I just came across my summary of my internship in India while I was still in seminary. (It ended up in some ether file for Global Ministries eons ago.) I wanted to share it, because these are lessons I want to re-learn. I’d love your thoughts (and observations about ways you’ve learned the same or different lessons yourself).
report on trip to India, summer 2003
My first dissapointment upon arriving in Kolkata (not an auspicious beginning to a report, is it?) was learning that my field placement had been changed. I arrived with the understanding that I would be working and possibly living in a halfway house for recovering drug addicts and HIV/AIDS patients in a rural suburb. Arrangements had been made for my placement coordinator’s associate to take me to the site. That morning, he came to the house, took me by cycle, rickshaw and bus to the Calcutta Samaritans, a nonprofit organization in the heart of the city. I would be, it turned out, volunteering at a walk-in clinic dedicated to STD prevention and care which serviced two slum areas. When I finally got up the courage to ask the coordinator why she had changed my placement, she responded, “Well, the midway home [halfway house] would have been fine if you were training to become a health worker, but you are going to be a pastor, so you don’t need to do that–you should be more comfortable. So you will live in my office (a room with a computer, cable with English programming and even an air conditioning unit) and work at the Samaritans.”
End of story.
While my clinical pastoral education had taught me that I was not there to change people and that I was there in fact to be changed myself, I have to confess to retaining a few fantasies about how I would be changed. I imagined the Mother Theresa experience of living and working with the poor, doing menial work like changing bed pans, of holding the hands of the dying and mopping their brows–experiences which would transcend my limited grasp of the language and would teach me a deeper respect for the dignity of people living with HIV and AIDS. Instead, I was living in a better place than my home in Chicago (which has neither cable nor an internet connection nor A/C) and sitting in a clinic where people were well enough to walk in and whose major complaint was generally a yeast infection. Plus, my lack of language skills made me almost valueless to the already stretched staff–I could barely communicate with anyone but the nurse and doctor, both of whom spoke English fluently.
During my first few weeks, I learned how the clinic functioned, read materials on HIV/AIDS prevention and care in developing nations, and did basic patient intake–a task created to give me something to do, although it created more work for the staff than had they done it themselves. “Apnar nam ki?” I
would ask the patient while a staffperson sat with me and helped me with the spelling (which often had to be corrected again later by the social worker), and
then the staff person would take over by asking them where they worked and how much they earned, which they translated for me and I dutifully recorded on the intake sheet.
All of the down time (and when it was raining, there was plenty of it) gave me an opportunity to better understand the organization in which I found
myself. The Calcutta Samaritans was established by Rev. and Mrs. Pavamani (known affectionately as Auntie and Uncle by most of the staff) in the late
Its initial goal was to meet the needs of abandoned street children, but it now includes–in addition to an informal education program for street children–job training for women in the bustees (slums), job training and certification for juvenile delinquents, a home for at-risk and delinquent boys, a drug rehabilitation program with a halfway house and support groups, a help line (possibly the first in Kolkata if no longer the only), and PASAC, the clinic where I worked: prevention of AIDS/STD Awareness and Care. In addition to the walk-in clinic, there was a mobile clinic that went to two of the larger bustees in the area once a week. I was taken one time, but my presence in the slum attracted such a crowd that I was eventually escorted back to the mobile clinic to chat with the doctor until it was time to leave. There were also peer education teams that went into slums and met with rickshaw pullers and prostitutes to do basic education about STD prevention and care.
I had a real opportunity to talk with staff about their motivations for working at PASAC and the Calcutta Samaritans in general. It emerged that the Pavamanis had a real commitment to not only helping people in need but recognizing their gifts and incorporating them into the structure of the organization. I worked with employees of the Samaritans who were recovering drug addicts and former members of the informal school for abandoned street children. I worked with Christians, Hindus and Muslims who prayed and gossiped and yelled and worked together.
I found myself faced with the complex interplay of different faiths on an almost daily basis during my time in India and struggled with how to fit those experiences together cohesively. I continue to struggle with that, but wanted to take a moment to share some snapshots. On my first day, I was introduced to the clinic nurse (not officially trained or licensed, but she had spent a number of years working in a retirement home for British people who had stayed in India after independence). She was thrilled to know I was a “lady pastor,” and immediately shared her story about having wanted to be a nun when she was young but that her parents had made her marry instead, for which was now grateful because she was now a “believer.”
Her sisters remained Roman Catholic, so she prayed for them.
On the same day, I met the doctor at the clinic, a Hindu who greeted all of his patients with “Namaaskar, Salaam Alaykum.” He instructed me that we had
no right to judge the patients who came in here–rickshaw puller, slumdweller, sex worker. If we were in their condition of poverty, we would make the same choices or worse. He also talked about empowering women in society and developing relationships. “We treat everyone as a friend here–no one
should leave with tears in their eyes–and that’s part of the medicine, when you treat them with respect and they come to believe you can help them, because of
the relationship. That’s faith healing. And it works.”
That morning the women who served as peer educators gathered and Nurse Francis led them in the Lord’s prayer in Bengali. It became clear soon after, however, that few were Christian. After the prayer, several said, “Good morning,” to me. I responded in kind and they smiled. One bravely said, “Namaaskar,” and pranaamed. I did the same, and there was an excited buzz among my new “didi’s” (older sisters). “Salaam Alaykum,” tried another. “Alaykum Salaam,” I replied, and they were ecstatic. I spoke almost no Bengali and they spoke almost no English, but it created trust and relationship. And I think it was probably my most Christian action during my time there.
