I first corresponded with the Rev. S. Moses in 1995. A parishioner at Trinity Church in Hamilton, Ohio, brought a letter he had received from Fr. Moses and asked if I might be interested in writing to him and having our parish help support his ministry in Chennai, India. Nineteen years later, my friend Moses and I have shared innumerable letters and e-mails. Though we have not met in person, we have spoken to each other on the phone a number of times, most memorably after the Boxing Day Tsunami of December 26, 2004, when the tsunami that originated off the coast of Sumatra devastated the coasts of the Indian Ocean, including the East coast of India. It has been a blessing to be united with the ministries that Moses and his wife, Grace, have undertaken in many different churches and villages. Now, as Fr. Moses prepares to retire in April of this year, it is time to make the journey to the subcontinent and meet him and his family. It will be an exciting journey, at last being able to embrace these dear friends who have prayed for my family and me for the same nineteen years, as well as getting to know their children and their families, including Moses’ grandson, Mark, who is my namesake.
The history of Christian witness in India is long and rich, and I want to visit as many of the churches in cities that I visit as I can. Of course, I look forward to experiencing the varied culture and history of India, itself, which reaches back to the Third Millenium at least, in the Indus Valley Civilization. I have dreamt of visiting India since I was a child, poring over maps until I had imprinted the geography in my mind. To be able to undertake this journey is a blessing, especially as it is linked with the joy of meeting my friends face-to-face. In this space, in the days and weeks ahead, there will be daily (most of the time) reflections on the day’s events, reflections on them, and some pictures and descriptions of places I have visited. I hope it will provide some sense of the wonder that I pray I will discover once I arrive in India.
Two Days until Departure
During dinner last evening, I had a surprise phone call. It was from my friend, Fr. S. Moses. We had a brief conversation, that last we’ll have before meeting one another. We confirmed the time of my arrival in Chennai. He and Grace will be waiting for me at the airport and, after going through Customs, I’ll step out into India for the first time and be able to rest in bed as guest in their home. Over the past several weeks, as I’ve been teaching and speaking about my upcoming journey, I’ve been contemplating more and more the nature of the United Church in India. The impetus for the formation of the Church of South India was Jesus’ hope that “all will be one, as the Father and I are one.” As January is the month in which we observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it seems fitting to wonder about the work of the Anglican Communion and how we are living into this hope. To learn more about the Church of South India (CSI), you can look here. The logo of the Church of South India inspires further thoughts on the nature of our work together. The First Week in India: Chennai
Landing in Chennai, and meeting my friend with whom I had corresponded for eighteen years, was an experience unlike any other I have had. I’ve had my passport stamped in England, Italy, France and Israel, but having it stamped in India was the culmination of an almost life-long dream. Add to that the excitement of meeting S. Moses, a priest in the Church of South India, and his wife, and you have some sense of the keen joy felt in the moment. As Moses and I embraced for the first time, and then as I received a gift of roses and had put around my shoulders a saffron shawl, I knew (thought I hadn’t doubted) that my joy was reciprocated in a wonderful way.
The experience of being in India is, on the one hand, much as I thought it would be. There are vast numbers of people, Chennai being an immense city that is full of constant energy, it seems. The shops crowd the streets, and even between the constructed shops are makeshift ones that sell all manner of goods. The traffic is a wonder to behold, as Indian drivers, whether on motorbikes, bicycles, autorickshaws or cars, drive in a way that seems completely chaotic, and yet everyone finds a place on the road, and the flow is constant enough. India pedestrians have to be among the bravest people on the planet, as they dash across streets that are buzzing back and forth with vehicles. On the other hand, being in India is an experience of being struck by the widest range of the conditions in which people live. Comfortable apartment blocks stand beside housing improvised from the most basic of materials. Those who are well dressed and obviously have sufficient to sustain them walk side-by-side with men and women who are stooped over with infirmity, dressed in the most basic way, and who are thin to the point of emaciation. All of this seems to be very normal in the comings and goings of people here. While I have not seen the extremes of poverty that I have been told one sees in Mumbai or Kolkatta, the polarity of existence in India is far greater than my understanding before now.
