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.
At breakfast, I talk to Jaishree, OneLife’s Indian director of operations, who grew up in the Calcutta area.
“I was born in a Christian family,” she says. “My parents were “festival” Christians, only on Good Friday and Christmas, etc. But my grandmother would go every Sunday to church, so she used to take me to the church. But they didn’t have anything to grow the congregation spiritually. I did not really know the Lord. I knew all the Sunday School stories, but that was the end of it.”
“Then in 2000 I went to a [youth] camp where the theme was ‘Come Let Us Return to the Lord.’ That camp changed my life. The speaker actually spoke about giving back. The second night I had an encounter – I felt God tell me, ‘I want something to do in your life.’ That day I said, ‘I don’t know what is happening, but I will obey and I will listen to you. That night I gave him my life and from that time there was no turning back from that.’”
“From that time on, I started reading the Bible and knowing more,” she says. “I attended many of the trainings and camps. There were a lot of ups and downs, but that taught me a lot and helped me to grow in Christ.”
The state of West Bengal is fairly representative of mainland India’s Hindu background, and I ask Jaiashree about Hinduism practiced in Calcutta.
“The Hindu people, because they have millions of gods, can select which god they serve,” she explains. “For example, if you need wealth, there is a particular god to worship. If you want education, they have another one, etc. So they select them, and each one will have a small place in their home for the idol where they will do some of the devotions and rituals every day.”
“They will have a small book with the chants. They will do that every day (if they are devout),” she says. “It’s not a close relationship with god, but it’s something they have to do as a ritual. Almost every house will have at least one god and they will do this. Sometimes they will go to the temples at specific times. People vary. But they will do the rituals every day.”
“In Calcutta, the most popular god is Kali, the goddess who can give power. Not only good power, but also evil power, so this idol is also considered for the powerful black magic. Almost every home will have a god of prosperity called Lakshmi and Ganesh together. Lakshmi and Ganesh are husband and wife, so they are considered a god of prosperity. Houses with children will worship the goddess of education. These are some of the main god and goddesses. Aside from that, there many others whom they worship like Krishna. It depends on the region – for example, there is a god who protects the forest, or the river.”
After breakfast, we visit one of the most iconic buildings in Calcutta – the Victoria Memorial near Jawaharlal Road. While many would dispute whether such a monument to British rule in the heart of Calcutta (the former British capital), is a historical icon or symbol of oppression, it represents a formational time in India’s history – that of the British Raj.
The 1750-1800s, loosely, were the reign of the East India Company in India. The era of the “British Raj” officially began in 1848 when the East India Company transferred control of the empire to Queen Victoria. Victoria became queen of England at the young age of 18. She married Prince Albert at age 21 and they had nine children. Victoria’s reign of more than 63 years was the longest of any British monarch, until Queen Elizabeth in 2015.
Today, the Victoria Memorial houses statues, colonial artwork and exhibitions. We walk through the memorial, observing relics of a time gone by. We reconvene on the grassy lawns outside the monument, where Seth, still suffering from jet-lag, threatens to go to sleep in the grass. A giant statue of the widowed Victoria sits in front of the building, peering down at us solemnly. A cross between the English architecture of St. Paul’s and the Taj Mahal, the white, dome-topped marble halls reminds me a little of St. Paul’s, as we pass the statues of “Motherhood,” “Prudence” and “Learning.” Victoria was the British Empress of India from 1876 until her death in 1901.
India had a population of around 200 million in Victoria’s day. (By contrast, Britain’s was around only 17 million.) Indian nationalist Mahatma Gandhi began to campaign against British rule in 1915. A famous advocate of non-violence, Gandhi’s defiance of British taxes led to an official march in 1930 and a series of hunger strikes. The power of the Raj gradually weakened, lasting until 1947, when India declared its independence. Gandhi was assassinated one year later. Today India has its own constitution and is governed by a president, prime minister and houses of parliament.
After visiting the memorial, we walk through the Kalighat area of Calcutta, home of the famous Kali Temple. Kali Temple, Calcutta’s holiest spot for Hindus, is more than 200 years old. According to Hindu legend, there was a skirmish among the gods in which Sati, wife of Shiva, was killed and her body parts fell throughout India. The site of Kali Temple is supposedly where the toes of her right foot landed, making it a sacred place.
The temple itself honors the Hindu goddess Kali, “she who is black death,” a fearsome sight to behold. Kali means “she who is black/death.” She is depicted as having black skin, three eyes, multiple arms and an outstretched tongue. We pass through the inner walkways, which started with a simple hut and was rebuilt into a temple around 1809. Inside there are vendors selling adornments – orange and yellow flower garlands, as well as cakes and wafers. Pilgrims burn incense sticks, making the air heavy with the smoke and humidity. The air is punctuated by the shrieks of children and skinny, mangy dogs eating the carcasses of dead birds roam freely on the inside grounds.
We pass a small, sacred tree knows as “Monosha Tala,” laden with flower garlands. Devotees toss flowers and decorations on the tree for prosperity. In addition to a three-eyed idol of Kali, there are two small stone altars on the inside of the temple where goats and other small animals are routinely sacrificed. Outside, within the temple enclosure, there is a tank of murky, pea-green water from the canal, said to be “holy water.” Andy retells the falling of Sati’s toes from the sky and into the water. People come from all around to sample the water, he says, as it’s generally regarded to be as sacred as the Ganges River. As if on cue, two women appear on the walkway, pausing to sprinkle the water on themselves and scoop it up into tiny vials.
