Monday, January 26, 2009

Holy Places - Holy Things

2:30 p.m.
26 January 2009
Republic Day - India
Quo Vadis - Tiruvannamalai

Vanakkam ("greetings" - "welcome") ~~~
It's been harder to find convenient computer and internet access here than I thought, mostly because I haven't had much time, and partly because we are not in a major city. Tiruvannamalai is a mecca for many spiritual seekers, many of them from the west. You see a lot of aging hippies walking the streets. They seem to blend in (or think they do).

More about Chennai...
After visiting the Park Town Mission School in Chennai on Saturday, we toured the city and had lunch (the big meal of the day in India) at an authentic south Indian restaurant. Pure heaven. We ate with our fingers (with the right hand, of course; the left is reserved for other things). Handwashing areas are always provided, and the manner of eating is clean, graceful, refined, and efficient. Because I know south Indian food pretty well and watched my grandfather eat with his fingers, and because I'm a good actor, the group seemed to think I knew what I was doing. Then I glanced over at Joseph, our helper from the field office of LPGM, and saw his tidy plate with a petite mound of food only at the very center. Mine looked like a cyclone had hit it.

On to Tiruvannamalai...
The van drive from Chennai to Tiruvannamalai took much longer than we had realized it would, but it was wonderful to get out into the country. My heart began to beat faster as it dawned on me that I was looking at the kind of countryside in which my ancestors had lived. I could imagine Gramps joking with the guys at the roadside shrines and stands. Road travel in India is everything everyone told me it would be. I took some videos which might just make it into an Omni Theater for their frightful 3-D. Horns of every sort, motorcycles, bicycles, auto rickshaws (yellow and black 3-wheelers; driver in front, passengers in back), vans, trucks, semis, pedestrians, and yes, the proverbial cows in the road....even on the national highway. The horn-honking, by the way, is not an angry gesture. It simply says "Here I am" or "On your right" or "Just passing through." The weaving and swerving is, as Lica (sp?) our Danish hostess here at Quo Vadis puts it, a "dance."

We stopped at Gingee Fort, an ancient historical site. I may return to spend more time there next month. It was while there and finding that one of the hills is called Krishnagiri Hill that I realized I was not that far from the area of the Naumann sites. I'll be visiting them later, but the idea that I was so close gave me goosebumps. Someone thrust their cell phone at me in the van and said, "Call you mother!" I did. "Hi Mom. Guess where I am?..."

Saron Church and Boarding School for Boys
Yesterday we worshipped at Saron Church, where Pastor Japathy Daniel has a boys choir gleaned from the hundreds enrolled in the school. The choir boys wear white shirts and sit in the front, just below the chancel, facing each other ala Anglican choir stalls. The remainder of the boys were on the floor around them - and outside on both sides of the building! - in their green uniforms. Pastor Japathy presides while seated on the floor at an electronic keyboard in the chancel. With skillfull small improvisations and intonations, he leads the singing of the liturgy and hymns (and here's the very significant part) - in Tamil and in traditional native musical style. No German chorales here, at least not on the Sunday we visited. As it should be! The church was filled, and we sat near the front as honored visitors, but as truly part of the worshipping congregation. The congregation was very serious and reverent. No applause - at least none that I recall - and no disruption in the liturgy except for some brief announcements. Pastor Japathy Daniel presides with grace and an authoritative but pastoral presence. It "works," and works really well. The singing is astounding. He preached - mostly in English - about healing and about the openness of the healing love of God in Christ for all people, especially the downtrodden. Somehow he managed to work in Obama, "our visitors' newly-elected president!" I had been appointed to coordinate our group singing something in the service and was nervously wracking my brain for something we could all sing and sing well - "Jesus Loves Me?" "Amazing Grace?" Gordon Olson had given me some copies of "With One Voice," and I surreptiously thumbed through it during the start of the service. Then, during the sermon, it dawned on me. At the appointed time, we sang "There Is a Balm in Gilead." I mentioned to the congregation its connection to the sermon and its African American origins.

Listen to the boys sing:

The Saron Boarding Home for Boys
After the service, there were firecrackers, singing and dancing tigers in our honor as we made our way in procession - hundreds of mint-green-clad boys alongside - to the school. After refreshments, we were seated in the shade by the courtyard stage, and an elaborate and carefully orchestrated and choreographed programme followed, with songs, dances, and speeches. Afterwards, we presented each boy with a gift from LPGM - one at a time, each hand-off shot by a photographer! We toured the campus and those in the group who sponsor boys (or brought greeting from members of their churches who do) met their sponsored child. And everything I've heard about the children of India in these boarding schools is true as well. They are bursting with love and joy. They are hungry for affection, but not in a desperate sense, and they are eager to return it, much-amplified. It is an emotionally fulfilling (and draining) experience. I know I will encounter it again when I go to the Bethania Kids homes in Nagercoil and Kodaikanal later in the trip.

