Ephesians 5:14 This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
When I was in my 7th grade Social Studies class, we were studying the country of India. There were crazy pictures of cattle walking in the streets and pictures of intense poverty in my textbook. (Yes. Remember the days when students had textbooks) I turned to a classmate and said, right out of the blue, I am going to India someday. I remember her response. She said, “I don’t want to go there. Why would you want to go there?”
Moving forward 36 years, I was sitting in my living room one Sunday afternoon reading a mailing I had received from missionaries Joyce and Bill Scott. They were celebrating their 50th year as missionaries. They were inviting those interested in their ministry to join them to help celebrate those 50 years. Their ministry happened to be in India. Without hesitation, I announced to my family, “I’m going to India.” Everyone started asking questions about my pronouncement except my daughter, Mary, who was in the dining room. She said, “I’m going to India too.” I asked if anyone else was going to India. There were no further pronouncements.
A few months later, visa’s in hand, we met with the group we were traveling with to India in the Newark airport just before we were scheduled to catch our flight. The missionary leaders were attempting to brief us on the adventure we were about to embark on. They began to paint a picture that definitely got my attention. I was not going for a visit to Kansas.
I wasn’t even on the plane yet headed for India and I was hearing things I wasn’t prepared to hear. The missionary guides told the women in the group to be very careful not to make eye contact with any sheik men and to make sure very little skin was exposed. I, of course, almost immediately experienced the intense anger from a Sheik I had affronted by making eye contact while passing through a turnstile at the airport in New Delhi.
We needed to always stay with our guides particularly because we would be going into areas of poverty.
Men normally urinate where ever they were when they got the urge so if a man were to whip it out and start peeing we shouldn’t look at him. All I could think was who would want to see any part of that nastiness. My feet got burned from the intense concentration of urine in the soil wherever I walked while I was there. It is reported 600 million people regularly urinate and defecate in the streets of India.
They got to the indelicate description of bathroom etiquette. They explained the difference between western bathrooms and the bathrooms in India. The hole in the floor was something I hadn’t heard about. It wasn’t in my 7th grade textbook. The textbook authors also failed to report that they didn’t use toilet tissue. When I heard the missionaries say you had to look for a western bathroom to find toilet tissue, I had a couple of questions.
How do you clean up without toilet tissue? They answered my question. When you shake hands in India, always offer your right hand because they use their left hand to wipe after using the bathroom. I made some sort of exclamation as a response at which point a woman who was sitting behind our group with her husband said to me, what’s the problem? You just wash your hand when you are done. She looked like she was from India. She and the man she was with stayed near us the entire time we were in the airport until we boarded the plane. It made me uncomfortable.
I forgot about my initial alarm by the time we got in the air. It was exciting to fly over the Atlantic for the first time and then over parts of Europe. When the pilot announced, we were flying over Turkey, I began to become aware again of where we were headed. When we finally got to New Delhi and started to descend, I got my first look at India. Surrounding the airport, huts made of cardboard and other scrap materials came into focus. The airport itself wasn’t much larger than the Ithaca Tompkins International Airport. Seemingly strange for a city with a population of 15,000,000 in 2000. The population of New Delhi now stands at over 30,000,000.
After disembarking, we went through customs, gathered our luggage, and walked out onto Indian soil. We were met with troops of monkeys hanging from the airport buildings and walking along the paths around you. Our guides ushered us into several waiting vans and off we went.
Although there were 15,000,000 people, there were about two traffic lights in the city of New Delhi. The concept of might makes right is law in India. If you are bigger, you have the right of way, unless you are a cow or bull in which case you trump everything else on the road. You can’t even try to rush one out of your way. You must wait for them to move. That was accurately reported by the 7th grade textbook authors. I never got used to being comfortable walking next to a 2,000 pound Holstein bull.
If there was no traffic coming from the opposite direction, the entire road was yours. I was somewhat familiar with those driving habits from years of dealing with college students on the roads here in Ithaca. There were no designated sides, no need for painted lines. A lot of the roads were dirt anyway so I don’t know how you could paint them.
There were millions of motorbikes and rickshaws. You drive by sound. Everyone honks their horns to let others know where you are on the roadway. There were crowds of vehicles packed together tighter than sardines.
