Monday, November 12, 2007

City in the Clouds - PART 1

Icy white peaks through fog clouds, we are 7,500 feet up in Mussoorie, a mountain town of tin roofs and Buddhist flags and pine trees, donkeys with packs and happy children breathing cold fresh air — a serious contrast to the Red Light District of Mumbai and the Slums of Dehradun where we came from, where traffic lumbers like dinosaurs with crushing exhaust. Up here, in the fresh living mountains are the far reaches of India, mountain faces and twinkling lights below. Monkeys wander the treetops.

The towering clouds on the other side of the mountain appear to be jagged mountains, and they are—the Himalayans. A shimmering strong regiment of legendary peaks splits the sky beyond, dwarfing the vast mountain we stand upon. Winding alley city centres of leaning clock towers and stone staircases that vanish steep down the side of the mountain.

We visit a friend’s church here that meets in the back of a clothing shop — there is a man standing guard at the door, who pushes aside a cloth to let you into the small back room which is filled with light and breeze because it over looks the mountains and clouds and pines below. It feels much like the early church, meeting in secret, because to gather in prayer here is not acceptable. The service was in Hindi (thankfully the pastor translated for us) with only 40 Indians of the mountain squished into a small space. Here everyone knew each other and when the pastor's wife, a native Mussoorie woman, asked, people from the congregation read psalms aloud. The people were alive with connections and friendship and chai tea. There were a few ex-pat families, covered with children. It seems to me, children are the true face of India. David preaches on Returning Your Eyes to Jesus, a word of encouragement to people in such a distant region... however, we are soon to learn that God's heart is beating loudly in this distant place.

After church, we walk to dinner and to the Internet cafe in the bright white sun. During the monsoon season this place is in a constant fog, you cannot even dry your underwear, they say, because the mountain is literally in a cloud. We eat in a small area atop the mountain; it takes our food hours to come out, because the tiny cafe is unaccustomed to so many people asking for banana waffles and omelets. Donkeys and cows slowly mull past as Monika braids a little girl's hair and we sit on park benches with hyper children and thankful parents. I show the kids my dad’s “pet the snake” gag and they LOVE it. “See the snake? Good snake. Nice snake. Pet the snake. OH NO SNAKE, DON'T BITE!!!" I spend the rest of the day being bitten by snakes.

The next day, we go on “a hike” with the churches young Leaders, two 25 year old men from the Garwali Mountains. Our host drives us an hour out of town to show us the real mountain range, where villages are sprinkled among sweeping tea terraces. He looks across them and tells us that the Disciples walk to these villages, which are only accessible by foot just to talk to the villagers and tell them that there is a God who loves them, who knows them by name, who counts the very hairs on their head. His name is not one of the millions of gods they worship; His power does not come from a cow or an idol, but from the Cross. It's a simple message: God loves you and He always will.

The Leaders are extraordinarily quiet; they should have been wearing monk’s robes. They set up a campfire and make chai for us as one of them tells us his story in this clearing beside the mountains. Despite the overwhelming odds, he has a Hindi tattoo upon his right hand a symbolic mark given to him from birth, which he now regrets, the Leader has given his life to Christ, dedicated to understanding and sharing God to the Unknown. The chai we drink on that small perch is the greatest tea we have ever tasted.

After we avoid being trampled by cows descending the mountain, we hike to the peak of one of the mountains. Our host and his family come, we hold the children’s hands telling them “don’t step in the lollipops left on the ground by the cows.” The air gets colder and thicker, the path is steep moss and rock that opens into a theatre of green grass and tall trees. Walking the silent small path, surrounded by peaceful trees and whispering breeze, I begin to understand the Leader’s silence a little more.

We reach the top, a little out of breath, as the Leaders easily carry the children on their shoulders. We are so high up, on such a drastic slope, that to look down feels like the world is upside down. Far down below, huts and villages span out below like tiny pebbles placed among the grass. Freedom up here. We soak in the sun until a small boy waves at us from the top, top, top of the mountain. In a matter of minutes he is down at our side, showing the brave few the way into the clouds.

Our host, his children, and the Leaders help us climb rocks and navigate prickly bushes. The pastor races me to the top, running up grassy slopes and over rocks, altitude starving me for breath until I am dizzy at the very peak. The world is below us. We are above the clouds that float by like an ocean. Stacked mountains vanish in the horizon. But the Himalayans stay steady, mocking our breathtaking climb. The twinkling cowbells of the three cattle that belong to the boy is the only sound up here. The bell's gentle clank, the rolling clouds, the bright mountainside. Peace.

