments, speaker systems, drums and keyboard.
It is a threat they face every moment. Even this evening, as nice as it was, the hypocritical injustice the brethren live in here was again on display for me to see. For as we were walking to the house, two Hindu men came and ordered the volume of worship to be lowered on the roof above, because their own eighty loudspeaker worship they claimed was hard to hear with the sound coming from the rooftop of this widow’s home.
Meanwhile the very thought of complaining about weeks of Hindu worship blasted from hundreds of speakers pointed at the House of God is unthinkable. The Christians have no right to complain about anyone, for if they try – they more often than not find themselves arrested.
Such is the insidiousness of institutionalized persecution.
The Hindu men remain until the volume is to their satisfaction, which means that essentially their worship is able to be heard over ours.
Chitti and I are led to a small room that is pathetically furnished, but draped and adorned with many bowls, tins and urns of food prepared especially for their honored guest: me. I find myself again in uncomfortable territory but the many rules in Indian culture require that I eat whatever is served to me, without complaint so the hosts are not offended.
While I am continuously treated as a Maharaja, my pleas to be their footwashing servant is an aspect entirely foreign to their thinking.
After the entire hostesses’ family watches me eat in their home, I am asked to pray for a blessing on the family and the house, which I do. I am not ashamed to pray in Jesus’ Name even though our hostess and her family are Muslim. Pastor John and Chitti literally lived the parable of the Good Samaritan for this Muslim woman’s husband who died on the road of a massive heart attack. No one would fetch his body or handle it, not even family or close friends. John and Chitti used their own funds to hire a cab and transport the man’s body to his wife for proper burial. The effort endeared the Gampalas to her, and she has come a time or two to church services since.
On the roof the congregation has been belting out hymns and praise for over an hour. On my arrival, John speaks for a few minutes then invites me to give the message. As I rise to the makeshift music stand podium, the roofs of the homes next door are dotted with neighbors who come up to listen and hear. I speak about following Jesus and the cost it often brings to those here in India. Chitti translates my English into Telugu. Then I describe the gift of Life and the promises of God for faith in Christ.
It is a rare opportunity to present Jesus to people who never even heard the Name, much less see a Christian service performed before them. As with all services, I am beset with brethren and Hindus begging me to lay hands on them for prayers of blessing, healing or provision from the Father.
When the service is finished and everyone is walking or riding their bicycles or motor bikes home, it is after 10:30 PM and I am tired. Most nights when there is power, I do most of my e-mailing and video conferencing with my wife and family. I truly give thanks to Our Great God for the technology that permits me to feel as though I was with my wife today, even if it was only video chat.
On other evenings, dinner is served to me after 8 PM and often close to 9 as the tradition is for Indians to eat right before they go to sleep, so the meager amounts they normally eat is enough to calm the aching stomach at night when they sleep. As an American, I am not used to eating before bed, and I fear putting on weight instead of losing it.
But I am assured the Summer heat here with no A/C will sweat big pounds off of me.
Retiring for the evening is a little bit like an Indian version of the Waltons. There is the customary Shubarathri (blessings for the night) and the standard “manchuratrhri” (good night) with traditional praying hands greeting. My adopted Indian family sees me as a true family member, and the love I can see in their eyes always amazes me. Such a thing is only possible by the miracle of God Himself who can gift us this Agape love He seeks us to share with one another in the faith, no matter where we live in this world.
I walk up the steps and let myself back into my room. I close my door and bring down all the draperies that partition my room, and once that is finished I begin one last ritual before I will let my tired head hit pillow: Mosquito hunting.
Chitti had bought for me one of the greatest fun gifts I had ever been given, a weapon almost as awesome as a real lightsaber. An electric mosquito taser. Shaped like a tennis racket and filled with a metal grating, the wall charging device will brightly pop and fry the little buggers into smoking hulls falling to the floor.
I open my mosquito canopy over my bed and fry the half dozen that sneak their way into my sleeping domain that wait for me to retire. When I am finished having fun, then I switch off the main light and take my racket with me into the canopy and shut it behind me. I shine the light around inside the canopy just to be sure. Already on the outside I can see the nasty malaria-carriers trying to get through the netting to feast on me.
As I lay still looking up through the mesh, I silently thank God my Father for the day today. He is so good and I am so undeserving of the many blessings I have been afforded in life. For here are brethren who love the Lord above and beyond anything I have ever done. Through unspeakable poverty, filth and persecution, and with very little they offer everything to daily praise and love Him. Through every obstacle and risk to their own safety and lives, they work daily to do Matthew 28:19-20.
As for the country of India itself, I recall the moment of serenity and beauty near sunset. For all the ugliness, corruption and depravity, through all the heat and dust – lies a hidden inner beauty that one can only catch glimpses of if they know what they are looking for.
India is like a diamond in the rough. The ugly dark and hard coating of Satan’s ways and world cover this land and people in a hard shell of ignorance that blinds them to their destiny. A diamond one would never see beauty in by looking at the surface. And as impenetrable as that ugly dark outer rock seems to be, the pure power of the Gospel can cut through the crust of darkness that enshrouds and covers this whole land. Because if one can strip the darkness of millennia of superstition and paganism away, inside lies a beautiful diamond – only needing to be shaped and polished with the Word of God. A diamond I am convinced would shine as brightly as any in the jeweled Crown Our Savior will wear of His people.
As I drift off to sleep, I thank my Heavenly Dad for allowing me the privilege to be here in these fields of His Harvest to plant, water and hopefully one day – watch Him bring forth an increase that everyone will share in.