Kolkata 2018

Four months ago Joni bought the tickets for our dream vacation; two weeks in Kolkata working with the Missionaries of Charity. You know, the Mother Teresa outfit.

Joni made this trip all alone two years ago, but for six weeks. That amount of time isn’t always possible, and when she suggested that we go together for two weeks I agreed. After all, she knows what to do and I like hanging out with her.

I write this from the airport terminal in Philadelphia. Airport terminals are evil places. They only function for one reason, a place to wait. Since that is their only function, they make sure that you are as uncomfortable and cramped as they can can get away with. Then, you will get up and walk away to buy some

thing for eight times it’s value. I am considering that right now, if the lady across from me won’t end the phone conversation with her sister in Texas that just had knee surgery.

We have a long time to wait. Extra time. Unplanned time. You see, the first leg on the way to Kolkata is a stop in London. There is a five hour layover, which is the perfect amount of time for our daughter and her family to drive two hours from their home in England and have a visit. That’s the way Joni planned it. We can  see daughter Heidi, son in law Ron ( on his birthday ) and two of our grandchildren that we haven’t seen in a few years. Flight 728 departs at 8:45, arriving in London at 9:00 AM.  And then, we see this:

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Our new departure time is midnight, which eliminates our visit with our family. I am sad and angry, Joni is all sad. I have flown hundreds of thousands of miles in my life and been delayed hundreds of times. This feels different though, perhaps it’s the callous way that the American Airlines were so indifferent to finding another flight for us. More than likely though, I’m just so disappointed that Joni’s careful planning is wasted and we won’t see our family. Or maybe it’s this stinking uncomfortable chair. I think maybe I’ll get up and go buy a $300 neck pillow.

I hope that I don’t have anymore to write tonight…

Well, there is more. Our flight didn’t quite make it at midnight. In fact, we lifted off for London at 3:30, after many, many explanations and excuses that both conflicted and confounded. It was not unlike a Trump rally, with the exception that we finally got to where we hoped to. Of course, we missed our connections by hours but now seem to be headed for Mumbai and may actually arrive in Kolkata earlier than planned. (I’ll probably regret saying that, I’ll let you know if I do).

So, we missed seeing family and this was the highlight of our time in London.

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Mumbai,

London to Mumbai is 4500 miles. Eight and a half hours flying time. Somewhere in our travels, Saturday went missing altogether. When we were boarding the flight that will take us from Mumbai to Kolkata. I had to ask if it was morning or evening. Usually you can tell that it’s morning because you just woke up. We haven’t slept much, but in three hours we should be in Kolkata.

Mumbai airport is beautiful and modern and is very western looking.

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Please note the Starbucks and Irish bar.

India has lots of people. They seem to be quite pleasant and mannerly, even when they are climbing up your back in line. Butting in line is an art form here. The taxi ride to our hotel was harrowing . There are things like “red lights” and “lanes” that I am used to, but they are little more than a suggestion here. Think of the OT quotation “and each person did what was right in their own eyes.”  Everyone must use the horn in the same way that they use headlights at night…constantly. Thirty minutes from the airport, in what I am hoping is the poorest part of this city, we arrived at our swanky digs for the next few weeks. The ownership remembered my wife and greeted her warmly.

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Tomorrow we get to work.

Joni says-I was very happy to arrive in Kokata this morning after a disappointing trip.  Flight to London delayed by 6 hours due to “maintenance ” problems.   So we lost our opportunity to our daughter Heidi and her family.  Needless to say, I was weepy during our check in.   But my daughter took it in stride with a, “That sucks, can you buy me something nice in India.”  The good that happened was we missed our connection in London and received a much better travel plan, just two more flights ans an early arrival in Kolkata.  All went well despite the fact that I almost got into a rumble with a large group of Indian women going through security.   They were a gang, all wearing the same burqa, red with lettering on it like a NASCAR driver.  They pushed and shoved me around while in line, but I held my own and my temper.  So much for the “ladies” line.  Caught in a torrential rain at the airport, between the monsoons and the humidity, I  don’t think I will dry out till I get home.  Poor Kolkata, looks a little worse for wear since I was here a year ago.  Now the Hotel Galaxy is much improved, paint, tiled floors and a bathroom door, super.  Looking forward to seeing the sisters, the kids and getting to work tomorrow .

