Thursday, July 31, 2008

Maharastra - Part 1

Well, I'm back in Delhi, and wow. What an experience! Instead of trying to cram it all into one blog post, I'm going to spread it out over two. Check back tomorrow for the second installment.

So, as I said in my previous post, we left rather suddenly for Maharastra on July 24. I was right about flying there, I was wrong about exactly where we were going. We actually went to Nagpur, which is almost smack in the middle of the country. From there, our travels took us south to Yavatmal, where we spent most of our time.

In pure Indian fashion, I almost never had any idea what I would be up to on any given day. Most of the time, our journeys to villages, schools, ministries, etc. began with Sunil coming into the room and saying, "Ok, let's go." I would follow him to the car, having no idea just where we might end up.

The end of the wedding ceremony.

For example, I had some vague notion that there was a wedding happening at some point. Little did I know that it would be our very first stop upon landing in Nagpur! We pulled up to the building, and were ushered up to the front of the ceremony. There I was, in a t-shirt and jeans, sitting at the front with everyone staring at me. Awkward. Haha...

As we continued on our journey, we stopped to eat at a really sketchy roadside "restaurant." the food was actually pretty tasty. But I'm not going to lie, I was a little worried when Sunil ended his prayer with, "And don't let Barry get any diseases from the food. Amen." It was one of many moments where I laughed to myself and thought, "How in the world did I end up here???"

The Head Chef and Sous Chef hard at work... Haha!

Driving in rural India is quite the experience. Beautiful countryside, scenic vistas, and screaming two ton trucks roaring by just three inches away from your head. With signs on the road such as "Be safe than never!" "This is road, not Aerostrip!" and the slightly ominous "Death rides the fast car.", I couldn't help but tense up a bit with the closest of the close calls.

Most of the cities and villages we visited had a similar look and feel to each other. Very green, very rural, but still very dirty. Everywhere you look you can see cows lying in the road, goats wandering the streets and enough stray dogs to make Bob Barker weep.

Some cows. Just chillin. In the road.

We spent our nights at the guesthouse for a ministry called Dinbandhu ("Friend of the Poor"). It is a church-planting ministry that Sunil helped start and is now run by his brother Nitin and sister Smita. Very cool place. Though it started in Yavatmal, it has now spread to Wardha and Nagpur, and has reached thousands upon thousands of people in the area.

One of the practical extensions of Dinbandhu is a techincal training school for young men. It is a center to teach 16-20 year old tribal-caste boys practical life skills like welding, electrical wiring and computers. This is where I spent my third day.

Sunil's brother-in-law, who runs the school, took me out there via motorcycle, dropped me off, gave me a tour and basically said, "This is where you'll spend the day. I will be back in the afternoon." Then, he got back on the bike and was gone.

So there I was, surrounded by a bunch of teenage guys who didn't speak a lick of English (except one, who followed me around the entire time because he wanted to practice). We chatted for a while about everything from movies to dancing to sports. Mostly they just stared at me.

When I got here, they told me that staring is an
appropriate way to gather information. Apparently so.

Eventually I got to sit in one of their classes and have lunch with the boys. Afterwards, we climbed a nearby "mountain," then hiked across a river to a village down the road. Ended up being a pretty fun day. But there was one moment that I just have to share...

Before class began, one of the students got up to read a Bible verse and pray for a devotional (most of the new guys aren't Christians). He stood in the front and boldly proclaimed Mark 5:9. "Then Jesus asked him, 'What is your name?' 'My name is Legion,' he replied, 'for we are many.'" Let's pray.

I don't know about you, but it left me good and truly blessed... :)

Well, I'll write more tomorrow. If you are interested in seeing all the pictures of my India trip (with comments added), click here. Or, if you are just interested in the ones from my Maharastra trip, those start here. See ya!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Well, I guess I'm off...

Apparently I am leaving in 8 hours for Maharastra, a state in western India. And I found this out, oh, about an hour ago...

It was such a perfectly Indian moment. We were sitting in the office chatting when the topic of our sometime-in-the-near-future trip to Maharastra came up (it's been in the works for a while, but it's always been "next week or something"). I said "Have you bought the tickets? When do we leave?" To which Sunil replied, "Tomorrow! You didn't know???"