Lebanon Home for Women
Among other things, in the afternoon we lunched at and toured the Lebanon Home, another LPGM-supported program. It is a compound with lodging for abandoned and divorced women and includes fields of rice, onions and tomatoes, but most significantly a beautiful weaving hall, where the women sit a looms and make beautiful towels, tablecloths and other linens which are sold in the States and elsewhere as a source of income. We are bringing tons home. Jane and Doug Koons live in the main building, along with the manager of the Home and his wife.

We are soon leaving our wonderful hotel across from Quo Vadis and will be going on to see other LPGM-supported libraries. Last night we joined in the weekly meditation in the Quo Vadis meditation hut. It was some much-needed reflection (including about 10 minutes of silence).

I didn't expect to see so many dogs! They're everywhere. They're tame, but not necessarily anyone's pet, per se. All animals are everyone's "pets," I suspect is the philosophy. The India Times the other day included a news story - complete with photos - about an apartment building manager who was arrested for attempting to drown some kittens!
"Don't mess with me."

I haven't been able to get to Facebook, but I hear tell there's a video of my own cat there, attesting to his well-being in his tender's kind care.

We saw our first monkeys today at the temple. The temple - now there's another long and emotional story. We had special access to the inner sanctums. More on that some other time.

Photos - many, many, many photos - forthcoming.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lost in Mumbai

9:30 p.m.
25 January 2009
Tiruvannamalai - Tamil Nadu, South India
I've finally had a chance to breathe and find an internet cafe. They have kept us on a pretty tight schedule so far, and as is the case with trips and jet lag, the days all become a blur, so for now I won't even try to give you an accurate timeline. More will follow, probably tomorrow, when I have access to internet at Quo Vadis (see link and previous posts). For now, I'll share my first two adventures.
Lost in Mumbai ~~~ I hesitate to share this but the word will probably leak out anyway.... We arrived around midnight at Mumbai (Bombay) and were to head to a hotel for several hours of sleep before proceeding on to Chennai (Madras). As we navigated customs and the baggage claim area, I had my bag scanned by security, turned the corner and - voila - the rest of the group was gone! Nada. Zip. No where to be seen. I went outside into my first India air and scanned the nearly football-field length crowd of drivers, friends and family members waiting for their arrivals. I couldn't see them anywhere. Then back inside, retracing my steps. No one. And no phone. No rupees. No hotel name. After about an hour (at least it seemed that long) I trudged back in to rent a taxi (after borrowing a phone to make several calls to find the hotel name), and came across the group. I expected scolding; instead, my new friend Jane came running towards me with a big hug and a bottle of water. We still haven't decided who was "lost" - them or me.

Crammed into one van at the Mumbai airport (after reunification of group)

On to Chennai (Madras) ~~~
We LOVE India's Jet Airways, which took us from Mumbai to Chennai. Cool towels, superb food, real silverware (!), and genuinely friendly cabin staff. Doug and Jane Koons, who are here working on behalf of LPGM, met us at the airport. They are tireless and generous hosts who have made our visit so smooth and who have the patience of saints. Their diplomacy is remarkable. e.g. Doug (as we arrive at a restaurant): "Based upon our schedule for the remainder of the day, we may wish to eat faster here rather than slower." (Translation: Hurry it up, folks. Haul ..... We haven't got much time.")

Park Town School in the heart of Chennai is a school for mostly homeless and destitute children. Two congregations represented in our group have sponsored the two libraries in the school, and we went to visit. The van turned into a narrow alley, and when we stepped out, we were treated like royalty, with leis, a procession, acrobats, dancing tigers (boys in tiger outfits), drums pounding. We are discovering how much the Indians love their ceremony and ritual (something Mount Olivites will especially appreciate. A tour of the schools and hundreds of adoring children... More to follow. The cafe is closing.


Sunday, January 18, 2009


On Friday, as I arrived for my last day of work at the hospital before my trip, I spotted a young Indian couple who were lost. I asked them if I could help them find anything, and to my surprise they said they were looking for the "Birth and Family Education" department. (We seldom have any patients come to our office. Most of them register for our classes by phone or mail, and the classes themselves are held elsewhere in the building). I told them that's where I was headed, and after badging in, I escorted them to our office. (Cue "Twilight Zone" theme music).

