The jet lag is real, friends, and so are the overwhelming emotions of visiting India for the first time. What better way to spend the wee hours of the morning on my second day back in the states, than trying to put into words my experience with Rahab’s Rope? I can think of no better way as I catch up on my recorded “shows,” and snuggle with my puppies.
There is so much good in India. There is so much promise in India. And God’s love is so present there. Maybe I had to go half way around the world to come face to face with God in such an authentic way. Maybe that experience alone is what the trip was all about.
Or maybe it was about more than that.
I went to India expecting to share God’s love. I went being told to “do good work” and to “change lives.” Maybe I did that. I’m not real sure. But I am sure that my life was changed.
For those that know me well, the fact that I even wanted to go to India should come as a shock. I’m a homebody. I love my porch, and I love my dogs. I love escaping in a new book, not necessarily flying 18 hours away. I love the quiet of my little town, and I love being able to walk just about wherever I need to go. So the fact that I chose to go to India is a little shocking.
The first night, or, morning, rather, I didn’t even sleep. I was nervous, excited, and anxious to get the trip started. I watched Ash sleep, and knew that this experience was going to change our lives. I remember my first thought as I watched the sun rise through the dirty windows of the hotel. “Dude, India is dirty,” I said to myself. As the sun rose higher, I thought, “No, India is beautiful.”
Our hotel was located behind a walk up Hindu temple. The bell started ringing long before sunrise, and the dogs barked incessantly. And yet, it was peaceful. Watching the people go into the temple all hours of the morning, I realized something powerful: There is something genuinely authentic about these people’s faith. How awesome is it that these folks willingly come to worship multiple times a day? What if we lived out our faith in that way?
Our first time in the slum was basically like sensory overload. Sleep deprived, and ready to get the trip started, we arrived behind the center to a welcoming committee of goats and children playing cricket. I’m not sure that I was ready for house visits, but that’s what was on the agenda for the girls while Ash lead a life skills class with the boys. I couldn’t understand the interpreters or the women and children we met with. The houses were dark and small, and the slum smelled like garbage. And yet, there was a joy and peace that I couldn’t comprehend, but definitely felt. During our last visit, I was asked if I would be willing to pray.
“Sure,” I said, thinking that this one was easy: I was going to pray away mom’s sunburn and pray well wishes for two of the girls’ exams coming up later in the month.
All of a sudden there was a rush of chatter. “No, wait,” Rachel said. “We need to pray for mom’s husband, who drinks too much and beats her.” (Silent gulp.) “Sure.”
“Oh, and pray for grandma, who has a terrible pain in her side.” Then grandma is brought in for us to pray over. Dang. That got intense real quick.
As I fumbled through my first public prayer in a foreign country, the “Yes, Lord Jesus” and “Alleluias” and “Amens” abounded. I guess I was praying something right. For the first time in India, but definitely not the last, God’s presence was palpable.
In India, all God’s creatures have a place in the choir. Even cows. Especially cows.
I loved the cows! Near the beach, we got picked up by a taxi driver, and six of us crammed into a car made for four. While we waited on the driver, we had the opportunity to visit his pets–I assume the herd of cattle gathered in front of the house were his, anyway. And yes, I took I selfie with a cow. Cows are sacred in India, and given honorary animal status. I can’t even get my dogs to pose this well!
In all seriousness, the value of all life is yet another incredible aspect of the Indian culture. But it did cause me to wonder about the stark contrast between rich and poor. We saw it all over. We sat in a cushy resort at the beach after visiting women on the beach in their shops. Women who weren’t sure if they could afford to get their children into college, much less make a sale during the holiday weekend. And yet, we were so rich in love and faith. And so were they. As we prayed for Lisa, she wept tears of joy and peace.
The work of the prevention centers in Goa is so important. Probably one of the best days was the day we took some kids from tutoring to the park. They were SO excited! And, they absolutely loved Ash’s beard. He was such a rock star! What’s more, it was so out of his comfort zone, but he really enjoyed it, I think.
I thought these girls were naturally outgoing, but their infatuation with Ash’s beard became even more special after our team leader informed us that approaching him to take a picture was just as out of character for them as posing was for Ash. Obviously, they saw deep into his soul and realized they were safe with him. Here again, we were smacked in the face with God’s ever-present peace and love. No matter where we went, God’s presence never seemed far away. It makes me wonder if we just get so bogged down in our to-do lists and own agendas in the States that we miss seeing where God shows up.
The Christmas program in the slum was another example of God’s presence. There were 50 or more children, and I’d say over a hundred parents packed into the center. It was hot. It was loud. It was organized chaos. And yet, it worked. Steven asked me to read the Christmas story. Being the good pastor I am, I brought my Bible. When it was my turn, I dutifully put on a scarf and carried my Bible up, only to be received by shocked and nervous expressions on Steven and Rachel’s face. “You can’t read from the Bible, can’t you do it without it?” Well, I should be able to, right? I mean, it’s the Christmas story. Surely the seminary-educated pastor has that memorized, right?
Wrong. And yet, God showed up again. I may not have made it all the way through the story, but for just a few minutes, the chatter stopped, the air seemed to cool down (that could have been my imagination) and the the Holy Spirit worked. No matter that I stopped telling the story after the shepherds showed up. (The Wise Men didn’t happen until later, anyway, right?) No matter that just as it quieted down the children got restless and the noise picked up again. No matter that some words were lost in translation. Wherever I am, there God is.
Barefoot and nervous, God spoke through me. There was much more to our time in Goa, including visiting ancient basilicas and ruins in Old Goa, the Saturday Night Market which was good for people watching and bargaining for pants, and food that must have been sent down directly from Heaven above. It was so good.
As our time in India came to an end, we definitely saved the best for last. Saying farewell to spotty wifi and one inch thin mattresses, we flew to Mumbai and said hello to luxury and dismay all in one. Our time in the red light district was more powerful than words can describe. We even tried to describe it after the visit, and words failed us. I think Ash said it best: “Mumbai is a beautiful mess.” Filled with anxiety and trepidation, we made our way through the slum and up to the center. The small room was soon packed wall to wall with sex workers looking for a little bit of a break and a healthy dose of God’s peace. As I tried to comfort Ash, who really struggled walking through the slum, and reign in my own emotions, I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. These women had every reason to be bitter and hard. Some were, for sure. And yet, as I stood and introduced myself as a pastor, they sat a little straighter. Their tears now freely flowed. I talked about peace that comes only from God. I talked about dignity, because they must know that God has created them in his image and they are dignified. I talked about how things here on earth fail us miserably, but God has big plans for us. And then, in the midst of that hot crowded room, rather unexpectedly, God showed up. Testimonies without interpretation were offered. It didn’t matter. I didn’t need to know what was said. I knew those women knew God and knew the power of God’s actions in their lives. So we talked about peace, and how it begins with each of us. And for perhaps the first time in India, and maybe in my life, I felt fully and completely at peace in God.
I encourage you, if you are doubting God’s presence in your life, go to India. See the work that Rahab’s Rope, with God’s help, is doing there. Experience the stark contrast between rich and poor, and see what true wealth really looks like. The trip of a lifetime changed my life forever. I can only hope some small crumbs of grace were left behind.