“We came here 3 weeks ago,” says the Pastor. “We camped here and sang and danced.” This is the kind of hike these men do every day, just to reach a small hut, just to knock on their door and speak to them as friends and believers. God’s love is real. We can be the vessels through which he spreads that love. Even here, God loves them so much that He sends out these Leaders to the farthest regions — none of this area is in the Lonely Planet by the way — to let them know of His Love. Back in Los Angeles, my world seems so small, work, food, friends, service, but out here, my eyes are opened to the enormity of God’s heart, that He is working everywhere, even in the silence of the hills and across the world, in the brash clamor of Los Angeles.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Where's Bob?!?

We're home! After taking planes, trains, and automobiles over 27 hours to get back we arrived at LAX safe and sound early Friday afternoon. It was great to be greeted by Brandon and Joe's parents smiling faces. One of our teammates, Bob, decided to extend his journey in India for another week, so after getting use to accounting for all ten of us, it became a running joke on the way home for Joe to ask, "Where's Bob?!" I posted a link to the Sojourners blog earlier in our trip where Bob has been writing updates about our India journey, but this link will go to all of the posts instead of just to the one.

We still have more to share about the end of our trip, as well as reflections from a few of our team, so please check back with us in the coming weeks (and possibly months) as we process and share more about our trip, and our response to all we've experienced.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Slums Near SNEHA

Dr. Reeta and Hari took us into the slums of Dehra Duhn. I’m having trouble finding words to describe the dire poverty. There are certain varying images that flash through my mind that I will never forget. A naked little girl squatting down in front of me to relieve her bowels to her smile when she looked up into my eyes. At one point I peered into a small hole in a wall to find three fat, snorting pigs munching away on garbage. Supposedly they are a commodity in India, ranging from 3-4 thousand rupees. I find that bizarre because nobody eats pork!

As we walked the slum, dozens of children began to follow us. They screamed and yelled with so much laughter, you would have thought Shakira had arrived. It was such an incredible welcome and to see the joy and hope in their tiny little faces was mesmerizing. Many of the older folks were kind but their faces expressed concern, perhaps about our nature of business in their territory.

We spent some time meeting Ashu, the child Kirsten and her family sponsor at Sneha. The Dickerson’s have been praying for them for nearly 7 years and it was not only a joy for Kirsten to finally meet Ashu but to see many of the family prayers answered.

Joe and Rod had the privilege of going deeper into the slums and when they got back Joe said, “the smell of death was lurking.” They both said it was much worse than what we had witnessed, which is very hard for all of us to even fathom.

Juliette’s comments regarding the slums were, “I was overwhelmed by the surroundings, and I’m still digesting it.” She also said she was thinking of how to reconcile this with her own life and how the two will coexist.


More pics from SNEHA

Sunday, October 28, 2007


If someone would have told me six months ago that I would find myself in India standing amidst a throng of sweet children making balloon hats, autographing tiny hands and arms, and attempting to speak Hindi, I would never have believed it. But that's exactly where I was yesterday afternoon on the grounds of SNEHA, an amazing school, medical clinic and training program in the town of Dehradun. The children come from the nearby slum community, which has about 20,000 residents. Nearly 14 years ago Dr. Reeta and Hari Rao resigned from their jobs at a hospital in Mussoorie and began their ministry in a tiny mud room. The school now provides a quality education to nearly 800 children. When we first arrived in the morning, fresh-faced children in straight lines welcomed us with songs and strings of marigolds that they placed around our necks.

Even the three and four-year-olds stood patiently at attention - something it would be difficult to imagine seeing at home. In the afternoon the children split into groups and we drew pictures with sidewalk chalk for them to color in, played basketball, jumped rope, made crafts, and enjoyed the Indian version of Duck, Duck, Goose. Which brings me to the balloon hats, while we made strange creations that somewhat resembled intestines, a few of the older boys slipped off and made intricate bouquets of balloon flowers, which they presented back to us, "For you, Ma'am."

We have all been so grateful for the incredible hospitality we've been shown by our hosts. Dr. Reeta gave us a tour of the facilities and we watched as young women worked on embroidery and sewing projects, which will enable them to help support their families. After the children went home, we shared afternoon tea with the teachers of SNEHA - 22 in all. Serving the children here is a true calling. The teachers could easily earn up to four times as much working at one of the local private schools, but instead they spend six days a week encouraging and loving Neha, Arpad, Ashu, Ashok, Rajender...the list goes on. SNEHA means "Love" in Hindi. I am humbled by the love in this place. God's love...changing this community one day at a time. We're headed to the basti this afternoon (slum). It's hard to reconcile the fact that the smart, funny, playful, happy, polite children we've been getting to know live in an atmosphere that most of us can't even fathom. Please pray for them, their families, and for the extraordinary men and women who selflessly serve this community.


