OCMC India Mission Trip Journal
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
I arrived in the afternoon at OCMC headquarters in St. Augustine, FL for Orientation. After months of preparation involving prayer, raising support, getting all the documentation in order, and research and reflection, the day is at hand! Riding in the car from the airport to the Center with other team members I had just met, my mind was brimming with questions – What would the Orientation be like? Would I “click” with these brothers, my team members? How would I react and respond to the seemingly myriad unknown and unseen things that awaited me in India? Would we experience a successful mission where our goals were met and God was glorified in all our actions?
Thirty-five years had passed since I had been on the foreign mission field, and knowing that I was on my way once again stirred the long dormant “missionary embers” in my heart. In many ways, this was a full-circle event for me, as some of the missionary experience my wife and I had was in reaching out to the Indian immigrant population in England. And now, I was heading for India itself to preach the Gospel as before, but this time we were also bringing the fullness, depth and richness of the Holy Orthodox Faith to the hungry hearts of those waiting for us to come and minister to them. I sensed the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon me; and yet also there was a sense of utter unworthiness and humility in facing what lay ahead …
We had dinner together as a team with some of the staff at the Mission Center and commenced to getting to know one another better. There were to be six members on this team (three priests and three laymen), which was an unusually large group for this mission. It was also uncommon to have this many clergy together on one team – who among the priests would lead us? It was decided that the priest with the most experience in mission trips to India would be the team leader. Fr. Stephen had been to India with OCMC six times, so it was obvious that with his wealth of experience and connections to the leadership there, he would fill the position most adequately. In addition to me, the other priest on the team (an Orthodox military chaplain), my dear Brother and former missionary “buddy” Fr. Stephan, had also been with OCMC to India and other places. His intense missionary zeal and love for God and His Holy Church inspired us all throughout our time together. It was he who encouraged me most diligently to initially consider this mission and promised he would go again if I did.
Missionary experience dominated most of the remainder of our team as well. Kenny (an OCMC staff member), had been to India numerous times and had developed relationships with the people there. As a seasoned OCMC missionary, he brought a balanced and practical approach to many of our team conversations and deliberations. In addition, Paul had OCMC experience in Alaska and was adept at teaching the Faith as well as traveling and working in many different and diverse cultures. Christopher, our sixth team member, was the neophyte in our midst; yet he possessed an amazing insight and depth into what was happening and an engaging sense of humor that kept us all light-hearted when we needed it.
The evening continued with us being apprised about the history of OCMC, and then there was some talk of the situation in India from past team members. The intensity and the challenge of this mission began to materialize in my mind and heart as I visualized being there. But I knew that the reality of actually setting foot on Indian soil and settling into the situation would greatly inspire and also unsettle me to the depths of my soul. I retired to bed that night at 11:30 pm and slept restlessly…
Thursday, October 7, 2010
After morning prayers, our orientation continued with meetings all day, interspersed with meals and short breaks. In the morning sessions we talked about our hopes and expectations – for each other as team members, for the people to which we’ll be ministering in India, for OCMC, and ultimately, for God. In addition to love, unity and a common vision for us as team members, our hope was for an openness and hunger for the truth of the Faith from those in India. Our expectation as well for OCMC included their support and prayers while we were on our mission. Finally, our ultimate hope was in an all-powerful and merciful God Who would send His Holy Spirit before us to prepare our way and to bring hearts and minds and lives closer to Him as a result of our efforts.
We also discussed our expectations for ourselves going there and how it would affect us once we return from India. How would this trip impact our relationship with God? Would we gain a greater awareness of the need for the rest of the world to hear the Good News of the Gospel? What about open doors for future ministry in the realm of missions? And finally, how could we return to our “normal lives” back here at home with a renewed zeal for Christ and not find ourselves judging others, our culture, and our way of life here?
The day continued with meetings and discussions which included reading and reflecting upon various Scripture verses (i.e., I Corinthians 9:16 & Acts 1:1-11) concerning preaching the Gospel, and the importance of “baptizing” the culture to which you’re preaching. Furthermore, we examined various foundational elements of communication, such as maintaining vulnerability and openness both in our ability to listen and in the necessity to share the Gospel in the context of our particular mission. Toward the end of the day we viewed two movies depicting the ministry already in progress in India and consulted together about how we as a mission team would integrate our vision and talents and gifts into the situation there.
