It is difficult to know where to start and how to explain my experiences in India. When people ask me how my trip was, the only place I know to start is to say, “It was amazing!” I could write pages and pages on all of the experiences that I had, but unless you have been there yourself, it is impossible to understand fully what it was like, so I want to share with you just a few of the experiences that I will never forget, experiences that have become a part of me and added a new lens into how I perceive the world and the church.
I arrived in Chennai airport around 1am. As I stepped into the airport, I was greeted by the Hindu gods lining the walls. These countless gods I would see gazing down on me everywhere I went: on the roadsides, restaurants, shops, billboards, cars, and buses. Walking out of the airport, I was greeted with a warm smile and handshake by Pastor Paulraj, Kasthuri and a couple older boys and girls from Grace Foster Home (GFH) and the church. I was presented with the traditional flower garland and then we started our long drive to GFH. We finally arrived around 5am. After a short prayer with Pastor Paulraj and Kasthuri, I went straight to bed. Though I was exhausted, I was not able to sleep because of my excitement.
The very first day there, I began to get an idea of how busy the lives of Pastor Paulraj and Kasthuri are. Every week Paulraj prepares 2 sermons as well as a Wednesday night Bible study, which is like a third sermon. In addition to that there are four village outreaches where he leads Bible studies every week, rotating visits with the elders and deacons. Paulraj is also going on house visits or hospital visits almost every day. There are also the monthly Pastor’s conferences, editing and writing for publications, the girl’s dorm building project, and other maintenance things that Paulraj has to deal with. In addition to all of that, there are the responsibilities of caring physically and spiritually for about 50 children, widows, and staff.
One of the main reasons for my visit was to take video footage to make a documentary. I want to create a documentary that will show the power of the gospel in the lives of the people in India in a very personal way that people who have not been there can connect with.
I interviewed all of the GFH children for the documentary. I had heard some of the children’s stories, but it is different being there with the children and hearing the stories from them personally—hearing them testify of the love of God in their lives, bringing them into the GFH to be taken care of and learn the truth of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross that brings us hope in this dark world of sin.
There are so many heartbreaking stories: fathers who abandoned their family, drunken fathers who beat their wives and children, mothers who committed suicide by fire and poison, parents who died from AIDS or other diseases, parents who went insane because of sorcery, and many other tragic stories. When interviewing the children, it was hard to hold back the tears. There is one story in particular that really impacted me. It is the story of Appun and Soundharya, a brother and sister at GFH.
When Appun was around two years old and Soundharya four, their parents got into a fight and their father left the house. When he was gone, their mother tried to give them poison. Soundharya knew what it was and said, “We want to live, please don’t make us eat the poison.” Soundharya would not eat it and would not let her brother Appun eat it either, so their mother took the poison herself and died in front of them. About 10 minutes later, their father came in and saw what had happened. He grabbed the poison, left the house, ate the poison, and died.
Their father worked for a brick company. When he did not show up for work, his boss came and found the children alone and brought them to a bus stand. There Appun and Soundharya stayed for the next 10 days, begging for money that they would use to buy food. After that 10 days, a social worker found them, and not being able to find an adequate caretaker among their relatives, brought them to GFH.
Appun and Soundharya were the last two children for me to interview in my long second day of interviews. That night I read the children a book and handed out candy afterward. After all the candy was handed out, Soundharya walked up to me and said “Anna”, which means elder brother. I looked down at her to see a big smile on her face as she handed me the wrapper of the candy I had given her. She had twisted it into the shape of a cross. That is a memory I will never forget. After hearing the tragic story of her life and all that she had been through at such a young age, I now saw the outworking of God’s grace in her life, bringing her to a knowledge of himself, the loving Father who sacrificed himself for us and promises to never leave nor forsake us.
Later, as I sat alone at night, I read Psalm 27. When I read verse 10, I started to cry. “For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in.” I could not help but think of Appun and Soundharya and the stories of the other children at GFH. I will never be able to read this verse again without thinking of their faces. And what a beautiful confidence follows in verse 13 “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!” The goodness of the Lord radiates from the GFH. Every smile, every laugh, every prayer, every scripture reading, every hymn sung by those children is a testament to the goodness of the Lord.
Another amazing testimony of God’s grace that I was able to witness during my visit was the recovery of Sathya. Sathya was the boy who accidently dropped the end of a metal rod on an 11,000 volt powerline while trying to hit fruit off a tree. He had electricity flowing through him for several minutes. He was declared dead at a local clinic, but started to breathe again as he was brought to the Christian Medical College Hospital.
Not only was Sathya’s life hanging in the balance, the entire future of GFH was. The government is run by Hindus. They do not like Christian orphanages because they know that those children are most likely going to come out as Christians. Christians not only upset the caste system and practices of their society, but are also a threat to their political parties. If Sathya had died, GFH would have been shut down, and Paulraj and Kasthuri would likely have faced jail time and heavy fines. By God’s grace Sathya’s life was spared, and when the police came to the hospital to ask what happened, he replied “Jesus saved my life.”
Sathya came home while I was there, after over 40 days in the hospital. I was able to interview him and he testified of God’s grace in protecting and preserving his life. He said that “this incident has transformed my life, and now I know that God is all powerful and God is holy and I will testify of God in my life.” When I asked him what he wants to be when he grows up, he said he wants to be a minister. Sathya said when he was in the hospital, he never thought that he would be able to walk again. During the farewell program that the GFH family put on for me, Sathya not only walked, he danced.
