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Mission Trip Report: India
April 22, 1999
I was just happy to be somewhere. We had finally stopped moving after three days of non-stop travel, and it was already well into the night. Let's just say I was exhausted, half-conscious and ready for bed. I remember waiting in line to get off the train, not quite knowing what to expect. The ride into Calcutta was so hot and stuffy--I just wanted off!
Looking back I now know that I was completely unprepared for what I was about to see. Growing up, my mom had always told me stories of distant, far off places. It always sounded like such a fun adventure. But no amount of bed time stories or childhood visions could have steadied my feet for my first sight of India.
As we walked toward the exit of the station, I held my breath. I was so curious about what waited for me outside those doors...and yet I was scared to actually find out. I only wanted a breath of fresh air; though we were off the train, the stale air inside the station brought little relief. I followed my group outside and closed my eyes to take in a deep, cleansing breath...but the air was not clean or fresh like I had expected. In fact, I gasped and did everything I could to keep from gagging.
Though it was night-time, I was met by a wave of heat so strong it almost knocked me over. As I opened my eyes, I felt dizzy. It's hard to find the words to describe what I saw. I looked around and every inch of ground was covered with trash and people. There were big puddles of mud and raw sewage everywhere. I could immediately feel the pressure in the atmosphere. The air was so thick with humidity and stench it was almost visibly hanging in the sky pressing down on us. As we started walking, I noticed that there were people actually living here, right on the street amidst the piles of garbage. There were entire families who had made "shelters" out of sticks and tarps—some just slept on plain cardboard.
We were walking down some sort of street trying to find our bus when our path was suddenly cut off by a group of ragged street kids. We tried to go around them, but in a matter of moments they pressed tightly around us to beg for food.
Looking at them reminded me somewhat of those TV commercials that last forever and take up too much time during the evening line-up. You know, the ones that have some old man holding a sick child from a far off country, asking for money. He does his best to try and convince you that a mere $20 a month could easily supply this child with enough food, clothing and shelter to save them from a life of poverty on the streets. I'd usually just change the station.
Now, these kids were right in front of me and all of them were unhealthy in one way or another. Some were blind or deaf, an arm missing now and then, a leg crippled here and there. But no matter what the problem, the look in their eyes was all the same. Helpless, hopeless, and sick. Sick from poverty, sick from starvation...maybe just sick from the lack of love. I wanted to give them something; it was those eyes, how could I say no? As I reached into my bag to look for food, I heard the guide yell out a warning to us over the crowd. He told us to ignore the children. He said if we fed even one, then we'd have to feed them all or else there would be riots.
Though we had come to help, this was neither the time nor the place. My heart sank. We pushed past them, and little hands reached up to my face; beautiful, perfect hands. They were desperate...pleading; would I give them something? I tried to smile and shrugged my shoulders as if I had nothing to give. How many times had I done the same thing to bums on the street at home, but somehow this was different. There were the eyes again....how sorrowful they looked.
As we left, I felt their disappointed stares burning hot on my back. I was lying. They knew it and I knew it. Of course I had plenty of food and money—enough to share with them, anyway. But I had to listen to our guide. To help one, we'd have to help them all. Therefore, we helped no one at all.
It seemed so ironic to me—what had I come here for? I felt dizzy again. I had made a huge mistake, what the heck was I thinking? I shouldn't have come! How was I supposed to make a difference in a place where the need was so big? All of a sudden, the words of that T.V. commercial came back to me, and the specific memory of it seemed to mock me now. "If you were looking at this beautiful girl face to face, would you still have the heart to turn away and tell her no?" At that moment, I wished it was as easy as changing the channel.
We were now headed toward our "hotel." Well, I guess you could call it that. One large room with twenty beds and one bathroom didn't really meet my description of luxury—but hey, how could I complain? That day was so hot; I can remember it perfectly. It had to be at least 115 degrees with 99% humidity. Calcutta at night was unbelievable, during the day it was just plain unbearable. The walk home was long, almost 7 miles, but I didn't mind. It gave me time to reflect and process everything I had seen and done since I'd arrived in India.
At first I had such a hard time adjusting to the conditions and poverty. Everything was different and took getting used to. The bathrooms didn't have any toilets—only "squatties." (You can use your imagination to fill in the details.) The shower was simply a rusty faucet protruding from the wall and a bucket. Even walking down the street was a trial. Around every corner there seemed to be an unending amount of homeless people. Mothers my age or younger holding starving babies in their arms, old men so skinny and weak, they were unable to stand. Hardest of all to see, though, were the children.
