// india – outreach

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the third day of recollections of an intern mission trip to work with Asha Bhawan, the Indian incarnation of the drug rehab charity Betel, in early April 2010. Day One and Introduction can be found here and Day Two can be found here]

In Spain, there is a marked difference between the drug camps and the bulk of the city. As you get closer and closer to the dump, the quality of houses changes, the European atmosphere melts away into something altogether more desolate. There is less and less evidence of civilisation, and the contrast is shocking when you stop; emaciated bodies standing starkly apart from the well-fed locals that you have left earlier that day. It makes it easy to see how far people have fallen.

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

In India, there is no such luxury, and the distance is far less concrete. On the first site we visit in Delhi, addicts line the wall alongside market sellers; the tents of prostitutes sit next to people selling ragged saris and blankets. The drug areas could almost be another rural Indian main road, and nobody pays the addict families that much attention – but then apparently 85% of Indians live below the poverty line anyway, so their condition just seems less visible. It sounds terrible, but they look a bit like everyone else.

But by the walls there are families, most with as many as four or five children and a woman rocking a baby, and we meet Sami, a nine or ten-year old glue sniffer. He’s been in Asha Bhawan before, a few times, but his family have either left or been asked to leave after stealing from the houses, and so now when people come on outreach he’s sure to take as much time with them as possible. He is clingy to the point of violence (our guide tells us he is high), pushing other children out of the way to get closer to the guys who are handing out flyers.

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

Owen Gallacher looks like an aid worker from a film today, having loaded his pockets with lollipops to hand out, and he is almost immediately mobbed by children with arms outstretched demanding “chocolate!” As children hang off him, he sticks firmly to his policy of one lollipop per child, and a few of his entourage peel off to try me and Roland, standing one side. “Chocolate?” they ask, and I turn out my empty pockets and shrug. My Hindi isn’t up to any more complex explanations, sadly…

I have never felt scared on drug outreach before, but here I do. A filthy, practically skeletal man with a greying beard stumbles towards me and Owen, batting children out of the way with a wiry arm, and physically threatens us when we tell him that we have nothing more to give, shouting “NO!” at us as we walk away. As we head back to the jeep, another man sticks his head through the back window, grabs my shoulder and half-growls, half-pleads that we help him. He holds my gaze through the back window as we drive off. There is fury in his eyes.

We drive to another site, addicts sat outside a needle swap clinic, sat amongst the rubble of the construction industry of which India is so proud. There are the same old vacant stares and pinhole pupils, the same sense of lost hope – here it’s just expressed differently. Elsewhere, in a park, evidently off-limits to the public, addicts shelter from the midday sun beneath the trees – Thang, our guide, tells us that they sleep during the day in order to steal at night. One man shoots up while Owen offers his two-year old child, naked from the waist down, a lollipop. A group of addicts offer me and Roland something from a carrier bag full of brown liquid – which looks like liquid heroin to us, but later turns out to be tea.

In the jeep, a well-dressed Indian who speaks amazing English sticks his head through the window and asks Owen if we’re here to “do business”. He looks blankly as the man gets more and more agitated. “Are you here to buy?” he eventually asks.

We finish the day beneath a bridge where addicts and families come all year round, sheltering from the sun – or the rain. Traffic piles past, oblivious to it, and Thang tells us that this is where the rickshaw drivers come between shifts to smoke marijuana (I make a mental note not to ride in any rickshaws while I’m in India). After talking for ten or so minutes, at the last minute one man decides to come with us, and his mates laugh at us, but he jumps into the back of the jeep anyway and Thang shakes his fist in satisfaction. He is silent as we drive him back to the central Delhi house.

For the most part, so are we.

***

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

The next day, we sit with Ivan (the director of Asha Bhawan Delhi) in one of India’s coffee shops and he explains the Indian drug culture to us a little. Hinduism sells people the lie that you are doomed to your status in life, he tells us, and if you are doomed to be nothing, then why fight it, why not take drugs? The challenge starts with changing people’s very viewpoint, he says, helping them believe that God has a purpose for them and that it is possible to be different. Even this is a huge victory.

Moan, our house leader, later tells us that his favourite bible verse is 2 Corinthians 5:17 – “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come!”

