Thursday, December 29, 2011

7 Days In India - Day 5 - One Night In Agra

It was mid-afternoon and having just completed the sewing school graduation, we were all feeling quite worn out.  The hurry and intensity of the last few days in a strange culture were catching up to us.  Since we had checked into our hotel in the morning, we were dropped off at the door and trudged our way up the stairway, confirmed the time that we would have to meet again before leaving, and locked ourselves into our separate hotel rooms.

For the price we paid, it seemed that this was supposed to be a "nicer" hotel, yet the white bedspread was stained and the bathroom was not very clean.  It made us realize what a luxury it was to be staying in the home of the pastors, back in Delhi - there was nothing very homey or comfortable about this tile-floored stark white room.  The one bonus was that we had a balcony that looked out onto the hotel's lawn, but even that had a downside since each hotel room's balcony was connected and I immediately wondered about people looking in our room or knocking at our exterior door in the middle of the night.  So much for feeling safe and secure.

Our room had a television, and feeling the need for some down time, we flipped through the channels... In typical Asian fashion, there appeared to be a lot of day-time "soap operas" and despite their bizarre plot lines (as best as we could understand with the language barrier) I soon drifted off to sleep.  After a brief nap, I awoke to the sound of Dan groaning as he lay on the bed next to me, and he didn't look so good!

 "What's wrong?"  I asked with concern.

"I don't feel very good" he said, with one hand on his stomach and an arm thrown across his face to block out the light.

I realized at that point that I also had a strange percolating, gurgling sensation in my stomach.  It felt all acidly inside - but not too much... just a slightly uncomfortable feeling.  So far, we had remained quite healthy during our trip.  The infamous "Delhi belly" had yet to assault our bowels and the food had caused no problems for us.  It was nearly time for us to get dressed and ready for the special church service, so we decided to knock on Steve and Kindra's door and see how they were faring.

Apparently, Dan was not the only one feeling a little bit "off".  Kindra's skin was more pale than usual, and she confirmed that she also was feeling a bit of "indigestion".  We talked for a few moments, going over what we had eaten that day and we soon narrowed it down to the fresh bits of onion and cucumber that were served alongside our delicious Tikka Chicken earlier that day.  So much for the adventure of dining on our own!  No wonder the pastor had been sheltering us so much during our stay - we rarely got the chance to eat out, and it was never ever at a roadside stall.  Far too many times, we would be driving down the road and some delicious scent would assault my nostrils... somosas or curry or something that I had never experienced before.  But we were sternly admonished to stay away from these places, at risk of serious illness!  Now, the very restaurant that we had been sent to for lunch may be the culprit for our stomach troubles.

If there is anything that I learned back in the days of my much tamer youth "mission trips", it is that when it comes to ministry, you must persevere.  There is no sense in letting the short time go to waste, no matter how badly you are feeling.  So there was no question in our minds about the schedule that evening - no changes would be made - we would go "on with the show" as they say.

We all got dressed and headed downstairs to the lobby to search for our driver who was supposed to be meeting us.  He walked up to us on the hotel's driveway and motioned for us to follow him across the street where he was parked.  Stepping outside the hotel's gates, I was once again reminded of the intensity of this culture - people absolutely everywhere, garbage on the ground and the dust and dirt clinging to every tree, brick, and the sidewalk.  Then there was the unusual combination of cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, horse-and-cart, the occasional camel and the ever-present stray cows and water buffalo that shared this street.  Just before I was going to walk across, I jumped back, startled and realized that I had to look the opposite way for oncoming traffic!  Not only that, but we were in a society where the rule "pedestrians have the right-of-way" was non-existent!  Instead, it was our responsibility to find a gap in the traffic and weave our way through the chaotic traffic. Fortunately, this was a less busy street than many we had seen, and we managed to cross over to the vehicle safely!  What an adventure...and this was just us trying to get into our taxi!

We drove down some narrow side streets and were approaching what appeared to be dead end in the road, with a high wall at the end of our path in a fairly isolated area.  To be perfectly honest, at this time I started to become quite nervous and wondered just where this driver was taking us!  For all we knew, we could be taken to a deserted area to be robbed - everything felt so unfamiliar and we weren't being accompanied by anyone from the church so we couldn't even communicate with our driver!  I silently prayed for safety as the vehicle lurched around potholes and slowed as it neared the wall and vacant lot.  Suddenly, the driver took a left turn, and then sped his way through a narrow underpass which I could now see was a shortcut under the highway.  With a sigh of relief, I turned to my fellow Canadian passengers and admitted quietly: "I was getting a little concerned for a moment..."

One of them nodded and said that they had experienced similar thoughts, but now we were in an obviously populated area once again and we didn't seem to be lost... so we had to assume that we would see the church soon!  I think this is where I realized how much of an effect the lack of sleep and the stress of so many new situations was wearing on me!  We were in such a foreign environment and experiencing so many new things that it was difficult to relax and trust that everything would work out smoothly.  I think also, it was the lack of control over the situation - it felt as though anything unexpected could happen, and we had so little understanding of the culture around us so any problem that arose would be difficult to handle.  I suppose that these feelings are all part of the complete experience of a mission trip - prayer and trust in God is of necessity!