Everywhere I looked they were there—young, old, big, small. We'd step over naked kids all the time—just babies—lying in the street. It was "normal." Surprisingly enough, though, I adjusted to everything very fast. It amazed me how well we humans can adapt to new situations. Compared to my life in California, this was hell; and yet I had begun to feel right at home.
Besides the night of my arrival, I loved every minute of being in India. Every day was compeletely filled up to the max with traveling and serving. The first week was spent with doctors and nurses from the states. We would visit rural villages and set up free medical clinics for the people. It was so fun working and interacting with the natives. Sometimes we would go into the nearby slums and hand out food and clothing. This was always dangerous because the crowds would get out of hand and riots would start—but I didn't mind.
We even had a chance to work in Mother Theresa's homes for the poor. She had started several in many different locations all over the city: orphanages, hospitals and even a home for the dying. Working at her orphanages had to be my favorite! The kids were just precious. Most of them were sick, so we just spent the day cheering them up. We would dance, sing, play hide and seek, blow bubbles....they soaked up all the attention they could get. After a while I realized that even little things like hugs and smiles worked miracles. Love did things even the medicine couldn't do.
As I continued to walk, I began to think about Jesus and how His heart must be broken for these people. I looked around and saw the darkness of the country. I could physically see the oppression and depression of the land. Most all of India is Hindu. They worship over 200 million gods, and spend their lives flat on their faces in the hopes of pleasing the angry gods that keep them living in misery. Most of them had never heard, never even had the chance of knowing about Jesus and His love for them. You could see the despair on their faces. A cloud of darkness seemed to surround their hearts and minds.
Working in such a place made me rely completely on God's strength to make it through each day, and with that dependency came the realization of how powerful and real God truly is. I wanted to tell the people that there was a real God up in heaven who loved them, who cared and who would give them hope. Yes, we had done so much but I felt it wasn't enough. I wanted Him to use me in a personal way to individually touch lives.
I looked around and realized that we were turning the last corner of our walk. I took in a deep breath and realized I had to stop getting frustrated. I would only drive myself crazy. I exhaled and relaxed at the thought of a cold shower and a change of clothes.
Right around this time, I noticed some street kids a few feet ahead of us sleeping on the sidewalk . As we got closer they woke up, and I guess were kind of confused to see a group of white people disturbing their nap. (Needless to say, we stood out everywhere we went.) Well, I guess the boy's curiosity was sparked because they got up and started following us. I motioned for one of them to come over, and he ran up to me. I smiled at him and noticed what a cutie he was. He was wearing a warn red tank top which accented his pretty brown eyes and golden skin. I asked him if he spoke English, and to my delight he understood me! We started talking and he proceeded to tell me that he was nine years old and his name was Michael. He walked me the rest of the way to the hotel and I'm not quite sure how it happened, but we became instant friends.
From that day on, Michael was my little buddy. Whenever I would leave the hotel in the morning or return at night, I would just ask any random street kid where he was and they would go find him for me. Everyone seemed to know who he was, even the adults. I guess he was a well-known "street urchin", and he seemed to be connected with everyone in the neighborhood. Every time I'd see him we'd talk about the day, what we did and where we went. I'd buy him chocolate, give him clothes, or just play around and laugh with him. We grew closer and closer with each meeting, and after just a few days I felt like Michael was my little brother. What can I say, I just adored him!
We were all dressed up and ready to go! It was our last night in Calcutta so we were going out to eat for a farewell dinner. Though I was excited about the night, it was only skin deep. The realization that I was leaving the next morning made it hard to rejoice about anything....even a good Indian meal. How was I going to leave Michael? As soon as we left the hotel entrance I looked around and saw him waiting for me. He was easy to spot because he was wearing a white shirt and a pair of navy shorts I had given him. He ran over to me and asked me where we were going all dressed up, so I told him that we had dinner plans across town at a nice restaurant. He immediately became excited and insisted on walking with me. Of course I complied and was happy to have the company. He grabbed my hand and we followed my group as they started down the street.
Michael was in an exceptionally good mood so he was eager to practice all the English he could before I left. He began to talk about his family and tell me about the day. He had three other siblings and he lived with them and his mother.
The streets we were walking down were very dangerous, so I constantly kept my free hand held tight around the camera case hanging from my neck; I didn't want anyone to steal it from me. Well, after a while my arm got tired and I decided to rest it for a couple minutes so I let go of the case compeletely. Michael was in the middle of telling me some story, but he noticed the gesture immediately and looked up to scold me. "No! No!" he said, as he grabbed my hand and put it back on the camera. "The Indian man is no good," he proclaimed. "They will only take from you!" I threw back my head in uncontrollable laughter and I jokingly asked if he would grow up to put all the other Indian men to shame. My Michael would never become a bad man, right? Now we were both laughing and he replied, "Oh yes, I will be a very good man when I grow up. I will get a job and stay off the streets. I want to work in an office so I can carry a brief case to work and wear a suit." He didn't seem to care what kind of an office he worked in, as long as he got to carry the brief case with him.
