// india – arrival / exit

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: It’s pretty much impossible to capture the essence of any mission without actually being there, so what I’m trying for this week is a series of journalistic snapshots to give a general picture of what our time in India was like. This is a subjective record, and my reflections are unlikely to be shared by everyone – however, in the spirit of trying to capture what this trip was actually like, I’m going to try to detail it as honestly as possible. I’m really not aiming to offend anyone, though, or to seem overly negative about what was an amazing (if undeniably challenging) trip.

This is a record of our trip to the Indian incarnation of the drug rehabilitation charity Betel, where we spent two weeks as an team of interns in early April 2010 – we spent a week in Delhi and then a week in Guwahati, the state capital of Assam. I’m hoping to post something every day this week.]

At the start, we sit in the Pret a Manger at Heathrow airport and it really doesn’t feel like a mission trip. So far there are only three of us – myself, Hannah Tenbeth, who leans over the barrier that distinguishes café from airport, people-watching, and Sarah Littlestar, who has a huge white eyepatch over one eye after having woken up in agony at 7am with a scratch on her cornea. It’s raining outside, naturally. We’re the advance party, the others coming an hour later on the minibus, and it feels a little like we should be preparing the ground, praying hard for all that is to come…

(courtesy of Sarah Littlestar)

But we’re not. Instead, Sarah is reading a book on sex trafficking (one-eyed) and I’ve got Don Miller’s latest book in hand. He’s talking about editing his own life into a film, and his observation that, in film at least, “a character is what he does”, seems strangely pertinent at the start of the fortnight we’re about to go through. It’s a plea to live a life that’s going somewhere, to ‘live a better story’, rather than one that just tells of passivity, simply reacting to circumstances.

I think back to the other short-term missions that I’ve been on. Two trips to Ukraine, showing up at Newcastle airport at 5am beneath the glare of fluorescent light and being handed boxes of mini-cookies as a last taste of home – at both eighteen and twenty-one, both times thinking we were going to change the world. Six months in South Africa all starting with a long day beneath yet more fluorescent lighting, still only eighteen, filling up half a journal with observations on life and mission, and believing you might come back with insights that would last a lifetime. I’ve been on enough short-term missions that I know what to expect now, I catch myself thinking. I’m practically a veteran.

As it later turns out, I really don’t have a clue.

After a while in Pret, Hannah gets a phone call telling us that the others have arrived. I peer over the gantry at them on the floor below and feel a vague sense of dread. For the past four months I have never been less than 100 metres from at least one member of this group, and honestly, now, I need a break. It is mission day zero and all I feel is exhaustion and passive-aggression.

For some reason, it is this that makes it all feel like ‘mission for real’ – that is to say, complex, confusing, and not even slightly straightforward. It doesn’t feel holy so much as it does terrifying. And, as with so many of the moves of God I’ve experienced, I catch myself thinking, “what have I gotten myself into here?”

(courtesy of Sarah Littlestar)

On previous trips I’ve felt some sense of camaraderie at the start of short-term mission, people pretending some sense of shared vision, bonded together in what they’re doing. And to be fair, for the most part today, I think it’s just me that can’t feel it.

But even the absence of that feeling makes me acutely aware that without God’s help here, I’m simply not going to last through this trip.

I don’t have the mental, physical or emotional resources to love (or even like) my co-workers on the first day, and that doesn’t bode well at all.

It means, I think, that I’m not going to be able to do it alone.

Which is probably a good thing, let’s face it.

But also, like I said, terrifying.

*

In the departure lounge, Chris tells me to use the flight to watch four films in a row at almost the exact moment that I read Don Miller’s confession that “my entire life had been designed to make myself more comfortable, to insulate myself from the interruption of my daydreams”.

On the plane, I watch two films that I really enjoy, and have wanted to see for a while, and yet can’t help thinking that Don’s right. I have often wished that my life looked more like a film; more dramatic, more structured, more exciting. But what’s stopping me? If films are my form of escapism, then what am I escaping from?

Sure, maybe life isn’t always like it is in the movies, but at the moment I’m on a flight to Delhi to spend a fortnight working in drug rehab, which is in itself a fairly dramatic thing to do. Maybe the only thing stopping me living it out is my presumption that life is dull, mundane – and maybe this is time that all that changes, the time to stop dreaming and start making daydreams reality…

(courtesy of Sarah Littlestar)

And then I fall asleep for a couple of hours, and as we step out of the plane into the baking Delhi heat, it occurs to me that doing this in practice may, in fact, be much harder than I had previously thought.