Although I was fatigued at the end of the long, arduous day, a quote we discussed from Archbishop Anastasios of Albania earlier in the day kept ringing in my mind as I retired for the night:
“Most Christians are not bothered in the least (that Christ has not been born in the hearts of over 2/3 of the world’s population). It does not break their hearts. It does not even touch them. They do not care to think about it. They simply ignore it. We keep repeating ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done’ as a matter of formality, but we never realize that our own cooperation is asked for that; that in our hands the Lord has entrusted this mission.”
Friday, October 8, 2010
This morning began with a Prayer Service for Commissioning Missionaries for all of us team members going to India. The entire OCMC staff participated in the event led by Fr. Martin Ritsi and Fr. David Rucker. It was very encouraging, inspiring and comforting to know that they will be praying for us DAILY while we’re on the field!
We departed from the OCMC headquarters late morning and drove to Jacksonville, FL where we caught a plane to Washington D.C. Dulles Airport and on an overnight flight to Frankfort, Germany; and then to Kolkata (Calcutta), India. The entire trip took about 20 hours.
Saturday, October 9, 2010
Arrived in India at 11:45 pm and proceeded to go through customs – no problems there, thank God!
Sunday, October 10, 2010
A very intense day! We finally left the Kolkata airport at 2:30 am because the airline lost one of our team members’ luggage. Our host, Sr. Nectaria, was very patient and gracious as she waited for the resolution of the situation; and after exchanging greetings and thanksgivings to God, we set out for our destination one hour away in a village only 14 km outside of the city. Arriving in the village of Bakeswar at 3:30 am at the girls’ orphanage, we crashed for the short remainder of the night.
I was so proud of my fellow team members – despite the fact that we arrived so late in the night, everyone got up for Divine Liturgy at 7:30 am! (They celebrate the Liturgy so early because of the intense heat so soon in the day).
We were all dragging from the long trip there, but it was so worth it to hear the Divine Liturgy beautifully celebrated in Bengali and English and chanted by the girls from the orphanage – such angelic voices! The familiar prayers and hymns, although sung and chanted “Indian style”, lifted us heavenward and inspired us to know that wherever an Orthodox Christian finds himself or herself in this world, the Faith is the same and the Liturgy is celebrated in much the same way. Glory to God!
The church on the grounds of the orphanage where we were staying was quite large and traditional with no pews. About 60-70 people, young and old, attended the service and participated wholeheartedly in the prayers and the singing. They entered the church barefooted (the Indian custom) and all stood with great reverence, sitting only for the homily and the Epistle reading.
We were quite the sight there among the congregation – the children especially stared at us because we were so different looking from them! After Liturgy, all of them came up to us three priests, kissed our hands and said, “Good Morning, Father!” Sr. Nectaria was so proud of the little ones especially, because that was probably the only English they knew and it was the perfect opportunity to use it! I noticed that after they greeted us, the children did not leave, but only huddled closer to us, staring up at us with large brown eyes and ear-to-ear grins on their faces. Then I felt a small hand grasp one of my fingers; then another hand, another finger; then another – and I realized that in their own little way they were attempting to touch God, in that we represented Him to them. My heart was filled with joy and it made my day – no more feelings of weariness anywhere in this body or soul! I smiled to myself, thanking God that He had allowed me to be a father to many girls, thereby giving me a big enough heart to take in so many more!
After breakfast, the other team members took a nap; however, I could not sleep, thinking about the activities and work ahead of us. The naps stretched into the afternoon, but I found myself wandering over to the orphanage dining hall. Sr. Nectaria and the other workers were preparing lunch for the children (their main meal of the day), and I asked if I may assist them. “Of course; we would be honored,” they said; and I proceeded to help dish out the food, consisting of rice and lentils, covered with a curry sauce, and a small piece of chicken (perhaps because it was Sunday). All of us who were serving the meal mixed the rice and lentils and sauce with our hands, and the children ate hungrily, still staring at me with a combination of wonder mixed with a little bit of caution. I secretly inquired of Sister if they could have a sweet after lunch, because I had brought some American candy with me for special occasions. She was very pleased and excited and said they would be so happy to have some. Indeed, they were, and all caution was thrown to the wind as they took the Tootsie Rolls from me and exclaimed once again, “Thank you, Father!”
