Saturday, November 22, 2014

Acts of Bravery

In the slum called Khalpur, I met a really gifted little boy named Korenjit. Korenjit is just a school age boy, maybe 7 or 8. In his school uniform, he blends in with the others around him but when he speaks, he is head and shoulders above his peers.  He is so gifted and demonstrative in his passion for God and it just oozes out of him. It’s amazing that he believes in Jesus, but he does wholeheartedly, for his father is a Hindu and so that is the religion that surrounds him. Except, that just a few months ago, Korenjit was gravely ill. He had an issue with his urinary tract that left him in so much pain and at high risk of death. When he could no longer function, just cry out for healing, Korenjit was taken to the doctor at a local clinic, who insisted that he needed immediate surgery. It was expensive and risky but without it, the boy would surely die. During the time of his illness, Korenjit’s family had started to come to church regularly, begging God to heal their boy. The doctor took minimal payment for the expensive surgery, just enough to cover the costs of the medical supplies. He performed the surgery in the nursing home where he regularly attended patients and he arranged for Korenjit to stay there for his entire six week recovery at no cost to the family. Through this time of healing, Korenjit’s mother, Utthara, stayed with him at the nursing home. She grew in her faith, reading only the Bible while at his bedside and often sharing what she learned with others around her, such as nurses and other patients. She promised God that she would be baptized when they left the hospital. 
On the day that we visited Khalpur, Jaishree, Melanie and I were invited into Korenjit's home to visit his mother, Utthara. This home was immaculate inside, though just made up of bamboo and garbage bags, boxes, fabric and ropes. There was a large bed made up in the back and all of the family's belongings hung neatly from the rafters.  Utthara  is a beautiful woman who told us that she was excited to be baptized on the coming Saturday. She said though that she was facing significant opposition from her husband’s family who did not want her to take baptism. Utthara’s mother in law came to visit her earlier in the week and begged her to follow Christ quietly but not to take baptism. Utthara told her that she had made a promise to God when He healed Korenjit and that she would not go back on it. Her mother in law explained that if Utthara was to follow through with that promise, that she would be disowned by their family. Utthara told her calmly but strongly that she was sorry but that she intended to go through with the baptism.  Later that day, Utthara’s husband told her that he would leave her alone and go make a new life if she were to be baptized. She told him that she had learned enough to make a little bit of money for herself and that she would always be there for him to return to, but that she was going to be baptized. She stood up for her decision against a lot of opposition and threats. She was very matter of fact about it and yet, you could see that she was proud of the strength of her convictions. She felt compelled to be baptized and that was what she intended to do. She asked us to pray with her and we did, asking that her husband and his family would come around and be able to see that she was strong in her faith, and support her in that. 
On Saturday morning, we walked just a few short blocks to the church where the baptisms were to take place. There was a very small gathering of people, considering that 11 of them were to be baptized, it was clear that not many had family members in attendance or supporting them. I looked around and did not see Utthara. Jaishree came to me and told me that earlier that morning, as Utthara was preparing to leave for the baptism, her husband beat her badly. Her face was so swollen she could not see out of her one eye. He didn’t go to work and told his wife that if she tried to even leave the house that day, that he would break both of her legs. After all she’d been through, Utthara missed her own baptism. I'm not a theologian but I believe that Utthara has publicly acknowledged God in a way that no water baptism could ever replicate. She's stood her ground. She's shared her faith. She pays the price daily. 

I sat in the church that morning and though we were behind a gate and in the church building, I felt pretty raw and exposed. It was the only time I felt real fear while I was in India. I was afraid for Utthara and for her family. The violence and opposition to her faith rattled me. I couldn’t imagine a way of life in which my husband and his family would threaten and carry out physical violence to keep me from following God.  I was afraid for myself. That I could be collateral damage if the violence were to enter the church in opposition to one or more of these peoples’ desire to be baptized. I thought of knives and acid as the pastor prayed. I peeked at exits while Piyas and Andy spoke of the meaning of baptism. I wondered who was waiting outside to attack one or more of these people when they’d stepped out of the church’s safety and back into the streets where they lived.  I felt like a coward for being so afraid. As I sat in the front pew, as visitors often do, I watched each person, most on their own, make their way into the baptismal tank. I finally saw it for what it was. Baptism is an act of bravery. It is openly saying that you follow Christ and for some, that means leaving family and friends behind. For some it means threats of violence. For some it’s isolating. For all, it’s stating for the record that you love Jesus and you’re going to follow where He leads. I think in that way, Utthara has been through her own rite of baptism. 