It wasn't much longer before the vehicle slowed down and the driver honked the horn at the gate of a building.  Smiling, friendly people opened the gate and came out to greet us, and at once we knew that all was well!  We hopped out of the vehicle and said "goodbye" to our driver, whom we would see the next day for our sightseeing excursion.  Once again, it was such a comfort to leave the chaotic, unfamiliar and dirty world that surrounded us and enter into another safe and peaceful haven.  There was such an obvious difference as soon as you were within the church complex - it was quiet, calm and comforting.

That evening we had the privilege of joining in a special church service that was planned specifically for our visit.  Steve and I played some of our music from our home church, The Gate, and Dan (my hubby) preached a message of encouragement, with the aide of a translator.  Afterwards, the people were invited up for prayer, and it was up to our team to help minister to them!  We prayed for sick people, people with struggling businesses and even for a woman who was of the Hindu religion, who had just come to "check us out" and see what the church offered.  We also prayed for a young man who was wanting to be married and was waiting for his parents to pick the right bride.  It really was a privilege to join our faith together with these people, who opened their hearts to us in trust.  Not only that, but you could tell just how important they deemed the power of prayer - they stood expectantly and you could really sense the presence of God as we prayed.

After the service we were treated to another amazing home cooked dinner, this time made by Pastor John's wife.  We were seated around the table, along with Pastor J and several dishes with enormous mounds of food were placed in front of us.  I felt my stomach clench a little at the idea of more curry, but unlike my companions, I didn't feel sick -just not very hungry, so despite my lack of an appetite, I filled my plate with slightly smaller than normal portions.  Kindra, on the other hand, was obviously feeling quite ill yet was trying to hide it from our generous hosts.  She politely spooned a tiny amount of each dish onto her plate and I watched as she nibbled reluctantly on her child-sized servings.  At one point Pastor John looked at her and said "You need to eat more food!" and Kindra apologetically explained that she was harboring an upset stomach.

Despite the hospitable nature of our new friends, I found myself yawning through the conversation that cheerfully filled the room.  It had been an exceptionally long day... from waking early to catch a train in Delhi, to our visit to the Dalit school, and the evening at the church; it felt as though we had filled the day with enough activity and new experiences for several weeks!  Fortunately, our hosts were understanding and before too long, we were driven back to our hotel so we could get some sleep.

Of course, to be expected, we encountered another blaring expression of Indian culture when we arrived at our hotel.  Loud music blared as we approached the hotel's lobby... apparently there was a wedding in the banquet hall that evening and we would be treated to the obnoxiously loud rhythms of Hindi wedding music as we attempted to fall asleep!  Thankfully, the music wasn't too loud once we were locked in our bedroom.  And at least it provided continuous melodic background noise that we could attempt to tune out once we collapsed onto our bed.

I climbed between the crisp, cool sheets and tried in vain to smush down my overly large pillow.  My mind was reeling with all the experiences of this day, and the previous few days.  It seemed like we had been away from Canada for a month, and after our jam-packed schedule, not only was my body tired, but I was nearing emotional exhaustion.  As I was thinking of all the beautiful children and the generous sewing school girls whom I'd been so touched by, I dozed off to sleep despite the party that was carrying on in the hotel.  It was time to rest my body and my mind in preparation for just a few more days of adventure.
Little children from the Dalit school, praying.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

7 Days In India - Day 5 - Dalit School and Sewing School

Monday,November 28, Agra

Now that we were safely at our destination, we were taken for a quick bite to eat at Hotel Riaz.  This was the first time we were out and about on our own, with just the driver dropping us off and waiting for us outside the restaurant.  Pastor John was going to meet us after we had eaten.

Notice the dirt on the straws... were they recycled?

With great expectation, and a bit of glee, we perused the menu and deliberated over what to order.  All of us were dedicated foodies, and the chance to experience real Indian food, and try new things was very exciting.  I, personally, was battling a headache, and tend to be more compliant, so I left the ordering decisions to the others.  Soon we were dining on some spicy, delicious food - Tikka chicken which was roasted in a Tandoor, along with some chick-pea curry and garlic naan bread.  The Tikka chicken came with some sliced red onions and cucumber and tomatoes on the side, which complimented the spicy hot seasoning quite nicely.  Without a thought to the threat of food-borne-illnesses (more to come on that issue...) we gobbled down the amazing food, paid our bill and were joined by Pastor John to head to the Dalit school.

Tikka Chicken... so freakin' amazing!
Dalit is the name for the untouchable caste, of which there are approximately 160 million residing across India.  Traditionally, they are the lowest people in Indian culture, such that they may not even share gods with other Hindus - there have been gods "made" just for the Dalit caste.  What better people to reach out to and touch with the saving grace provided in the Gospel.
Outside the Dalit School

We drove along some very rough roads, and noticed far more livestock - goats, pigs, cows, water buffalo, horses and even a camel or two along the way.  Eventually, we came to what appeared to be a new developing community. There were plotted out lots with bricks lining small areas, but no electricity or other modern conveniences that we are familiar with.  We saw a medium sized apartment, and were told that it was a government-made building for the Dalits.  However, they have it so ingrained in their mindset that they deserve nothing but to be the bottom, the least of society and beggars for their lifetime; so many of the Dalits would take their apartments and sell them for the monetary gain, which would help them in the short term, but leave them on the streets and in slums for the long-term.

