Saturday, March 5, 2011

Trip To North India!

We were so busy our last two weeks in India I didn’t have the opportunity to blog! I’m home now in Tennessee working on a presentation of our journey and experiences working with the Rajahmundry church. The last weeks were busy and I have a lot to tell you about, so I will keep adding to the blog as long as I have something to say. Everyone who knows me will tell you I am seldom at a loss for words! LOL!!

My last report was about the building dedication in Seetanagaram on Monday, February 15. With everyone back in the game there was a revival of me going to Agra and Delhi for a few days to see some of the sights in India.

Harry had encouraged me from our first meeting about the mission to take a few days on the train and see the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, India Gate, etc…  He argued that if for some reason I was not able to return to India, I would regret not seeing one of the greatest wonders of the world. With everyone displaced and Raja, who was going to accompany me on the trip, sick with strep throat, I had pretty much written off the idea. I was the only one there to preach the meetings that Sudarsana had scheduled in the villages and those were my first responsibility. However, Harry and Sudarsana were back, Raja needed to rest, and Bobby and Swetha decided on Tuesday morning they would like to go with me, so the trip was on!

We went to the train station to purchase tickets to Agra and from Agra to Delhi. I was dreading the long train ride! The train from Chennai to Ongole and then to Rajahmundry was miserable to me. I hoped my dislike of the trains was because I hadn’t recovered from the 25 hours of travel by air before boarding the train, but 28 hours from Rajahmundry to Agra is a long time to be stuck in a sleeper birth! I would’ve preferred to fly, the airlines in India are very good, but Bobby and Swetha are a young couple only married for a little over a year and I didn’t want them to incur that kind of expense. A 2nd class air-conditioned sleeper birth for a 1200 mile trip costs about $50! It’s a hard price to beat, even if you lose a day traveling.

Our train was supposed to leave at 6:18 pm that night and arrive at 1 am in Agra on Thursday; however, the trains there run on Indian time. Indian time is much slower than normal time, much as the people themselves, they are not very punctual. For instance, church services are supposed to begin at 10 am on Sunday and that’s about when Sudarsana begins to dress for services, and he’s the preacher! A few people will be in the meeting hall when the singing starts, and by the time you are ready to preach, it will be full. When you finish your sermon the hall is packed all the way out the door and it’s noon! Except for the airline, nothing I participated in while I was there for nearly five weeks started or finished when it was scheduled. Starting times are merely a suggestion.

We arrived at the train station in time for the 6:18 and we left around 7:30. Not too bad… considering. I wondered about the bunk mate we would get on the train. The sleeper births are two bunk beds coming from the wall with a little table in the middle, also coming from the wall. The only privacy is a curtain that separates the birth from the aisle. Against the wall opposite those births, on the other side of the aisle, are a bunk type bed against the other wall. I had one of these from Chennai! With only three of us traveling together we knew we would be 28 hours with a stranger on a train in a fairly small space. We were fortunate.

Jonathon was the very nice man we traveled with to Agra. He is an Indian dentist who does some mission work with the Seventh Day Adventists. His parents are doctors working with The Leprosy Mission International. They have 20 hospitals in India that research and treat people with leprosy. Jonathon said their work has moved away from providing only medical based care for people affected by leprosy to a more holistic, integrated approach that encompasses healthcare, education, rehabilitation and training. There are a lot of misconceptions about leprosy, so I am going to post a blog about what I learned.

Being educated and from the north of India, Jonathon spoke very good English and we had a couple of conversations that lasted over an hour. I thoroughly enjoyed his company and conversation. He helped me to understand a little better how the Indian people think and the political winds that are beginning to change about Christianity in India.

While we were settling into our bunks Bobby warned me that he had already seen a rat! Because the little tables were against the wall and on these long trips people had to eat several meals, rats scurry up and down the train cars against the walls eating the crumbs. The Indian railway is supposed to keep them clean of rats and cock roaches, but we had plenty of both. The roaches actually bothered me more than the rat. I didn’t keep any food in my luggage and kept it away from the wall, but several times in the night I woke to see roaches crawling across the bottom of the bunk over my head and I smacked them out of the birth!

Bathrooms in India can be western, seated performance, or eastern which requires squatting. The cleanest, yet more challenging, on the trains are the eastern bathrooms. This is the common style of bathroom in India and is simply a pan built in the floor with a place for your feet and a hole. There is either a bucket of clean water with a hand pitcher to pour water from or a sprayer like we would have on our kitchen sink to take care of cleaning up. The only difference with the western style is there is a toilet bowl to sit on. Neither style provides toilet paper. On trains the holes simply open to the tracks below. I was very careful what I ate on these train trips and didn’t have to use the “facilities” provided… thankfully.

The train had a pantry car and guys would come up and down the aisle with meals, fruits, coffee, tea, etc, and when we would stop at stations along the way Bobby would jump onto the platform where the venders had kiosks and buy us water and food. When the train made these stops it was usually for ten or fifteen minutes, plenty of time.