Construction is everywhere. There are buildings that are clearly under construction, or were at some point in time, but now sit half-completed for one reason or another. Perhaps they are buildings that have been left to decay for want of upkeep; I don’t know. Other buildings are rising, and they are everywhere. In addition, construction work on transportation (a new extension of the railway system that will provide more efficient transportation around the perimeter of the city), or on utilities (trenches are omnipresent in the center of the city), or on renovation can be seen at every turn. I don’t know how efficiently the work is done, or on what timeline, but the investment of labour is huge.
I also have been struck by the strength of the Church of South India, and Christian churches generally, in Chennai. Church buildings aren’t hard to see or find. In our drives around the city, there are many churches on most roads. Some of them are larger buildings that are identified as CSI (Church of South India), or of some other denomination. Indeed, the church that Moses now pastors has six branch churches that they have built and support, and he tells me that other CSI churches do the same. These branch churches, as the city expands, become parish churches in their own right and, in turn, sponsor other branch churches. It seems to be a body of vigorous growth and activity. Though clearly in the minority, there is a much greater public presence of Christianity than I had imagined. And so, in the first few days of my time in India, it has been a decided contrast in what I had expected and what I have found to be the case. It is an amazing place of sounds, sights, smells, and feelings. And, this is only Chennai!
Day One Synopsis
It has been a very full three days in Chennai. Moses has been a marvelous host around the city, and he and his wife, Grace, have been the most gracious hosts in their home. The gastronomic adventures at meal times at the Moses household will have to wait until Grace has provided me with a list of the many dishes she has prepared. Whether or not I will be able to reproduce the courses back in Albuquerque is another matter, but, for now, it is more than enough to relish the sauces, curries, soups and breads that are served at each meal. For now, a quick summary of each day’s events will suffice, with perhaps a few comments.
Day One (February 5)
began with a trip to St. Andrew’s Kirk, one of the larger churches of Anglican foundation in the City. I say Anglican, because it was the Church of Scotland that started the congregation, and it is nominally part of the Church of South India. A beautiful church on a very large parcel of land, St. Andrew’s boasts a large and active congregation that generously supports a variety of outreach ministries.
We were given a tour of the ministry to developmentally disabled children, an impressive program in which children learn vocational, social and learning skills. I very much wanted to see the Madras High Court, being an interesting collection of colonial-era buildings and the center of state legal affairs. Getting in was something of an issue, however. Each gate we tried we were turned away by members of the military who were on security detail. At last, we found the correct entrance and were able to make our way into the heart of the area, where we were able to get an advantageous view of the High Court and, as part of its tallest tower, the third lighthouse to serve the port of Chennai.
St. George’s Fort, the location of the original English settlement in the area in the 17th Century, was a must-see, also. The Fort is the location of a present-day installation of the Indian Military and, as such, access to various parts of the Fort is difficult. We entered the Fort from the East, driving through one of the main portals in the walls, which are at least 25 feet thick. The outer wall is surrounded by a large ditch, and between the outer and inner walls another defensive ditch is located. Assault would have been difficult, if not impossible. The fortifications were not my primary interest, though.
St. Mary’s Church was at the top of my list, though, and it is a most interesting place. Built in 1681, the Church has served many purpose over the years, including an armory and a storehouse, the walls being especially constructed to withstand direct shelling. It is a wonderful edifice, windows and doors opening wide to the outside. While the inside is adorned with many plaques and monuments to Governors of Madras and other officials, outside is the really historic detail. When the High Court was being constructed, the cemetery, located there, had to be moved. The tomb slabs were all taken up and moved to St. Mary’s, where they form the courtyard along the North side of the church, almost all of them dating to the 17th Century. It was fortunate that the Vicar was there, a lovely Indian woman, who gave us a bit of a tour and showed us the original marriage documentation for Elihu Yale, who served in Madras, later to found Yale University.