This school was one of the newer ministries and included a sewing school for Dalit women, to learn a skill so they could have the ability to provide some income and be deemed more "valuable".  With several honks of the horn outside, a gate opened and we drove into the complex.  Now a little more seasoned in the experience of meeting new people, we were excited to get out of the vehicle and get started.

Classes were in session with 4 different levels, arranged both by age and ability.  The youngest class, which seemed to have children who must have been barely 3 years old, was seated outside in the courtyard.  The children were distracted by our presence and stared up at us with frightened brown eyes.  We learned that most of these children had probably never met a white person before, so it was no wonder that they were so concerned!  Again, I was impressed at the children's ability to pay attention and remain seated so respectfully.  Not only that, but their teachers were just young woman (who looked to be in their late teens or early twenties).  We found out that some of the teachers within the schools we had visited were former attendees of the schools at which they now taught!  They were investing back into the ministry that had changed their lives as children... an incredible cycle of success breeding more success for the future.

We spent some time in each classroom, listening to the children as they recited memory work.  One of the classes was simply a large room with a divider cutting it in half so two groups could make use of the room.  Despite the potential distraction of another class carrying on right next to them, the kids remained focused and committed.  It was so easy to become impressed with these kids.  They were deemed by their society as outcasts, but had been given a vision and new perspective that allowed them to seek more for their lives and their future.

Our favorite class was the youngest one (the children seated outdoors) and when we "toured" their class, their teachers pressed the children to show us what they had been learning.  One of they little boys couldn't stop staring at us, and he looked like he was about to cry.  Another one was encouraged to stand up and recite something, but stood silent and frightened, with her lower lip trembling and eyes tearing up.  Kindra and I, with our mother's hearts melting, squatted down in front of the class and smiled and tried to make ourselves look as welcoming as possible.  We were invited to pray for the children, and afterwards, we couldn't bear to leave them without somehow bridging the gap so we attempted to sing a song for the kids.  Alas... they remained fairly statuesque, only a couple of them warming up to us and granting us a timid smile!  They were so sweet... so precious, and knowing that they were labeled by their society as "untouchable" made me want to gather each of them into my arms, kissing them and telling them that they were loved.

The time came for the children to be given their meal of bread and buffalo milk, as they were going to be dismissed and the women from the sewing school would be arriving.  We blessed the food and the children sat on the floor and patiently waited for us to hand out the bread and milk.  The room was quiet and calm, as the children intently gobbled up every nibble of bread and enjoyed every swallow of warm buffalo milk.  Since we had a short time left to spend with the children once they were done eating, we had them line up in a crowd outside so we could take their picture.  From the smallest to the tallest, I looked at each child and stood in awe of their worth.  The lives of these children were so evidently transformed by the power of the gospel - not empty, meaningless words that were pronounced from a fancy pulpit in some western-hemisphere church - but the gospel in action, administered with love and compassion.

Some children were picked up by their mothers, and others had only the company of their sibling as they returned to the dusty roads to walk to their homes.  I stepped outside of the gate and watched some young children as they wandered away from the school.  The world seemed so large, dirty and unfriendly; ready to swallow up these young souls.  It made me realize what a light this school was - a place of hope and peace that did not merely provide food, clothing and education, but one that fed their souls and gave life to their spirits.  Everywhere I looked, I saw dirt, garbage and a world in disarray... behind me, within the walls of the school was a haven of hope.

The next part of our day involved the sewing school.  Originally, these schools were created to give women the opportunity to earn money, making them more valuable as brides.  As I explained in a previous posting, bride burnings still occurred and authorities often turned a blind eye to it's existence. Young women, and some older women began to arrive, and they dismantled the children's classroom and transformed it into the sewing school.   And by that, I mean they took the divider from the largest room and pushed it back against the wall so there would be more space.

I have always thought of Indian women as very beautiful, in their colorful saris and punjab outfits - and as I watched the women coming in to the class, I wondered about each of their backgrounds - what sort of world had each of them grown up in, and what did their future hold?  We were told that we would be involved in the graduation ceremony, and the four of us were once again thrown off-guard, thinking "How on earth do we conduct ourselves and make this event special for these women?...surely they will know that we are inexperienced, awkward and ill-prepared to preform such an incredible task!"

Dresses designed by the girls
Once the women were all seated and arranged in rows on the floor, the ceremony began.  Pastor John began by greeting them and introducing us (in Hindi) and then were were told to go and inspect their sewing before the certificates would be awarded.  I took a deep breath and waded into the crowd, starting somewhere in the middle.  I found a row of 3 young women, who shyly smiled at me in anticipation.  I squatted down and was joined by an interpreter and I asked the first girl if I could look at her book.  She had a large scrapbook of miniature shirts, aprons, dresses and pants which displayed the skills she had learned - different types of stitching and making pleats and buttonholes.  I smiled and acknowledged the obviously tedious work and commented on her fine stitches.  She looked very pleased at my words and I continued through her book, ooh-ing and awing at her designs.

At one point I tried to explain how their practice work remind me of my daughter's Barbie clothes, and the translator spoke to the girls, until they smiled and nodded in understanding.  It made me wonder if most of them never had toys or dolls, and that was why it took them a few moments to understand my comparison.  After viewing each girls work, they would then show me the larger project they had completed - often an entire woman's outfit.  Some of them were even wearing the outfits they had created with decorative designs on the neckline.  It wasn't difficult to compliment the incredible work they had done!

