March 5, 2015

The India Experience

I’m nodding off in the back of a van coming back from our first church service in India. Everyone is quiet and exhausted from our first full day in India. The van bumps along on a rocky rural road and the air conditioning seems to have cut out. One of the Indian pastors is in the front seat humming a tune in his native language and I think to myself how amazing the experience was we just witnessed.

India was full of mind blowing experiences that had me feeling all kinds of emotions. It was equal parts exhaustion, exhilaration, fear, joy, despair and laughter. I can understand what people mean when they say they need time after visiting the country to process things. I think I will be thinking about this trip for the rest of my life.

We arrived at India around 3 in the morning. Traveling for almost 20 hours takes a serious toll on the human body, which really doesn’t make too much sense. How can sitting down for that long make you feel so tired? Regardless, I hardly remember our arrival at the hotel in India, and we pretty much crashed as soon as we got there.

The next day was overwhelming. We got in a van in Bangalore to drive 6 hours to Salem with Michael, our driver, who could speak English but was mostly quiet. It’s hard to describe what that first drive through the city was like. It was so mind blowing to see how much was going on. Everywhere I looked, there were people and cars crowding in to fill every inch of space. It was loud, smelly, and hot. I look one way and see three people standing in a line peeing in the road. The other way, there’s people crowding into an Indian-style KFC. It seemed everywhere was alive in India. I guess that’s what happenes when you try to cram more than 1 billion people in a country. It was also interesting to see how many buildings there were that were either half-built or just completely abandoned.

The driving was absolutely terrifying at first. Lanes and traffic lights are really more suggestions than anything else. If there was an inch of open space, a bike or a car would quickly move in to take it up. It was chaotic, but it was a blast. It seemed the drivers knew what they were doing for the most part. Even when we were going 45 mph down a bumpy 1-lane dirt road with people walking across.

We happened to arrive on a day that there were festivals going on everywhere. It had to do with celebrating the harvest season or something. We kept coming across animals that were painted and contests that were going on. A common contest we came across was a bunch of people standing on each other’s shoulders to reach the top of a giant pole.

Pastor Sam Stevens, president of India Gospel League, was at Sharon Gardens to greet us when we arrived. The campus there is absolutely stunning, and the accommodations are fantastic as well. Future visitors can take comfort in the fact they will be well taken care of there. I also got to see what I was incredibly excited to see – monkeys! They had raided the chicken coup there, and when I walked up to check it out one of them hopped on a branch above me and shook it angrily. I got the message and backed off.

That night, Pastor Sam was incredibly warm and hospitable with us. He invited us to an outdoor family dinner he was having with a chef that cooked us the best food we had all trip. Visitors beware! Indian food tends to be incredibly spicy. It’s delicious, but my body paid the price later.

We enjoyed wonderful conversation with Sam regarding the state of church planting in India and the current needs of pastors there. He explained that he wants Indian pastors to have more of a focus on studying and teaching the word and doing discipleship. I thought Pastor Sam belonged in Xenos. He also asked us why Americans are always so loud. India is a much louder country than America since it’s so jam packed with people, yet he noticed Americans always seem to talk louder than anyone else. I offered that maybe we just want to be heard, but he said he suspected it’s an effort to assert dominance. India is not that type of culture at all. We also met a young man from Australia who was staying at Sharon Gardens. His church also has a partnership with IGL, and he planned on staying in India for almost a year. We became fast friends.

The next day was when we visited the small church and we got our first taste of an Indian church service. The first thing you need to know is that they are way more emotionally expressive. After almost every sentence by the pastor, they would shout out “Praise the Lord!” or “hallelujah!” They also love their worship songs. They hooked up a cheap little Casio piano and used the pre-recorded drum beats and synth sounds to sing their traditional hymns to. The music would be incredibly annoying in the ears of Americans, but they absolutely went crazy for it. It was a blast joining in the clapping and shouting. If you go to India, you better be ready to clap along too. Your hands will be sore from all the clapping.