There are roughly 15-25 million orphans in India. The fact that no one really knows how many orphans there are speaks to the tremendous problem in India—orphans forgotten, hiding in plain sight with no one to care for them. The number of orphanages in India is in the thousands, but that covers only a fraction of the children who are abandoned. I have been told that the government-run orphanages in India are run very harshly. From talking with other orphan children at school, the children from the GFH have said that they would rather live with their relatives in poverty than live in a government orphanage with their physical needs met.
The GFH is different from the other orphanages in India, even different from most other Christian run orphanages. The difference is that it is not an institution, it is a family. The children do not see Paulraj and Kasthuri as their caretakers, they see them as their parents, they call them Appa (Father) and Amma (Mother). I couldn’t help but feel a warmth and joy in my heart every time I heard one of the children calling for Appa or Amma. It is hard to understand and appreciate this relationship without witnessing it personally. It is truly a blessing from God, bringing these children out of darkness and into his marvelous light, bringing these children into the sphere of the covenant family. Though the children are not legally adopted, they live in relationship to Paulraj and Kasthuri as if they were.
Another sign of the loving devotion that Paulraj and Kasthuri have to these children is in their care for them after they age out of the GFH. They are not pushed out into the world never to be seen again. Paulraj and Kasthuri are constantly busy with visiting the children who have aged out. They go on house visits every week, meeting with those who have aged out and their families. They read the Bible with them, pray with them, encourage them in their studies or work, encourage them to be regular in their personal devotions and church attendance. What a wonderful witness this is to the Hindu families that many of the children go home to. We serve a personal God who gave us the community of believers to love and care for each other, as he does for us.
Why do we sponsor these children? Sponsoring a child makes you feel good about yourself, which is why millions around the world sponsor children. But sponsoring a GFH child is different. There is a joy in sponsoring a child in a Christian home that an unbeliever will never feel. That joy is in hearing your sponsored child sing Christian songs, recite Bible verses, and pray. That joy is in seeing them help others and show love toward their sisters and brothers in Christ. That joy is in seeing them be baptized and confess their faith, joining themselves to the church. That joy is knowing that this relationship is not temporal, but one day there will be no more barriers of language, time, or space, and we will all be together as one. There is an unspeakable joy in personally witnessing God’s loving providence that shines a light in the darkness and brings hope to the hopeless.
It is impossible to really know and understand someone without personally meeting them. I often struggled with what to write to my sponsor child, Kishore. It almost became a burden each month. How sinfully selfish I am. Meeting Kishore changed everything. No matter how advanced technology gets, we will never be able to replace the intimate personal communion that God created us to desire and enjoy. I’m not married and have never had a child, but meeting Kishore and being with him for a month made me feel a small part of what it is like to be a father. Kishore was always holding my hand and lying on my shoulder, hugging and kissing me.
My greatest joy was not in seeing that he was clothed and fed and happy, it was in seeing him help others with happiness without being asked and in seeing him sing, read the Bible, and pray. In my letters I want to encourage him in the faith and pray for him. I want to go to India five years from now and find him as an active confessing member of the church. I want to go to India 20 years from now and find him as a man worthy of being an office bearer in the church. These children are the future of the church, and what greater joy can we have than to see them walk in the truth.
Jesus said, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” We don’t see this division too much in America, but in India it is so very real. Many Hindus will reject, forsake, and abuse their own family members who follow Christ. Many of the GFH children will have to face this decision when they come of age and want to be baptized or get married. They will need to choose to be forsaken by their family in order to follow Christ. There is one such girl there now. She is a very devoted 15-year-old who wants very much to be baptized, but her mother will not allow it and says that if she does, she will no longer be considered her daughter, and she never wants to see or speak to her again. The church will honor her mother’s decision for her not to be baptized since she is a minor, but when she turns 18, she will have to make the decision herself, a decision that will separate her from her family, a decision that will bring shame upon her from the culture, a decision that will make it difficult for her to marry in a society where family approval of the marriage is very important. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me… And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:37–39).
A few days after I left India, Pastor Paulraj emailed me that 20 Christians in Vellore were arrested by police for passing out gospel tracts. This really made me reflect. We live in a free country, and I have never handed out a gospel tract. I can count on my hands the number of non-Christians that I have shared the gospel with.
Here in America we often spend extravagant amounts of money on vacations and toys to bring us happiness, and how often are we disappointed by their lack of giving it. We spend all kinds of money on things that will help us escape reality, instead of things that will change our perspective of it. This trip to India was something that I really needed, to wake me up, to show me the universal church, to remind me of the unique blessing we have in our free country.
From my own experience and from everyone I have talked to, visiting a foreign mission will change your life. They take us out of our comfort zone and make us challenge the culture norms that we hold to. They let us create personal bonds with the members that allow us to care for them and pray for them personally. They reignite our desire to share the gospel and not become apathetic and comfortable with our lives.
There is no vacation spot, there is no possession, there is no amount of money that could give the joy that I felt during my trip. That joy still lives in my heart, though now it is mixed with sadness from the separation. I can’t go a day without thinking of the people of India. I wish that our whole congregation could visit. We would not be the same congregation if we did.
*Bradley is a member of Georgetown Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, MI.