One of the girls really stood out to me, with her long black hair and expressive eyes.  She had such a sweet demeanor and I could tell she was soaking up every word of compliment that I gave as I examined her work.  She showed me a beautiful brown tunic that she had made and I looked her in the eyes and said with confidence: "I would buy this if it was at a store - it is beautiful!"  She looked down with modesty, her hand covering her instant smile at my generous praise.  I continued on to the next girl and a couple minutes later, the girl with the doe-eyes was holding out the brown tunic and gesturing that she wanted me to take it.

She spoke to me, and the interpreter told me that she wanted to give me the tunic as a gift.  I was so surprised at her generosity, and felt bad for taking away something that she could most certainly sell and make a profit with.  From what we knew, these girls would save up whatever money they had to buy scraps with which the practice their sewing skills.  I told her that I was very grateful for her offer, but that I couldn't take it.  She looked all the more determined to give it to me, but it just felt so wrong!  My attention was diverted elsewhere as we were hurrying to observe all of the student's work before our time ran out. 

Once we had examined all of the girls' work, it was time to hand out the certificates.  We were called up to the front where there was a stage area, and before we could begin, one of the girls asked to say something to us.  She stood up, and with a translator, she told us how in the school, they had learned that although they might not have very much, that God wanted them to be generous and to give.  They learned that they could be givers, and even in their newly learned ability to sew, they could see it as a way to bless people - not to merely better their own lives.  She wanted to give away one of the tunics she had made to one of us.  She came up, and judging our sizes, decided that her offering would be most likely fit me rather than Kindra.  As I thanked her and smiled, in the back of my mind I began to feel that maybe I had responded to the first girl wrongly.  I had felt so guilty to take something from someone whom I knew to be extremely poor compared to myself, but I was preventing her from operating in the gift of generosity.  No matter what your stature, be it rich or poor, all people can exhibit either greed or generosity.
Speaking to the sewing school girls

We were asked to speak a brief word of congratulation/encouragement to the girls and soon the women's names were being called and we would shake their hand and give them their graduation certificate.  It was such a triumphant moment in our trip as we handed out these formal slips of paper that represented dignity and hope to each of the women.  It felt that we were empowering them to go forth and have success - they were no longer destined to be the lowest of the low, but now had the opportunity to improve both their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Following the ceremony, we headed out into the courtyard to take a group picture of the women holding their certificates.  Afterwards, the young woman with the brown tunic came up to Kindra and offered her the tunic that I had felt unable to accept.  After the previous display of generosity that we had seen before the ceremony, it wasn't as difficult to receive this precious gift, knowing that it was more about the attitude of giving than it was about the gift itself.  I was glad that this young lady was able to fulfill the urging in her heart, and I knew in the future I would hopefully respond better if met with a similar situation. 
The Graduates

Later that evening in our hotel room, as we prepared for the special church service in Agra, we were startled to hear a knock and laughter at our door.  We opened it up to Steve and Kindra who were in hysterics over the state of Kindra who was attempting to put on the brown tunic.  Sadly, it was a bit smaller than it looked, and Kindra was awkwardly posed with her arms and head in the tunic, but unable to pull it past her shoulders.  We all had a laugh at her uncomfortable position, and I offered her the other tunic which I had also been unable to wear due to it's small size.  Fortunately, the one I was given fit Kindra, and she offered the brown tunic to me to give to my eldest daughter.  So in the end, I was pleasantly surprised that I would indeed get to receive the gift that had first been offered me, although it would instead be worn by my daughter.  It is most certainly one of the most precious souvenirs that I have ever been privileged to take home from a trip.  It's amazing how much I can learn about generosity from those "less fortunate" than myself.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

7 Days in India - Day 5: Train Travel

Day 5 - November 28

We awoke at the crack of dawn, which was hardly any effort considering the jet-lag, and we prepared for our newest adventure.  It was time to travel, India style!

With a stuffed backpack, I was dropped off with my fellow teammates at the local train station in New Delhi, to head to Agra for one night.  If we thought we had seen chaos before, we were in for a shock.  The train station was crawling with people.  If you ever needed a travel wallet (the kind that goes under your clothes) the time was now!  People were bumping into us, pushing their way to get in and out of the station.  There were old people, young people and entire families with luggage and you could tell that there was people from lower castes and higher castes, all just wanting to go somewhere.

Thankfully, we weren't just dropped off at the door, but we were guided to the proper train platform and the two young men from the church stayed with us to wait for our train to arrive.  I held my backpack close in front of me, not willing to have it on my back when it contained so many precious items.  This place was beyond crowded!  There was a family with huge sacks of their belongings, children laying down on cardboard and covered with a blanket, trying to catch some sleep before loading up on the human cattle-car, also known as "economy class".  Thankfully we weren't booked to travel in the "standing-room-only", sardine-packed train car, accented with essence of curry and body odor, but instead we were traveling in style, in second-class seating.  That meant we had our own assigned seats that had fold-down trays and a little bit of extra luggage space.

Our train arrived, and we found our seats and settled; keeping a close eye on our belongings as other people crammed in, searching for their places.  Right away, it was difficult for me to keep from wrinkling my nose at the obvious grime and dinginess of this train-car.  It's not like I'm a germ-freak by any means, but everything seemed to be coated in a greasy, dusty sheen, and I had difficulty looking through the window because of the smears of fingerprints, and imagined (or unimagined) mucous and other foreign matter.  I gingerly took the curtain (which felt stiff and grimy as well, like a muddied sock that has been allowed to dry on the laundry-room floor... for a month...) and I attempted to wipe clear the window to get a better view.  All in all, it added to the effect of my vision of India - a smoggy film between my eyes and the landscape, corrupting each of the pictures and videos that I took!

