// india – mission and self-pity

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth 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, Day Two can be found here, and Day Three here]

I lie on the bed in a thin shirt, languidly watching the ceiling fan with one hand on my stomach. The board that passes for a mattress above me is allegedly “termite-proof”, I note as I try to get some sleep in the suffocating midday heat, while, on the other side of the room Anil, the farm’s resident cook, snores like a man being strangled.

It is day five of our time in India, and I want to go home.

My stomach has been killing me for the past couple of days, and working in the chicken shed hasn’t exactly helped matters – when we arrived on the first night the residents told us that our job would involve “cutting” the chickens, and we soon found out what they meant. Actually, most of our job so far has been gutting the chickens (we lack the skills for killing, evidently) but this, coupled with the infamous Delhi Belly, hasn’t so far made for the most pleasant mission experience imaginable.

(courtesy of Sarah Pearmain)

Maybe it would be easier if we were visibly doing some good, I think. It’s easy to feel like we are dispensable here; during our time in Delhi four people leave the community, and they are replaced in the chicken shed the next day. Anybody could do this job, and so why have we flown across the world and paid for the privilege of doing it? We can’t even talk to most of the guys we live and work with, at least about things that are non-chicken related, and so much of this week has been spent talking to Roland and Owen – mostly about how much we hate working with the chickens. Are we really having any impact at all?

I can talk a good game, I realise, but what I really want is effect without effort. I want to see the world transformed without any work, or at least with minimal work on my part. It doesn’t matter who does the work, God or other people, but at the end of the day I think I want to be involved without getting my hands dirty.

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

When your stomach hurts, when you’re covered in mosquito bites and when you can’t focus on your Bible because of the heat – when you can’t hear the voice of God – what then?

What do you do when you go halfway around the world and God goes silent? When people cut you open, do you bleed integrity or cowardice?

We start well in Delhi, admittedly, attempting to build relationships from day one – but it is exhausting, especially when the men we speak to know so little English and we know no Hindi. Small talk is hard enough at the best of times. And the job is hard, seriously hard. Much of our effort, mental and physical, simply goes into surviving each day. Every morning we trudge more and more slowly down the path to the shed, preparing ourselves for the mingled aromas of chicken blood and natural gas that we’ll be breathing for the next three hours. As we step in there are thousands of flies covering the room, and we start by clearing them, and then after half an hour or so the work proper begins when the chickens are brought in and executed above a bucket that we come to call the “Bucket of Death” (for obvious reasons). We pluck and gut them before handing them onto other men who chop and slice them for sending to the Korean restaurant where they will be sold.

For dinner, we are given the bits that can’t be sold. Mostly necks. And entrails.

Throughout, we are shamed by Owen Gallacher’s concrete altruism, always willing to go the distance, to sacrifice himself and work at building relationships with the other guys – even though he must be every bit as exhausted as us. We claim to be people who will go wherever it is that God calls us, but when God calls us to places that are dull, mundane or just plain hard, it turns out that what we really want is the glamour, after all.

By the end of the week, I want to assert that our time at the farm has been a failure. But then circumstances conspire to prove me wrong, as by the final night, after a week of graft and living as part of the community, each of us sit with residents of Asha Bhawan Delhi and have real (if stilted) conversations. Owen teaches the 15-year old Jonah, now an expert chicken-catcher, how to play the blues – and “What If God was One of Us?” – on the guitar; Roland and I sit with Michael, Aslam and Muhammed Ali and talk about life around the fire using charades; and much as I might have liked to argue otherwise, it turns out that this kind of community living actually really works.

I’m not sure I could have lasted another week, though.

***

After our 27-hour train journey to Assam, I am conscious of the fact that I no longer want to be a part of this team. Everything in my body cries out that it wants to go home.

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

Because of the lack of seats when we were booking the train, we have been scattered throughout one carriage, in amongst Indian families who, variously, steal our beds, attempt to talk to us for the entire journey and stare at us for whole hours on end. The bunks are three high on either side and food is thrust upon us for the whole journey – for most of us, the best we’ve eaten in the past week (although we do at one point make the mistake of ordering the “Non-Veg Continental” option and open it to a suspicious-looking lump of chicken…) Notably, though, during our time in India, and specifically on this train journey, a number of people report their minds being filled throughout with voices whispering persuasive lies. And by the end of it, I am convinced that my fellow interns hate me, that they think I am a freak, without worth or value, and that they wish I would leave immediately – that life would be better without me.

There is nowhere to run here, and no one to turn to in a plea for help. Thang, one of our guides in Delhi, even told us that we should be careful in reading our Bibles – just in case we happened to meet any religious fanatics. I take mine out at one point and the family opposite glares at me. What is clearly spiritual attack is rebranded in my mind as “self-pity” and I hide in my bunk and turn my face to the wall, hoping that sleep will make it all stop. By the time we arrive in Guwahati I am exhausted and at my wit’s end, with literally nothing left to give. As we eat dinner, Owen asks, sincerely, if I am okay. It is evident that I am not.

I mumble, “it’s a long story.”