I watched as ten people from the slums of Kolkata each made their way into the water and out again. I was close enough to see the tears and to hear their laughter. As we greeted them afterwards, I felt honoured to have been a witness to their strength and convictions. I was humbled by their bravery and their faith. 
As we left the church that afternoon, Andy reminded us that a woman named Puja whom we had come to know, had been through something very similar the year before. Her husband and his family forbade her and kept her from being baptized. Yet, a year later, her husband and Puja were baptized together in the faith. I’m not giving up on praying for Utthara or for her husband or for his family. I’m reminded that God often has a better story than the one we can imagine when we set our feet to follow him. That’s what I’m hanging on to in prayer for her.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

As "us"

Just last week, I was waking up on the opposite end of the world. Literally. I think Kolkata is geographically the same distance east and west from Saskatoon. I can truly say I travelled half way around the world. I would go to sleep early in our hotel, aptly named Hotel Heaven, which made me smile when I first read it. I was either going to love it or die there.  It was a comfortable place to land at the end of the day and it had air conditioning so it felt luxurious to me. Each night, as I fell asleep I'd turn off the air conditioning and listen to the sounds of the street below. I loved the noise of the city in my ears, telling me the story of nighttime in Kolkata. Sirens. Shouts. Music. Intent conversations. Horns and the intermittent sounds of the ancient street trams that rattled by sounding like someone shaking a tin can full of bottle caps in my ear.  Around 3 or 4 am every night I would wake up. Partly because it was late afternoon back in Canada, partly because the room was now 29 degrees and I was sweltering and needed to put the a/c back on for a bit. The beautiful thing about that middle of the night waking time was the silence. When you've gone to sleep with noise in your ears, the silence is comforting in its own right. I would lay there until the room cooled, read or play a game of solitaire on my phone in the dark, until I could turn the a/c off again and go back to sleep till about 6 am. The first two nights I tried to occupy those dark hours. The third, fourth and fifth night, my mind was full of the people I'd met, the foods I'd tried, the children I'd played with, the slums we'd walked in. Several of those nights, I just lay and tried to hold my heart and mind open to what God was telling me or trying to teach me. Before I went to India, I had been thinking through some of the areas in my life in which I needed to bring changes to. I'd written down a small line in a book I carry around, a prayer of sorts, "More of You. Less of me." In those dark hours, I would repeat that line and offer it up and listen for whatever answers or suggestions would come back. I'm not great at meditation, my mind tends to flee at the slightest noise and by the time I reel it in, I'm not sure where I left off. This line, "More of You. Less of me" gave me something to come back to when I was wondering if I had given the media guy at church the password for the youtube channel. Things you think about in the middle of the night in Kolkata. A few nights passed with these regular hours of silence and I was beginning to enjoy the practice of just laying still, listening to the rhythmic drip of the a/c on the floor, and repeating the phrase. One night, I'm not sure at what point, I may have dozed off, I may have heard from God, it may have been both. I was laying in the dark and realized that what I was hearing was, "Less of You. More of US."  Isn't that in a nutshell? Yes, less of me. Absolutely. But more of US? That came out of the dark and illuminated my brain. I think I'm often apt to release my cares and concerns in desperation, with a sort of throwing it at God in an "okay-you-do-it" type of way. I'm not saying that's always wrong...I am saying that when I do it, it's not often with a willing, contrite spirit of leaving things gently and confidently in His hands. But this? The idea that God wants less of me alone and more of us together...that changed something in me.

So, it's barely 5 am here back on my half of the planet. I'm awake. The house is creaking in the cold. The furnace is humming and the last night train has shuffled past. Snow is flying sideways in the orange light of the street lamp and the dog is snoring beside me on the couch. Having a labrador means you're never alone, even when insomnia hits. I'm thinking of small girls, like one named Puja, rescued from a garbage pile at 3 days old and raised by compassionate strangers as their own. I think of her smiling and pulling a funny face as she stands with her classmates in the halls of her school dormitory, half a world away indeed from the desperate beginning of her life. Of a girl named Jashlyn, saucy and strong, fiercely competitive in sports and games as we played in her community. Running amongst the shacks in the slum, she's the girl the boys tried to take out of the game at every turn, her skills threatening their own. I think of the small girl who, when asked, if being at school made her miss her family, shook her head solemnly "No".  Her face passive as Jaishree, the director of OneLifeUp operations in India, explains to us that school is a respite for this little one from the abuses and violence of her home in the Nalpur slum. I think of Piyas and his wife, who open their home for girls like these during school holidays, so that they need not return to the slum and the violence there. And as the clock clicks away, these girls are ending a day of classes and heading in for dinner. I'm curled up on the couch, not even ready for breakfast. It makes no sense that all these things can happen simultaneously across the globe. It makes me feel small until I think of how God works. Through us. In spite of us. With us. As "us". There's nothing bigger than that.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