The "boys" became adventurous as we waited, and thought they would check out the infamous "bathrooms" on the train.  We'd been told by a friend who had traveled to India, that the toilets on trains were for emergencies only.  Like... you're about to explode and mess your pants, sort of emergency.  They returned to Kindra and myself with eyes as large as saucers, and said "Girls, you do NOT want to go in there!"

They proceeded to describe to us the stainless steel "toilet", actually, more of a hole in the floor and a pipe that curved out and onto the tracks.  As cool as it would be to squat over a metal hole and pee onto the tracks while on a moving train, I decided then and there that I would "hold it" until we reached our destination.  Kindra questioned whether there was a sink or any means of cleaning oneself after using this "toilet" and we were told that there was simply a small water spigot with a metal cup with which to swish away the refuse... and any remaining germs... ahem... ya.  When in India....

With the grand tour of the train out of the way, we settled in our seats and began to move.  I worried that I would become motion sick, but surprisingly enough it was a fairly smooth ride.  I sat, semi-hunched forward, still feeling uneasy about the grime on my seat and not wanting to coat my hair with the germs of the thousands who had previously rode where I now sat, and I looked with interest out of the window.  Sadly, what I saw was once again a prime example of India's poverty.  With dismay I noticed many children playing along the tracks, unattended and dirty, seemingly looking for food or valuable scraps that might provide the means to a bite to eat for the day.  Others had obviously made their homes along this busy place, and I wondered how one could ever grow used to the constant clatter and noise of the trains passing by.  Not only that, but it boggled my mind how mothers (or older siblings) could possibly keep little ones safe in this environment.

For a while, I busied myself taking photos and video clips of the dismaying sight of people's everyday living on the side of the tracks.  From large apartments and shops to cardboard shacks, from the middle-class to the very poor, each and every person dealt with the same dirt and smog.  There were people everywhere - some hurrying along, some just squatting in the middle of a vacant, garbage filled lot, as if they were aimlessly waiting for something...

After some time, we left the suffocating collection of buildings, and the swarms of people and we were in farmland and open fields.  After several days of being stuck in a city of 20 million, myself feeling somewhat claustrophobic and missing my "alone-time", we finally could see the green fields and blueish-grayish sky again!  I felt like I could breathe deeply once again, but alas I was trapped on a train with stale air smelling of B.O. and curry so I didn't take that deep breath that the open sky invited.

Meanwhile... we were on a train - not just any train, but an Indian train!  One of the most interesting things about traveling this way, was the constant stream of sales-people walking up and down the narrow aisle.  I would hear the creak of the door to our train car behind me, and then the smell of curry would waft towards me.  Next I'd hear some undecipherable words, as a man carried a large tray with small foil wrapped dishes of curry.  There was also people selling chips and other packaged Indian treats and someone selling somosas.  There was a young man who carried a large metal bucket crammed full with bottles of pop and water (that looked quite heavy!) and a man with a canister of coffee.  Our favorite though, was the Chai-walla (tea seller) one of which had the funniest way of saying "Chai" in a low, guttural tone as he walked through our car.  (We managed to catch a little bit of his giggle-inducing-voice on video!)

Eventually, despite the nefarious odors and the grime on the back of my seat, I relaxed and closed my eyes, taking a short nap in preparation for the busy day ahead of us.  When I awoke, we were heading back into a urban area - this one looking slightly different than the city of Delhi.  Agra, for one thing was a smaller city, with a population of just 3.5 million.  One of the things that makes Agra unique, however, is the prohibition of factories and industrial activities which produce pollution, in effort to keep the air clear to protect the Taj Mahal from damage.  (We even learned on our tour the following day that there are pollution sensors at the Taj Mahal, and if the smog reaches a certain level, all roads will be shut down and automobiles will be forced to park until the air sufficiently clears!)

Agra appeared to have a lot more rural influence, and there was a lot less cars and a lot more rickshaws, bicycles, horses and carts and other animals present.  The train slowed and we soon pulled into our station.  We scrambled to collect our belongings, and hopped out to an even greater crowd of people than we had left in Delhi!  Trying to put on an air of confidence, I walked forward and scanned the crowd of people for someone who looked friendly... or Christian... or at least who looked like they were looking for us!  It was quite a nerve-wracking feeling that we were in the middle of a different country and culture, on the other side of the world, with no one familiar to greet and guide us!  Then I saw a two modestly dressed men, one whom was standing and holding a sign that said: 'Mrs. Lisa'.  Okay, that must be us, I concluded, and I moved forward and said "Hello".  He turned and began to thread his way through the mass of people, and we scurried along to follow him.

He led us to an SUV, and we threw our luggage in the back and climbed inside.  We asked if he was Pastor J (the man whom we were expecting to meet us) but we didn't really get much of a reply.  At this point, we were a little confused, not knowing if this guy was from the church or if he was merely our driver... or if this was a set-up to drive us to the outskirts of the city, beat us up and rob us.  Steve tried once again to question him, asking intently: "Pastor J?  Are you Pastor J?'  But the the driver didn't appear to understand us, and the man in the passenger seat was busy talking on his cell phone.

