Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Final Glimpse at the City of Joy

You should see the city tonight.

Durga puja is in full swing (it is a Hindu religious festival celebrating the goddess Durga which is embraced by everyone as a national holiday. It is kind of like how Christmas is a Christian celebration that results in a holiday for everyone). The festivities put our celebrations of Christmas to shame. From my rooftop perspective the streets appear as one streaming river of people – I am convinced that if I were to stand still amongst the crowd that I would be carried along with them.

There is music filling every corridor of the city. The sounds of celebration can be heard echoing off the buildings until the early hours of the morning. Pandels, massive temporary shrines made from bamboo and fabric designed to look like real buildings, have been squeezed into every available space, even spanning over roads. Strings of lights have been draped from roof top to roof top and fluorescent tube lights have been hung in trees. People are laughing in the company of their friends and family as they walk from pandal to pandal. The streets look like runways in a fashion show as most people sport their new clothes, the traditional gift of this particular puja. Kolkata is wrapped in all her finery.

When I first arrived in Kolkata, three months seemed like such a long time – a quarter of a year to be exact. Yet, here I am three months later and I marvel at how quickly time has passed by. In just a few hours, in the early morning hours of October 1 to be exact, I will board a plane to begin the first leg of my journey home.

In my heart I know that God is doing something wonderful in Kolkata amongst its millions of Hindu and Muslim believers.

I have been thinking a lot about the love of God lately. It is just so beyond me. Think about it - His love is so great that even forever is not enough to thank Him for it. More than that, love is not something that God does or has, but rather God is love – it is who He is. In my own life, if I do not love, then it means that I do not really know God.

What does God see when He sees these masses of people filling the streets of Kolkata? And how is what I see different from His perspective? I have no doubt that if everyone could have but a taste of God’s love that they would never go elsewhere again.
For God so loved the world…

Tonight I leave Kolkata in the midst of its singing and its dancing and its lights. Tonight I realize that the heart of this city is not a place or a district, rather it is the people who know move through its arteries. Tonight I marvel at the connection between my heart, Kolkata’s heart, and the heart of God.

As I go, Kolkata comes with me in my heart, my thoughts and my prayers.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Exit Monsoons - Who Knew?

Here I sit in my little apartment and I am surrounded by buckets, towels and drops of water. Last week we had nothing but wonderful sunshine. This week is a whole new story. The rains have returned in force and I have become an expert at wading through flooded streets. Apparently this is the “exit monsoon”. The monsoons travel north from the Indian Ocean sweeping across the country on their way in. Then they hit the Himalayan mountains and bounce back dowsing the people of India on their way out – hence an exit monsoon.

In a mere 8 days I board a plane and head west. To be honest I am very torn. Before reaching Canada I am making two pitstops. I will be visiting friends in Thailand and Australia. Exploring new places and seeing old friends is always wonderful and I am very excited. Also, it will be good to return home and see my friends and family. There is always something inviting about going home. At the same time, I have a sense of sadness about leaving Kolkata. This city is intoxicating and there is just something about the culture and life here that gets into your blood. I have also made some great friends – does anybody really like goodbyes?

I really am caught between being excited to go and wanting to stay. I want to stay and continue to invest in relationships I have built (especially with my thalassemia kids and new Hindu friends). I want to see some of the work I have started through to completion (which would require me to be here in December…not quite possible). I have made some great memories here – for example: my friend got us tickets to the Sunfeast WTA Open. I have been developing my love for tennis. I even got Martina Hingis’ signature – I also lost it a few hours later while carrying a friend on my back through a puddle / small lake where a sidewalk normally should be.

At the same time to return to Canada and sit with friends and talk will be wonderful. My heart beats a little faster when I think about seeing my special someone. I look forward to eating a blizzard from Dairy Queen (though I do recognize I will probably freeze while doing so). Stepping into my role as a Missions Apprentice is something that I have been really thrilled for. Life feels like it is moving ahead and will hit warp speed once I am back in the lower mainland.