So. Maharastra. We will be flying down to a rural town in the general vicinity of Pune (I think!) and seeing the ministry of Sunil's brother. That's literally all I know. Where will we be staying? No idea. What will we be doing? No idea. How long will we be there? No idea.

According to Sunil, I can take a train back whenever I want. If I'm really enjoying myself, I can stay longer than a week. If not, I can just come back with him. Haha! Talk about flexibility.

So, all that to say, I probably won't be able to blog or email much while I'm away, but don't worry. I'll be sure to take plenty of pictures.

See ya!

Monday, July 21, 2008


One of the coolest things I’ve been able to experience here is how good Truthseekers is at contextualization. Over and over I have been impressed at the way they have presented the good news of the kingdom.

For example, on Sunday I traveled with Sunil et al. to visit a church made up primarily of Dalits (“untouchables”) and Shudras (lower-caste). After the service, most of the congregation joined us in the fellowship hall to hear a presentation from Truthseekers.

An expectant congregation, hearing the message
of the kingdom for the first time.

The presentation focused mainly on how the kingdom of God does away with caste once and for all. At the end of all the sermons, symbolic rituals (spreading flower petals, etc.) and Hindi worship, the congregation sat awestruck. They had never heard this message before!

Why was it so effective? Because Sunil spoke their language. He did not use common Western terminology or the standard Hindi translation of the Bible, which is geared towards a Brahmin (upper caste) audience. He used an entirely new set of terms and symbols that the oppressed lower-castes can relate to.

Yesterday, this lower-caste man was "set free"
from the bonds o
f Brahmanism after Sunil
shared with him the good news of the kingdom.

First of all, when speaking of Jesus, Sunil almost always refers to him as Baliraja - “The Sacrificed King.” Baliraja is a character from a popular peasant myth in south-west India. According to tradition, he was a benevolent king who ruled a casteless and prosperous kingdom.

In the story, Baliraja was betrayed and killed by a Brahmin, but is eagerly expected to return someday. In fact, there is still a Marathi saying, ida pida javo, Balica rajya yevo. “Let troubles and sorrows go and the kingdom of Bali come.”

So what is Sunil’s message? Simply that the kingdom of Baliraja has come! The son of God, Jesus Christ is Baliraja. And he has returned to the world to bring his kingdom once more.

To emphasize this good news, Truthseekers has implemented a new take on communion. Instead of dipping wafers in cups of grape juice (what is that, anyway???), they take the flesh and milk of a coconut as the body and blood. Sunil takes a hammer and smashes open the coconut, symbolizing the end of caste and the breaking in of the kingdom. Wow.

Sunil smashing open a coconut for communion.

Some might be a bit skeptical at this approach. But let me tell you, never in my life have I seen so many people from so many different religious backgrounds so comfortable together. On any given day in the office there might be Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Brahmins and Dalits sitting at the same table, conspiring to bring in the kingdom of Baliraja.

I think they’ll be ok without the wafers…

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Eunuchs on the Fringe

This is an in-depth account of my experience with Deshpande on Sunday (sorry about the length!). I am sure a topic such as this will raise questions, and I am more than willing to answer with what I know. Please email me or leave comments if you are curious to learn more.

A quick glance at the Indian population will reveal that it is a culture of divisions. Because of the 3000 year old caste system, huge swaths of society are ostracized, ignored and even hated. But even among those on the fringes, divisions remain. There is one group of people that is persecuted by virtually everyone… Eunuchs.

The term “eunuch” may evoke antiquated images of Egyptian courtiers or Roman treble singers, but the phenomenon is very real to this day. Some sources say that there are at least one million eunuchs in India today.

A south-Indian eunuch (hirja).
Photo: courtesy Mgarten at en.wikipedia

There is some confusion and debate as to how these eunuchs came to be this way. Many eunuchs are purposefully castrated. Many are simply born that way. However, one thing is abundantly clear: eunuchs are on the fringe of the fringe of Indian society, and have little hope of change anytime soon.

