Saturday, March 27, 2010


Tamil Nadu in Southeast Asia is as far from the Northwest as you can get.

It's not just that in Tamil Nadu their cool time of the year feels like the hottest part of our summer. Or that my friend Thomas and his wife, Shiny, wrap their little baby in a padded snuggly that we would dress our kids in here at home, if we were expecting snow.

It's not just that their extremely spicy food is presented in a series of little pots on a fresh green banana leaf and a chili pepper on top, and is unrecognizable to the more timid North American taste buds—like mine.

It's not just that their traffic resembles a ride on a roller coaster. Everything seems different here—like the shopping.

I expected to see markets like those from pictures in a National Geographic magazine. However, the more upscale malls and shops are a surprise. The underground parking looks the same. The elevators are a smidgen tinier, but the escalators are no different from home.

What's different is, the staff of the various shops on each floor stand vigilantly at the elevator and do everything they can to get you into their store just short of physically coercion. At times like these I am so grateful for the firm chastisement our self-designated shepherd, Jerald, gives these bold shopkeepers.

Justin and Jerald have been babysitting the visitors to India for the past 7 years. A quiet reprimand from Jerald stops the pushy shopkeepers in their tracks. You can see the thoughts behind Jerald's eyes especially—no one is going to hurt or bother these people, they are my charges. From Jerald and others like him, I sense a love and a service that doesn't seem to know the words, self preservation.

Jerald and Justin are with us when we shop in the more upscale shops. It's in world famous Chennai Silks that my head spins. I've never seen so many exotic or different kinds of silk, the best quality of polished cottons, patterned and plain, in my life. Every bolt of fabric is neatly stacked like tall thin books behind counters where a plethora of staff waits to serve you.

The staff whips out bolts of fabric onto the counter top for each of us to examine. They whip out 6 or 8 or 12 more to please our frivolous and undecided hearts. Jerald or Justin do our negotiating for us in Tamil. Then they wait and wait and wait as we choose our material.

I can't help but wonder what Jerald thinks as year after year he escorts the visitors to do their shopping. After all, we North Americans can't go on a mission’s trip without partaking of the local merchandise.

Dazed by the selection, I quickly, perhaps too quickly, make my choice—6 meters of turquoise silk, encrusted with the amber beading that I know I'll probably never use. But I'm in India; I can't go home without authentic sari material.

My choice is made. The material cut. The staff member rings a bell. Another staff person rushes up to me, takes my selection, and goes to a desk to write up a slip of what it costs. He brings the slip of paper back to me and instructs me in Tamil to go to a central desk on another floor.

I stand there, blankly staring after the fellow who disappears with my sari material. As usual, Jerald patiently explains in broken English what's going on and with infinite care shows me where to go and what to do.

He takes me to the correct desk where I pay. A man behind that desk vigorously stamps my paper at least three times, nods me over to the next desk, where another person matches up my stamped receipt with a carefully wrapped package—my sari material. He then, just as vigorously stamps that bag and receipt another 3 or 4 times for good measure. Somewhat bewildered, I'm presented with my purchase. Jerald gently walks me and the other member of the team out of the store.

All along I can't help but wonder, what does Jerald think of these foreigners who come to his country, and for not much of our money buy a luxury that would take him months to buy, if it were even something he would consider buying.

There are a lot of differences on our two sides of the world. To someone in Tamil Nadu like Jerald it may appear we are extremely wealthy. In comparison to our brothers and sisters in southeast Asia, we are. Does this lack of equality of earthly goods make me appear cold and selfish, out of touch with the needs of the world?

With all the differences that strike me about India, what is it about me that puzzles or offends my Indian brother? Yet, they treat us so graciously. I can only hope that as I appreciate, with a large dose of humor, those differences in India, such as the traffic, the food, that they treat my North American idiosyncrasies with a smile.

Our physical packaging is different on the outside. We have different skin tones, different language, a vastly different culture. But inside the hearts of these people from Tamil Nadu and us from Canada, we are the same. It is the love of Christ, our savior that unites us. It is the love of Christ that shines through someone like Jerald that makes me feel at home. I can only pray he sees some of Christ in me.

It's not so much difference as diversity of the same type of thing. Much like the rows and rows, and floors and floors of silk materials in the Chennai House of Silk.

Different, diverse, and beautiful.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


If I have to choose a highlight from the trip to India, I say the peak memory is of the children's camp follow-up programs. Imagine at one of those programs, about 2 hundred Indian children between the ages of six and twelve surging toward you, reaching for your hands, eyes laughing, and each one telling you, "Jesus loves you."