After Mark and the young man from Australia shared a message through a translator, we got the honor of dedicating a new well that was built just outside the church. They asked me to pray and Adam to cut the ribbon and we took pictures. It was an incredible honor. That’s the thing about people in India: they love to serve and honor outsiders. It was a little awkward at first being honored like this. At the service and conferences we went to, we were basically treated like royalty. We were always sat up front behind the speaker and people always wanted us to pray over them and their families. I didn’t feel like we deserved any such honor over these pastors way more amazing work for the Kingdom than we were, but it helped to understand that honoring outsiders is part of their culture.

The next day we were taken to the IGL offices in downtown Salem. There, Mark met one of his sponsor children for the first time. I was unprepared for how emotional that experience was. It was such a tender moment as they connected, and Mark was so gentle with him. It made me incredibly excited to meet Caitlin and my sponsor child. We took a tour of the offices and found out they are incredibly self-sustaining. They have their own equipment for publications including a printing press. It’s amazing that such a small office is the base for thousands of churches across India.

We went shopping later that day, and boy are prices cheap. Adam and I kept using the limited amount of the Tamil language we knew to say ridiculous things. We told everyone our names were LeBron James and Michael Jackson. One young associate caught on to our little game. He told us his name was Jacki Chan and he showed us some Kung Fu moves. We showed him how to moon walk. Poorly.

That night we got to witness an amazing children’s service at Sharon Gardens that they put on just for us. They did some fantastic little Indian dances and performances. We got up and did our Father Abraham dance and they went absolutely nuts. Adam and I started making our own dance moves and they were trying to copy us and were falling down all over the place. It got chaotic quickly and they asked us to sit down.

Adam and someone else’s sponsor child share some quality time

Joel met his 14-year old sponsored girl there, which was again incredibly emotional. He asked her where she was planning on going to college and she didn’t know – so he offered to pay for her to go to the community college for nursing located on Sharon Gardens’ campus. She was overjoyed.

I met Sean’s little sponsored boy, Ravi, and gave him Sean’s presents. His eyes got wider and wider as I was piling gifts in his arms. I asked if I could pray over him, but he wanted to pray over me first. It was the cutest little prayer I ever heard. He wanted me to let Sean know he was praying for him too.

I didn’t get to meet my sponsor girl until the next day. I was walking back from teaching the conference and saw a bunch of little girls lined up outside a building. I kept yelling “Sumithra!” until they brought forward the cutest little girl I’ve ever seen. I didn’t have a translator with me at the time, so I gave her a couple suckers, a pat on the head and walked away awkwardly. It was decidedly less emotional than some of the other encounters, but it was still special to me.

The next day we taught the conference for the first time. It was terrifying. I had never taught through a translator before and didn’t know what to expect. I sort of stumbled through my first teaching, but they said they really liked it. After that, it became a lot easier. Our topic was “All Things Made New”, and the purpose was to give the pastors confidence and hope as they encountered struggles and persecution in their ministries. We also were told they need to learn to teach from the Word more. They tend to favor big emotional services full of singing and praising, almost Pentecostal-style, and stress less the truth of the Word. At one teaching session, Pastor Benny (who will be coming to Cleveland in a couple weeks) told them to chill out with their singing. He asked how many of them were teaching their church service the next day and almost all of them raised their hands. He then asked how many of them started preparing for their sermons. Almost none of them raised their hands. That was surprising to say the least.

After our last teaching at the first conference we had nothing to do, so we headed up towards the kids’ school. They were just coming out of classes and they all swarmed us wanting candy. After we exhausted our supply, we started playing games with them, like racing down the basketball court. The high school girls were particularly sassy. They kept asking us about our wives. One girl told me “Your wife beautiful. You no beautiful”.

We met a 14-year-old boy named Leo there. He was incredibly charismatic and I could tell he was the leader of the bunch. He brought us out back towards the hostel where the boys lived. We met up with Asap, a super-sanguine English-speaking pastor who was a lot of fun. That was an incredible scene – playing Cricket as the sun was setting below the hazy mountains with our new friends. As dusk settled, they brought us in to the boys’ nightly devotional. Asap asked us to share a bible story and I told the story of Joseph. Adam and Joel acted out the scenes hilariously. Adam played Joseph, and the kids especially loved when I had him weep over what his brothers (Joel) was doing to him.