From Fear to Familiarity

I think it's fair to say that I was pretty transparent about how afraid I was to go to India. In the light of that pre-trip honesty, I have to say that I loved being in Kolkata. I loved it. I loved the city. The traffic. Rickshaws and buses, yellow taxis and overloaded semi-trucks careening around each other with seemingly no objective other than to add to the noise and chaos of the already crowded streets. I love the multiple uses of car horns to suggest movement, imply movement, and demand movement. I love that pedestrians weave in and out of this tempest with fluidity and ease, whether burdened with packages, talking on the phone or holding the hand of a small child. Kolkata streets are filled with acts of boldness and bravery at every turn. I hardly walked anywhere and still managed to narrowly avoid being hit by numerous vehicles because of my defence mechanisms that kept me from stepping into the oncoming traffic without eye contact with the driver of whatever vehicle was bearing down on me.  The trains are beautiful and loud, with people teeming out of the windows and holding onto rails and leaning out the doors casually, as if just leaning on a stationary street corner instead of being propelled through crossings and over land at break neck speeds. The every day coming and going of people and vehicles would be an endless source of entertainment for me. I could watch it for days.

I loved the light and the colour of the streets. The beautiful women in whatever economic class, wearing saris of brilliance, their vibrant colours adding to the muted tones of the backdrop of the streets. Even in the darkness, the colours of the lights and the taxis and the people are not diminished. Streets look like elaborate sets from Bollywood movies and despite the crushing poverty in and amongst the elite, everyone has a role to play in the drama of day to day life in a city of over reportedly 14 million. It's as if nearly one out of every two Canadians were to descend on an ancient city for a week. The numbers are staggering. Everywhere you look there are people. Working. Begging. Shopping. Selling. Drinking tea. Making street food. Delivering parcels. Banking. There's not a corner of the street where I ever stood on my own.

I was afraid that Indian people would be severe. Their dark eyes and brooding looks were in my mind,  for no particular reason other than assumption, menacing and threatening. I felt that I would be hassled and harassed, my personal space impeded and my privacy intruded upon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though it's true there were stares and second glances at our group as we travelled, the moment eye contact was made, it was often followed by a shy smile or a reserved tilt of the head. My assumptions could not have been more wrong...not shocking by any means, given how little I knew about India before landing there.

When I arrived in Mumbai, where I was to meet my team, I was late. My flight having been delayed out of London Heathrow for over 90 mins didn't leave room for errors in making my connection that was already flashing "Boarding" as I ran down the concourse. I hustled through the line at security, delayed by the fully dressed woman in front of me trying to get through the scanner with her bag in hand. I tried to be patient as three people gestured and explained to her the process of x-raying her belongings and going through the metal detector with little extra on over her sari. She began to methodically strip down, blocking the metal detector and with no apparent time constraints. I began to shift back and forth on my feet and eye the line up beside me, for males only, that was only two people deep and weighed in my mind the risk vs reward of jumping into that queue. I stayed in the female only line and received a series of four different stamps and one handwritten star on my bag tags, obviously for model behaviour, and dashed down the last set of stairs to the gate entrance. Unfortunately for me, the gate entrance was actually the entrance to a bus TO the terminal where my flight was now closing and although I was sure I could make it, I was at the mercy of the gentleman admitting people through. I explained to him that I was trying to make the flight to Kolkata and he seemed genuinely disinterested. At this point, I wasn't even frustrated. It was about 2 am I believe and I just resigned myself to having to trot back to the beginning of my journey and rebook a ticket for a later flight, hoping to meet up with my team at some later point, when this lovely man, motioned for me to come back up to the podium. He scanned my boarding pass, pointed me towards two others standing near by and said that a van was coming for us. I turned on my phone and received a text from Seth, on my team, and he asked if I was close, that they were closing the gate and he was boarding. He assured me they would send a van for me in the morning and that I would be met at the airport in Kolkata with no problems. I told him I wasn't worried, which at that point, I wasn't...but that there was a teeny hope that I would make the flight as they were sending us on a van. Little did I know that the ride to the other terminal was lengthy and involved crossing out of the airport secured grounds into the adjacent slum (at which point, I may have regretted ignoring Amanda Lindhout's suggestions on kidnapping and ransom insurance....) and back around yet another terminal, waiting for a plane to back out onto the tarmac in front of us, and finally up to our waiting plane. I boarded with the two others and was never so relieved as to hear a friendly voice, coming from the sweet face of OneLifeUp's Melanie, asking if I was Shelly. I nodded and she smiled and I proceeded to my seat where I promptly offered up a prayer of gratitude for travelling mercies.  The three hour flight to Kolkata provided me with a two hour and 48 minute nap that was long overdue and we arrived safely. Another team mate, Mandy, sitting near me, introduced herself and I followed her to where the others were collecting their luggage. I was thankful for not having checked luggage as I would assuredly not have had it arrive with me, given the connection. We proceeded to a bus and our hotel and given our early morning arrival, were afforded a few hours to shower and rest before heading out for the day.