Or the memory of little children praying on their knees in complete adoration of God for a good ten minutes.

But at the back of my mind the memory of another generation pulls on me.

Close to the end of our trip our team arrives at a large rented facility in Chennai. Bamboo blinds keep the huge open-aired gymnasium cool. Loud music and singing pulses from this YMCA building that's packed with youth. The overflow of the 3100 young people attending this rally sit outside watching the program on large TV screens under the tall shade trees and pavilion-type tents. These Indian Christians, between the ages of 16 and 30, who are single, sing and clap their hands, and wait for the message to be preached from the Bible. No rock concert in North America has ever been louder or had any more energy than this gathering.

India Bible Camp Ministry puts on a youth rally like this once a year in each of the 15 districts of Tamil Nadu they currently work with. I do the rough math—15 districts multiplied by the approximate number of attendees . . .

The vibrancy of this memory stands out with the strength of a giant wave. The swell generated by these youth will continue to gather and crest, sweeping upwards from the south of India to change the entire country in the years to come. This segment of the population—young women in their exotic and bright saris, young men in their tailored slacks and crisp shirts—came out of the first wave of IBCM camp in 2003. These youth have matured in their faith, and are now leaders in their churches and camping ministry. Many of them have brought their Hindu and Muslim friends to the rally.

One young man I was introduced to has recently accepted Christ as his savior. He`s sharing the joy of his fellow Christians, he’s also struggling with the fact that his Hindu family has rejected him and expelled him from their home. He needs the prayer and support of his new brothers and sisters.

But then my memories slows to something quieter, something gentle. An image of the older generation eddies around my heart. At those same small village churches where I saw the children, I remember the shy joy on the faces of elderly women in their saris, their heads covered as they greet us at the front stoop of the church.

They bow Indian-style over their hands and murmur the Christian greeting with a smile, "Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord."

I return the greeting through a throat thick with emotion.

A young mother with a baby slung on her hip smiles and proudly shows me her child. I reach out to touch the silken hair on the little one's head. The mother and I can't understand each other's language. But her eyes light up when I place my hand on my heart and say, "Jesus."

An old man who recently found joy in a personal relationship with Christ stands off to the side. During the children's singing, he sings as fervently as the kids, his eyes raised heavenward. He has found the God who truly hears him and sees him.

So when I'm asked, I cannot share one highlight. If I have to choose, I suppose the highlight would be the people--God's children in India.

They've changed me forever.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


The rest of our visiting team doesn't plan on telling me that we're driving through anaconda or King Cobra country. They're in one of the other vans and their driver casually points this fact out to them when they talk about the passing scenery.

My friend, Hilary, stresses to them, "Do not tell Christine."

Good thing they keep me in blissful ignorance—I’m enjoying the drive out of the city of Trichy and into the countryside. The thought does cross my mind that there has to be snakes out there in the swaying grasses and down by the river. But I push the thought away. Somehow I know God will not ask me to confront my phobia on this trip.

We drive along the wide, powerfully flowing Kallanai River, over a narrow road in the midst of construction. There are no giant graders or bulldozers to build the infrastructure of this roadway. Men and women do the work by hand with shovels, picks, and buckets of stones. I wonder about the women wearing worn cotton saris, doing such hard manual labor. Rail thin, the flesh of the women's cheeks sink deeply into their faces. Have they left their children at home during their work day? Could I do the same to put rice or lentil stew on the table for my children? Of course I would do anything to feed my kids, but what hardship the poorer Indian women face.

Coconut palms and banana groves dot the emerald green countryside. We come to the Grand Anicut otherwise known as the Kallanai Dam. An ancient Chola king built this dam over 2000 years ago. Sitting at each end of the dam are stone statues of elephants in full royal regalia. Flood waters from the past monsoons have receded, exposing sand bars in the middle of the river. I can see the pride and pleasure on Antony's face as he invites us out of the vans to stroll across this dam built of Indian engineering so long ago.

The air is delightfully warm without the sweltering heat that will come in the summer months. As we walk across the dam, the occasional cow with brightly painted horns meanders along with us. Goats playfully butt heads. People from nearby villages run to capture the cows then lead them home. Children play and stare at us with inquisitive and laughing eyes.

At the far side of the bridge we get back into our vehicles and drive through more tiny villages until we come to a Catholic retreat center. A large church with white Gothic spires takes center stage, but I already feel as though I'm in a natural cathedral from the towering palm trees. Their shade will be a gentle refuge from the harsh heat in the hot months to come. But right now it’s cool with a late afternoon breeze. Everything in this retreat center is scrupulously clean, but it's the raucous din of thousands of birds cawing, singing, squawking in the trees above us that makes me feel as though I'm already standing in church. The birds are so loud; it's hard to hear the person next to you unless they raise their voice slightly above normal.

