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Sights, sounds and smells of India: visiting the church's projects is a deeply cultural experience.

As I begin to discover this country of a billion people, it doesn't take long before my mind is whirling. India is full of complexities and contradictions, of old and new, of beauty and disgust, of excess and absence. I'm travelling with three Presbyterian Church representatives: Wilma Welsh, the moderator, has been here several times before. The warm embraces and knowing smiles she receives make it seem like she is returning home. Ron Wallace, associate secretary of International Ministries, has also visited in the past, often knowing what to expect at each destination and rhyming off historical facts during long and brutally bumpy drives. And Sarah Kim, director of the Women's Missionary Society, is an India first-timer like me, hesitant as we strike out to new places, yet still enjoying what the country offers. In two weeks' time, when Sarah and I get to go home, Ron and Wilma--a moderator's work is never done!--will head to the country's north for a partner's meeting in Kashmir, where border disputes with Pakistan make the area vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

When we arrive in the southern city of Chennai (where Christians comprise about seven per cent of the population, compared to about 2.2 per cent in all of India), we go for a short walk along the roadside. It is late afternoon. The sun is shining. The humidity is thick, as it will be for the duration of our trip. In this city of 4.5 million (with one third of those living in slums), my senses don't know what to attend to first. My eyes widen at the stifling mish-mash of cars, motorcycles, bicycles, trucks, auto-rickshaws and buses, spewing their choking fumes into the air, travelling without the guidance of lanes, tailgating each other, cutting each other off. Entire families whiz by on one motorcycle. Incessantly honking horns tell other drivers to move over, pedestrians to get out of the way, and to rouse sleeping cattle from their slumber on the streets. Small, scruffy dogs sniff the ground for food scraps. Girls in saris walk the sand-strewn and pot-holed sidewalks. Young men in jeans lounge under a shade-giving tree.

Throughout the coming weeks I see more: desolate slums crammed along river banks; garbage polluting the water, the streets, and hanging on trees like rotting Christmas decorations; children playing in the dirt along the curb; women cooking over open fires on the sidewalk, just steps from their tin and tarp shacks; a seemingly endless beach coloured with children's rides and snack stands, and locals who gather here to walk, to sit and chat, to play (but not to swim); stately colonial buildings beginning to wear; statues commemorating British leaders; Hindu shrines; street-side merchants selling fruit, flowers, flip-flops; and old women seated on the ground beside small, blazing red chili peppers that are piled to such heights the women are nearly lost beside them.

The smells too, are never-ending. The sweet, rich scent of cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla used to sweeten tea tickle my nostrils; the bold, pungent smells of cumin and turmeric drift lazily from bustling restaurants; the light fragrance of jasmine that women wear in their hair; the sour scent of marigolds that are strung together and placed around the necks of Hindu gods; the robust, woodsy smell of sandalwood used in skin care products; and the heady aroma of roses ensure my sensitive sniffer is kept constantly busy. And then, the wreaking, choking stench of rotting garbage as we drive by the rudimentary town dump nearly causes my eyes to water. In India, my senses never get a break.

But it isn't for the scenery, the culture and the food for which we are here; this little team from the national office has travelled to the other side of the world to visit hospitals and schools that the church has supported for decades, and to talk with the missionaries and dedicated workers who do the work here every day.

Roofs for the Roofless and the Institute for Development Education (IFDE) are committed to giving women and youth a leg-up in their communities. Supported by the Presbyterian Church, and helping anyone regardless of religion or class, they run community colleges for poor and at-risk young adults; education centres that teach English, typing, computer skills, tailoring, sewing and nursing; and after-school programs where children whose parents can't read or write can get a snack and help with their homework. They also offer support for women looking to start small businesses by securing bank loans; provide education for children who must work for a living rather than go to school; offer veterinary care and agricultural help to local farmers; and start women's self-help groups that build self-confidence and teach life skills that empower them to better their communities and their own living situations. One girl nearly begins to cry as she tells of the impact an improved education has had on her life. "It has helped me stand on my own feet," she says.

Again and again, we are greeted with warm smiles; garlands made of roses and lotus flowers are placed around our necks, incense is burned and wafted towards us, and our cheeks and forearms are slathered with a saffron-coloured paste as a welcoming gesture. The women whom we visit speak freely, giggling as several relate personal stories of lazy husbands and crying children, and their new-found freedom thanks to the self-help groups to which many of them now belong. "We used to just be in the kitchen," said one woman. "But with this program, we came out of the house."

The women's dark eyes dance with pride as they show us their handy-work--candles, embroidered pillow shams, clothing--wide smiles stretch across caramel-coloured skin, long dark hair pulled back in a braid, swept up in a bun. Their saris--each one different from the next--are a kaleidoscope of colour: sapphire and violet, crimson and aquamarine; embroidered with threads of silver or gold, the loose end tossed over the left shoulder, trailing behind them like a vibrant veil.

All of the projects we visit are supported by Presbyterian World Service and Development and/or the Women's Missionary Society. "Our programs are alive today because of them," said Anitha Mahendiran, director of IFDE. Monies also come through Presbyterians Sharing, as missionaries sent by International Ministries are supported this way.

