It was my first visit to India since I lived there years ago.
In those days, I went there as a poor student and came back rich
- with less money in my pocket.
The same happened to the four of us on this visit . . .
I recently went with some friends on a bit of a weird tour to South Asia. It is quite the "in thing" for South African pastors and other Christian leaders to venture to the States and Europe on what they call "study tours". Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there is a lot to learn in the so called uptown side of the world. But when the opportunity came in the form of sponsored plane tickets, we decided to give India and Bangladesh a shot. We've heard that a lot is being done there with less, and we figured that if something can work in these extreme parts the world, then maybe it can also work in Pretoria? We shared the believe that people living in real physical need has a lot to teach us about life. So, we decided to learn from the poor about the poor.
The four of us who travelled together, are all involved in development programs in Pretoria: I'm with ECHO Youth Development and the other three, Francois, Marinda and Sharaine, with Pen - an organization that runs some mind blowing projects in the heart of the inner city.
Our first stop was the crowded city of Dhaka in Bangladesh - according to the World Bank one of the poorest and fastest growing cities on earth.
We met up with the friendly people of Grameen Bank. It is a unique bank founded by Professor Muhammad Yunus, who in 2006 received the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements in empowering poor families in Bangladesh through a micro-credit program focused mainly on woman. They give small loans to poor people possessing no collateral - meaning there's no fat cat on the top buying himself a Boeing and a few islands, everything is thrown back into empowering more people. The aim of the bank is to establish credit worthiness and financial self-sufficiency amongst the poor and vulnerable. They helped more than 3,2 Million people up to date.
The statistics alone are pretty amazing, but it was seeing this system at work in everyday life in poverty stricken rural Bangladesh, that really touched us. We visited some of the villages, joined a micro-credit woman's meeting and spoke to some of the clients.
One lady, who until recently had only the equivalent of R2 a day to support her family of four, borrowed money from Grameen Bank and is now the proud owner of a cow. She sells the milk and every now and then rents out the cow to pull someone's cart. Recently the cow gave birth to a calf. This might not sound like a big deal to you and me, but it seems to make a world of a difference to this lady and her family. Some other woman bought very basic hand loom weaving machines and started their own little business.
We saw hope in the eyes of these friendly women. Thanks to Muhammad Yunus, once a poor man himself, they look forward towards a new future full of possibilities for them and their children. As followers of Jesus we were humbled by this selfless Moslem initiative to help the poor.
Next we visited Kolkata (previously Calcutta) in India.
If you look for the church in this city you might be drawn to beautiful old buildings with huge towers, when you enter you will most probably be surprised at the lifelessness - a bit like entering a museum.
We found another manifestation of the church right next to a huge Kali temple in the chaos of downtown Kalighat called: The house for the dying. We were still standing around in the entrance when a voice behind us said: "Please excuse me," it was from a Western girl in her early twenties carrying in her arms a near dead naked old man she found somewhere on the dirty streets of Kolkata.
We volunteered in Kalighat because we wanted to see from the "inside" what the Sisters of Mercy was all about. The four of us joined in with other volunteers from all over the world. The whole idea was helping with the cleaning, dressing and moving of patients. Sometimes we had to help them eat and other times we just sat down chatting in broken English while massaging their cramped arms and legs.
Mother Teresa said that she often saw Jesus in the eyes of the most vulnerable people in Kolkata. We saw Him too.
We realized that there is something of God's heart that you don't find in beautiful cathedrals, the most touching spiritual music, the best of Christian books, not even in Bible study groups or at prayer meetings. He reveals a special part of His heart only through the poorest of the poor. It was Jesus who said: "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me..."
Many Christians today tend to move away from suffering in search of comfort and safety. What a strange phenomenon for people claiming to be the body of the Christ who did just the opposite? Jesus did not call us out of the darkness, but into the darkness. He never promised a comfortable and safe life for his followers. The core of His message was a call to self sacrifice - seeking out the darkness, giving yourself to be the light.
In Varanasi we met up with more of God's strange people doing just that. These weirdo's run a coffee shop a few blocks from the Ganges. They call it Open Hand. Most of them are South Africans who gave up their comfortable life's and moved there more than ten years ago. Through the coffee shops they create work opportunities for some of the most vulnerable people in India, whose hand crafts they sell. They also run an amazing project with the homeless children at the Varanasi station and have some similar non profit initiatives in other parts of the country. Inspiring stuff, to say the least!
Jesus said that to give will bring more joy than to receive. The enormousness of South Asia's suffering broke our hearts and turned our guts, but we also saw this joy braking through. It was visible in a little girl looking after her cripple sister, homeless children sharing whatever a tourist gave them . . . and especially there where God's people "moved in" to make a difference.
It was my first visit to India since I lived there fifteen years ago. I went there in those days as a poor student and came back rich - with less money in my pocket. The same happened to the four of us on this visit.
Some people argue that the centre of God's will is the safest place to be. Not so for John the Baptist - the centre of God's will was the place he lost his head! Or think of Steven who got stoned to death while being obedient - or Jesus for that matter. The centre of God's will, can sometimes be a very uncomfortable even dangerous place, but it is also the place where his children will feel the most alive.
On this tour we discovered a different understanding for the promise of a life of abundance in the Gospels. It seems not to be a guarantee of safety and comfort, but rather an assurance to God's people that they will have the ability to be a light in the face of darkness; that they could walk courageous in dangerous places and that true joy is possible without material stuff or human status.
God promises a peace that passes all understanding - even when entering some broken-non-peaceful places.
We spent a lot of time on trains, planes, Indian taxis and walked for miles on end in dirty crowded allies. The two girls in our group were robbed in Bangladesh, our taxi driver got beaten up and we were cheated and misdirected on more than one occasion. We had a lot of laughs, wept a few times silently and shared our dreams and frustrations about the role of the church in this broken world. There was a little site seeing, and a lot of hope seeing! It changed our lives.
Somewhat of a funny tour, won't you say?
Maybe the biggest lessons in life are not to be learned in the Christian bubble away from injustice, poverty and human suffering, but right in the middle of it.