As the sun passed behind the Himalayan foothills around 3 in the afternoon, the air suddenly seemed to darken and chill. The villagers finished up their work and began preparing the evening meal of white rice, dahl, and meat. We shivered around the fire, and I gasped when I turned back around to look over the valley. Electric lights flicked on one by one across the jungle and terraced farms, looking exactly like an upside down version of the night sky, without its reflection in the clouds. I wish I had a photo, but there would have been no way to capture it fully.
Here I was in India — a 22 year old college student who had never been outside of the United States except to Canada and a spring break mission trip to the Dominican Republic. During the two and a half weeks in India, I ate more rice and drank more tea than during the rest of my life combined. I rode a train for the first time, visited a leper colony, and watched cricket. Yet as different as everything was, the warmth of the people made me feel at home.
It wasn’t your “typical” mission trip. We weren’t a group of twenty people building an orphanage and handing out tracks on the streets. In many ways though, ministry in this part of the world felt closer to how the apostle Paul would have operated in the early days of the New Testament, after Jesus returned to Heaven and his followers were figuring out what to do next. Central to Paul’s teachings, and our work there, was faith, hope and love.
In the United States, when there are three churches down the street and your pastor is just a text away, it can be hard to understand the longing in Paul’s letters to be close to the people to whom he is writing. Then I went to India, where physical distance and terrain makes visiting other Christian communities difficult. Trips like Paul’s 2000 years ago, and ours today, are therefore even more important. If we added up all the hours of our time there, we probably spent more waking hours traveling by car, train or plane than actually staying in one place. Our car got stuck several times coming up from the valley of that mountain village. We found out later that ours was the first non four-wheel-drive vehicle to make it out, and that we wouldn’t have made it at all in the rainy season.
This extreme physical isolation can be made even worse by spiritual isolation. We visited one pastor who was one of the only Christians in his village, and often socially persecuted by the Hindus and Buddhists around him. As we saw, missionary work doesn’t stop at the initial conversion; continued support is vital for growth. Our mission work consisted of a lot of visiting churches, praying and encouraging Christians there, joining in evangelism, and pointing them back to the Scriptures as guides to combat false teachings. Often people will convert when they witness or experience a healing or other miracle, without really understanding the gospel at all.
One tool that we used to help them get the big picture was the Kingdom Story. Beginning with Genesis, the five-minute oral retelling covers the whole Bible – from creation, to the fall, to the promise of a savior, to Jesus’ life, to his death, resurrection and appearances, to the church today, to the anticipation of Jesus coming back to bring the fullness of his kingdom. Throughout the two weeks, we had people draw a picture for each part of the story and even change the lyrics of familiar songs to tell the Kingdom Story. One of the best parts was seeing people of all ages grow in faith as they understood the Bible in a deeper and fuller way.
During the second week of the trip, our team held a two-day conference on faith, hope and love for young ministers studying at a Bible college. When I was asked to give a testimony about hope, I had a moment of panic. If I were being honest with myself, I had actually been experiencing a lack of hope back at home, both in the campus ministry I’m a part of and in the United States’ political climate as a whole. It was hard to admit that, but in the end I decided to share about how seeing God at work in India had been incredibly encouraging and motivating as I headed back for my last semester of college. More specifically, I grew in hope by seeing and experiencing the love of the people in India.
I also learned that our “down time” is just as important as our “ministry time,” and I believe our impact in India was greater than the sum of all the official things we did. While I might not remember the names and faces of those at the conference and Sunday services, I will never forget our hosts and translators and drivers, and the incredible generosity they showed and sacrifices they made for us during our trip. From our host parents in the mountain village giving up their hard wooden bed for us and sleeping on the kitchen floor, to our translator getting a call a few days before we arrived and dropping everything to join us, to the son of a pastor we worked with driving us around for hours without complaint — I felt incredibly humbled by the welcome we received.
We did our best to return this love during our “down time.” Some of my favorite memories were the host daughter teaching us words for farm animals in her language in the quiet morning sunlight, and learning more about the Indian people’s society, struggles and politics than I could ever find in a textbook during the long drives over bumpy roads. Our translator opened up about the persecution she faces for working with foreigners and Christians – even within her own family – and we got to pray with her, encourage her, give her hope and build a friendship even over that short amount of time.
Coming back to the United States, I am reminded to use every moment of my day as an opportunity to spend time with those around me. I have been challenged to spend more time reading the Bible and be more open in talking about my faith here at home, because sharing what God has done in my life is not something I need to go across the world to do. On the first day of the spring semester, I bumped into a friend of mine who is an international student from China. After she asked a bunch of questions about my trip, I asked if she wanted to meet up for lunch again, and we began studying the Bible together.
Mostly, though, I’ve been learning about what it means to be generous. It’s difficult for me to ask for money from people, and I was blown away by the response I got, both financially and through prayer, towards this trip. I realized that my own generosity was very limited, because I was always holding back to make sure I had a safety net for myself. As I grow in faith in God and hope that he will provide, generosity becomes an act of love, not obligation. I’m trying to look at every resource, whether my time, my car, or my money, as an opportunity to serve others.
As I go back and read through Paul’s letters to people like the Colossians, I have a better sense of what he must have felt like. I plan to go back and visit all of the friends I made in India, but until then I will pray for them and thank God for the work he is doing there. I hope that we were able to help them understand the Bible and the gospel better, so they can stay strong through persecution and share it with their own family and neighbors as I share it with my friends here in the United States.
“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace” (Colossians 1:3 ESV).