Our travels take us to a fishing village that was wiped out by the tsunami. The wailing winds as we walk along the beach, where narrow wooden boats and green balled-up fishing nets line the shore, bring the scent of the sea to my nostrils; its salty, fishy, fresh aroma sweeps through my system, cleansing my mind of invading thoughts so that all I notice are the swirling clouds in the graying sky, the bits of seaweed and driftwood washed up along the sand, the tiny crabs scurrying quickly, nimbly, along the yielding ground, and the growing waves that beat the shoreline. We are followed by about 30 men who show off the new boats that were bought by the Presbyterian Church and aid agencies from around the world. Later, the entire village gathers to thank the church for much-needed support during a time of great loss.

In centrally-located Indore, we visit the MIBE Graduate School of Nursing, begun in 1945 where WMS member Bessy McMurchy was the first principal; drive out to nearby Hatpiplia to visit a leading hospital there; and visit a small village where a community health program has begun. We also visit a hospital in Ratlam, where facilities are growing and services are improving, and its HIV/AIDS program offers treatment, care and counselling; and a school where a newly built classroom is being dedicated, thanks to money from the WMS. "I have seen the labour, the love and the care of the missionaries, and the work of the teachers," says one man during the ceremony.

Later, in Jobat, we attend a large celebration commemorating the opening of the Masihi Christian School, also made possible by the WMS. The newly built, two-storey school proudly dwarfs the old, rundown building that used to serve the students. As the ribbon is cut, the students rush in, running in and out of classrooms, shouting to each other, and showing tooth-faced smiles that betray their excitement for the brand new facility.

The PCC has had a missionary presence in the Vindhya Satpura region (better known as the Bhil Field) since Rev. Dr. John Buchanan and his wife Dr. Mary Buchanan first travelled here in 1897. The region was once a presbytery of the PCC. During our six days and five nights here, we stay in the old missionary wing of the Jobat Christian Hospital. The hospital is full and alive with activity, as some sort of new outbreak has just hit, likely carried by mosquitoes. The virus is often fatal, and we hear of several deaths during our trip. I'm grateful for the netting that covers my bed each night.

Despite the modest conditions in Jobat, I can't help but feel a romantic affinity for this place: the cracked windows that gaze upon the rolling green hospital grounds; laundry blowing gently while drying on the line; the peeling walls and rickety wooden dressers heralding days gone by; the now-neglected kitchen where missionaries of old must have cooked their meals; the tarnished sink where they hand-washed their clothes; the candles they used to light their way to the bathroom each night before there was electricity here.

This feeling of history, of walking in the footsteps of those who lived and served here, tending to sick patients, visiting communities, forming relationships, was heightened during our day at Amkhut--a rural area travelled to through a fairytale-like landscape where roads wind between emerald-green hills, and beside creeping yellow flowers, gargantuan banyan trees with feathery, finger-like roots that reach from above to the ground below, and delicate teak trees with lace-like leaves that lend the landscape an air of Victorian formality.

While here, we take part in the celebration of the release of the 13 Bhil prisoners who were wrongfully imprisoned following a violent Hindu uprising that burned churches and ransacked Christian homes. Thousands came out to celebrate their safe release, having travelled for many miles in the blistering, baking sun; the kind of oppressive, relentless sun that leaves one utterly wilted.

It is for this reason that I am exceedingly grateful for the mercy of shade and shelter found inside the old WMS missionary residence in Amkhut. The striking two-story stone building was built around 1910 and is truly a step back in time, with its wrap-around porch, floor-to-ceiling windows, wispy, gauzy curtains, cool concrete floors softened by faded rugs, claw-footed tubs in musty bathrooms, rusty locks and loosening door knobs. I can picture the women who once lived here; sharing meals at dinner; reading in the parlour; walking out the door and up the hill to the charming white-washed church; tending to the magenta flowers that grow along the garden patio; inviting locals, whom they had cultivated rich friendships with, inside for a cold drink; and at the end of the day, ascending the steep, dark wood staircase to the second floor, its finish now dulled from years of ware, its aging banister helping you along the way.

The people here, in Amkhut, at this celebration, are obviously grateful for the work of the Presbyterian Church--for the support it showed while these men were imprisoned, for the missionaries it has sent, for the doctors and nurses who work under its auspices, for the community health programs it started and still continue today. I have stepped into a rich legacy of service, friendship and education that started much before I even walked the earth.

I begin to understand the affinity that 55-year Canadian missionary Pauline Brown has for the country she now calls home. Though retired this year, it is to India where she hopes to return to live out her life. She is intricately woven into the fabric of the Bhil society; intimately concerned for their well-being, painfully distraught over their challenges, exceedingly joyous over their good news and celebrations. She first came here as a young nurse, eager to serve her church and the people who would soon become family. Today, she fits in as one of them with her long dark hair, traditional sari, unwavering hospitality and a quick, sometimes stinging wit that is oft accompanied by a slightly upturned mouth and a jovial glint in the eye.

"As they say here, 'You used to be our mother church, now you're our sister church,'" says Pauline. "God has planted something special here. The relationship between Canada and Vindhya Satpura is really unique."

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY AMY MACLACHLAN
COPYRIGHT 2007 Presbyterian Record
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Title Annotation:INDIA
Author:MacLachlan, Amy
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jun 1, 2007
Words:2122
Previous Article:Becoming Heroes.
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