Laying on the bed in my room, I could hardly imagine that I was in India. Driving to the hotel felt vaguely familiar as Kolkata to me was reminiscent of Addis Ababa, teeming with people and representing all stages of development from pre-industrial revolution ox carts to modern, glass sided office buildings towering above.  Everything in the city seemed in some stage of decay or construction. It wasn't always apparent which was which.

Suffice it to say, arriving safely was a good start on the week ahead. I felt my confidence building as I recognized the traffic and sounds, industry and architecture of a previous British colony and the opposing influence of years of communist party rule.  I realized that my travel experiences were culminating in a lack of culture shock and that that would settle my fears far more than any verbal assurances I could give myself. In a lot of ways, Kolkata felt like the stage of a familiar play with new characters. I couldn't wait to experience the story that would unravel.
The Mother House - where Mother Theresa worked...just outside my hotel window, barely 20 ft away.
I woke to singing and prayers each morning, which is a beautiful way to start a day.

The Monument to Queen Victoria, built after her death. It's impressive, incredible and expansive, elaborate and beautiful.
Quite the memoriam to Queen Victoria.

Jaishree and Melanie of These women are beautiful inside and out...friends from the first moment we met.

The meticulous grounds of the Queen Victoria Monument.

Just one of a million fascinating doorways in Kolkata.

Early morning, women come to the street for water to haul to their living quarters, wherever they may be.

School girls hold hands and walk to school in Kolkata.

Yet another fascinating doorway.

These construction workers were hauling cement, I thought by hand, to the site down the alley
next to our hotel.

Then, they proudly showed their skill at balancing heavy cement mix on their heads.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Not Quite Home

I know that many of you have been checking the blog for news from India. I can see that there are those who check thank you for that. I'm sorry I haven't updated yet. It's not that there wasn't WiFi in Kolkata, because there was. It was just that I wanted to stay in the moment and try and process all I was seeing and experiencing without having to make sense of it in writing.

I'm just sitting in snowy Toronto, about to board my last flight and I am looking forward to seeing the boys and Jason and of course,Charlie. I hope over the next few days to put down some more coherent thoughts. Until then, thanks again for being so diligent in keeping up with me as I travel. You're never far from my thoughts, friends. So many of you are so invested in my life, it's as if you travel with me.

Until my brain catches up with my heart....Check out the organization I travelled with.

We'll catch up soon, I promise!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Overpacking and Overthinking

This week I've been riding a wave on anxiety as I prepare for my next trip. I head to India on Sunday...Kolkata actually. I think I'm finally ready to say that I'm excited more than nervous. That's not to say it hasn't been a process.

Today was perfect though. As some of you know, I work event security at our local arena for concerts and conferences, etc. Today, in Saskatchewan, was WE Day. It is part of Craig and Mark Kielburger's Free The Children enterprise in which they inspire and empower kids to become activists in our world. I love the work that these guys do, particularly in that they started as children and have continued to motivate youth to get involved in the issues that stir them. Though I'm far older than their target demographic, I learned a lot about how to connect and motivate kids to get involved in global and local issues that are concerning to all of us. Part of the event involves getting various celebrities to get involved in motivating the kids with their own stories. I didn't know anything about the line up of who would be there today but suddenly, I found myself in close proximity with one of my Canadian heroes, Lt. Gen. (ret) Romeo Dallaire, who led the UN Peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the genocide during the 90's. It was an impossible mission and many feel that perhaps Daillaire was doomed from the outset...and yet, what he has done with his life since that terrible chapter, has given me such inspiration. He deals with PTSD and yet continues to advocate against child soldiers and other atrocities of war. He's written several incredibly difficult yet integral books on the subjects and he has really shaped a lot of my education around social injustices and human rights abuses. So, today, as he stepped into the spotlight just feet away, although I was working,  I had a steady stream of tears sliding down my cheeks. I wondered how many people in that building actually knew who he was or what he had been through and what's he has overcome. It makes me wonder what we really know of anyone's particular story, celebrity or not.

Along with Lt. Gen. Dallaire, Capt. Phillips, shared his story as well. A merchant marine captain made famous by Tom Hanks who played him in the movie about his ordeal as his ship and crew were attacked by Somali pirates and he spent four long days being abused and isolated as a hostage on a life raft with his four captors. His message today was that you are stronger than you know and you can endure more than you can imagine.

In the face of courage like this, what do I have to fear?

I went in to work today thinking it was just another day, customer service and providing directions to visitors to our facilities. In the end, it was a day that I will long remember as one that spoke right to the heart of my fears and put them to rest.

I encourage each of you to check out and visit virtually each of the communities that I will be walking in next week. I ask that as you see the pictures and read the stories, that you would remember our team as we step into those stories.

I'm excited. Fear abates. Curiosity and calling win out.