Experiencing strong "felines" of separation anxiety
Today I'll be taking my cat Bailey over to live with his "stepmom" Kate while I'm gone. Kate knows Bailey well and is an attentive catsitter. He'll enjoy her new condo. (Hopefully, he won't enjoy clawing her carpet.) Since tomorrow's a holiday and Kate will be home, we thought it would be best if he had some time in his new digs tomorrow while we are both available to supervise. It's going to be hard to let go of him. I'm not looking forward to spending the last two days without him before I leave. Silly? Not if being single and missing someone you talk to and snuggle with every night is silly. I hope he enjoys his new "Deluxe Extra-Large Enclosed Cat Box with Detachable Swinging Door, Replaceable Filter, Snapping Locks for Security, and Anti-Slip Feet."

At church, I introduced the Church School children to their substitute teacher Sean. After church, my family had a bon voyage dinner of sorts.

From "The Summons" ~
Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean in you and you in me?
~ John L. Bell

Monday, January 12, 2009

Where Are You Going?

The PBS special "The Story of India" tonight ended with a spine-tingling portrayal of the Karthikai Deepam Festival in Tiruvannamalai. After stumbling over the name for 5 weeks, I think I can finally pronounce it without adding about three syllalables.* The rite involves a huge fire which blazes from the top of Mt. Arunachala for days. The fire symbolizes Shiva's light, which eradicates darkness and evil. (Sound familiar? How about a blazing weeklong fire on top of the Midtown Commons for this year's Easter Vigil?!) At the time of the festival, 1/2 million people cheerfully walk up the mountain in the sun on jagged and unstable rocks, in bare feet. I hope to hike up the hill, too - or part of it, but I'll be wearing shoes, thank you very much.

As it turns out, the town of Tiruvannamalai will essentially provide bookends for my pilgrimage. I'll be there in less than two weeks (!) with our small group. It is the site of schools, hostels, community service centers, orphanages, and other projects of the Arcot Lutheran Church, which is Danish in origin. At the end of my trip, I will be spending a weekend there at "Quo Vadis," a new interfaith dialogue centre. "Quo vadis" is Latin for "where are you going?" The Centre seeks to be a place of peace, understanding, good will, and spiritual growth for Hindus, Moslems and Christians. It is a place at which to tell your story and share your faith - no matter what journey of faith you are on and where you are progress-wise. Oh, that every village in this world had a Quo Vadis Centre.

It has taken me a long time to learn to just stay in the present, to relish the journey of life, to worry less about where I'll end up. I don't really know where I'm going (who does?), but it's okay. I am finally quite at peace with that. There are no right or wrong destinations. I know I'm eventually going home to the heart of God. In a reassuring email about my trip anxiety, my friend Karen Wilson had this to say about her own rollercoaster ride: "I need to breathe into the turns and the fast blips over the top of the hills, and enjoy the ride of life to wherever God takes and places me." She reminded me, too, to "love the anticipation, the Advent, of the journey, as much as the trip itself." Thanks, Karen.

So I'll press on in my preparations. [Note to self: not everything can be nailed down ahead of time, and that's okay]. Are not these words from the liturgy of Evening Prayer one of the greatest legacies of the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978)? ~

"O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen."

வ்தேரே ஆர் யு கோயன்? (Where are YOU going?)

*I'm pretty sure it's "teer-ah-VAH-nah-mah-lye"

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Another Step Forward

Tonight, most of us who are going on the Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry leg of the trip met in person and via phone conference with Gordy to talk about the trip. It certainly heightened my excitement, and I'm looking forward to meeting the other sojourners who were not present or were present by phone only. Kris even brought snacks! (I like her already.)
Gordy gave us a detailed itinerary - well-planned, with contact persons at each stop and with opportunities for folks to visit those children and libraries they or their congregations sponsor via LPGM.

We will be leaving for India the day after the U.S. presidential inauguration and will be in India for their Republic Day on 26 January - one of three major civic holidays in India. West meets East....and maybe West will learn something from East.

"If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children."
~Mahatma Gandhi

Monday, January 5, 2009

Pressing On

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. ~ Philippians 3:12-14

Uh-oh. He quoted the Bible.
I don't know about you, but I get a little nervous when I see that people have quoted Bible verses in their personal reflections. Most of us mainline church folks are a little put off by personal testimony. That's probably a shame. The Psalms are full of "Let me tell you what God has done for me" moments, as Dr. Fred Gaiser points out. But mostly I get nervous about it because Christian scripture passages are so often used and misused - usually out of their context - to self-sanctify a person's identity, experiences and causes - like some kind of magic invocation which affirms that God is on my side and that what I'm about to say has received God's imprimatur.

Having said all that, I'll press on with this quote in my blog banner because this passage has always intrigued me, and because it's not just a personal testimony but a call to arms (loving arms, not military ones) for all of us.