Afterwards, we walk back through the neighborhood of Kalighat, while I marvel at the buildings – smoky, dirty concrete, yet with their own elegance, covered in green vines or intricately carved rails. The powerlines crisscross the sky, like the city is caught in its own giant spider web. We pass merchants selling fruits and vegetables spread on white cloths in the street, cripples and beggars stretched out every so often on the warm pavement. We are passed by a funeral procession, a deceased man wrapped in cloth, covered in orange mums and white lilies on a stretcher with wooden handles, borne high through the streets on his way to be cremated.
We walk down by the canal, the Hooghly River, a tributary of the Ganges. We stare at the sunset, watching long skinny boats like gravy dishes piled high with colorful goods float past in the distance. As we watch the river turn a serene shade of pink, I ask Andy about what motivated him to first come to India.
“One Sunday night after church Seth and I went for tacos after church,” Andy says. “Pete was telling us about an upcoming trip to India. Pete said ‘You guys should come with us’ and Seth and I didn’t want to,” he remembers with a smile. “We went out in the parking lot afterwards and were finally like, ‘let’s just go.’”
Seth had never been on a foreign mission trip before and Andy didn’t even have a passport – it was literally the first time he’d left the country.
“I still remember the first time when I walked into Khalpar,” Andy says. “I was so angry. I’d never been anyplace – I’d seen videos and had heard people talk about it. I’d read things, but there’s something about actually seeing a place that really moves you. You can see all the pictures of New York City, but you don’t know what Times Square is like until you stand there.”
“I walked in and I probably only got 25 steps in and I remember mumbling out loud to myself, ‘This is not right. Human beings are not supposed to live like this. People who are made in God’s image are not supposed to live like this.’ I saw the dogs running around and some of the dogs looked healthier than some of the people did. And it broke my heart. From that moment, I was like, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, but God you need to help me do something.’”
“When we got home, we didn’t know what to do at first,” Seth chimes in. “We didn’t plan immediately to come back. We just did the next thing we thought we should do. We started reading things on poverty, news articles on India. We went back through and talked about our pictures.”
“We started doing a lot of research,” Andy says, “how do people get into poverty, why are they in poverty in the first place, how is it that they are unable to get out and what is it that can actually be done effectively to get them out. We knew enough at the time to know that this type of work doesn’t happen easily.”
Seth and Andy went back to India six months later.
“We didn’t really know why we were going,” Seth says. “The two of us were sitting in the airport and we were like ‘What are we doing?’ We were just kind of trusting God. When we got back, we thought, someone needs to stand in the gap between Khalpar and the churches who sponsor. We began scheduling meetings with other organizations in Nashville to understand how to run a real non-profit.”
Thus began the relationship between the kids of the Khalpar slum and “Pete-Uncle,” “Andy-Uncle” and “Seth-Uncle.”
“As we learned more about poverty, it changed our mission,” Seth says. “The idea behind OneLife is solidarity – joining our lives with the poor and our mission of connecting people in the United States to people in India.”
This is still on my mind when we arrive back at Hotel Heaven – connecting people in the U.S. to India. With so much need in the world, how to you know who to help, or where to go?
Two thousand years ago in the book of Luke, an expert in the law asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”7 In other words, cut through everything else – What one thing I should do?
It’s a serious question.
And Jesus asked him a question. “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
The man responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Then he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus didn’t answer immediately. In response, he tells him the parable of the Good Samaritan, of a priest, Levite and Samaritan who pass an injured man on the road to Jericho. The priest sees the man and passes by on the other side of the road. The Levite too sees the man and passes by on the other side. Finally a Samaritan, one of the social pariahs of the day sees the man. He stops to tend his wounds and puts him on a donkey to take him to a nearby inn.
We’re told when the lawyer in the story asked “Who is my neighbor?” it’s because he wanted to justify himself. He essentially wanted Jesus to say, “Not those people.”
Today – silly lawyer – we know your neighbor is everyone.
And yet, sitting in a Calcutta hotel room, I’m not sure if I’m any clearer on how to practice that idea than he was. Centuries apart, I feel like the man asking, “Lord, who is my neighbor?” all over again.
Just to clarify on the word “neighbor,” I looked it up in the dictionary and it was defined as:
A person who lives near another.
A person or thing that is another.
One’s fellow human being.
A person who shows kindliness or helpfulness towards his or her fellow humans.8
(Thank you, that clears it up a lot.)
C.S. Lewis, who is a brilliant writer, once put it this way when describing the tactics of the enemy and his demons.
“Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. Thus the malice becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.”9
I’ve never heard truer words.
When I was a kid, I used to think loving your neighbor meant your literal neighbor. Which was lucky for us, because the lady who lived next door to us was really nice, and there was an empty lot to our left. People in apartment complexes must be exhausted, I thought, on account of having to love 20 neighbors at one time.
Now, it’s safe to say that your neighbor is the world. Which sounds glamorous, but it isn’t really. Whenever I hear stories about loving our global neighbors in Peru or Bolivia, I think, “How can I love my neighbor in Peru – I can’t even love my co-worker. How can I love my ‘neighbor’ if I can’t even get along with [insert family member]?”
When God looks down from heaven, I wonder what he must think of us. We are all little destructos, running into our neighbor, leaving a path of hurt and brokenness.
And then somewhere in the middle of it all, I realized the very art of trying to dissect who your neighbor is might just be a first world problem.