A joke has developed amongst the people I work with here. I was supposed to go to Darjeeling by train to assess some medical facilities there. I am told that this is usually the best time of year to go and I was UNBELIEVABLY excited to go to Darjeeling. However, the monsoons are late this year and brought heavy rains. These rains brought landslides which took out both highways and both train routes that lead to Darjeeling…insert disappointment here. Also, as many of you are aware I’m sure, there has been a little political unrest in Thailand. Furthermore, 5 Canadians were just arrested in Australia for attempting to bring in a large amount of drugs (5th largest drug bust in Australia’s history). To make things better, the leader of the group is a young man from Abbotsford, British Columbia. So the joke is that everywhere I intend to go has met with misfortune!

Kolkata has become even more alive over the past few weeks. We are almost in the middle of the Hindu religious celebrations. The months of September and October are filled with celebrations called “pujas”. Almost every weekend a different god is honoured. Last week the god of creation and tools was celebrated. The most fascinating part of this practice was that taxi drivers decorated their cabs with marigolds and palm fronds because that is the tool they use in their trade. The second largest celebration, “durga puja”, will begin on September 28. I look forward to seeing all that it involves. Be sure to pray for the people of Kolkata. Bengali’s are a highly spiritual people and with everything inside of me I want them to know the truth of God.

So to recap: I am excited to return home and yet I still feel like there is still so much I could do here. YET, I know that I will not always see the end results of all of my work and I am confident that God will find a way to finish what He used me to start – He is bigger than me after all. Also, if you have a moment, and you think of it, please do mention me to God in your prayers as I journey home.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Crap Happens - Especially when I am not Looking Where I'm Walking

*I apologize in advance that this update is so lengthy, but I promise you will get a few laughs at my expense out of it if you read all the way to the end…

I seem to start a lot of these updates like this, but WOW it’s been a while since I’ve posted! My reasoning of course – life got busy! Over the past two weeks I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to get to know the directors of Calcutta Mercy Ministry. There was a big meeting here so everyone came. It was a wonderful learning experience to work with such experienced, involved, smart and fun people. My days consisted of visiting lot’s of good restaurants for work breaks and a couple late nights.

I definitely felt like I was a minor leaguer playing in the majors. There were times when I would look around the table I was sitting at and there would be doctors, CEO’s, corporate entrepreneurs, and ambassadors. I was reminded of an activity book I had as a child where there would be four apples and one orange and then it would ask “which one of these is not like the others?” In the end, it was a great opportunity just to sit, observe, listen and learn. Let’s face it, if I tried to match wits with this crowd it would be like showing up with a pellet gun to a tank battle.

This past weekend I had an unbelievable experience. I was able to travel to the town of Puri in the neighbouring state of Orissa with a pastor named Phillip (who is a great guy). So late Friday night we boarded a train and 11 hours later we arrived (whatever mental image you just had about trains in India I assure you it was actually a great trip). Though the distance we covered is relatively small, Puri is nothing like Kolkata. It is right on the ocean and there are palm trees, beaches, warm breezes, no humidity and the most intense sun I have ever felt in my life! So in a place like this we could not commit to all work and no play…

Armed with only my boxer shorts I went swimming in the Bay of Bengal. I am certain that I am the whitest body to grace those waves since Captain Ahab pursued Moby… Swimming here is quite the experience in itself. There is something unique about the current and ocean floor in this part of the Indian Ocean which makes for some unpredictable ocean behaviour. The current and undertow is remarkably strong. You will be swimming in 15 feet of water and the next thing you know you are standing on the ocean floor only to be knocked over by a massive wave. The waves were moving into the shore and were also travelling parallel to the beach – I don’t know how.