I’m not surprised. It offers a chance to be made new, to escape all that you once believed you were destined to be…

Doing nothing is the drug, Ivan tells us. People are addicted to doing nothing, to being passive, and changing this is a hard fight. In Asha Bhawan, half the fight is just encouraging people to work, full stop. Michael, one of the guys who we work with at the farm, later tells us that they work him too hard. His job is “gate duty” – he sits at the gate eight hours a day in case any cars arrive!

When we look around at the guys on the farm, you get a sense of just how incredible the change in them is – how far they’ve come, but also how hard a task there is here.

There are around 100 people in Asha Bhawan Delhi.

Delhi is a city of 10 million people.

***

A week later in Assam, Lalboi, the director of Asha Bhawan Guwahati makes us all breakfast and then takes us on a boat trip. All sixteen of us sail around the Brahmaputra, one of the five biggest rivers in the world. We take photos and we tan and then walking back to the van through a market of saris, a whole convoy of white faces, we turn off onto some train tracks and walk straight into hell – cameras, money, flip-flops and all.

By the side of the train tracks there are some makeshift shelters made out of corrugated iron, from which emerge more ten-year olds sniffing solvents out of handkerchiefs. They shake some of our hands without removing the handkerchiefs from their mouths. One man, naked to the waist, is covered in what I think is human faeces, black gunk smeared across his chest, arms and face. He too offers us his hand. The smell is horrendous, and most of us recoil. Our white faces draw quite a crowd, but it is immediately apparent that we are utterly, utterly useless. We look like voyeurs, poverty tourists.

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

Almost certainly, Lalboi should not have taken all of us – should have briefed us, at least, or taken us in smaller groups – but I’m not so sure that it wasn’t intentional, or at the very least brilliant. What it did serve to do was to show just how profoundly useless we were; how big the need was and how inadequate and out of place we were standing amidst the horror on those train tracks.

One kid with a handkerchief dangling by his side wears a T-shirt with the world “I’m proud of who I am” emblazoned across it. Walking back into the city, I look over my shoulder at what is we’re leaving.

He is waving us off.

***

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

There is a kid covered in horrific burns, across his face, arms and torso, who follows us back to the mall, tugging wordlessly at our shifts with a hand outstretched for donations. I show him my empty pockets and wonder if I would have given even if I’d had money. Probably not. Charlotte, too, wonders aloud what Jesus would have done – whether Asha Bhawan couldn’t buy him a sandwich, or get him a home. But Asha Bhawan is meeting a need where it can, and to change India requires something else entirely.

It either requires top-down change, with total cultural and religious upheaval starting in central government, or it requires a group of intentional, deeply motivated (and possibly rich) individuals to go into that society with specific aims to work together in the alleviation of poverty and the addressing of structural problems on a large-scale. The potential effectiveness of the latter is admittedly dubious, too. The tragedy would be to do nothing, as the need is too great. But outreach here nonetheless convinces you that there is a lot still to be done, and we have just barely scratched the surface.

That night, as we sit alongside the former addicts back at the house, it occurs to me that this is some kind of outreach. We show these guys that we’re not too good to work in a chicken farm plucking and gutting chickens; we show them that they are worth the effort, that God cares for them and we care enough for them to come halfway across the world to hear their stories. Maybe it sounds patronising – maybe it is – but these guys are incredible, and it is a gift to even be around them, irrespective of how useful we are to them.

I know people who would assert that what we did in India was not real mission; there are 10 million people in Delhi alone, and even walking down the street telling everyone you meet about what Christ did for them would arguably communicate more of the gospel than what we did. With respect, I think they are wrong, and although I admire their idealism in insisting that it’s that easy, that if everyone just ‘got it’ then the world would be instantly transformed, I wonder if anyone would actually hear – really hear – the gospel at all.

No, if we’re going on mission, or if we’re going to be missional, it’s going to be really hard. It’s going to cost us time, effort, energy, thought and comfort (among others) as we seek to engage with cultures and to communicate the crucified Christ and the risen Christ wherever we find ourselves. It’s not an easy task.

Not, of course, that this makes it any less worthwhile…

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  1. so so glad you’ve finally been to India. It is like nowhere else I’ve ever been and you tell it like no one else I’ve ever heard… keep it coming.

    I firmly believe that the only real way we can be any real use in any aspect of mission is to be useless first. That has to be the starting point IMHO…

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