That night, we pack our bags and prepare to leave Hotel Heaven. Later that evening, I have coffee with Seth, which – for all his musical tendencies – is kind of like having coffee with Jesus.
“The first time I came over to India, I was in a place in my own life, trying to understand from an ideological level, the poor and what Christian faith is supposed to look like and what kind of responsibility we have and what salvation is and all these different things,” he says.
“Jesus led a really interesting life. And the kinds of things he did aren’t always the type of things we associate with Christianity, or even Jesus. The gospel obviously, means the good news. And the gospel is the good news of the kingdom of God. The question is, what is the kingdom of God? And that was the question Jesus was answering. He would talk with people and say, ‘The kingdom of God is like this – it’s like a mustard seed. The kingdom of God is like 10 virgins. The Kingdom of God is like a banquet. The kingdom of God is like seed. The Kingdom of God is like a man who finds a treasure in a field.’ He was subversive to the common wisdom of the day. He said, ‘You’ve heard it said this…I’m telling you something else.’ That was particularly poignant when he talked about the poor.”
Few people know that “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” sung by schoolchildren at Vacation Bible Schools all across the USA, originated in northeast India in the late 1800s. A man from Assam converted to Christianity due to the efforts of a Welsh missionary in the region. He was rounded up by locals and threatened to be executed by a local tribal chief. When faced with death, he said, “I have decided to follow Jesus. There is no turning back.”
When watching his children executed in front of him, he is reported to have said, “Though no one joins me, still I will follow.” His wife was then executed and he replied, “The world can be behind me, but the cross is still before me.” 19 And with that, he was killed. The story quickly circulated among Indian believers and an Indian missionary, Sadhu Sundar Singh put the man’s final words into a hymn. A Canadian songwriter and American hymn editor eventually picked up the song and it began to circulate in American songbooks in the 1960s, made popular by the Billy Graham Crusade.
There is a small sunlit courtyard at the center of the Mother Teresa House, and at the center of the courtyard is a small staircase leading upward to a singular, plain room – Mother Teresa’s bedroom, if it could be called that, where she slept. The room is the size of a large walk-in closet, with a plain, brown-checkered cot on the left side. A framed picture of Jesus’s thorns hangs above the cot. There is a small set of files, a writing desk and a wooden table and bench.
The next morning, Kenny and I have walked a few blocks from our hotel to the Mother Teresa House. The House is so modest and unasuming, you would walk right past it, were it not for a simple sign reading:
Missionaries of Charity
54A A.J.C. Bose Road
Kolkata – 700016
Mother Teresa was a Catholic nun famous for ministering to the destitute of Calcutta’s slums. Nicknamed the “Saint of the Gutters,” she became a humble icon for poverty worldwide.
My mom is the only person I know with a singing dryer. Every time I go home, it fascinates me. I don’t know where she got it, but it jingles like an ice cream truck between the cycles. I wondered if there’s a way to customize it – make it whistle the theme from Star Wars or play the Auburn fight song when your clothes are ready, but probably not. I don’t think dryers have progressed that far, but maybe someday.
By contrast, the women of Ghoragata, an Indian village an hour and a half outside of Calcutta, have no washer and dryer. They wash their clothes in a pond and hang them to dry on rocks or inside the house. They could sing, to make the process more interesting, but that’s the extent of it.
As with most countries, Indians have phrases that have made their way into English – yet remain distinctly Indian. For example, “passing out” as in, graduation – “He passed out of college last May.” Then there’s “What’s your good name?” meaning your first name or given name. There’s “time pass” (killing time), and “out of station” (out of town or unavailable). There’s a liberal use of the word only (He arrived only this morning) and kindly, as in, “Kindly revert (return) to the ticket counter.”
One of my favorite expressions so far is “doing the needful.” Translated literally, it means do what’s important or “Do this one thing.”