5 pm – We journeyed to the boy’s hostel (about a 10-15 minute walk), and prayed the Blessing of the Waters service to sanctify the facility and prepare it for the teaching seminars that would commence tomorrow. By that time, it was dark and after returning to our place of lodging and eating a light dinner, we retired for the night. The hard dormitory-style bed was fluffy as a cloud to my weary body, and I slept peacefully, trusting that the day’s activities were glorifying to God.
Monday, October 11, 2010
We began teaching the catechetical seminars today, with our day commencing at 7am (with Orthros) at the Boy’s Hostel. There would be six sessions taught by various team members in rotation throughout the day, and we would finish the day with Vespers and a Question & Answer gathering in the evening at 8pm. Our meals would be served for us at the Girl’s Orphanage (about a 10-15 minute walk from the hostel).
For five consecutive days this rigorous schedule continued, and the faithful who attended were there for everything. About 70 people came to the meetings with Bibles, notebooks and pens in hand, eager in their desire to catch all they could of the richness and depth of our Holy Orthodox Faith. Their hunger for the truth of the Kingdom of God was such an inspiration to all of us on the team, and it encouraged us to spend as much time as we could with them in between sessions.
The topics which we taught were many and varied – ranging from the Sacraments, the Divine Liturgy and the Beatitudes to the Saints & the Theotokos, Icons and the Virtues and vices. The presentations were translated instantly into Bengali by the bilingual local clergy, which of course, lengthened the time for all. Nevertheless, the Indian attendees (most of whom were Orthodox, but some were Hindus) sat on the tile floor the entire time without complaint and listened most attentively.
The Question and Answer time in the evening was the most challenging of the sessions because it was more difficult for the translators to keep up with the flow of the meeting. Therefore, in our nightly team gathering after the teaching sessions we decided to turn over the Q & A to the local clergy (there were about 7-8 of them regularly in attendance) for them to have an opportunity to participate and minister to the people.
During our afternoon break, I saw an occasion to give out some more treats to the children at the Orphanage. This time, however, I broke out the bubble gum I brought with me – and Sr. Nectaria was most amused and pleased when she saw the gum! She laughed and said, “Blowing gum bubbles with the children is one of the things we love to do the best!” Then her face turned a little more serious as she quipped, “Except for the times they get it in their hair!” Then she laughed again …
There was something else of great value and beauty that I brought along with me on the mission. My wife Kh. Maggie Hock had constructed two very beautiful chalice and aer sets for the churches, and as I gave them to Sr. Nectaria, she was completely overwhelmed, especially with the beauty and the expert craftsmanship of the liturgical items. The priests in turn were also very grateful and pleased with the gifts. Glory to God!
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
We continued the teaching seminars all day today, focusing primarily on the Holy Mysteries. I was so blessed to observe the enthusiasm with which the younger men would literally compete with each to find and read a Scripture verse when asked! Once again, this was compelling evidence of the hunger that exists among the Indian Orthodox faithful for the depth and richness of our Holy Orthodox Faith … I returned in the afternoon to the Orphanage to engage in yet another activity that had become somewhat of a “liturgical” event – the passing out of candy to the children. This time I was joined by two other team members who were neophytes; but it didn’t take them long to figure it out and enter into the joy of the event! We were swarmed by hordes of small brown children who couldn’t stop saying; “Thank you, Father” even to the team members who weren’t priests! About the time we were finished, the older girls returned from school and we offered them some of the candy as well. In their case, the “Thank you, Father” was punctuated by whispers to each other and an occasional giggle. It was most enjoyable to see the kids’ utter delight in receiving their treat from our hands!
In our evening team meeting we recounted the day’s activities and rejoiced in the way that we observed God working in the hearts and minds of the people who attended the sessions. The younger lay members of the team were especially encouraged by the connections they were making with some of the younger men in the group. The Holy Spirit is indeed at work in this place, answering the prayers of us on the team and all who have been praying for us – glory to God!