Because of how severely eunuchs are ostracized, many turn to prostitution as a means of income. As a result, a large portion of the eunuch population is HIV positive. With little hope for a “normal” life, Indian eunuchs form small communities in the slums, caring for themselves and each other because no one else will dare.

No one that is, except for Deshpande the Truthseeker. Deshpande is a 30 year old college graduate living in Delhi. For reasons that he cannot explain, God has called him to minister to a population of around 20 eunuchs on Delhi’s poverty-ravaged east side.

Deshpande and I visiting Red Fort in Delhi.

I had the amazing opportunity of riding with him as he made his weekly visit to his persecuted friends. I walked away from the experience with a deep respect for Desphande and for the ministry to which he is called.

To get there, we took an hour-long rickshaw ride through heavy rush-hour traffic. Choking on exhaust fumes, I asked Desphande how he became involved with the eunuchs. He told me that one day, out of nowhere, he felt a strong calling from God to minister to the eunuch population. So, despite his own fears and misgivings, he pursued this unique calling.

As we drove, I noticed the quality of the area steadily decreasing. The eunuchs live in a tight, crowded slum. The neighborhood is made up of two story concrete buildings separated by dark, muddy alleys. Though I’ve seen several slums before, I was still amazed to see people actually living in such conditions.

The city of Delhi, a throbbing metropolis with over
17 million inhabitants.

After we got out of the rickshaw, Deshpande began walking down an alley and I followed. Above us, a tangled web of electrical wires was strung about seemingly at random.

Arriving at the door of the small, one-room flat, a eunuch dressed as a woman met us. You could see in her eyes the respect she had for Desphande. So few people even talk to these eunuchs, much less love, respect and dignify them. We entered and sat on a bed as three other eunuchs joined us.

The eunuchs, though dressed as women and speaking with feminine voices, had masculine features. They looked at me shyly, and I did my best to convey my respect by smiling and shaking their hands.

Within minutes of arriving, Deshpande was in animated discussion with his friends about their worth and dignity, despite their flaws. At one point, he turned to me and said “Do you have problems too?” I nodded, a little confused. “See! Everyone has problems. Everyone sins. She is thinking that she is worthless because she sins. I am telling her differently.”

A much nicer area than the slum we were visiting,
but similar in the look and feel of the place.

After a few minutes, I had the chance to share a bit about the Beatitudes while Deshpande translated. I ended by saying, “I believe that if Jesus (Baliraja) were physically here today, he would not be in the temple or in the mosque, he would not be in a government office or having dinner with some rich people. He’d be right here in this room, because you are the ones who are blessed.” And sitting there in that room, I truly believed it.

We prayed, we talked some more, and just like that, we were back on the road. Deshpande had given me a glimpse into his calling and ministry, and I was greatly encouraged. But on the way back, he shared a little more about the consequences of following this calling, and my respect for him grew even more.

“People accuse me of things,” he told me. “They ask me ‘Why would you talk with those people?’” Apparently not everyone sees the value in Deshpande’s ministry. People accuse him of being gay or even of being a eunuch himself. Following this calling from God has strained and even broken many of Deshpande’s relationships.

Yet he will not stop. “This is God’s calling,” he continued. “When God calls you to something, what else can you do?”

Deshpande will continue this difficult ministry to these beloved children of God, despite the criticisms he receives. I can only hope that I too will approach my calling with the same level of commitment and selflessness.

I have been totally blown away by Deshpande’s ministry, and I hope you have as well. Remember… when God puts a calling on your life, “what else can you do?”

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Settling in...

Wow. Now that was an intense first week! Well, intense in the sense that I was totally immersed in a foreign culture, eating only spicy food and relying on my internal dialogue for company... Other than that, it was pretty easy. :)

Not going to lie. I definitely woke up a few times (jet lagged at 3:00am) thinking to myself, "What have I done???" But now that I'm getting settled, three months doesn't seem quite so bad. In fact, I'm super excited about the things going on here!

I've been able to get to know the Truthseekers staff, see a bit of what their ministry is all about, and do a lot of reading and research into India and the caste system. Oh, and I've eaten an absurd amount of mind-numbingly amazing mangoes (seriously, you can eat them with a spoon).