To guide you away from the dangerous spots you hire a swim boy (not a “buoy” as I originally thought). Our swim boy, Narain, was there to offer advice on where to swim, protect our belongings on the beach, stand guard with a large rubber tube if he had to save us and offer us a Coke if need be (I later learned that “come in and have a cold Coke” is really code for “I saw a shark and want you out of the water without causing you to panic”). I was never offered a Coke.

The hospital had sent me to do some research on the medical services offered in this town and the surrounding villages. I was able to visit a number of schools, churches, hospitals and village clinics. Though I was on official hospital business, I took some time to sit down with local pastors and even had a chance to preach at two “churches” in the fishing villages. These villages were like nothing I have ever seen before. I seriously lack the vocabulary to help you understand the poverty I saw. Just imagine thousands of refugees from another state (I mean literally 10,000 to 14,000 adults in each village). Some did not have power. There were small thatch homes sprawling along the shoreline for as far as I could see. The people here survive by fishing from small hand-crafted boats.

Konark, the first fishing village I went to, made a strong impression on me for a number of reasons. There are about 10,000 adults that can be counted in this village so you know the actual number is much higher. There is one road that leads into the village. There is a canal that separates Konark from the rest of the shoreline. The only bridge to cross this canal was washed away about a month ago during the monsoons. So we all hiked up our pants, put on our flip-flops and waded our way into Konark. I later learned that this canal is actually the waste water from a fish plant that the government does not recognize otherwise it would have to deal with its illegal dumping of untreated waste into the ocean.

As I walked through the village I am sure I was wide-eyed. For the record, so were a lot of the villagers as they saw me stroll by. By the time we arrived at where the church was going to be held (an open space between a few of the thatch huts) I had stepped into a pile of poop – and not so much stepped, but more caught it mid-stride. There were two negatives to this. First, it was still warm and I could feel it on my bare skin. Second, there were a number of mammals, including dogs, pigs, goats, and people, making use of the ground as a toilet. So I cannot even tell you who or what produced the pile I was sporting on my right big toe. When the local pastor’s wife saw, she went and got a HUGE container of water and cleaned me off using the water and a stick broom. She was so thorough that I was clean (and wet) up to my knees on both legs.

After service it came time to cross the canal once more to return to our jeep. Now, the thing about no electricity is that it is hard to see in the dark. However, I must say the sky was littered with the most stars I have ever seen in my life! During our time in the village the change in tides had caused the canal to become more of a sizeable river; but what other choice did we have. As we crossed, Pastor Phillip was walking ahead of me with the flashlight. A few of the villagers were escorting us to make sure we made it through okay.

As I was about mid-stream, the villagers began to yell in a clearly panicked tone of voice. In Konark they speak Telugu. I however do not. So I was not sure what they were saying but I knew it was something bad. The next thing I knew, Pastor Phillip, who speaks Telugu, had taken off running for the other shore leaving me in the dark. I was not left to stand there long as one of the villagers grabbed me by the wrist and soon enough I too was running for the shore. When we all reached the other side and I asked for an explanation, Pastor Phillip explained that massive waves were coming up the canal from the ocean and the villagers were worried that the undertow would drag us out to sea (as has happened before). When I shone the light on the canal there was not even a ripple on the water. Everyone present assured me there were waves, but I guess I will never know if my life was really in danger or if it was all a good laugh at the foreigner’s expense.

All the adventures aside, it really was a great time with the churches. I was able to preach both in Konark and in a larger fishing village which had a church building. Besides their faith these people have nothing, and yet they are so happy. The time of singing was lively. Their prayers were sincere. Every person present gave in the offering (think about that). After the services I was literally mobbed by people asking me to pray for them. They prayed for everything. I was even asked to pray over fishing nets and oil which they would use to anoint their boats. They believe that God is in control of every aspect of their life. I met a lady who prays 18 hours everyday for the church and her village. The people of the church support her.

Who would have thought that when God said His grace is sufficient to sustain, He wasn’t kidding around.