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.