Also, I'm getting the hang of eating all my food with my right hand (like everyone else here). A little tricky to begin with, but I'm pretty much a pro now. The most important lesson I've learned so far: when someone hands me something to eat with a big smile saying "try this, try this!", I'm about to eat something so hot it melts brain cells.

Since I last wrote, I've been able to travel around the city with the guys from the office. Pranjal and Deshpande took me to see the Red Fort and Jama Mosque, both rather stunning in their architecture and history. You can see more pictures of our trip here.

On the social justice side of things, I've been experiencing a lot. On our trip into Old Delhi, I was able to witness the crushing poverty of the inner city here, and saw many things I will not soon forget.

One of those sights was a baby, no older than two, waddling around on the side of a crowded street, totally alone. I looked and looked, and saw nobody watching out for him. Even worse, many people passed by that never gave the baby a second glance. To my horror, I have seen the same phenomenon several times since then.

I met a group of persecuted eunuchs in a slum on the east side (more on that tomorrow), visited a school for Shudra (lower caste) children who would otherwise get no education, and I've seen beggars, cripples, lepers... pretty much everything one would need to see to realize that the world is not as it should be.

So, all in all, I'm having a really significant time.

If, for some odd reason, you want to keep up with my day-to-day activities, you can follow me on Twitter. It's basically just a one or two sentence summary of what I'm up to at any given moment.

Oh, one last thing... I took this video while riding in a rickshaw. Thought you might need proof of just how crazy the driving is here...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The non-West again!

I made it! After more than 24 hours of driving, flying and sitting, I found myself here in New Delhi. Just moments after getting off the plane, I was once again immersed in the strange and exciting world of the non-West… and I love it! I think…

You know, returning to the developing world is a little bit like jumping into a freezing lake after not swimming for three years. First there is the shocking cold, then trying to remember how to swim, but eventually it all starts to come back. Right now, however, I think I’m still trying to catch my breath! Ok ok… can’t take that analogy much farther (besides... it's really hot here). Here’s what I’ve been up to:

A couple of the guys from Truthseekers met me at the airport. I had to search hard to find them. Mainly because there were literally hundreds of other people holding name cards, but also because I didn’t know any of them and my name was spelled “Barry Rodrgue” or something. Close enough.

After we met up, we piled into a car and drove to Sunil’s house. Now, if you’ve never driven in the developing world, you probably don’t have any concept of just how crazy the driving is. Let me see if I can capture it…

In Kenya I was always a bit shocked and amused to see how close people drove to one another. There were no such things as lanes. Horns honking, squeezing in between other cars, pedestrians crossing in the middle of it all… It was crazy. But believe me when I say that Indian driving puts Kenyan driving to shame. Read the third paragraph of this old post, then imagine all of that at speeds of 50 or 60 mph!

Today was spent mostly sitting around the Truthseekers office, meeting the staff, reading… I suspect it’s going to be laid back like this for a little while. I do know that on Monday, Sunil will be taking me with him to travel out into the rural areas, and on the 27th, we will be doing some actual cross-country travel (taking airplanes and busses, etc.). Looking forward to that.

Please keep me in your prayers. I’m adjusting to a new schedule, a new diet, a new environment and new relationships. Needless to say, it’s a bit draining!

Otherwise, I’ll talk to you all later!

p.s. If you are interested in audio or video chatting with me some time, my Skype name is “islaywombats.” Who knows how good the connection will be, but at least it's free...

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Off to India!

Well, this is it. I am off to India... A quick flight to Chicago, a 7 hour layover, and I'll be on my way!

It's weird. I'm not nearly as anxious as I was before Kenya. When I left for that trip, I was a bundle of nerves (not to mention that I couldn't find my support check anywhere in my carry-on... had to go all the way thinking I had forgotten it!).

This time, however, I'm so much more relaxed. Perhaps I've developed an inherent trust of the people I'll be working with. Possibly I'm calm because I know what God has in store for me. Or maybe I'm just getting used to international travel. Hmmm...

Well, whatever the case, I'm ready to go, ready to learn and ready to have my life shaken to the core once again!

Next time I write, it will be from New Delhi...