I’m glad I was able to travel by train in India because trains are so much of what has made India the country it is today. I met several interesting Indians and saw many characters along the way. The sights along the tracks were beautiful, sad, funny and sometimes familiar. The strangest thing I saw, and would have loved to have a picture of, was a large group of shacks in a garbage dump with corrugated metal roofs held down by big rocks, all with satellite dishes! Such a contrast of poverty and technology is everywhere. China dumps all their phones with manufacturing problems in India. Usually it is nothing more than a software glitch or something that doesn’t affect the phones intended use, to make phone calls. An Indian can pay just a few rupees a month for basic phone service, so nearly everyone there has a phone. Kids on old broken down bicycles living on the street have cell phones!

Now would be a good time to tell you a little about the train system in India. In 1951 the 41 train systems in India were nationalized creating what is now the third largest train system in the world. There are 39,777 miles of track, 7083 stations carrying 25 million passengers’ and 2.5 million tons of freight daily across 28 states and 2 union territories. The Indian Railway is the largest employer in the world with 1.6 million employees. They own more than 230,000 freight wagons, 60,000 coaches and 9,000 locomotives. There are several specialty trains for sightseeing and luxury across the country and in the mountains.

Our trip was pleasant but long. Even when you are able to sleep you have to be aware if there is anyone unexpected in your space because of theft. Some passengers use chains and padlocks to secure their luggage under their seats. It’s not unheard of a passenger arriving in Delhi not able to find their shoes and find them for sell on a cart outside of the train station as they are leaving. Usually the price isn’t much to purchase your own shoes back! LOL!!

We arrived late, as expected, at about 3 am in Agra and hired an auto rickshaw to take us to a nearby hotel. I rode trains to Delhi, Gudur and Chennai after Agra, but this trip was my favorite. I really got to know Bobby and Swetha on the train and our short adventure up north. They are in their twenty’s and this was their first trip away from home and family. It did this old guy a lot of good to watch these kids wide eyed excitement on our journey.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Corection and update to Singampally

Correction to Meeting in Singampally:
On February 25, 2011 Harry interviewed brother Koteswara after a meeting. It seems I misunderstood that he was taken to a Hindu temple and held when it actually was a preacher from a denomination who was held in the temple, manhandled and forced to denounce God. Our brother Koteswara went to the temple and fought for the mans release, and won!  

Update: In the process of the interview we learned that the extremist Hindus had harassed them in several ways. One of the three temples is practically next door to their home where he conducts services on his porch. The Hindu's blasted vulgar blasphemies at them when they are worshiping, they cut their water lines, they banned anyone in town from allowing them to buy food, and they came to their worship services and screamed in his face to intimidate him. They also advertised that drugs were put into the wine for the Lord's supper and their women were being forced through drugs to convert to Christianity!

He finally got the political man of the village to work with the only authority in the town to investigate. They covertly investigated for six months and found that the church was being terribly harassed. One individual that the Hindus brought in from another town was jailed for 12 days and the authorities demanded peaceful relations. While the investigation was ongoing, brother Koteswara was working.

Through all of these trials he continued to teach the message of Christ as our redeemer to anyone he could get to listen. He baptized a man from one of the extremists families, then his wife and children. He has baptized some of the persecutors wives! When their husband would not give them permission to go to worship, they went anyway (that's a big deal here. wives have to ask their husbands to go places). They respect him more than their husbands. It's his humble nature that makes him a valuable leader. It wouldn't surprise me if he converted the whole village! I can't wait to get him that bicycle. I'd buy him a scooter if I could afford it!

Please read "Meeting in Singampally"

Church Building Dedication

We were surprised when Sudarsana, Elizabeth and Bobby showed up Sunday night, February 14. Their grandson, Cyril, had recovered from his bout of dehydration and Bobby drove all night from Hyderabad to get his parents home.  Also, Raja and I arrived home very late from the meeting in Singampally and Monday morning Harry was feeling well enough to get out of bed. So, everyone was back and ready to work, if maybe a little tired and weak from the weekend of preaching, travel and sickness. Monday, February 15 was a very important day for Sudarsana and the church in Seetanagaram.

It wasn't a very long drive to Seetanagaram and it was a beautiful day to dedicate a new church building. The church members have been waiting two years for the "official" dedication and it was a festive atmosphere.

They actually finished the building construction and began using it in 2008. They waited for Harry to dedicate the building because he and Sudarsana began the work there in 2001 and Sudarsana wanted Highland Heights church of Christ to be honored. Harry had to postpone his visit until this year due to his wife Carolyn's bout with cancer, which she has survived by God's grace to the joy of all who love her dearly.

In 2001 Harry Anderson held a meeting there and 300 people were in attendance. There were people from every religion and denomination present. They counted 50 denominational preachers! There were only two baptized believers when they began to meet regularly. Raja organized the evangelistic effort over the past few years and preaches there regularly.

In 2002 Sudarsana bought property in a centrally located area of the town across the street from the bus station. From 2006 to 2008 he had a two story building constructed with a meeting hall on the top and stalls on the bottom to be rented out to local businessmen. One of the stalls will be kept as a library and resource room. The rent will help to support the local preacher, congregation and evangelism efforts.