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
The seminars proceeded throughout the day again today, with the presentations finishing up on the Holy Mysteries and moving on to the topics of Icons, the Beatitudes and the Virtues & vices. I spoke on the Mystery of Marriage and stressed the martyric elements of the marital relationship. In addition, I enumerated on the dynamics of equality in Christ in a Christian marriage, but also the different roles assumed by the husband and wife as they work out their salvation together as one flesh. This generated much discussion and interaction among the people, and the women especially responded positively to the conversations about these things. I was aware that this would most likely be a lively deliberation, since in the Hindu culture women are traditionally seen as inferior to men (although this is rapidly changing as India is modernizing). I’m not sure that they had ever heard these teachings before, but they seemed to be very encouraged by the truth of equality in Christ and the godly roles that both husband and wife assume in their marriage for their mutual salvation.
In our evening meeting over dinner, Sr. Nectaria joined us and inquired about how things were going in the seminars. I realized that she had not been able to join us during the day for any of the teachings (even though she was considered to be our “host” for the mission). Knowing that she was primarily responsible for the Orphanage and that her time was consumed in the operation of it, I wondered if there was a “gap” in the vision for the Orphanage and what is happening in the parishes in Kolkata and the surrounding villages…
Thursday, October 14, 2010
We’ve entered into our fourth day of teaching seminars today – even though we rotate through the topics, it is a grueling schedule and a long day, especially for the local people and the clergy attending the meetings. Today’s subject was the Divine Liturgy, with an introductory session and sessions on the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Faithful.
I discovered today that all of these topics have been presented here before with previous India teams. However, since the teams only visit every two years, these subjects are good foundational catechetical materials that serve to keep the faithful grounded in the Faith. Plus, depending upon who’s teaching them and their teaching style, there’s always something new to be grasped – a new insight, a deeper awareness, an illuminating moment – all generated by the Holy Spirit as he leads us all into the greater depths of the Kingdom of God. Glory to His Holy Name!
In the evening meeting we discussed the strategy for tomorrow’s final sessions. It was agreed that the three priests would meet with the local clergy to discuss parish dynamics for as long as needed, while the three lay members of the team would conclude the presentations with the people…
Friday, October 15, 2010
The clergy (three of us and eight Priests and a Deacon) met for the entire morning. We learned much about the state of the local parishes – their struggles, their challenges, and their accomplishments and joys – and I concluded that in spite of the different cultural and geographical elements, we are all most similar in our spiritual lives and ministries. We all struggle with things internal and external that attempt to pull us and our people away from those eternal realities that we all seek. To be sure, the clergy and faithful here in India are challenged by a predominantly Hindu culture that ranges from benign tolerance to outright persecution in its treatment of Christians. Every day they are reminded of the cost that they have endured to become who they are (most are converted Hindus), with many of them being ostracized and even proclaimed as dead by their families. That is a challenge we don’t face here (at least not now) in America. Perhaps that is why they possess such a hunger and desire to draw near to God and immerse their lives into His Holy Church … We learned much as well about the state of the Clergy Brotherhood in this area. Sadly, there is not much of a sense of cohesion among the clergy; probably because there doesn’t seem to be anyone assuming leadership among the brethren. The Bishop of this area is in faraway Hong-Kong, and he unfortunately is not able to visit the churches in India with any consistency. It seems as though there needs to be much more work done on the infrastructure of the Church in India. Our prayers and commitment to this mission are most needed at this time…
Saturday, October 16, 2010
Today we left the Orphanage in Bakeswar for the city of Calcutta. The journey was only 14km (8 ¾ miles) to the city, but it took an hour to get there because of the road conditions, the congestion, and the types of vehicles on the road. The two-laned roads were littered with pedestrians, cows and dogs competing for space with bicycles, motorcycles, small three-wheeled taxis, rickshaws powered by humans and bicycles, as well as cars and large trucks.