I don’t know how much of self-pity is spiritual attack and how much is just temperament; I don’t think that there are demons lurking around every corner, but I do notice something different in the spiritual atmosphere of India, and I don’t entirely like it. We drive past giant statues of Shiva, staff in hand, on the way from the church to our house in both Delhi and Assam, and I wonder what is coming against us here, just how much of mission is derailed by forgetting that this is a battle…

Yes, mission starts abroad, and it also continues when you get back home. Any short-term mission is arguably simply the beginning of life as a missionary. Are we a missional community, or are we in fact on mission to our communities, bringing God wherever it is we end up – whether that’s India or Pembroke St?

That is to say – are we all missionaries, all the time?

And if so, is it any wonder that sometimes it feels like we’re at war – with each other, with society, and with whatever spiritual forces exist in this world?

***

On my second day in the Grand Hotel, I have a semi-breakdown. I am simply no longer able to go on, and every bit of anger, doubt, frustration and exhaustion comes out in a seething, barely coherent yell at the Almighty that leaves me reeling on the floor of that black marble bathroom I mentioned. I hate that I am not able to enjoy this, that life by its very nature seems like a fight much of the time – that I can’t even enjoy the joyful bits, or rest in the restful bits.

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

Maybe this type of self-pity is necessary for real mission, though. Mission has to shake something, and if you’re so targeted and idealistic in your aims of what’s going to happen and what your end result will be then, one way or another you’re going to end up disappointed at the end. You need to be shaken enough to re-evaluate, to accept that your old ways of processing or dealing with the world just don’t cut it anymore. And you need to acknowledge that it’s hard, that it is a fight, and that some days you just don’t have it in you to go on – and when you get there you need people who will stand by you in that.

I am so grateful for those friends who stuck by me in all of this, who have endured my self-pity so that I can process it into some kind of useful form, who are my support in prayer when I really need it. There aren’t many of you – maybe not enough, as it’s hard to take that risk that makes it possible – but you are so valuable, and you reflect God to me. Thank you for that. I couldn’t – can’t – live this life alone.

Back at home I spend much of my time drained, and in some cases I feel angry or defeated. My parents worry about me, and ask me if I’m depressed. I wonder, too. But the conversations I have refine those experiences into plans, things that can be put into place back in the polished world that is the West. Because mission is just a beginning. As those who have been there will know, your first mission trip is just the start of being missional for the rest of your life.

Once a missionary, always a missionary…

***

In A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Don Miller quotes Steven Pressfield, who says that

every creative person, and I think probably every other person, faces resistance when trying to create something good. He even says resistance, a kind of feeling that comes against you when you point towards a distant horizon, is a sure sign that you are supposed to do the thing in the first place. The harder the resistance, the more important the task must be…

I don’t know whether I agree entirely, but I can’t help but see where he’s coming from. Because for the most part, India was a fight to even survive, and for a few days back here it left me so beaten that I carried that attitude right back home. This fight seemed too hard, and for too little gain. Like we were still on the losing side, and like it was a battle that wasn’t even worth fighting anymore. But that’s a lie, persuasive as it may sound.

Because it wouldn’t have been that hard if it wasn’t worth it.

And, as one good friend often puts it in times of struggle – “awesome; that means that breakthrough is coming.”

Amen to that. I couldn’t agree more.

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    • Joanna
    • April 20th, 2010

    Tom, you’re flippin’ BRILLIANT. What a compelling read.

    It takes me back to when I was in India on my first (only) mission with YWAM, over 6 years ago, and reminds me just how difficult it was. It’s so easy to look back on it and say “India’s this magical place and the people are incredible and I wish I was back there,” and fail to complete the sentence, “though it nearly destroyed me and I spent the first month wishing I could leave.”

    It was gross and hot and felt impossible to find and hear God. My first week there I fell into a depression; I remember crying out to God on the rough of our house and wondering why here, of all places and times, he wasn’t making himself heard to me. Was I just a Christian because that was the religion I had been most exposed to? Where was the reality of Christ when all the crosses were missing? I believe, on reflection, that whilst I resisted calling it spiritual attack – because I didn’t want to be guilty of Christian sub-culture – that’s precisely what it was. Perhaps if I had taken that more seriously in my home-church, before I had left for mission; perhaps if I had dealt with the rational tendencies that held me back from fully confessing the spiritual reality of the situation – that demons are RIGHT NOW doing everything they can to hinder the Kingdom of God – then in the heat and oppression I might have had a greater chance of identifying satan earlier on, and determinedly rebuking his efforts.

    Be encouraged. I firmly believe that this time was significant and the amazing and beautiful thing about the way God weaves all things together, is that He WILL continue to reveal the significance of it in the year’s to come. ‘…ALL things for the good of those who love Him.’

    Personally, I invest in and back short-term missionaries, not so much because I believe they will transform the communities they go to over a fortnight, but because I believe God will transform the missionaries. That’s how I felt after my DTS, that the ‘outreach’ phase had been packaged as the bit where we take the Gospel to the nations, but turned out to be the part where God forged a community that was even more desperate for him. And I left with more questions than I started with!

  1. April 20th, 2010

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