Friday, October 26, 2007

Photos from Train Travel

It was very hot with extreme chaos all around, but our friend Jeet helped us make all the right train connections... our hero! (we'll post a picture of him later)

Here are a few pics to help show our train travel day.

David imparting some profound wisdom... you'll have to ask him what he was sharing with us.

Our platform performer.

Red Light District and other things...

Things that are better in India:

-Domestic flights. Our Kingfisher airline from Mumbai to Delhi was like an international flight out of the U.S. The 1 hour, 20 minute ride came equipped with a full meal, cable TV (to catch up on Wonder Years and Laguna Beach reruns), and flight attendants who all looked like Indian models. Cool.
-Tandoori chicken: Tender and moist all the time!
-Driving: We do not see a rhyme or reason but I guess everyone here knows the rules to the insane highways. Three family members and a sleeping baby on one motorcycle, crazy rickshaws weaving through the oscillating cars, 5 ½ lanes forming in a 3-laned highway. But alarmingly, fewer accidents than American freeways!
-Instant coffee

Things that are better in America:

-Train bathrooms: I just stepped into a squat toilet unit with a wet, wet floor. I’m pretending it’s just spilled water.
-Fruit and veggies: Because of the unsanitary water, we’re all dying for just one salad. Please, no more carbs.
-Ecclesia. We miss you.

But we are all having a wonderful, stomach-sickness-free time. In India, monkeys are like squirrels. We saw a gang of them at the side of a road. Converse are only $20, and our time is spent in extreme situations at the opposite ends of the paradigm. One day we’ll be sitting, having a Thai lunch in the luxurious home of one of our friends in Mumbai, then a few hours later, be driven out to the outskirts of the city to visit one small home that houses 23 girls who have been rescued from sex slavery. Tuesday we spent the afternoon with our friends from the faith-based humanitarian organization in the touristy area of Mumbai, seeing the Gateway of India and eating at Leopolds. That same night we witnessed the horror of the Red Light District.

The investigators from this organization thought it best that we stay in our vehicles and only drive through the area. Even still our nice American-looking car and colorful tour bus were give-aways that we were not regulars here. At first it was hard to decipher exactly what we were seeing. The Red Light District is home to 2,000 brothels, but we saw business as usual: vendors selling trinkets, little alleyways that we drove by too quickly to see what was actually going on, people walking along the streets. But that’s just it. We saw mostly men walking the streets. And then we saw women—standing. Standing still, facing the street, with busy-ness surrounding them. Some looked like children, 12, 13, 14. Some looked older. Perhaps the image that most imprinted itself in all of our minds was when the girls saw our noticeable cars—and perhaps the camera in one of them—and drew their hands to cover their faces. Some with their bare hands, others with their shawls, others turning away from the street. Even in such an open, vulnerable stance, the girls began to show a hint of the shame that was inherent in their profession. They did not look happy. They looked like children that unimaginable forces of life had kicked out onto the street. Life had neglected them. Intermixed with these chilling scenes were more bizarre images of a mismatched guru in a makeshift temple, a white goat licking a steel pole in the middle of the sidewalk, bodies sleeping near sewers. It can be painted easily as a dismal, hopeless picture if we did not think of the investigators in the vans with us and the faces of the rescued girls we had met the night before. It was hard to imagine that those 23 girls—our friends—were out on these streets not long ago. And as the investigators explained how they get the girls out of the brothels, the situation turned more hopeful, less hopeless. Before if we would have heard the statistics that 23 girls were rescued out of the thousands enslaved, we would have thought, “only 23?” Now that we have spent a day with them, we realize it was a miracle that even one of those young women was rescued.
And I know that when I return to the streets of Hollywood and Vine, the streets of Mumbai’s red light district will seem like another time, another world. But they are much alike. Swap a goat that licks a pole for somebody walking her jeweled Chihuahua. And just as this organization is responding to Mumbai, we’ll think how to respond to our own backyard, where “massage” and “acupuncture” shops trap girls like our 23 friends. This, above all, is what God is teaching us: to value the souls behind the statistics.


Note: This was written Wed. Oct 24th, but this is our first chance to post since then.