Unity, community, sacrifice, vulnerability, love
To put this all in a scriptural and theological perspective, the affectionate letter Saint Paul wrote from prison to the church in Philippi is about unity and self-sacrifice for the good of the community. For Christians, Jesus is the ultimate example of self-giving love. Paul really makes this concept sing - quite literally - by quoting a hymn in his letter (2:6-11) which was probably part of a baptismal liturgy. It sings of how Christ emptied himself and became like a slave, vulnerable to the point of death. You hear a lot from present-day Christians, especially in the United States, about a God who is sovereign, powerful, aggressive, domineering, and concerned with success and prosperity. I'm not sure what Bible those folks are reading, but that isn't really the God of Christian scripture. The God you find there epitomizes love, IS love, walks alongside us (like you do when you love someone), takes risks (like true love does), experiences hurt (as those who love inevitably do), and goes to the cross (there is no greater love).

For me, spiritual pressing on is about walking with hope through adversity towards the "new Jerusalem," but it's so much more. It's about striving to emulate Christ's vulnerable, self-giving love while on the journey. We can march on proudly and individualistically, climbing every mountain "till we find our dreams," with little thought for others. Or as we walk we can look to the side of the road and in the ditches to see who needs our help along the way. Which brings me to part of the reason for my upcoming trip and the purpose of this blog....

Pressing on to INDIA
This blog is a way for folks to keep tabs on me when I travel to India this winter. It has been a long-held dream of mine to go there. First of all it's a treat I'm giving myself for recently reaching another goal; namely, finishing grad school before entering the retirement center. Second, it's a chance to do some of the proverbial "getting in touch with my roots" thing. Third, I'm hoping to get a glimpse of the acts of charity that others have done in their pressing on - how they have loved and risked and sacrificed, and how that has changed the world.

Leaving soon
I will be leaving on January 21 for ten days with seven other folks from Lutheran Partners in Global Ministry, a mission advocacy organization which has as its purpose "to raise up generations who inspire hope by walking with and serving in the world-wide church." LPGM provides opportunities for giving, mission trips, and volunteering. You can read about them at:

After visiting LPGM projects in the Chennai (formerly Madras) area of southeran India, we will fly to New Delhi in the north for some sightseeing (Taj Mahal, etc). The rest of the group will then return home, and I will press on to the far southern tip of the country to begin a 16-day adventure on my own, visiting some of the places where my ancestors were missionaries and seeing projects of another great organization, Bethania Kids, "a Christian mission bringing wholeness and hope to poor, abandoned and disabled children in India." Please visit Gene Hennig, a member of my church, and his family are among the founders of this loving ministry. Gene was a missionary kid and knew my mom's siblings in boarding school in south India.

Travel preparations
At the moment, I'm busy making preparations and making connections, worrying about whether I'm really grown up enough to travel by myself in India (I get nervous going to a new grocery store by myself), and trying to learn a few Tamil (Westerners usually say it as though it rhymes with "camel") phrases. For two-thirds of the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" (you should see it), I was in a state of panic: "What have I gotten myself into?!" But by the end of the movie, I was ready to hop on the plane. As my aunt said when my mom told her I was going to India: "He's already there." I'm especially looking forward to meeting some of India's children. I hope the suffering that I see won't overwhelm me.
The only other time I went overseas was 30 years ago! I've got my passport, visa, airline tickets, shots, malaria pills, traveller's diarrhea meds, and a host of cool little travel things from Targetto. I have a lot of people to thank already, including Gordon Olson from LPGM, who's helping me to plan my trip extension; Allison,who gave me the nudge I needed and urged me to contact him; Mom, who grew up in India and inspired my interest in it; my sister Becky, who traveled there with Mom about 12 years ago and who has a heart full of compassion; Aunt Miriam, who returned there as a doctor to do medical mission work and supports those who serve there; Aunt Vi, who with her husband lived in New Delhi during a government work assignment; Aunt Delna, who always supports me (ain't aunts grand?); Gene Hennig, who loves India and has offered me his connections; Uncle Walter, who grew up there and returned to visit; my friends the Dundeks, who have single-handedly made Rick Steves one of my new best friends; and others TBA. My friend Sean Johnson will be stepping in to work with the Church School Choir at Mount Olive while I'm away. Sean and his wife Becky are members of Christ Lutheran Church on Capitol Hill. Like me, Sean has finished his coursework for the Master of Sacred Music program at Luther Seminary. He's a warm and fun guy, and I know the kids will enjoy him.

As I press on with this trip, I might also write about things that don't have much to do with India. If I haven't lost you already (future posts will be much, much shorter - I solemnly swear), I hope you'll enjoy hearing about the goals I have and the race I'm running.

Let's press on!

"I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love." ~Mother Teresa of Calcutta