Valluvar Kottam was another spot I wanted to see, it being the “home” of Thiruvalluvar, the most famous of Indian poets who lived and wrote in the First Century AD. The main reason I wanted to see Valluvar Kottam was that, when I am in Kanyakumari, I will see the colossal memorial statue of Thiruvalluvar off the coast, and I wanted to make the connection with Chennai, his place of origin. The site is dominated by a stone reproduction of a Hindu festival chariot, of the sort driven by the gods in Hindu legends. Rather than the deity being placed in the “seat” of the chariot, however, a statue of the poet is found, the same classical representation that is used in the Kanyakumari statue.
The last part of Day One was taken up by visits to locations in the parish of the Arputha Zion Church, where Moses is the Pastor. The first place was one of the three slums that exist within the area served by Arputha Zion. It is called Kamarajapuram. It is most depressed area, indeed, with makeshift houses of cast-off material and crumbling buildings serving as homes for extended families. It is, I think, the most desperate place I have visited. Finally, we visited Arputha Zion, to see their Evening Tuition Center. This an outreach and mission program whereby local children in need are given tuition assistance to attend school. They spend two hours at the church each evening, from 5:00 to 7:00 to study a variety of subjects, from math to music. The children, about 80 of them, were expecting me, and they had prepared a few songs and a skit. It was moving to be welcomed in this way, and amusing to see the ill-concealed curiosity on the kids’ faces as I moved around the room, talking to the teachers. In addition, many of the children were participating in a competition to memorize Bible verses. These they recited one-by-one, about 15 children. They recited in Tamil, the local language of Tamil Nadu State, so it was only the length of their recitations that I could tell what a feat it was for them to have accomplished the memorization. Following their performances, I offered a prayer of blessing for them and their families, and we made our way to Moses’ home.
Day Two Synopsis
The second day in Chennai was actually not spent in Chennai at all. Rather, the goal for the day was Mahabalipuram, an archaeological park about 80 kilometers south of Chennai, near the shore of the Bay of Bengal. In the 7th and 8th Centuries AD, Mahabalipuram was a port city, with trade connections to areas around the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Today it is a World Heritage Site and the location of some of the most incredible carved granite monuments.
The landscape around Mahabalipuram is littered with immense granite boulders. These, surely, must be the remains of a geological formation, an dome of this metamorphic rock, forced upwards to the surface by movement of magma within the mantle below. Stone Mountain in Georgia, and the large outcroppings of granite in Oklahoma are other examples. Such formations seem to simply await the application of carving tools to them. The enormous panels of Confederate heroes at Stone Mountain, or the mysterious rune carvings in Oklahoma testify to this reality of the potential canvas that is the granite surface. In Mahabalipuram, however, this is taken to a another level entirely. Complete shrines and temples are carved from the rock, and panels of the most intricately carved figures stretch across the stone for a hundred feet and more. It is said that when the artists and craftsmen who created these monumental sculptures were finished, their hands were cut off so that they would not be able to create similar works for other rulers. While the historical treasures of Mahabalipuram are arrayed in very neatly conserved parks and enclosures, at least the major works, the town surrounding it is, in many ways, a typical beach resort town. It is a hodge podge of small hotels, mom-and-pop establishments that cater to those on holiday, informal eateries offering simple foods and cold drinks, and loads of shops that offer a wide variety of crafts and/or gawdy trinkets for sale. Replace fried shrimp and hamburgers with fries for the biryani and pakoras, substitute snow globes and t-shirts for miniature Hindu deities and leather sandals, and one could easily imagine being in a small coastal resort town in the US, or anywhere else in the world, I suspect.
Before we headed into the heat and sunshine on what was, really, a most beautiful day, Moses found a seller of coconuts whose ware he took to be suitable and treated us to “sweet coconut.” The elderly fellow who prepared the coconuts took a sharp blade, curved at the end, and chopped off the thick end of the fruit, finally piercing the husk with a hole large enough to admit a plastic straw. The water from the interior could then be sipped out. It was at once sweet and salty, and very refreshing. I can see why there are dozens of men and women selling sweet coconut, and they certainly didn’t lack for business.
