Holidays” Edition, November/December 2005
“Happy Holidays” Edition, November/December 2005
It was a cool morning, the sun rose over the paddy fields .
. . a morning like any other November 10 in
International Conference on Interfaith Collaboration & Platinum Jubilee Celebration, 5th -7th December 2005.
I left that meeting on November 10 overwhelmed at what had not yet been done for a conference less than a month away. That was my first dunk in the proverbial tank of cultural immersion. I felt the need to be in crisis mode while everyone else seemed comfortable with less desperate phrases like “It’s pretty last minute.” It would be inaccurate to blame all the not-yet-done’s on culture. But the final days of conference preparation did help me realize the non-Indian nature of my crisis attitude. Here are a few things I learned . . . because of Conference:
What can be done in
· Yes, it is important that a big event have a Chief Guest from the government. It doesn’t matter if that Guest has never heard of the organization. And yes, we must wait to print the invitations until the Chief Guest is confirmed, even if that means printing the invitations a week before the event.
· Communication is frustrating. For my first two months here, I felt that every assignment given to me was vague. I never felt confident about what I was doing and often learned that, indeed, I had done it wrong or that what I had done wasn’t necessary. While working on Conference, I found myself trying to compensate for this by being overly direct in every exchange, desperate for some sense of clarity about what I should or should not be doing, and constantly upset with myself for sounding rude. But participating in the many meetings that were part of Conference planning gave me a new perspective on the frustrations of communication – specifically, that I wasn’t alone. For everyone, communication just takes more effort in an Indian workplace.
o Take the instance of our meeting with the printer to order several publications for Conference. Present at the meeting were the printer (speaks Telugu and maybe some Hindi or Urdu), me (speaking only English), Florina (a native of Chennai, speaks Tamil, English, some Telugu, and very little Hindi), Shobha (from a small town in Andhra Pradesh, speaks Telugu, English, Hindi), Shashi (native of Hyderabad, speaks English and Hindi), and Sribala (native of Hyderabad, speaks Telugu, English, and Hindi). In this meeting, the primary task was to ensure that the printer understood the details of a complicated order, constructed from input in three different languages, only one of which he could understand.
o Excluding the printer, these people were present in most other Conference meetings, joined by several other staff, many of whom speak minimal English. Conference meetings were usually conducted almost entirely in English. In fact, as a native English speaker, I – the foreigner - am one of the few people in the office who can listen and speak in a meeting without needing to translate my thoughts and spoken words between multiple languages.
o I felt the burden of verbal misunderstanding in just about everything I did in preparation for Conference. And I frequently heard others in the office trying to clarify their own misunderstandings.
In the letter I wrote before coming to
The opportunity to work on Conference launched me head first into the workings of Henry Martyn Institute. As frustrating as it was, I could not have asked for a better way to learn about the internal dynamics of HMI, to see how HMI is present in the world, and to consider the issues HMI confronts because of these circumstances.
Guests attended the Conference from across
Much of HMI’s practical work
happens through partnerships with local NGOs like Nagaland
Development Outreach, Peace Core Team Manipur, or B.E.S.T. in the tsunami project. HMI’s funding
partners are primarily “white” and “western”.
Grassroots partners are primarily Indian and from organizations, some of
which struggle to afford travel to
When all these people come together for an event like Conference or a Platinum Jubilee Celebration, the scope of HMI becomes apparent, and with it the unique challenges and opportunities that accompany the mission of an “International Centre for Research, Interfaith Relations, and Reconciliation,” with its roots in the evangelical church, and its future in a rapidly-changing India. This is an exciting, frustrating, and challenging time to be in this organization. There is amazing work being done in the name of Henry Martyn Institute. Please pray for the continued transformation and organization of HMI into a more effective instrument of peace and healing.
Economy of Gas
Dinner at the office Christmas party is usually cooked by the hostel staff. This year it was catered. The reason? No extra gas to run the stoves for such a large meal. The stove in the hostel’s small upstairs kitchen, where residents can cook or heat water, has been unusable for the last 6 weeks. The reason? No gas.
Gas for cooking is delivered each month in red canisters which are brought into the kitchen as needed, attached by a hose to the stove, and used until empty. Prior to the gas shortage, the hostel used each cannister as needed and placed an order for more when the supply was low. The current gas shortage across Indian has resulted from a combination of factors, including low supply and a government initiative to regulate the size and price of gas cannisters for commercial institutions (like hotels, hostels, restaurants). The low supply is serious enough that the cook and several other staff brought their own personal gas cannisters to work so the hostel kitchen could maintain operation.