What an amazing difference and a different world! The peaceful and idyllic setting of the country and the small village was replaced by the intense hustle and bustle of a city of 18 million people – millions of whom were living every day in deplorable and wretched conditions of poverty. Mother Teresa (who dedicated her life’s work here in Calcutta) truly described the people as “the poorest of the poor.” Ironically, there are portions of the city that are wealthy and clean; however, the unbelievably poor sections are side-by-side with the wealthy areas. The streets are lined with vehicles ranging from very expensive Mercedes sedans carrying smartly dressed Indian businessmen closing deals to poor ragged street urchins pedaling rusty bicycles looking ready to fall apart at any time.
By mid-morning, we arrived at the cathedral parish, the Orthodox Church of the Holy Transfiguration in Calcutta. Figuring it might be wise to scope out the area, we decided as a team to walk around the neighborhood and take in all the sights, sounds and smells of Calcutta. It was steamy hot (above 90 degrees with 95% humidity), and the tropical sun was mercilessly beating down upon us as we walked. Our senses were immediately bombarded with the sounds of the city mingled with the sweet aroma of incense, spicy foods being cooked on outdoor charcoal burners in the street, and the very pungent smell of human waste and garbage wafting through the air. I noticed a paralyzed beggar lying on a pallet directly outside the gate of the Church and was reminded of the powerful parable of the rich man and Lazarus our Lord Jesus told in the Gospels...
The Church property itself, a walled compound consisting of the church building, a house, and several offices interspersed among stately palm trees and lush vegetation, was located on a very busy street. The Pastor, Fr. Andrew, conducted daily Matins and Vespers services as well as weekend Vespers and Divine Liturgy. The doors were always open during the services to anyone who would enter, and people would frequently come in and venerate the icons and remain for a few minutes in reverence and then depart. Even the Hindus would respectfully enter and bow and kiss the icons, waving their hands over the lit candles next to the icons.
Calcutta was no doubt even larger in population when we were there because of the Durga Puja, the largest and most popular Hindu religious festival in India. Every October (14-17) this event occurs and the people celebrate it with great festivity – much like our New Year’s Eve. Brightly colored temporary shrines are erected throughout the city, and there is continuous celebration for four days straight. The festival is conducted to honor the goddess Durga, the divine mother. According to Hindu belief, she protects humanity from evil and misery by destroying evil forces such as selfishness, jealousy, prejudice, hatred and anger. Her image is quite unmistakable – she possesses eighteen arms, carrying many objects in her hands with which she uses to destroy evil and protect mankind.
After Vespers we decided to venture out into the sea of people swarming the streets around the area of the church grounds. Because it was evening, it seemed like many more people were out and about, some of them shouting and blowing horns and others sitting quietly in the confines of the makeshift shrines in the area. Immediately outside the gate of the church stood a permanent shrine where people were gathered to offer incense, food and other valuables to the goddess. I wanted to stop someone and ask them, “Tell me the story about this goddess – how does she inspire you – how does she touch your soul – is your life different because of your faith in her?” I was hoping for an opportunity to share Christ with them, but the people were in another world; lost and distracted by the noise and commotion around them to want to engage in a serious conversation about spiritual things. Also, not knowing the Bengali language put me in a disadvantaged situation.
Two of us on the team, however, did engage in a talk with a Hindu man who came up to us on the steps of the church and told us in very good English that he believed in Jesus fervently. He even enthusiastically related to us a recent school project where he purchased numerous copies of the movie “Jesus of Nazareth” to give to others to inspire them. After inquiring with him as to why he remained a practicing Hindu, he simply stated that all the religions of the world are the same path to God. We realized that this is the challenge of sharing the Gospel with Hindus – there is no understanding or category of the exclusivity of Jesus Christ and His unique claim to be God in the flesh. Nevertheless, the man was genuinely a seeker of the truth and my prayer for him is that he will come to meet the Truth Himself as he opens his heart more to God.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
We gloriously entered into the heavenly realm in the Divine Liturgy early on this Lord’s Day. Fr. Andrew requested that I serve the Liturgy in English, and he would concelebrate with me. Humbled and honored by his request, I led the faithful in worship and we prayed and glorified God together a world away from my parish in Nebraska – but in reality it is the same world in the Spirit where we gather with the saints and angels and all the faithful throughout the world.