*

As we are driving to the central Delhi house, we stop at a crossroads and a beggar woman knocks on the window of our jeep, baby in her arm. We’ve been briefed on how to react and we know what to do, and so we ignore her as she knocks on each of our windows in turn, staring past her into space. But the knocking goes on too long and I can feel my eyes watering from the effort of simply not looking. Drilling holes into the door opposite. Desperately willing the car to move.

After what feels like an eternity, it does. Nobody meets each other’s eye. Nobody speaks.

We are getting further and further away from home by the second.

* * *

The morning that we are scheduled to leave Delhi, Ivan (the head of Betel Delhi) drives up to the door of the house where we’re staying with a grin on his face. “Have you heard the news?” he asks us. We have not. “Your flight has been cancelled!” he says, with the same grin.

My heart sinks. The past two weeks have been incredibly, incredibly difficult, and with all of my heart, all I want to do is get out of Delhi. Some of this is down to the usual suspects – hard graft, stomach troubles, mosquito bites, language barriers – but more than that, it feels like we’re a massively long way from home, in a place where nothing much makes any sense. It has been hard to hear God here, too; a number of us have experienced spiritual attack in a range of forms; and I, for one, have nothing left.

(courtesy of Sarah Littlestar)

Instead, we are driven by taxi to the Delhi Grand Hotel, a place which is doubtless more expensive than any hotel I will ever stay in again in my entire life. It’s incredible. Everywhere we look there is marble, and there are shrieks of joy from all sides as people assert that ‘this fixes everything’, that all that really wanted was a holiday with their friends…

Although my spirits lift a little when I see our black marble bathtub and sink down into an incredibly comfortable bed, I still can’t shake the feeling that all I really wanted was a holiday away from the interns. And again, I hate myself for it, but home is a concept, and this is very far from home, in so many ways. Yet, even now, something seems slightly off. The comfort is jarring. We load our plates high with incredible food that our stomachs are now totally inadequately prepared to digest, and in the air-con we forget that the temperature outside has today hit 41 degrees.

Thing is, this isn’t just Westernisation, it’s Westernisation in style.

And for the most part, it’s profoundly discomforting. This hotel is an incredible blessing, but as a bookend to the trip it only serves to highlight the world we’re heading back into. Because now, disturbingly, comfort no longer seems so comfortable. And naturally, after a few days of indulgence, our stomachs begin to swell. And, after a few weeks with the powerless, it feels like life with the powerful is exposed in all its madness…

T.S. Eliot once wrote,

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from…

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time…

Going back into the West is a truly bizarre experience, and for a little while everything seems to take on a different focus. It’s like your mind takes a while to adjust to it, and I’m still not quite back even after two days in the economic equivalent of a decompression chamber…

But then, I wonder whether I ever will be.

*

I watch a few more average films and I lie by the swimming pool; I sample the spa and sauna and have some conversations about God (good conversations, though) – and it strikes me that, in so many ways, coming back is even harder than leaving.

We talk about mission having an impact, but “impact” is a hard word; on impact, things crumple and distort. Both the thing that is hit and the thing that hit it are bent out of their original shapes, for the most part. Nothing stays the same.

Did we hit India, or did India hit us, I wonder?

Because somewhere, outside the giant glass windows of the Delhi Grand Hotel, it still seems like if you listen carefully, you can hear a beggar woman with a child in her arms knocking at them.

Maybe we’re just staring straight ahead, with all of our energy, to try and avoid meeting her eyes.

Or to try to avoid meeting each others’.

*

Eventually, a few days late, I get back to Newcastle, and sit down in another coffee shop with another £2 cup of coffee and another good book. And yet this time round, nothing seems quite the same as it was, and I find myself staring at the pages of my journal, lost.

A life of adventure is exhausting, make no mistake, but it is – undeniably – living.

Back in the UK, I log on to Twitter and I realise that I have no idea what has happened over the past two weeks, and, more to the point, I have nothing to say. Large amounts of mental space go to my facebook status, and in the end I don’t even bother. And I try to pray, and all of a sudden all I can see is how my prayers are prayers for greater personal comfort, for selfish gain.

Peter Rollins recently retold the parable of the Pearl of Great Price from the viewpoint of a woman in Christ’s audience. “All I know,” she says, “is that if this kingdom that you speak of is like that priceless pearl, then the sacrifice needed in order to grasp it will not make one rich but rather will reduce the one who has sacrificed to absolute poverty…”

I’m starting to see his point. Because if we see, really see, then how can we go back?

Here’s the truth; I spent most of my time in India wanting to come home, for a whole range of reasons. Problem is, now that I’m back, I’m not so sure where home even is anymore.

What have I – we – gotten ourselves into?

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  1. April 18th, 2010

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