When we got to our accommodations, we were not surprised to find them very basic. Shortly after getting there, one of the guides came to our room and said he was going to the bank to exchange our American money for rupees which we would need while we were there. I gave him $300 to exchange which I thought was quite modest when you thought about the cost for two people in a foreign country for several weeks. He looked at me and asked why I would need a suitcase full of money.
We were warned to not eat any food from any place except what they offered us or an American sponsored restaurant. One of our tour buddies had been raised on the Pakistan border by her missionary parents so she thought she could eat the native food she had been raised on. She ended up leaving the group along with her husband while she was hospitalized and returned to the US. I took the warning seriously.
We visited the slums in New Delhi by the train tracks at night. They were reported to be some of the poorest slums in the world. The sewage ran in ditches between the huts. We walked through the slums with children grabbing at our hands begging for food as we made our way to a meeting house where dozens of people were packed into a small room. We were running late and they had waited for hours for us in the brutal hot Indian weather. As you walked in the dark, you had to watch for the small wires hanging all over the place with pirated electric. It was often over 110 F. We were honored to make literacy award presentations to some of the poorest people in the world.
We visited orphanages in Chennai and Bangalore where some of the luckiest children were rescued off the streets and given a place to sleep, get some food, and learn to read. They wore rags for clothing. It was a blessing to sing with them and see them laugh and play like any other child in the world.
One day shortly after we arrived, one of our missionary guides got us from our room and escorted us to the Pastor’s office quietly. The Pastor told us that he wouldn’t be leading us that day. It wasn’t safe for us. He was being followed by the Fundamentalist Hindus. Christians are routinely martyred in India. One of the Pastor’s sons had been quartered and left in a field to be found. We were told that an Indian who chose to be baptized and speak of their belief in Jesus could face the same brutal fate at the hand of their own family members.
After the Pastor spoke to us, we had a worrisome experience. We left in a van for a ministry site. We paused briefly beside one of the many monkey statues alongside the road. A man stood there praying to the monkey god. The craziest thing happened. It was 113 degrees that day. As I looked at the statue, the air around me became frigid cold. I shuddered and looked away from the statue. My eyes landed on the van driver who was staring fixedly at me in the mirror above his head. I kept my face expressionless and looked away. Later I told our guide about the experience. He said the driver was most likely spying on our group and was one of the Fundamentalist Hindus. He said they were all over the place and it was hard to get a trusted driver.
We were warned to not give money to the swarms of beggars found everywhere. It was hard when you were approached by children who had been maimed so they could make better beggars. They didn’t live long. Their owner took whatever you gave them. Most of the children begging were stolen or orphans. I didn’t listen to the warning one time. We visited the Red Castle. There was a woman who was in charge of taking care of the sandals while you visited barefoot. When I returned, I got my sandals and carefully slipped her 15 rupees, about 30 cents. At the time, $10 was a good weekly salary. As I left I heard yelling. I turned to see a man beating the woman until she gave him the money I had tipped her.
One very frightening thing was children would run alongside whatever vehicle we travelled in, including buses, with their hands in the air reaching to you begging. I didn’t know how the driver could keep driving with children running by the vehicles wheels.
Wherever you went people were lying on the ground in public places sleeping. I assumed they did that searching for a little safety in their homelessness as they slept.
I had taken a suitcase full of children’s fever reducer with me to India to try to get it to the Baptist hospital 50 km outside of Chennai. I asked Joyce Scott if she could get me and my daughter there to give the medicine to them. She asked me to meet with her in her office. She wanted me to understand. She said there was a one lane road to get to the hospital. She also told me it would take her a full day to find someone she could trust to get me there. It would take one day there and one day back. She said if we didn’t make it to the hospital before nightfall, we would never be found again. She asked if I could trust her with the medicine which was a very valuable commodity. She would send it the next week to the hospital when they were having a routine delivery of books made by a trusted driver.
I am left with many, many memories and have the faces of the children forever etched in my mind. Thank you for letting me share some of those memories with you. It was a wake up call for me.
In the sermon next week, I would like to share with you what I learned and how I was changed because of my time in India.