After the worship we assembled together in the house for a time of fellowship and sharing (actually it ended up being an open discussion concluding with a “sermon”). A young Hindu woman attended the Divine Liturgy, and she joined us and listened intently as the Word of God was being shared. She had many questions, and it was evident to all that she was deeply pondering the answers. Sensing that the Holy Spirit had prepared her for this encounter with God, I quietly suggested to Fr. Andrew that he might want to follow up with her in a subsequent visit. He agreed.
Toward evening, we determined once again as a team to venture out into the streets one last time, since it was the last day of the festival. Not much had changed – the same attitudes, distractions and commotion were still evident among those who walked the streets of the city. We decided at that point to go to dinner together at a local restaurant…
Monday, October 18, 2010
Since our time here was drawing to a close in a couple of days, we utilized this day to see some of the sights in the city. We decided to visit some of the different Christian churches in Calcutta, beginning with St. Paul’s Anglican cathedral – a massive white structure showcasing some of the Anglican English influence upon the Indian culture. In addition, we visited the Armenian Orthodox church, which presented some very interesting historical information about the Armenian community in India; and lastly, the Mar Toma (St. Thomas) Orthodox church, a small community of Oriental Orthodox with roots in southern India.
One of the highlights of our sightseeing day came as we went to the tomb of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She is buried in the mother-house of the Missionaries of Charity in the heart of the city, where she ministered to the poor and dying for so many years. Her small very simple cell had been originally preserved, and another room displayed a chronicle of her life and particularly her ministry to the downtrodden in the city. It was very inspiring for all of us to reflect upon her simple love for God and for the “poorest of the poor” in Calcutta...
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Today was spent mainly packing and preparing to depart tomorrow for home. Some of us, however, were able to do a bit of shopping at the outdoor stalls that dotted the streets of the city close to the church. You can find pretty much anything you need in these establishments – ranging from food to clothing, exotic fabric for making Indian dresses (saris), shoes, houseware items, and jewelry and trinkets of all types. Some of us also visited a couple of shopping malls, one of which was a government co-op where mostly hand-crafted wooden, brass and jewelry items were offered for sale. All of the items were very inexpensive compared to what they would sell for in our country.
However, when we visited the second shopping mall, it was like a different world – not like the Indian world we had become accustomed to, but a western world very much like our own. In fact, I momentarily forgot that I was in India! This mall rivaled any that I had seen anywhere in the U.S.A.; complete with four floors, escalators and even a food court on the top floor! Sadly, though, the disparity between the two worlds was sharply brought back to our senses when we exited the place and saw once again the deplorable poverty only a few yards away from the incredible abundance and luxury. But that is India – the very modern and wealthy existing side-by-side with the very poor and primitive…
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Today we returned to the orphanage in Bakeswar to prepare for our departure from India tomorrow. The day was spent mainly in packing our gear and pondering over our time here and the success of our mission. Toward evening, after dinner, I had asked the team members if I could “interview” them, taking a short video and having them share some reflective thoughts. All of them expressed how grateful to God they were for our time together and for that which was accomplished while we were here. From the beginning, as well, it was stated that each of us sensed a bond of unity and love in the Holy Spirit among ourselves, as there were virtually no conflicts on the team during our time here. Thirdly, all of us declared how inspired we were at the depth of spirituality we observed among our Indian brethren – their hunger for God, their love for Him, and their joy in experiencing the richness and depth of the Orthodox Faith. Lastly, we all determined that we would pray for India and the work of the Church here and would remain open to the Spirit of God perhaps leading us to return on a mission again someday…
We then said goodbye to our new friends whom God had graciously brought into our lives. There were some tears and there was hope expressed that we would return again to bring the Good News of the Kingdom of God to this dark land where there is so much potential for the spread of Orthodoxy. The Lord Jesus stated, “The fields are ripe for the harvest…” and that is certainly true for India…
Thursday, October 21, 2010
We said our last goodbyes to India and departed from Calcutta at 12:55am this morning and flew to Frankfort, Germany, where all of us said our goodbyes to each other. We then left for our own destinations – mine being Chicago and eventually Omaha – where I arrived at 5pm, very tired but joyful in the Lord. Glory to God for all things!!