My first experience of India was Tuesday morning, at Chennai airport. I knew the airport from one end to the other. I had a long layover there in 2014. I had to walk from the International Terminal to the Domestic, and I chose to make the move outside. Arrival in India, for a westerner, has been described as total sensory overload. First time, that's what it was for me. On Tuesday it wasn't an overload but it was certainly more stimulation through more senses at one time than we ever experience in Canada. Indian cities are never quiet. There's a steady stream of sounds and vibrations. There's a mix of intriguing scents and downright offensive odours that you can smell and taste until you're used to it. The sun is strong. Electric lights are almost everywhere, day and night: shining, blinking, flashing. At night, though, there is deep darkness that absorbs much of the light. You move from one small place of light to another.
I'm hyper-alert as soon as I step outdoors. Indoors, its a different matter. Friends here joke about Indian Standard Time. Arrival and departure times are always approximate. There's always time to talk. Hospitality determines schedule. Especially if you're a visitor. I confess I find the deference and generosity shown to me as a foreigner is embarrassing sometimes. I can't help seeing it as a remnant of colonialism. Sometimes I'm treated much better than my Indian companions.
South Indians are proud people. They know North Indians think southerners are backward, even inferior. When I hear friends speak of life in Tamil Nadu, within India, I remember what it's like to be a Maritimer, or a Newfoundlander, almost anywhere in the rest of Canada. Yes, South Indians are different from their northern neighbours. That simply reflects the incredible-- for a westerner-- diversity of India. Human beings have trouble with diversity. It seems there has to be a hierarchy, at least among males. India is still a patriarchal country. That may be why there are so many strong and brilliant Indian women here, and around the world. They fight, and win.
Today I met 75 women and men of all ages. They're pastors of small, independent churches. Most are Pentecostal. Many started their own churches in towns and rural areas. None has any more than a basic education, which can be very good in India. They have no theological education. No formal training for ministry. And little accountability in and for their ministry. That seems to drive some Church of South India clergy mad. The CSI is as hidebound and bureaucratic as the Indian Government. My CSI friends are really concerned that these preachers too often fall for the Prosperity Gospel. American TV preacher Joyce Meyer is very popular here. The influence of American evangelicalism has been obvious in every church I've visited. It seems to draw people in. Maybe it's cultural. Evangelical piety offers practices and experiences akin to those of Hinduism. It also reduces the gospel to a spiritual message that has little to do with life outside the temple. The CSI and Lutheran pastors I've met seem able to combine this very traditional piety with liberation theology. They may speak of personal salvation and a one on one relationship with Jesus first. They go on, turning to the other side of the coin as they like to say, to insist that Jesus died to release us from social bondage and all kinds of oppression. My colleague Alfie has a real passion for challenging these unschooled preachers to look at both sides of that coin. This morning, as a translator told me what Alfie was saying to the group, I got the impression he was the bad cop and i was the nice guy! It worked. Alfie's measure of effectiveness was the number of people who asked him about learning more together. It also helped that we where meeting at the CSI Church of the Divine Patience, and the pastor there says "I love these people." They know him. He doesn't agree with them, but they respect him.
This really about exposing these passionate Christians and their congregations to the whole gospel, not just John 3:16 and Paul's words about the cross.
Tomorrow I will meet final year students from Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary. I was impressed by the students and recent graduates from TTS I met in 2014. Their preparation for ministry is fully contextual. I'm proud to have been part of AST's field-based program in Canada, but it has nothing on the immersion TTS students experience in their education. Their theology is sound. Their passion for pastoral work is great. The challenge is to uphold the importance of preaching in ministry, and place it firmly in the context of a ministry focused on change and liberation. I'll have just a few hours to encourage the students to employ imagination in their preaching, and to see the connection between the preached word and the lived word.
Then I'll need to do some more work on a sermon for Sunday to a congregation of well-educated, powerful people, a church I'm told is filled with doctors, successful business people, and highly-placed bureaucrats! Alfie tells me I can "go deep" with these people, and assume they get what I'm saying without too much explanation. And do it all in 15 minutes! That's very short for an Indian sermon! Some things cross cultures.