Some of us were feeling quite anxious now, and it seemed that we could only sit back and wait for the inevitable to happen.  Either we were in the right place, with the right people... or...

Thankfully, it was a short drive and we slowed and turned into the "Hotel Grand" which was not at all grand, but was the hotel mentioned on our itinerary!  We were safe...

With a sigh of relief, we jumped out of the vehicle and were greeted by a smiling, kind-looking man: Pastor J!  In the comforting presence of a trustworthy guide, we checked into our hotel rooms and began to get acquainted, ready for a day of adventures and ministry in the city of Agra!

The beautiful Taj Mahal

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

7 Days In India - Day 4

Sunday, November 27

Time was going by so quickly - and we hardly had time to think about home and our kids because we were so busy, seeing and experiencing so many new things.  It really felt like we were on a different planet - or as if we were living in a documentary.  Everything was just so different from our usual lives, and there was always something that would surprise us or overwhelm us or capture our emotions...  That's why it was nice that it was Sunday.  It was a day of rest, a day that would be more familiar, spending time in God's house with people whom we might not know very well, but who would welcome us as part of God's family.

Yet it would not all be familiar and normal this Sunday morning... for starters, the first morning service would be in Hindi!

I don't think I mentioned before, but one of the neat things about where were were staying was that the Pastor's home and the church and Bible school were all on one property, surrounded by a large brick wall.  Along with the Bible college students, a couple other families lived on the property, all committed to the cause of the ministry.  Again, as I've mentioned, there was such an enormous difference in atmosphere once you entered the gates of the complex - the mess was gone, the hurry and chaos was gone and there was a peace and beauty that filled the air.  So it was really nice to be able to simply walk over to the church building rather than battle the insane traffic just before the morning service started.

We walked into the sanctuary, and seated on 3 long rugs, in rows of 2, were all of the girls from the orphanage.  Every Sunday morning, they transported the girls here to take part in the worship service.  We waved and smiled at them, and a few of them shyly smiled back.  Being the guests of honor (which still felt rather strange to me), we were seated front and center.  The building began to fill up with beautiful brown people (I don't mean that rudely, at all!) and the worship team took their place on stage.  Right away, there was such a rich, vibrant, joyous tone to the music!  It was impossible not to clap and attempt to sing along - even thought the words were in Hindi. But occasionally, they used "hallelujah" in their songs, which made it a little easier for us white folks!

As a church, they obviously had a close knit community.  They asked who was having a  birthday or anniversary that week, and prayed for those individuals.  They spent time praying for their nation and it's political leaders and prayed with great zeal and gusto.  As planned, Steve and I came up during the offering and performed a song - one that had been written by someone in our church.  The people seemed to enjoy the different flavor of music. Then it came time for us to be welcomed and introduced, and they called the four of us up onto the stage.  Once again, we were honored with each of us being given a beautiful bouquet of roses.  The Pastor introduced us as "a wonderful team from Canada" and then all but Dan exited the stage and the tag-team preaching/translation began.

It only further enhanced the feeling of being in another world to spend so much time listening to a language that we didn't understand, but somehow, we didn't feel entirely out of place in that Hindi service.  After a short break, the English service began, and we enjoyed the opportunity to share in the lives of Christian brothers and sisters from the other side of the world!

We were given the opportunity to pray for people afterwords, and as they came with open hearts, asking God for strength and hope in response to Dan's message, we felt our hearts melting at the obvious struggles that these believers faced.  It wasn't difficult to commiserate with them, and to share in their suffering as we asked for God's grace upon their lives.  But most of all, it was an honor to join with them in faith, as we believed for God to move in their lives and, by association, India as well.

One thing I noticed was an abundance of warmth and openness among the people we met.  It seems that hospitality is a way of life for Indians, and we were greeted with smiling faces all throughout the church.  One older woman came up to me after the service and grabbed onto my hand, saying "I just had to meet the mother of 6 children!"  She had a huge grin on her face and told me how that (lots of kids) is the way it used to be... and that she came from a large family.  I just smiled, not knowing exactly what to say, but enjoying her enthusiasm.

Before we knew it, our work was done and yet another milestone had been crossed off the list of ministry work to do on this trip.  Somehow, we Canadians, for all of our country's typical apathy and lethargy, were able to be a blessing to this congregation in India.  One of the most poignant moments of this Sunday however, had occurred in the peaceful, heavy atmosphere of prayer that took place before the first morning service.  It was difficult to not feel a sense of uselessness here in India - that our problems back in Canada were paltry and lame and merely symptoms of extreme self-centeredness.

Then I felt the Holy Spirit speak to my heart.  First, I felt Him telling me that I was born in North America on PURPOSE.  It was God's plan, His will, and His design for me to born in a more affluent nation.  In that plan, he has a purpose and destiny for me to operate within my surroundings.  Here is something that rang clear and true in my heart, and I wrote it down in that morning prayer meeting:
We can come to a desolate place, like the slums, and feel such a need to impart destiny and vision in to the lives of these people.  While that is necessary and true, I would say that the great deception is in the fact that our churches in North America are filled with people lacking true destiny and purpose.  We have been deceived into believing that our destiny is to have a 9-to-5 job, a nice home and family, and to attend a comfortable, affirming church.
What a dismal, uninspired destiny... God has so much more for us!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

7 Days In India - Day 3

Saturday, Nov. 26
Just another cow on the road, slowing down traffic...