The next morning, I walk downstairs and outside to wait on the curb, amid the constant honking. As Andy points out, there seem to be four unofficial levels of honking in India:
- A polite, “just letting you know I’m here”
- A firm toot “I’m trying to pass you”
- “Get over you idiot; I’m REALLY trying to pass you.”
- Danger – you’re about to get hit!
You really don’t ever want to hear No. 4, as it may be the very last thing you hear on this earth. We stand outside on the curb waiting on the others as BLOW HORN and ALL WEST BENGAL whiz past in a cloud of dust.
I’m frequently asked, out of all my travels, what is the #1 thing I learned when learning about Christianity around the world. The answer can pretty much be summed up in this excerpt below from Coffee, Tea and Holy Water.
Britain’s #1 question for God is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” C. S. Lewis famously called this “the problem of pain.”
After visiting Brazil, where the prosperity gospel seems to have mushroomed into false teaching and Wales, where disillusionment with God has all but snuffed out church attendance, I feel it is time to address a common trend.
“God wants you to be happy, God wants you to be healthy. God wants you to be blessed.”
True or false?
The answer to that is probably determined by how you feel about the “prosperity gospel.”
After the clinic at Khalpar, I think about the sea of faces and overall helplessness of what they must feel, waiting in line for Tylenol and anti-itch cream.
Economic poverty is hard to calculate in itself, but “poverty” isn’t strictly economic. There’s situational poverty (or temporary poverty), as compared with those living in absolute poverty or destitution. Other types of poverty include social poverty (lack of family or relationships), educational poverty, as well as civil poverty or lack of human rights and access to healthcare. The United Nations defines poverty as “a lack of choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity”6 – in other words, a lack of the fundamental ability to participate in community or society. We do have poverty in the U.S., but truly, not at quite on the same scale.
Indian author Kiran Desai once remarked, “If you write a lovely story about India, you’re criticized for selling an exotic version of India. And if you write critically about India, you’re seen as portraying it in a negative light – it also seems to be a popular way to present India, sort of mangoes and beggars.”10
And yet, somehow “mangoes and beggars” seems to exactly summarize the comings and goings on the street below our hotel. I wake up the next day to a symphony of horns outside the window that start at daylight and never really stop. When packing for the trip, I packed double the amount of contacts I thought I would need. After three or four days in Calcutta, however, I have run through nearly all of them.
The saying “every day a holiday” is never more true than in India. India has more festivals and regional celebrations than there are days of the year.
There are three primary national holidays, which nearly everyone celebrates. First, Republic Day on Jan. 26th, the day India became a republic. Then Independence Day, August 15th, celebrating freedom from British rule, and finally Gandhi Jayanti on Oct. 2, which honors Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. All three holidays are patriotic holidays that unifies everyone above the local and religious holidays.
Of the religious holidays, one of the primary celebrations is Diwali (or Deepwali), the “festival of lights” in late October or early November, similar to Christmas. Lasting five days, Diwali celebrates the victory of good over evil, or salvation from darkness. Another popular festival is Holi, celebrated on a full moon in February or March, the “festival of colors” marking the end of winter and beginning of spring. Holi is celebrated throughout the day by smearing colors on friends and passerby in the streets.
Having bid farewell to Shillong, the next leg of my journey is Calcutta (Kolkata), the former capital of India, where I am meeting a group from a charity called OneLife International. OneLife International’s mission is to serve the communities surrounding Calcutta by assisting them with the resources they need to rise out of poverty.
Calcutta is home to nearly 14 million people, situated on the Hooghly River. It is the third largest city in India, and considered to be the intellectual and cultural center of India, similar to a London, England – a hub of theaters, cinema and art. The primary language is Bengali, followed by English and Hindi. More than a million residents, however, live in thousands of registered slums.
After traveling solo, it’s good to be meeting up again with a group. Our traveling party consists of 30-year-old Seth, one of the organization’s co-founders, Nashville natives Melanie, Danny and Kenny, a doctor from Oregon named Ryan, and a Canadian named Shelly. We will be joined in Calcutta by OneLife’s two other charter members, Andy and Pete.