Dr. Saha was militantly interfaith and lived his worship through service. One day the whole staff of the Samaritans was supposed to gather during lunch
to hear a guest speaker who had been brought in by the director (whom the staff calls “Uncle” and is treated like a god). When the assistant director
asked Dr. Saha to close the clinic and come to the main building, he demurred, saying that there were too many patients. Ten minutes later the same thing happened. The director phoned and told Nurse Francis they were to come at once. When she relayed the message to him, the doctor shouted, “Sister, I will quit the Calcutta Samaritans! What kind of God doesn’t want to take care of patients?”
Although the Samaritans are a secular non-governmental organization, Rev. Pavamani, the director of Calcutta Samaritans, leads a Christian Sunday worship service that predominantly draws staff and some clients from the Samaritans. One Sunday he preached about how he had always dreamed of having a son–
“A Billy Graham, no less, saving thousands of souls.” And yet in his next sermon he talked about how Jesus came to give us a relationship, not a religion,
and that we needed to treat people of all faiths with dignity and respect in keeping with our vision of a harmonious India. These ideas of evangelism
and respect for other traditions lived side-by-side with no seeming sense of contradiction both in the worship and in the work of the Samaritans.
Most of the patients at PASAC–and some of the staff–are illiterate. I was fascinated when I watched my first case assessment between Jutika, the caseworker, and a client. Limited though my Bengali was, I understood she was repeating instructions over and over again on when to take which drugs and with what. My first thought was how attentive she was being– ‘When I go to the doctor, I only get told what to take; I have to read the print-out at the pharmacy to . . . oh.’ She was going through it all in painstaking detail because the client has to memorize the different time schedules for the different drugs. That’s why she was drilling them:
“OK–how often do you take this little red one?”
“Three times, at meals.”
“Right; not just milk or water.”
Condom demonstrations were likewise incredibly detailed; the clients would never be able to read the package. About four weeks in, I finally had the courage to say to the doctor that if it would be helpful, I could set up a database on their computer that would allow them to better track their patients (everything was still being entered into a log book). This proved to be too big a transition for them, but it did open up all sorts of possibilities now that they knew I could use a computer. Suddenly my days were full–I catalogued the resources in order to allow easier access to PASAC’s collection of materials and taught one of the staff members how to expand the list, I helped with grant reports, and on and on. I mention Jutika’s daily work and my own tasks because beyond all of the religious quandaries, beyond the hope amidst desparation I witnessed, the crux of my experience lay in the mundane. I came to India knowing I would be changed. I anticipated drama and deep personal relationships and catharsis– the mopping of the brows of the dying, et al. I didn’t get that. What I got was a devout Christian woman demonstrating how to use condoms hour after hour, day after day. What I got was a morning spent sweeping out the clinic because one of the staff thought it would be a good day to do it and Nurse Francis remembered from her days at the nursing home that British people were willing to do anything. What I got was 10 weeks of women coming to the clinic with yeast infections. What I got was sitting at the computer and laying out grant applications, which I probably could have done from my computer in Chicago.
When I was planning my trip to India, the chair of my ordination committee said to me, “You go over there and show them the face of Jesus, just like that little lady did.”
Realizing he was talking about Mother Theresa, I responded, “I think she was the one who saw Jesus.”
He brightened up. “Exactly! There, and there, and there,” pointing to imaginary homeless and dying people around him.
I felt like I already saw that. On some level, I think I do. What I learned to see this summer was the work of God in what could be very mundane work that repeated itself over and over with little visible signs of improvement. They say God is in the details, and I think I begin to see how that’s true. And God was in the grace extended to me by a community doing great things long before I arrived there who have continued to do great things despite my departure. My task as I see it in the coming months is to reflect on the lessons taught to me and to determine how to keep alive that work of God in my current surroundings, in the church I will serve and in the community to which I will be accountable. I suspect part of that might entail learning about peer education and how it might work in my congregation. Part may involve engaging in interfaith work with an intentional eye to creating a welcoming environment for people of other traditions (and being willing to be a visitor instead of insisting on playing host). A large part will be recognizing the grace being extended to me by existing communities that welcome me in for the time I serve with them. And I hope that part of it is beginning to learn that a sense of hopelessness is never an adequate response to a situation, no matter how vast.
The most exciting part is, I suspect I am not on this journey of learning alone— I suspect the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ are on this path with me, wrestling with interfaith issues, issues relating to diversity within the United States, and learning where to see and listen for God. I saw that at my denomination’s General Assembly in the overwhelming support for a resolution on civil liberties for immigrants and high attendance at workshops on the same subject. I see it in Global Minstries’ commitment to Christ-rooted mission work based on conversation, not just conversion. I see it in the Christian Church’s intentional cooperation with the Islamic Society of North America for interfaith community work each September 11, and in Bath UCC’s covenantal relationship with Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where profound relationships in Christ have been formed across racial barriers. The knowledge that the church walks with me, and struggles with me, makes the hard work a little less lonely.