 Very festive
They now have a regular attendance of 50. One of Raja's responsibilities is to train local preachers, so they have an associate preacher who lives in Seetanagaram named A. Bapuji who ministers daily to the congregation.

Harry and I were warmly welcomed and given a tour of the property. There is a huge back yard that will accommodate a large tent for big meetings, weddings, lectures and other events. In 2001 they had to rent a hall for their meeting.

 Huge back yard!

We went up to the door of the church and unveiled the plaque that commemorates the event. After the ribbon was cut Harry and I spoke on the importance of using what the Lord has provided for the glory of God, encouraged them in the Lord's work and the opportunity's they will have to evangelize.

Personal note: Now I have my name on two buildings in the Andra Pradesh state. Of course, I'm riding Harry's coat tails, but it's still pretty cool!

This congregation is going to do great things in their town and I hope to see it grow through the years. We will certainly all be praying for them.

 Stalls to be rented to business'

Cutting the ribbon

 The congregation assembled

All dressed up for the official opening

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Meeting in Singampally

Sunday night, February 13, Raja and I went to a small village called Singampally. Our first stop was the preachers home where we met him, his family and several members of his congregation. We met an upper caste (yes, the caste system is still used) lady who attended meetings for two years, then one night around 8 pm she accepted the testimony of the scriptures and decided she must be baptized for the remission of her sins right that moment. So, she walked two miles to find the preacher and he took her to a body of water and immersed her. Her family isn't happy about her decision, but her husband allows her to attend services. For awhile she brought her son with her until her in-laws protested.

 Brother Koteswara's home and church facility.

 Brother Koteswara, family and friends.
The little porch you see in the picture is where they have their services in Singampally. He also built a congregation in a nearby village where he preaches and teaches. The preachers name is B. Koteswara Rao. I can't describe to you the excitement I felt after this meeting and hearing of the trials the preacher has endured and is still going strong. So, I've copied the email I sent to my wife Debbie when I returned at 1 am that night:

"Deb, the people in the village I preached at last night, Singampally, are soo incredible. The preacher, B. Koteswara Rao, has been there 22 years building two congregations. This small village has three great big Hindu temples and there is an extremist faction that harasses him. He was once taken out of his home to their temple and they tried to force him to denounce Christ for a Hindu God. The authorities do nothing! However, he has been so consistent in his life and teaching that many of the Hindu's respect him. In fact, the facility that we used last night was donated by a Hindu family that was at the meeting! They covered all the expenses. I have so much to tell you, I can't write it all. The preacher has services at his little house and his wife does some tutoring. Each of the families, about 12, bring a ball of rice for the preachers family and this is mostly what they live on. Bro Rao gives him $30 a month out of his pocket. He is looking forward to the drip irrigation gardening because it will really help his family and congregation.

Deb, as poor as he is, still preaching and teaching, he doesn't ask for anything. He is a man of faith. What I have discovered however, is he needs a bicycle. Raja hopes to raise funds to provide all the area preachers bicycles because they walk everywhere. Brother Koteswara walks miles between villages to preach every Sunday at two churches and to visit, teach and evangelize. I want us to provide one of the bicycles and I want this man to have it. The bicycles here cost $70. I love this brother for his amazing display of faith and evangelism and I'm humbled by his love for God and His people."

 Ha! Caught Raja with his mouth open!

 We ate before the meeting.

 This is the Indian Erkel. Couldn't get a smile!

 Brother Koteswara, wife and children.

The members of both congregations waited for us to arrive and meetings here are held late at night. We began preaching at around 11 pm! As stated in my email, a Hindu family donated the facilities for the meeting and covered the expenses. They were there that night for the sermon and they honored me with garland. The relatives of another member who are Hindu wanted to be at the meeting and drove two hours by motorcycle to be there.

The meeting went well, especially considering Raja had strep throat, but he didn't miss a beat translating. There was one response to the sermon, a lady who was five months pregnant. Brother Koteswara had to baptize her when the sun came up because of her pregnancy, the cold night air, and the danger of baptizing her in the cold pond at night. It would be wonderful if every congregation had some sort of baptistery so they can readily baptize. It was reported back to me the next day that she was baptized into Christ that morning. Praise God!

This picture of a church of Christ building is across the street from the meeting place we used. It is an instrumental congregation that very seldom meets. The last time anyone was there was at Christmas! If anyone knows who supports this work, please contact me. If they aren't using it, we'll get that congregation off the front porch and into a proper building. It saddens me greatly to see a sound facility in disuse while a thriving congregation meets on a porch all because of the desire to use instruments in worship.

I'm looking forward to going back to Singampally one day. I will thoroughly enjoy seeing the brethren and especially brother Koteswara, he's one of my hero's of faith!

If anyone is interested in contributing to a fund to provide bicycles to the preachers in the Rajahmundry area, contact me by email. My address is in my profile.