First Impressions of India: A Joyful Christian Presence and Witness in a Land of Great Contrasts
First impressions are lasting, so the saying goes. I returned yesterday from ten days in the amazing country that is India. Words that come to mind when I think through all the experiences we had include: Amazing. Incredible. Astounding. Fascinating. Interesting. Perplexing. Frustrating. Dumbfounding. Shocking. Yet, words fail to explain the range of emotions I went through during my time there. We traveled extensively in some of the most rural parts of southern Indian, meeting with Lutheran leaders and people in several different Lutheran churches in India, and wrapping up our trip with several days with our sister church in India: The Indian Evangelical Lutheran Church [IELC]. We were mainly in the provinces of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Before we went, we were told by Lutheran friends who were born in India to expect “sensory overload.” I now understand what they meant: the sights, sounds and smells of India are like nothing you have ever experienced before, unless you’ve been there.
I have seen desperate and dire poverty in various places in the world before, but nothing like what I saw in India. It truly is shocking to see the vast contrast between the rich and the poor in India. The popular TV shows on India show an India defined by its rising and emerging “middle class” and is wealthy elites, but there is little on Indian TV showing the desperate and dire poverty most of the population lives in, every day. All this is why the joyful Christian witness I experienced among the Lutherans with whom we visited is all the more humbling, encouraging and empowering.
I could not help but think to myself that if we could send our pastors over to India to spend some time there among their fellow Lutherans they might come back and work a bit harder, argue a bit less, and focus more keenly on the mission of Christ’s church and stop worrying about issues that are trivial compared to what our Indian brothers go through daily. The bold Lutheran confession that they make is striking and powerful. President Samuel, of the IELC, gave us several excellent theological lectures and sermons in our time together. So much wisdom! So much joy!
I encourage you to visit the IELC’s web site.
I was struck by President Samuel’s comments on why the Lutheran church does not engage in all kinds of silliness in its worship services, like raising hands and screaming out like the Pentecostals do. He reminded us that there were two men who went to the temple, one to draw attention from God and men to himself, and the other who spoke off in a corner, barely heard, and simply praying for mercy and forgiveness. And which one was it that went home justified that day, President Samuel asked us. The sinner—the man who simply asked God for mercy! That’s what we Lutherans are about, President Samuel explained. We are poor, miserable sinners who point others to the Savior and ask them to join us in asking for His mercy in Christ.
I made a new friend while I was there. Pastor Frederick, one of the IELC’s synod’s [district's] presidents. He is the pastor of a congregation in the Kolar Gold Field area, in Tamilnadu. I preached at Pastor Frederick’s church on Trinity Sunday, with Pastor Frederick translating. It was, by far, the best sermon I’ve ever preached in the Tamil language! While I was preaching, the Hindus were celebrating a festival literally across the street, complete with a loud noisy parade and incessant Hindu songs being sung on huge loudspeakers. Pastor Frederic drowned it all out with his loud, cheerful and boisterous singing of the liturgy from the hymnal, which is a Tamil translation of The Lutheran Hymnal’s liturgies.
Pastor Frederick, later that day, grabbed my hand with his and said, “Pastor Paul, isn’t it wonderful what God asks us to do? Tell people about Jesus and spread His Word? I am so excited to do this. I get up every morning and thank God for the grace He gives me every day to do my ministry!” What joy!
President Samuel lives at the Happy Home institution of the IELC, an institution where over 100 children and young people find a home after being cast out of their own homes because of mental or physical infirmity, or whose parents have died. President Samuel said, “People ask us if these are orphan children and I always tell them, ‘No, of course not. Orphans have no families. These children have a Heavenly Father and we are their brothers and sisters.” Joyful!
President Samuel told us how important it is to be and remain a strong confessing Lutheran church that does not compromise on its doctrine and does not embrace things like the ordination of women and homosexuality. He said, “We must be and remain who we are, Lutherans. The missionary who came to us from the Missouri Synod in 1895 sacrificed himself and his children so we could have the truth of God’s Holy Word and be faithful Lutherans.” Joyful!
We toured the wonderful Bethesda hospital which is a large medical facility offering advanced care for a range of serious medical problems. We saw the huge chapel in which the large staff gathers every morning at 8:00 a.m. for a half hour daily worship service. 70% of the staff of doctors and nurses are Lutherans. The director of the institution took us through every ward of the hospital and explained how important it is that the Lutheran Christians reach out and care for those who otherwise would simply be cast aside in Indian society, sharing the love of Christ with them. Joyful!
I asked one of the leaders of the IELC’s institutions what was his most important impression from America. I expected him to talk about our huge highways, or our lavish shopping centers. Instead he looked at me, smiled and said, “Pastor Paul, when I went to America I was shocked at how everyone is so friendly. They all looked at me and said, “Good morning” or “Hello” and they did not even know me. We do not do that here in India. But then I realized that though they were friendly they really did not have the time to get to know me. The gift of time is very important here in India. When we say hello to you or good morning, or “How are you?” We really want to talk to you and we give you our time.” Joyful!
India is a land of great contrast: fascinating and utter beauty, complete and devastating poverty, to name perhaps the greatest contrast, but I found there what I shall never forget and what was the most lasting memory and deepest impression: the reality of true Christian joy in the midst of staggering challenges. Truly, the grace of God in Jesus Christ, in action, is a wonder to behold and because I’m simply so used to it here, going to a new land and meeting new people and seeing the grace of God in Christ there was the most important experience of the trip.