We went on to talk about all his hopes and dreams; he had so many. He would get really into what he was saying, and then suddenly stop whatever he was doing to point someone out to me. "See her? Stay away from that women, she is a thief. See him? That man in the blue shirt? He is a pick-pocket—no good for you!" He continued in this manner the entire walk, and if anyone dangerous would get too close to me, he would whistle and shout out a string of words which warned them to leave me alone. It was great! I felt like princess Jasmine in the movie
when he was guiding her through the streets. When I was with Michael I had complete protection. We just talked and joked. He asked me questions about America, and I would tell him stories about California and the beach. He just couldn't believe that someone from so far away had traveled across the world to help his people. He seemed grateful.
As we neared our destination, I realized how much I loved this little boy. I loved him more than I would have ever thought possible in such a short amount of time. My heart was sealed and I began to wish I could take him home with me. All I wanted was the best for him; to love and protect him from the hellish world he was uncontrollably born into. We arrived at the restaurant and I turned to give him a huge hug. He couldn't come inside with us, and I didn't want to let him go! I remember turning and waving good-by. I wanted to run and gather him in my arms once more, but everyone was waiting for me....so that was it. He promised to wait outside the hotel that night so we could talk again before I left, but when I got back he wasn't there.
Before I went to bed, I got together a huge box of food and wrapped up some money inside a piece of paper with my name and address on it. It was my hope that he would write me some day if he ever learned to read English.
The next morning I was the first one up, so I ran outside to find Michael and give him the stuff. I looked and looked but couldn't see him anywhere. I spotted one of his friends and called him over to ask where he was. His friend came over and told me that Michael wasn't around because he had school for the day. My heart sank. Wouldn't I get to say good-by? I stood there for a second and then made a quick decision. I told the little boy that if he would give my address to Michael and make sure he got it (there was money folded inside the paper) that I would give him the box of food and he could have it all to himself. His face lit up and he promised to give Michael the paper. I thanked him and once again begged him to remember to give my address to Michael.
There was nothing else I could do, so I turned around and went back inside to finish packing. As I entered the building, I stomped my foot in frustration as hot, salty tears began to stream down my face. If I could have seen him just once more I could have told him how much I loved him, how much Jesus loves him....If only...If I only....etc.
Though India is one of the worst places on the face of the earth, I left wishing I could stay forever. Boarding that plane, I felt like I was leaving a piece of my heart behind. My mind was spinning. I had done so much, seen so many different things, met so many people--and yet, I could think only of Michael.
It's funny, before the trip I had pictured the world as though it was made up of two categories: "them" and "us." "Us", being the middle to upper class citizens of the civilized world who basically have all we need to survive. We're smart, educated, civilized and modern. Everyone else fell into the category of "them." I heard stories about "them" every day on the news, read about "them" in magazines, even whispered about "them" as they passed me on the street. I'd gone to church sermons devoted entirely to "them"and learned how compared to "them" we had so much. I would even give my money away and support different missionaries or shelters that were specifically "called by God" to help "them".
It's easy, too easy to think of "them" in that way. Faceless, souless people who, when grouped together, form the innumerable masses of unlucky people of this world. It's hard to remember that within every "them," there is a he, a she, a baby, a desperate mother weeping over her child or an old man dying in the street. We forget about the tears, the sorrow, the pain and the suffering.
If anything, from this trip I learned the value of one. One person, one smile, one life touched, one kiss that warmed a hopeless heart, one caress that showed love to someone who had forgotten love existed. Yes, I still remembered the beggars and the sick. I could still see the thousands of people dying in the street—but it was different. I realized that God wanted me to look at the world as He does, and I know he sees more than just crowds of dying people. Those people have faces, those faces have names and those names have souls. I made a difference in one life and that made a difference in mine.
Looking ahead, I saw that my biggest challenge was to remember how much God loves and values the life of every person on this Earth. People across the world, and people in my neighborhood. My best friends and the outcast at school. The waiter at the restaurant and the bum outside. He loves us all the same.
With this realization I decided then and there to stop looking at the world as masses made up of individuals, but instead to see the individuals that make up the masses. It may seem like a small thing to you—a mere play on words, but to a kid like Michael it makes all the difference in the world.
Rebekah Green, 2/22/2007
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