On the way to Mahabalipuram, we stopped by at the Crocodile Park, an area dedicated to promoting the conservation of environment for these reptiles around the world and for their survival. Two American alligators were present, as well as caimans and crocodiles of many varieties. Some were absolutely huge, stretching 25 feet or so. It was an interesting, if slightly unnerving, place. Looking over the fence at dozens of crocodiles lolling about in the sun makes some part of you want to recoil instinctively.
On both the drive down, and on the return, we passed through the extensive IT corridor of Chennai. What a contrast it is to much of the city! Gleaming towers in IT parks, amidst green manicured parkland dotted with trees and fountains, attest to the enormous wealth generated by this industry. In addition, huge apartment towers had been, and are being, built to house the employees and executives of these many companies. They are, Moses told me, cities contained within themselves, with entertainment, sports facilities, schools, supermarkets, and shopping centers all within the planned living complex. As Chennai pushes farther South, as a result of the expansion of the IT corridor, how long will it take before there are, essentially, two cities that don’t communicate with one another?
Too much to do
This is what always happens to me on long and busy trips. I have every good intention of writing on the blog each day, keeping people up with my trip, and recording some of the notable sights and experiences, and then the day is so full, that by the time I get back to the hotel, I’m worn out and just ready for a cold beer, dinner and bed. That is what has happened this trip, unsurprisingly. Tonight, though, I’ll push through and get some reflections down about the trip so far. For now, here are a few pics of the last number of days:
Reflection on India
Just over two weeks in India now. It has been quite an experience: new sights and sounds, intersecting with a different culture, and trying to absorb the great contrasts that exist in this society. After a week in Chennai, I flew to Delhi to stay for four days. And then, after Delhi, I travelled to Jaipur by train to spend three days. Today, I’m on the train to Agra, there two spend two nights, after which I’ll take another train to Madurai, where I’ll spend four nights and meet Winston, Moses’ son, who is also a CSI minister. I’ll have a chance to meet his wife, Kiruba, and their children, Emmie and Hani. In talking to Moses on the phone yesterday evening, it may be that I’ll be meeting Kiruba’s parents, too.
Chennai is a city that seems perpetually to be in chaos. The traffic is amazingly crazy, but maybe that’s only because that was the first city in which I experienced Indian traffic. The Indians, of course, drive on the left side of the road, being British in their driving habits. That habit only adds to the confusion of one riding in a car in India for the first time. The motorbikes, what the Indians refer to as “two-wheelers,” are ubiquitous, as are the auto-rickshaws, what the Italians refer to as “putt-putts.” In Chennai I didn’t encounter the bicycle rickshaws so much, though they were there. These are more common in the other cities that I’ve visited. Everything seems to be in a state of neglect in Chennai. Sidewalks are either non-existent or half torn up for construction or for no apparent reason at all. Piles of dirt, gravel, broken up pavement, trash and food remains are piled on the side of the road. In some areas of the city, there were women whose job it is, it seems, to sweep the street and the sidewalk with very rudimentary brooms made of twigs. Buildings in good repair stand next to those that appear to have had no maintenance for quite some time. In fact, many buildings look to be uninhabited, until you see curtains in the window or motorbikes parked outside. Even the government buildings look to have been victims of deferred maintenance. When we went to the main museum in the city, which I expected to be something of a showcase, three out of the six buildings were closed for repairs. Well, that’s something, I suppose, and they certainly needed it, to judge by the condition of the other galleries I saw. In each gallery the carpet was frayed and had large holes in it, particularly on the stairs, which presents a distinct hazard. The displays are very old-fashioned, with none of the interactive character that we’ve come to expect in the West. This was especially true in the Natural History wing, where the dioramas were full of stuffed animals whose fur and feathers were wearing off from age. Everything was covered in a layer of dust.