Inside the building, people kneel or sit on the smooth stone floor on either side of a long nave. There is no stain glass on the large windows. Intricate grail work in the shape of Christian symbols keeps the birds out but allows their song to enter.

We take the stairs up to the Adoration Chapel. Behind a glass wall, a life-size statue of Christ kneels in the posture of the famous painting of the Lord’s agony in Gethsemane. The only difference being the landscape behind the Christ figure doesn’t look like the familiar olive grove in Jerusalem, but the landscape of India. I make out the flat lands and rivers of this land, a countryside reminiscent of the one we just drove through.

The statue of the praying Lord makes me think of Thomas, His disciple who came to India centuries ago. Here in this place of towering palms, gentle breezes and riotous bird song, I feel not only the apostle Thomas’s prayers for this subcontinent, but that of the Lord's—centuries of prayers for India.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Last week I shared about our first visit to a Hindu temple. Moses, the accountant on staff for the India Bible Camp Ministries, was one of our guides through the sprawling edifice. Though we hushed our voices, they still echoed against the stone walls and pillars. Just at the threshold to the inner temple we were stopped by a notice painted on the floor, "Only Hindus Past This Point."

When the Hindu priest rushed over to us, worried that we would enter, it was Moses who assured the indignant man that we had no intention of intruding. At one time Moses would have been one of the devotees to this temple.

But Moses wasn’t always Moses.

Moses was born a Hindu and his parents gave him the name, Morhar. For generations Mohar's family has run a lucrative business in artificial diamonds and gems. As a young man Morhar used to drive his motor scooter to this temple several times a week. Here he would religiously pay for pujas to be performed for various gods and goddesses. Those pujas could be a small sacrifice of flowers or food burned in a brass plate. Or quite often he would pay for the more expensive pujas to the gods, like the sacrifice of expensive ghee.

A few years ago Morhar heard a woman in his neighborhood talking about Jesus. Not much later he came to believe that Jesus was the living God he was looking for. But Mohar's family were outraged at his exclusive faith in Christ.

They shouted, "We do not mind you adding this Jesus to our Hindu gods. But do not reject Lord Brahma or Vishnu, or any of our other Hindu gods. You will bring curses down upon us and on our business."

Mohar said, "I cannot just add Jesus to Vishnu or Sita. I believe Jesus is the son of the true and living God. I believe Jesus is the only way to God."

Angry and broken-hearted, Morhar's family cast him from their home and entire family. Even the area around the family business became off-limits to him.

As a Christian outcaste, Morhar changed his name to Moses. His birth name clearly meant that he was a Hindu, and he was no longer that. His new name, Moses, means Deliverer, God had delivered him from hopelessness. Moses had assurance of eternal life with Christ. But how was he to eat? What was he to do with his life?

Not long after, Moses met up with other Christians in Tamil Nadu and came under the mentorship of Pastor Prasad Devasitham. It was Pastor Prasad who introduced Moses to India Bible Camps. With Moses’s background in accounting, he was just the man Antony Samy was looking for and Moses joined the staff of IBCM.

These days Moses scrupulously records every rupee and receipt that enables IBCM to operate. He's the man who reports to Antony the cost for every chocolate, or biscuit, or book, right up to the rental costs of facilities for the children's and youth ministries. Thousands of rupees run through Moses's fingers each day as he works from early morning to late at night.

One of the ladies on our visiting team was a woman with a career in commerce. Caroline was more interested in looking at the books and accounting files than the rest of us. During our visit to the IBCM office earlier that afternoon, Caroline had a long chat with Moses. He was pleased and proud to open and show her the books. Caroline told me later, that in all her years in accounting, she'd never seen such exceptionally accurate bookkeeping.

As we finish our visit to the temple that evening I notice that Moses eyes hold a deep sadness. It bothers him that so many of his people either don’t know about Christ or reject His message. I think I also see traces of the pain in Moses that his family want nothing to do with him. I'm sure he misses them. I'm sure he prays for their salvation in Christ daily. Yet in his proud and sensitive face I see joy in the brotherly relationship he has with the rest of the IBCM staff. I also take joy that Moses is my brother in Christ. Moses has lost his earthly family, but Christ has replaced it with His own.

With a gentle Indian waggle to his head, Moses smiles. "Before when I was a Hindu, I was very rich. But I had no peace. Now I follow Jesus. I am poor in personal money, but I have great peace."

Luke 18:29 Jesus said, "Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life."