By Dr. Rob Nash
One very meaningful moment occurred on a day trip outside Hyderabad when the group visited a church led by Pastor Paul. The pastor had been trained at Bethel Ministry Training Center and, in fact, it was there that he learned to read. The entire group was moved by Pastor Paul’s ability to read scripture and by his obvious excitement at having such an opportunity. We shared together, sang songs, and then prayed for Pastor Paul, his church, and his family. We also shared a wonderful meal of fruit and rice.
From Hyderabad, we moved on to the sacred city of Bodhgaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment in the sixth century BCE. Our class was able to meet just a few feet away from the Bodhi tree that marks the actual site. The group talked at length about the Buddha’s life and about the influence that he had upon India as he wandered about north India and shared the Four Noble Truths and the Noble 8-fold Path that had transformed his life and perspective. Each of the major Buddhist nations of the world has built temples in the city and we were able to visit a number of them, including the Taiwanese and Bhutanese temples.
The group spent five days in Kolkata during some of the hottest days on record in India. Two days emerged as real highlights, including the one we spent at the Kali Kalighat Temple and the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity and the day we spent at Serampore seeing Serampore College. The visit to the Kali Kalighat Temple was quite sobering as we walked barefoot through the blood of the goats that had been sacrificed to the goddess that day and as we then tried to push through a group of desperate worshippers who had come to seek the blessing of the goddess. It was quite obvious to all of us that the faithful were hoping for just a glimpse of the goddess in order to gain her favor and that they were not happy about a group of Americans attempting to see the goddess out of nothing more than curiosity.
We then moved on to the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity where we found ourselves sitting by the tomb of Mother Teresa and contemplating her life and work among the poor of Kolkata. The day gave us much to think about as we considered the power of the goddess Kali as it was contrasted with the humble life and work of Mother Teresa.
On the next day, we worked together with other volunteers at two sites run by the Sisters of Charity, one a nursing home and the other an orphanage. Again, this was a real highlight of the trip. Half the group went to the nursing home where we made beds, washed clothes, and shaved, massaged and offered pedicures and manicures to the elderly. This was truly an intimate experience of meeting the physical needs of elderly and poverty-stricken Indian men and women. We also prepared lunch, served the meal, and cleaned up the facility afterward. The other half of the group worked with orphans at the motherhouse.
Our final day in Kolkata was spent in Serampore where we visited Serampore College and studied the life and legacies of William and Dorothy Carey, among the earliest of Protestant missionaries in the eighteenth century. Two students made presentations on the lives of the Careys and then we spent some time discussing the legacy of eighteenth and nineteenth century missionaries, a legacy best represented in the huge columns of the Carey home and of the main building of the college and in the college’s reading room in the library which seemed largely modeled after the reading room of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. We also talked at length about the challenges faced by these early pioneers in mission service and about their contributions to the translation of scripture into local dialects.
From Kolkata, we moved on to Pune and to Mumbai and through several days of visits to Hindu temples and Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu caves. From a historical perspective, this was one of the most interesting parts of the trip as these caves have existed since the sixth and seventh centuries CE. The existence of caves from all three religions allowed for the opportunity to seal in the minds of students the markings of the various gods and goddesses of Hinduism, the various images of the Buddha, and the various thirtankaras of the Jain tradition.
We ended the trip in Mumbai with a visit to a slum ministry in a very challenging area of the city that is flooded twice each day with the ocean tide. It presented us with an opportunity to hear about how this particular ministry sustains itself and, particularly, about how it partners with various churches and groups in the US to accomplish its ministry.
I offer a number of reflections here about the trip and its influence upon students and faculty alike:
- It afforded our students the opportunity to observe a wide range of ministries in India and to consider such concepts as assets-based community development, sustainability, and the cultural challenges of communicating the gospel in a Hindu context. What do we need to take into account as we engage in mission and ministry in India in particular but also in any context?
- It assisted students toward the realization that all religion that is grounded in a desire to improve the lives of people is good. Religion is nothing more or less than the desire to make sense of our existence by giving meaning and purpose to life. For this reason, we should never fear persons of another religion; rather, we should embrace them and enter into caring relationships with them.
- It offered students an opportunity to lead worship in a context that required a translator and some cross-cultural sensitivity in language and communication. Two women students were able to preach, an experience which was new both for them and for the congregation of Indian Christians who listened to them. In addition, students were able to reflect on the nature of worship in such a context and about what makes for good worship given the realities of cultural and linguistic barriers.
- It enabled students to move beyond the general fear of otherness and difference that all too often hinders the ability of the church in any context, but especially in the context of the early twenty-first century when the US is becoming increasingly diverse. Ministry students who participated in this visit to India will have no trouble engaging Hindu, Buddhist and Jain persons in relationships and in talking at length with them about life and faith.
- It reminded students that our own Christian perspective on God is limited in scope and that we have much to learn from the beliefs and practices of other religions. Students were constantly making connections between Christian theology and the belief systems of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Many mentioned that their own perspective on God had been challenged by what they had seen and heard.
- Finally, it prepared our students to lead such immersion experiences themselves in ways that can take full advantage of the gift-sets of layperson in their congregations and that can look toward healthy sorts of engagements and partnerships in international contexts. We were able to talk through the nature of such partnerships and the importance of clearly defined goals and strategies, including exit strategies. I am convinced that the future of global mission engagement is dependent upon these proper motivations and connections in order to transform communities and change lives.
It was a privilege to lead the trip. I am grateful for the opportunity and look forward to other mission immersion experiences in the coming years. I am also grateful for the good work of Dr. David Garber who was a tremendous help throughout the immersion experience and whose observations and teaching ability ensured that students received its fullest benefit.