This is also the first time that I’ve been exposed to the level of poverty which exists in this country. What we refer to as slums in the U.S. are comfortable and relatively prosperous, compared with the areas I saw in Chennai. The shacks are barely the size of medium-sized rooms in an average American home. They are made of plastic sheets, wood, branches and leaves, whatever is at hand. The cooking fires outside create a smoky haze that hangs over the area, mixed with the smells of rotting garbage and waste. They are places of despair. On a more positive note, the people of Chennai were universally friendly and hospitable. Granted that I always went around with Moses, but there was never any sense that I was unwelcome. I got curious stares from some, especially in areas of Chennai where I’m sure American are hardly ever seen. Everyone we met in the churches we visited, likewise, were very friendly, whether CSI (Church of South India) or Roman Catholic. And at Moses’ church, Arputha Zion, I was treated very grandly. On the Sunday morning that I was there, I was welcomed with a shawl of patterned silk damask that was placed around my shoulders and large garland of flowers around my neck. Moses went on with my introduction until I was a bit embarrassed, and then the congregation presented me with a gift: an embossed and gilt platter. Except when being inducted as a new Rector, I’ve never been welcomed to a parish with such warmth. And it wasn’t just the formalities during the service, either. Both after the Sunday morning service and the Tuesday evening anniversary celebration of the church, people came up to greet me and share conversation. The most touching, to me, was a group of young women who are involved with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), the same group with which Dawn was connected when she went to Florence. The were most excited to meet me and to talk to me about my church, and they were thrilled when I told them the story about Dawn and me.
Delhi, which is significantly larger than Chennai (20 million population, compared to 12 million), is also better maintained, at least the parts I saw. In Old Delhi, with the streets so narrow that to have two bicycle rickshaws pass each other is trick, things are a bit more entropic. In fact, it is not at all uncommon to see goats and cows wandering the streets in Old Delhi, and not nearly so much in New Delhi. The traffic, also, is more ordered. There are many more roundabouts in New Delhi, and people go around them in a pretty disciplined way, with most giving way when expected to, and there are few snarls that result. The parks are certainly more neat and cared for than in Chennai and, from what I could see, a great many people use them. The military is a strong and visible presence in Delhi. On most street corners, there are sandbag implacements that are for the use of gunmen, I assume in the midst of a crisis. Given the strained relations with Pakistan, and the number of militant Islamist groups in the country, not to mention the separatist movements in the Northeast, and the Naxalites in the East, and you have every reason for the military to take special care with security. In fact, one night while I was there, several explosions occurred during the night. I didn’t hear them, but I read about them the next morning in the newspaper. It turned out that they were all caused by gas leaks or faulty cookstoves, but the security forces were immediately put on alert. The Parliament is in session, and there have been threats sent by various groups.
One of the most difficult things to contemplate in India is the future of the children. There are many fine schools in the larger cities, private schools that offer specialized education in mathematics, science, IT, engineering, etc. Kids in uniforms of various designs and colours trooped around Chennai and Delhi in great numbers. Clearly, education is taken seriously. However, every young adult I met was training for IT, engineering or medicine. Not one person said he was studying literature, nor did a single individual indicate that she was pursuing a career in music or the arts, history or philosophy. I find that state of affairs troubling, particularly in a nation with such a rich history and deep cultural traditions. That question aside, however, the plight of the lower class, who cannot go to private school, or go to school at all, is a great burden. The children in the slums, for example, are of a caste that cannot have any realistic expectation of reaching another way of life. They live in squalor and, from what I witnessed, are bereft of those resources that would provide a road to improvement. Add to that the caste system in India, and the improbability of social movement is increased. The caste system is, strictly speaking, illegal, having been banned by law back in the 1950s. However, all say that it is stilled practiced. My guide in Delhi, a Brahmin gentleman, spoke eloquently of the necessity of doing away with any vestige of the caste system, which he says is still very much in operation throughout the country.
Childhood adventures realized always good.
Greetings Dean Mark! I’m so enjoying reading about your visits to CSI churches. Here in the Cathedral we have just participated in a joyous event, the blessing of the life long covenant between Randy and Michael. My heart is full from being part of a community on this occasion, and I pray this may be the beginning of wonderful things at St. John’s. We all miss you! Love from Carolyn Woodward