This day we had the opportunity to visit another slum school, earlier in the morning before the Pastor conducted a church service for the slum area.  By this point we were already more comfortable with the ridiculous, confusing flow of traffic that followed no typical Canadian laws or standards.  So the drive over to this slum school was less stressful than our previous day's journey.  We still would poke at each other occasionally, wide-eyed and gasping with comments of how INSANE everything was - like seeing an entire family perched on the back of a scooter, weaving in and out of the traffic, or a rickshaw packed with 7 or 8 passengers, or the fact that our driver would continually squeeze our vehicle into utterly small spaces, in effort to get ahead of the buses, trucks and rickshaws that slowed us down.

There was hardly ever a break from the poverty.  Occasionally, we would see a new, updated building and it may have wall surrounding it - but that didn't stop the garbage from piling up outside.  And it didn't' stop people from constructing shacks of wood, bricks and tarp outside the walls.  Again and again, we would pass an empty lot cluttered with trash - and there was almost always people living on the outskirts of the heaps of refuse, and children picking their way through the junk; either playing or searching for something of value.

We stopped at a red light - at least I think it was a red light , but it felt like a traffic jam and all the cars were wedged together and waiting.  Along came a dirty, barefooted little boy, his clothing permanently grayed with the dust and pollution.  Around his waist was a medium sized metal hoop - somewhat smaller than most colorful, plastic hula-hoops that we are familiar with.  He began to dance around outside our window on the side of the road, attempting to provide entertainment and perhaps acquire a few rupees.  When his tricks were done, he came over and held his hands out to my closed window.  This time, I was prepared and I pulled out an apple from my bag and handed it to him through the window.  He took it, looking both puzzled and a little bit miffed.  He rubbed his fingers and thumb together, slightly shaking his head at us and said "Rupees... Rupees!" with an aggressive plea.  He was actually snubbing our offering of food!

We looked at each other with dismay, astonished that he was upset with us.  "No rupees!" Steve said to him, and I shook my head as well.  He plodded off towards an older boy on the other side of the median, showing his apple to him.

Just a minute later, a pretty young street girl spotted us in our vehicle.  (As I've mentioned, traffic here is crazy, so you can be stuck in one spot for quite a while!)  This girl wore a dirty old tunic an pants, and she also had metal hoops to do tricks with as well.  She seemed quite excited at the prospect of performing for some white people, and right away did some hand stands and flips, jumping through her hoop and twisting acrobatically.  She actually was quite impressive in her antics! As she came to my window to be rewarded I as a little nervous and wondering whether she would even appreciate my offering of food.  I pulled out a packaged brownie, leftover from our flight, and pointed at it, asking if she would like it.  She nodded and I handed it to her through the window, glad that she seemed a bit more grateful for the food.  We watched her as she brought it over to an older woman who opened the little plastic box as if to inspect it, and then closed it again.  The transaction was complete.

It was quite frustrating to see the behavior of these street kids.  There was a system in place and at work.  They were being manipulated and used for their age and vulnerability and they didn't even get to enjoy the "fruit" of their labors, so to speak.  Obviously these kids were working for a handler - someone who would guard them and send them on the streets to beg.  Every bit of money and food would go directly to their handler, who would, in exchange see that they were fed and somewhat protected.  If the child had an extra good day, and brought in a greater amount of rupees, than they might get extra food that night.  The handlers themselves, reported to a higher power, including the requirement to bribe the police so that they wouldn't be disturbed on their territory as "their kids" worked the streets.

It was really difficult seeing this, and feeling like our contribution and helping hand really didn't help.  We could give them more money, and maybe the child would be treated better that day, but then we were just feeding the system.  We could give them food to eat, but as we just witnessed, they might not even have the freedom to eat the food themselves, having to bring every bit of profit to their handlers.

So many children spent their days out of school, wandering the streets and begging.  While there are free government schools available for all people, the quality of these free schools is very poor and the kids have both no encouragement or discipline so it is difficult to get a real education.  Not only that, but using children to beg is a very lucrative business.  Those who profit from the children's efforts - whether it be their own parents, or a handler - will prevent the kids from attending school and continue to force them to work the streets.  it means that these kids have no sense of a future and no scope of life outside of the streets.  They are doomed from the start to live out their lives as the lowest of the low - helpless and hopeless.

This is where the slum schools were were visiting showed such a huge difference and turn-around for these types of people.  The moment you walked in the doors, you would enter an oasis of peace and hope.  Everything is cleaner and tidy.  The busyness, clamor and clutter is gone.  It is like walking into a different world, one that offers an entirely different way of living.

We drove into one of the worst areas we had seen so far and hopped out of the vehicle.  There was a narrow walkway alongside a brick building, and all sorts of people stopped their activities and began to watch us as we walked through the area.  Some appeared merely curious at our presence, others looked a bit more suspicious.

We turned a corner, and stepping up five worn and slightly crumbling concrete steps, we found ourselves at the entrance of a 12 X 12 brick building filled with children.  We were welcomed into the dark, cramped space that had a small spiral staircase just to the right of the doorway, that led to living quarters for the slum school's directors - a married couple with a baby.  The children greeted us with their practiced English words: "Good morning!" and we waved and smiled back at them.