Playing Cricket. A swing and a miss!

That was really the best part of India – interacting with the kids. It was so special seeing the Lord work in these kids’ lives despite being abandoned by their families. It also showed me how important the work IGL is doing in the lives of people in India. They truly are helping to spread the mercy of God in a dark country. It helped put the petty things I get worried about in America in perspective. There are more important things in this world than working a 9-5 job and trying to have as much fun as possible. We are not here in this world strictly for enjoyment. We are here for a little time doing an important work that will have eternal ramifications. I felt a greater sense of not wasting my life than I ever had before.

After we finished up our first conference, we took an entire day to travel to Vizag on the coast. We had to fly in another plane in-country. By the end of the day, we were all once again exhausted and cranky. It didn’t help that the WiFi barely worked at any time during our trip.

Now that I reflect back on our trip, I am incredibly pleased with the team we went over with – Mark, Joel, Adam, and me. Each of us brought something different to the table that helped us get through it all. Adam and I helped to lighten things up when they were getting intense, and I think we did help prevent Mark from getting too grumpy. I think it was also good for Joel to loosen up and throw any semblance of a schedule out the window. Joel was incredibly proactive and helpful in getting us prepared and to the places we needed to be. We even joked that when he was in the shower he probably had his laptop in there preparing for something. I think we would have been very lost without Joel. Mark of course brought his experience from his previous trip to India. He was an incredible team leader and he conversed well with the other pastors. He was also easily our strongest teacher.

Teaching at Vizag was much more comfortable since we had all done it before. The highlight of this conference was getting to meet Pastor Suvartha, who is the pastor of the church in Sairiki, the India village we are sponsoring. Also, he looks exactly like the Indian version of Greg Morscher. He told us his story, which we filmed and will put into a video to show at CT.

After the conference, Pastor Benny and another pastor (whose name escapes me at the moment) took us to the beach. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in my life. There were people all over the place and a concert happening behind us. All up and down the coast there were magnificent rock formations and battleships rested out in the sea.

A very crowded beach

Later that night, the pastor who translated for us at the conference brought his wife of two months to dinner. He told us about how God brought them together. Is wife had been looking for a Christian husband so she could escape the clutches of her Hindu family. She saw a vision of a man God told her would be her husband. The next day she saw this pastor and recognized him from the vision. They got married soon after.

Throughout the trip I would often feel so out of my element. I am a naturally tribal person, and this is just about the most anti-tribal thing a person can do. I felt very homesick much of the time. I think my lowest point was when we were walking the in the streets on our last day. It was noisy and people were pressing in all around me. There were people following us begging for money. We came upon a church with all kinds of sick and mentally ill people lying on the steps outside, begging. One man was half in the street and half on the sidewalk, foaming at the mouth, demented out of his mind. That was terrifying to see. I asked myself at that moment what God could be thinking putting this man in this situation with the blazing hot sun on his face, without the mental capacity to understand why he was suffering. That was tough to deal with, but as I thought and prayed on it, I began to understand how this is not God’s doing. He wants to heal people such as these, but the fallen world that we live in has consequences. God’s heart breaks for the suffering of this world far more than our hearts break. I just began praying to God that his kingdom would come soon so that suffering can finally be put to an end.

Another significant takeaway from this trip was learning on a deeper level what it means to trust God with everything. The spiritual darkness of India is incredibly oppressive, and it was mind blowing to experience this first hand. The stories some of the pastors shared of persecution and spiritual oppression was sobering. We don’t always see the need to hand our whole lives over to God here in America because we already have so much. The truth is we are just as lost as the people of India without God.

We boarded a plane at 3:00 AM and began our long trip home. The trip ended up taking around 36 hours since we got stuck in Newark airport due to “Snowmeggedon”. It was terrifying driving back in the storm, but we made it back safe and sound. I can’t even tell you how loved I felt at the support and prayers from our church while we were gone. It really helped drive me as we worked in India.

This trip is one of the few truly life-changing things I’ve done in my life. I think it’s an experience every Christian should try to do at least once in their lives. I am so glad God paved the way for me to do this, even though it was difficult at times. Pray that the Lord blesses you with an opportunity like this.


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