In a breakfast discussion about the gas situation, an Indian
said to me, “You probably don’t have this problem in the U.S..” My thoughts turned
to the headlines that frequented
First, the recent gas shortages in the
Second, gas is rarely essential for cooking in the
But another difference is most revealing. “In the
Voices from Manipur
They arrived on November 5 after traveling five days by
train and bus - fifteen pastors from the state of Manipur in North East
India. After a morning at the city
library, I got off the bus that Saturday afternoon, walked down the lane to the
hostel, and saw them pass in two white taxis with Chonmi
waving out the window. Chonmi, from Manipur, and I know each other from the
workshop we both attended during my first weeks here. He returned to HMI in November as the coordinator
for the pastors’ trip. At first, I
thought these were fifteen pastors, coming to HMI for professional development
in conflict resolution and a retreat from conflict-ridden Manipur. It wasn’t until a few days later that I
learned the seriousness of their time at HMI.
The pastors represented two opposing sides of a conflict within the
Naga is a people group in North
East India, an area of Indian states surrounding
Tangkhul is a tribe of the Naga living in Manipur.
The state of Nagaland borders Manipur. 8% of the Manipur population is Naga. One of the most
significant political pressures and sources of conflict in the North East is an
effort to unite all Nagas under one administrative
unit and for this unit to become a sovereign country, separate from
Nagaland’s population is 98 %
Christian. “Church” in Manipur or Nagaland almost always refers to the American Baptist
Mission (ABM), though the Catholic Church and Seventh Day Adventists are also
present in the region. Most of the Nagas in Manipur are Baptist. The
Previously, the ABM in Manipur was made up of smaller churches in each village. The churches of the Tangkhul tribe then joined into one association. For administrative purposes, this association established four zones – north, south, east, and west – each of which included all the local churches in that zone. This was a federal model of church organization, with regional units and a central administration. In more recent years, a movement arose in the church to replace the zones of the federal model with a single administrative unit to which all local congregations were accountable.
The story that follows, in simplified version, is this: Two of the four zones chose to adopt the newer model and formed a separate church association. Two did not. This group was accepted into the North East Convention of Baptist Churches, an organization with religious, social, and political power in the North East. The other two zones did not join the new structure model and have thus been excluded from the region-wide Convention. Within each zone, certain congregations and certain church members fall on either side of the debate over church structure. In many situations, the pastors are caught in the middle.
The fifteen pastors who gathered at HMI represent the
“opposing” sides of this conflict. In
their own congregations, they are dealing with the threat of a permanent split
in the church, church members leaving ABM to join other churches, families and
villages divided over the issue. I
learned about the situation by speaking to Robinson, a member of the
The fifteen pastors who came to HMI spent almost 8 days in sessions to learn about dealing with conflicts and finally spent two days and long nights in intense mediation on their specific conflict. The end result was a plan with which they returned to their home. In the month and a half since they came to HMI, they’ve taken several steps in that plan. HMI facilitators will go to Manipur in January for further sessions. This is one of the first instances in which HMI has become involved in mediating a specific conflict; HMI usually focuses on training local leaders from various conflicts and organizations.
In trying to tell this story, I realize how little I know
about the situation and how poorly my knowledge can convey the delicate nature
of what is going on with the
I was surprised to learn that they come from opposing sides because the fellowship they exhibited was anything but opposing. North East Indians are known for musical ability. These pastors sang and sang and sang, in beautiful harmony, morning and night. During their stay, the pastors led the HMI devotion each morning. For a week, the prayer hall rang with their voices. They toured the city together, ate together, prayed together, walked together. Robin explained that many of them were dear friends caught up on “opposing” sides of the church’s debate.
Witnessing their presence here taught me that conflict looks very different in the midst of fellowship.
To Give or Not to Give
One Sunday afternoon, Ruth and I sat down for a conversation we’d begun earlier, but decided to continue when we were alone. It began with the question, “Have you loaned money to anyone at HMI?” The answer from both of us was “Yes.” Most of our conversation focused on one person in particular, who in the last month had asked both Ruth and I to loan her money.
