Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Home Again!

Thanks to you who have followed these blog entries on our India trip.  Alas, we were not able to make as many postings from India as we had of many learnings from our very rewarding pilgrimage to this fascinating corner of God's creation.

Joy, Hank and I returned safely last evening to the Hector International Airport, Fargo, ND, at about 10:45 p.m. local time.   Yesterday was the longest Tuesday of my life, about 35.5 hours long, if my calculations are accurate....because we left Chennai around 1:30 a.m. (Chennai time) on Nov. 17th and arrived in Fargo before midnight (Fargo time)....all on November 17th.

We are feeling quite well.   We had not gastrointestinal problems in India, thanks to the care of others for us and our own cautious approach to eating, drinking and hand-washing.   I picked up some lower-back pain toward the end of the journey, probably the result of too much sitting, too little exercise and lack of rest.   Joy and I slept about 8 hours last night (a long night for us!)....and we know that overcoming jet lag will still take some days.

In reviewing the postings I made in India, I was aware of an error and a place name that may not have made much sense to anyone trying to follow our travels on a map.    The name of the rural valley we visited on Nov. 11th was the Araku Valley--that was my spelling error.    Also, the name of Vizig, India is actually an abbreviation for Vishakhapatnam (this is one of a couple of spellings for this city), along the coast of the Bay of Bengal.

A note about the photos on this page:   ABOVE--our small travel party in front of some Hindu statues on a hill about Vizig, overlooking the Bay of Bengal.   BELOW--Grace, the truly gracious wife of Bishop Suneel, enjoying some fresh coconut juice with me near the Borra Caves, in the Araku Valley.   FAR BELOW--Bishop Suneel, my dear brother in Christ, with me by a commemorative plaque we unveiled at the offices of the AELC in Guntur.

Today is a rest-up, clean-up day for Joy and me....but I hope to do some more posting on the blog in the days to come, to tell a fuller version of our story.   We are so deeply grateful for our time in India, with the great people of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church....and we are thankful to God for the gift of this time AND for the safe return to Minnesota.

More later!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Day in Rural India

Today, (Wednesday) found us heading out of Vizig toward a rural area for some sight-seeing and visiting of a small rural church.   We were a party of about 15 persons in a mini-bus, including local (synod) officials and AELC leaders.    Contrary to some weather predictions that had us facing possible rain and gale force winds, we had a glorious, mainly sunny day.

The Araku Valley area is one of the most scenic areas in this part of India--high, forested hills, terraced farmland, the Borra Caves--and free-range MONKEYS!   "Do not tease the monkeys," is a sign one doesn't see in Moorhead, MN.

On our way back to Vizig we stopped for a brief time of prayers and meeting at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, a mission outpost that reflects many of the ways we do mission outreach in NW MN.   First, the fledgling church has a "mother" church in Vizig--"churches starting churches."   Second, the plan is that as the congregation expands--which looks likely--the current small worship building will become a parsonage, and a new edifice will be built.   Third, these folks are aware of their mission field.  In addition to the local folks--many of whom are "tribal" people, they are on a major highway toward the Araku Valley scenic they hope to reach out to tourists.   Sound familiar to those of you in NW MN?

The welcome was warm, the singing memorable, and the post-worship meal was great, with some fried chicken that was out of this world.  

Now I must sign off in order to get ready for an overnight train ride to our next destination.   We are doing well, seeing lots, and making some wonderful new friends.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

India Update

Despite my good intentions to blog regularly "on the road," it appears that my plans to do so may not materialize.   Why?   I'm finding that Internet connections are very spotty, and the schedule is grueling--rewarding, yes, but very full days!

In fact, even now, I'm literally falling asleep at the keyboard while blogging from the lobby at the DasPalla Hotel in Vizig, India.    So rather than offering more extended reflections, I'll simply share some brief updates from the last two days....

SUNDAY, we headed out early in the rmorning for worship at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Chennai, a congregation affiliated with the Indian Evangelical Lutheran Church (connected to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod).   The very small group of English-speaking Lutherans who gathered together, used The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941-the worship book I grew up with.   I preached from a pulpit that was dedicated years ago by then-president of the Missouri Synod, J.A. O Preus.