We were seated in plastic chairs in front of the crowd of 60 or so children who sat, crowded together on the floor.   There were a couple of chalkboards attached to the walls and a few colorful posters with English words for things such as vegetables or days of the week.  Other than that, it was drab, dark and felt more like a tiny, old brick garage than a school for 75+ children.

Packed into the classroom, some even sitting on the spiral staircase
The first part of our visit, the children sang a couple of songs and then began to show off their learning.  Some of them were painfully shy as they quoted a scripture or told us the days of the week and their spelling, in English - others seemed excited at the prospect of preforming for and impressing some white foreigners. 

All too soon, it was our time to impress and we were given the opportunity, with a translator, to speak to the children.  Today, we felt much more at ease and having experienced the slum schools yesterday, we had processed in our hearts more of what we desired to give to these kids.  We smiled and greeted them, and Dan introduced all of us and told how we were so happy to visit.  I spoke to them, asking if they were working hard on their studies, to which they answered in English a resounding "Yes!".  We told them how we were so proud of them, and that if they worked hard, and if they followed God, that their lives would be blessed and that they would do well in life.

A couple of us had the opportunity to pray for the kids, and when I prayed, I think they thought they were supposed to repeat me, because every time I paused, they copied my words!  I quickly changed the direction of my prayer into something that the children could say with meaning, asking for God's help and blessing.  Kindra prayed as well, speaking blessing and protection over their lives.  It was so strange how inadequate we felt to minister to these kids - they deserved so much more, yet they looked to us like we were celebrities.  We just wanted to bless them - yet they honored and blessed us so much.

Next it was time to hand out milk and buns to the children, since they had to clear out the building for that morning's church service.  They brought the large stainless steel vat of steaming buffalo milk, and we lined up and began to hand out the cups of milk and small buns as the children walked out the door.  I went outside to get a better camera angle as the children emptied from the building with their treat.

After taking a bunch of pictures, someone invited me to see inside the building next to the school where I saw a small area where they were heating up the buffalo milk in a large stainless steel pot.  This was in a tiny "kitchen" area that would be comparable to the space that most of us have for an entryway into our homes.  From there, I could see into a doorway of another very small room that held around 30 children, all seated on the floor, with a couple young woman standing at the front of the crowd with a tambourine, leading the children in some worship music, in Hindi.  I loved how their singing was so heartfelt and real.  They didn't have an amazing band, with professional musicians.  They didn't even have instruments.  Yet they sang with joy and faith, lifting up their hands and worshiping the Lord.
Preparing the Buffalo Milk
I could tell that my presence was a bit of a distraction, and I didn't want to disrupt this group, that appeared to be a Sunday-school class for the slum kids.  So I squatted down on the floor in the doorway, attempting to connect and be a part of this whole experience, not detract from it.  I gazed upon the children, all so obviously poor, but somehow looking clean and healthy in this otherwise dump of an area.    There seemed to be such a night and day difference between the beggars on the street and the children just wandering around in the slums - and the kids here, who were attending the slum school.  They didn't have the same empty, helpless look on their faces.  They looked hopeful and you could tell that they had a sense of worth.  I continued to sway and nod my head in time to the music, enjoying it wholeheartedly even though I couldn't understand the words, and I felt my heart fill with the hope that was represented in these beautiful children in the room.

After a couple more songs, I reluctantly went back outside to the open space between the two buildings where the children were still coming out of the school with their cups of milk.  I attempted to connect with some of the kids nearby, pulling out the pictures of my own kids again, and showing them to some of the children who were standing there.  Again, there was great interest in these cute little white children - a novelty with their blond hair and blue eyes.  Suddenly, our driver came over and asked us to go back inside the building.  Apparently there was a concern that we were drawing too much of a crowd, and there could soon be a riot of people, demanding milk and bread, if we did not get out of sight.  We spent a couple more minutes within the brick walls, talking with the pastor and meeting his wife and baby.  Then, all too soon, it was time to leave.

It felt like we really didn't have enough time to spend with these kids - all of us felt a sense of loss, wanting to express more love and just be able to sit with the kids and show them that we cared.  However, we were still at risk, being a novelty within this small slum village and we had to leave quickly before more people were attracted to the area.  We walked away, down a dirty sidewalk, with people lining each side and staring at us with their solemn brown eyes.  In the midst of such despair and dirt and desolation, it was amazing to see the contrast of the people with their bright, colorfully dyed clothes.  There was life, and hope within this desperate, run-down area.
It felt so different today, to be able to come and visit this slum area and minister to the children.  We didn't feel as out of touch and out of place, and found our hearts drawn to the children - wanting to be with them and to really do something to make a difference.  We reluctantly piled into the vehicle, gazing back at some of the children who had followed us out to the road.  It was such a picture -words cannot describe it, and the pictures that we took can hardly even capture what we saw and felt.  We waved back at the children, and snapped a few more photos.  Suddenly, one of the young boys came running after us - we had forgotten a water bottle and he wanted to make sure it was returned to us!  We felt such a gratefulness for their openness and hospitality.  They welcomed us as friends and made us feel like we were special to them... and all we could offer back was a smile and a cup of milk.

All of us felt sad that our time was so short here.  Something had changed in us, and the awkwardness was gone - replaced by true compassion and a God-given love.
"Don't forget your water!"