She works in the hostel and lives on campus. Both Ruth and I are fond of her and her children. She first asked me for Rs. 100 (Rs.= rupees) one evening when I visited their home after work. She was careful to ensure that I wouldn’t tell the hostel management about her request. I was reluctant to give, not because of the amount – a significant amount for her but less than $3 for me, neither did I worry about how it would be spent – she could definitely use extra money, but because I didn’t want loaning money to become part of our relationship. As promised, she returned the Rs. 100 out of her paycheck a couple weeks later. Within another two weeks, she asked to borrow Rs. 200. This time I was very reluctant. She’d already given Rs. 100 of the first paycheck to pay me back for the first loan. Now she was asking for twice the amount. That would mean even more coming out of her next paycheck. I didn’t want her to become trapped in a cycle of debt. I loaned her Rs. 100. She paid me back the next week.
Ruth had loaned a larger amount, but had similar concerns. How will it affect our relationship with the friend? How will it affect her financially to borrow these small amounts? Both of us felt that our money was being used as a short term fix and that she would continue to need to borrow money. We would have gladly slipped a Rs. 100 bill under her door each month with no expectations of repayment, but how would this affect our friend in the long run or when we leave HMI?
Despite these concerns, if I know I have more money than I need and a friend feels that she has less than she needs, what right do I have to question whether she’ll still need money next week? After all, next week I’ll still have more money than I need, so what gives me the right to be her financial counselor? These are some of the questions we talked about. We had both struggled with whether to give the money, and it wasn’t about the money.
But maybe it was about the money. Ruth and I both talked about the discomfort
of being seen as someone with money. We
both acknowledged how uncomfortable our friend must feel when asking us for a
loan. Still, one of the discomforts of
being white in
There is no right or wrong answer to the question of whether to loan money. There are positive and negative implications to either choice. Ruth and I both said, “We don’t mind giving money, it’s just that being asked puts us in an uncomfortable situation.” Of course it does. Having so much more money than the people I live with should make me uncomfortable. Maybe there is no comfortable way to deal with such extreme inequality of wealth.
When it Rains it Pours
The newspaper headline on Dec.19 read “TN Stampede Kills
42”. TN is Tamil Nadu,
the state south of Andhra Pradesh, and home to coastal areas devestated by last December’s tsunami. Chennai (or
HMI is involved with a tsunami relief project in the Nagapattinam district of TN, working in collaboration with
the U.S.-based Mennonite Central Committee and B.E.S.T., a local NGO. Subhash is HMI’s project officer in the district. About once a month he returns to the
HMI’s tsunami project began in
January 2005. It is planned as a
two-year project. In the midst of
repeated tragedies, unceasing rains and destruction, Subhash
always returns to Nagipattinam. His colleagues return. The villagers with whom he works never
left. They still wake up every morning
and face the day ahead. What I am about
to say about
There’s another cliché, though, that has come to mind more
often since I landed in
At first glance, these differing situations hardly seem
comparable. How does the difficulty of travelling internationally compare with the burden of carrying
water long distances so your family can eat?
I mention these situations together because, prior to coming to
These thoughts are related to the concern I raised in the September newsletter
I can see that my time in
I realize now that what I am really asking is “How can you
possibly be alive in the midst of this?”
This question is far more offensive . . . offensive to life, to people
who live it, and to the God who created it.
I can see that my time in
Dutch Cartoons and HMI
What do these two things have in common? I didn’t know either until Varghese stepped
up from his desk and said, “
A few anecdotes to say Happy Holidays!
As I put the finishing touches on this
newsletter (December 21), my parents and sister are less than 24 hours away
from embarking on a non-stop flight from Chicago to Delhi. I will leave
My first Christmas celebration in
At HMI I live with Indian students from the
North East and
One evening I accompanied a friend who was
shopping for Christmas gifts. She is
Hindu and wanted to give gifts to her Christian friends. She also exchanges a gift with her husband on
Christmas. I asked, “which holiday is
the biggest for you?” She
responded, “None, really. We celebrate
everything, so no one holiday is bigger than the other.” I definitely get that sense from south
I confess it is difficult to send a Christmas message because I don’t feel the season. Celebration comes easy among the routines of home, few of which are present here. The voice in my head is saying, “Emma, enjoy your traditions, but a true celebration of Christmas must transcend tradition.” I’m not there yet, to a truer celebration of Christmas, but I hope to be one step closer when I return to the traditions next year. In the mean time, I hope you will find holiday cheer in the “looking forward” to this Christmas and next year, when I’ll perform a rousing medley of Christmas Carols in Telugu. See, there is a silver lining in every proverbial tank of cultural immersion. Happy Holidays!