Next we went to Resurrection Lutheran Church, a Telegu-speaking congregation of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church, also in Chennai.   Very warm, welcoming folks....and our first introduction to the beautiful, almost haunting chant-style worship for which the Telegu people are known.  

Following lunch with some folks from Resurrection, we went back to the hotel for a very helpful briefing by two leaders of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church.   In the early evening I preached at the chapel service at Gurukul Lutheran Theological College (GLTC)....before ending the day with a late-evening dinner with the director (president) of GLTC and one of the school's professors of missiology.

MONDAY was a travel day, as we flew out of Chennai for Vizig.   It was wonderful being greeting by Suneel and Grace Bhanu Busi--Suneel is the newly-elected bishop of the AELC.    Following some rest time in the afternoon, we feted Grace on her birthday, with a grand supper.

TODAY--Tuesday (Nov. 10) was very full, with the AELC's annual Pastors Day Celebration at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Vizig.   I preached at the morning worship service and an evening ordination service (two sermons), and it was profoundly moving to participate in the laying-on-of-hands for 70 new pastors in the AELC.

I'm including a photo of our arrival in Vizig (that's me, Joy and Hank)--all decked out in garlands and bouquets of fresh-cut flowers, "India style."  Tomorrow (Wednesday) we travel into the rural areas of the AELC, and I may not be able to do any more blogging until the weekend.    We are all doing well, finding it hard to get the exercise and rest that we need, but we also don't want to miss any of this great adventure.   More later, when time and Internet connections permit.

First Day in Chennai....Continued

Mid-day on Saturday (Nov. 7) our small party was hosted by the staff of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in India in their building on the campus of Gurukul Lutheran Theological College. Dr. Augustine, the current executive secretary of the UELCI addressed us briefly and welcomed us “India style” with shawls, gifts and refreshments.

The UELCI is a “communion of churches in the midst of struggles” (as they describe themselves in a brochure we received). Not as much a denomination, as we use that term in America, but a council of Lutheran churches—the UELCI is made up of twelve Lutheran churches spread across the subcontinent. They claim up to 2.5 million members (though church record keeping in India appears to be less precise than what we shoot for in North America)….meaning that our Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church companion synod is the largest of these twelve churches. Dr. Augustine mentioned that more than 95% of Lutheran church members in India are Dalits, a.k.a. “untouchables.”

At the present the UELCI has four central priorities:

1. “Capacity-building,” which, as I heard it described, sounded much like the same efforts we are pursuing in the NW MN Synod to move into God’s mission, renewing our capacity to pass on the faith, form disciples and cultivate life-giving faith practices.

2. Leadership development, focused it would seem in the UELCI on helping new bishops or presidents of the twelve member churches take up their callings in faithful, effective ways.

3. Embrace of the “Purpose Driven” perspective championed in the U.S. by evangelical pastor Rick Warren.

4. “Peace and reconciliation,” which as Augustine described it, has to do with intra-church conflicts that arise when new bishops/presidents are chosen by the member churches, synods and dioceses. In India, bishop elections are—not to put too fine a point on it—rather more “politicized” than in the ELCA.

We then heard brief presentations from members of Dr. Augustine’s small staff—only about ten persons in all—who lead “programmes” (I’m slipping into the British spelling…) in areas such as

• Social action—lots of emphasis on development and community organizing, and disaster response

• Youth ministries—with ages 0-8 designated “children,” ages 9-14 designated “juniors,” and agest 15-40 considered “youth” (i.e. combining the “youth” and “young adult” categories commonly used among American Lutherans). It sounds as though the delay of the onset of adulthood is a factor in Indian life, just as it is in America.

• HIV/AiDs ministries—one of these ministries is called SWAP, the “Slum Women ‘s Advancement Programme, which has an HIV/AiDs component.

• Dalit ministries, among India’s lower castes who make up the bulk of Christians in India.

• An intriguing program to provide milch cows (milk cows) for young widows—this is both a charitable and a development approach, providing a means for rural widows to feed their families and develop capacity for making a living (reminiscent of the old FFA “gilt ring” approach—whereby a farm kid received the gift of a bred gilt, to build up a swine herd, eventually returning a bred gilt to the program so that others can participate.)

• Women’s programme—There is lots of attention to this area, and I learned later in our visit that “women’s work” has been one of the shining stars in the Indian Lutheran churches. Areas of involvement include theological education for women, microfinance programmes to assist women in building up small businesses, gender justice questions, and the ordination of women. With respect to the latter, we learned that nine of the twelve member churches of the UELCI ordain women, although because of cultural traditions it seems to be difficult for ordained women to secure parish appointments. UELCI also maintains a training center to teach women basic job skills, e.g. typing.

Saturday evening we enjoyed supper with Dr. Monica Melanchthon and Dr. K. Rajaratnam.   Dr. Melanchthon teaches Old Testament at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, and Dr. Rajaratnam was the long-time executive secretary of the UELCI--both wonderful meal companions, generous in sharing their long-term perspectives on India and the Lutheran Church in this part of the world.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

First Day in Chennai, India

In the next ten days I will be doing some live blogging from our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church of India.   My travel companions are Prof. Hank Tkachuk of the communications studies department at Concordia College, Moorhead (and a longtime India-phile and traveler to this amazing subcontinent) and my dear wife Joy.   We departed from Fargo ND on Nov 6 and hope to return to Fargo on Nov. 17th.   Bear in mind that this is our first overseas trip--for Joy and me, that this blog may read like the wide-eyed wonderings of a waif wandering the world.

After about 30 hours of travel—including stopovers on the ground in Minneapolis, New York and Brussels—we arrived in India at about 12:45 a.m. today (Nov. 7). Though very late at night, the Chennai airport was all abuzz with passengers coming and going, and a large crowd of folks waiting to greet visitors, offer rides, etc. Although this is “winter” in Chennai, and the temperature was “only” about 69 degrees F., we could feel the heat and humidity almost instantly.

Passing through customs was amazingly quick and easy. A screening for the H1N1 virus was accomplished via a thermal imaging camera, which presented images on a TV screen. In short, this is designed to pick up only on the question of fever—if you’re too hot (literally!) you show up red on the TV monitor and get pulled over for more health questions. Customs consisted of having a clerk check your passport, visa and some entry documents provided on the airplane….easy as pie.

It was great to be welcomed by the Rev. Dr. Samuel Meshack of the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College in Chennai. Having taught communications at the college for many years, Sam has been principal (dean) of the college for the last five years. A long-time friend of our traveling companion, Prof. Hank Tkachuk, Sam had secured a small van and driver for our late-evening ride to the Breeze Hotel, our home for three nights.

Immediately we were impressed by the size of the crowds in the streets, the endless “chirping” of the vehicles (honking, done not so much in anger as out of a need to keep track of where everybody on the streets is in relationship to your vehicle), and a somewhat hectic drive from the airport to our hotel—lots of traffic for so late at night.

Our accommodations at the Breeze Hotel are quite fine. We are slowly mastering the international travelers’ arts of figuring out new configurations of power outlets, learning to brush teeth with bottled water, deciphering what switch operates what lights—fun stuff.

Following a restful but short night of sleep, we were up by 9 a.m. in order to catch breakfast with Hank before heading over for a visit to the headquarters of the UELCI—United Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India. Our hostess for the morning was Dr. Monica Melanchthon who teaches at Gurukul and whom I had heard speak at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2003 in Milwaukee. A warm and gracious woman, Monica was pinch-hitting for Sam who had had to leave Chennai due to a death in his family.

Our ride from the Breeze Hotel over to the Gurukul compound (where the UELCI is headquartered, also) was all the more adventurous due to the flooding in Chennai, a result of too many days of rain. Cars, vans, bikes and motored rickshaws all plowing through streets with up to a foot of water in places. Our driver is very skillful though—he drives through spaces about as narrow and daunting as those memorable double-decker bus scenes from the Harry Potter movies. Amazing!

I'll write more later about our meeting with the UELCI staff in my next post, but now the hotel exercise room is beckoning!