Dennis says…

6:00 mass with the sisters, then the morning greet.

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Mother Teresa’s tomb is next to the room where we worship.We signed up for a tour of the nearby Lepers Village on Thursday, having no idea what that entails. The work today was at place that raises orphans. There are three groups, and they are referred to as blind, handicapped or normal. I worked with boys, between ages of four and eight that are handicapped physically and mentally. We assist them in therapy walking , roll them around in makeshift wheelchairs,feed them and clean them. Plus, we goof around a little. These boys are well looked after and shiny clean. First thing in the morning I got to help with the laundry,which is hand washed and  clotheslined to dry. I felt like my grandmother, only thinner.

The volunteers here come from all around the world. Some come to serve Jesus, most come for the admiration of Mother Teresa and for a chance to make a difference. Surprisingly, most don’t seem to look for an opportunity close to home.

Here is your fun photo of the day.     61E8EF3F-EB07-4DE1-9A31-72EDD5E26BD1.jpeg

Joni says…First day of work. Awake at 5:10am and out the door by 5:30.  Easy to get ready when all you have to do is brush your teeth, wrangle your bushy hair in an elastic and put on something that is cool, dries quickly and can take a hit. Arrived at “The Mother House” for 6 am mass, followed by 7am breakfast of Chai tea, a banana and a slice of white bread.  Breakfast hit the spot, but the best part of the meal was connecting with volunteers from around the world, Uraguay, Mexico, Spain, Wales, UK, China and Japan.  Lovely people.  7:30 on the bus to Daya Dan for work.  The bus hardly stops for us to board, is crowded, hot and bumpy, but you get what you pay for, about a dime.  After the bus, a tuk tuk ride and we’re there.  Dennis worked downstairs with the boys while I was upstairs with the girls. I made up cribs, did laundry by hand then worked with the girls.  Ages 4-12 with various disabilities and gorgeous smiles, we had some fun.  I did have to put my foot down and deny a tiny little girl her 3 rd cookie.  She was relentless and so cute, it was hard to say no.  After work dennis and I had lunch with about 8 volunteers. We secretly picked up the entire check, 10 people and the bill was $25, we were hardly generous at that price.  Formal registration was at 3pm, many, many people showed up and it took forever.  Met a nice father and son from Boston who volunteered after their wife/mother experienced volunteering and found it to be life changing.  After this a nap, then a late dinner at Raj’s Spanish Cafe.  Stopped at a street shop, looking for a sweet.  The man was trying to entice me into buying his finest chocolate…a box of Kit Kat bars.  😳. Now I am pooped and must bid Y’all a good night. 

Dennis says…It is of some comfort that son Patrick and fiancée Amanda are house sitting while we are away, although I am a bit troubled by the question “Did you guys know there was a beehive in your back room?” We didn’t, but I’m sure he will handle it. Work this morning was again at DayaDan, the home for orphan boys. Our afternoon shift at Kalighat, a home for destitute and dying people brought in from the streets, has been monsooned out. In some places the water was knee deep in the streets. If you’re wondering why we don’t walk on the sidewalks, it’s because the sidewalks are a place for commerce or residence. I rather like the absence of things like codes. If you want to live on a section of sidewalk, go right ahead. If you want to build charcoal fires on the sidewalk and cook and sell the food,it’s all yours.

Tomorrow in the morning we go to special masses, it’s the anniversary of Teresa becoming a saint and it’s a big deal.

Todays photo is of me, representing DIOPA love under the gaze of of Mother Teresa.

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If I appear a bit off, we just walked thirty minutes for 6:00 Mass.

Joni says…ahh, the end of an interesting day.  As usual, a 5:30am walk to mass.  I had my phone out for pictures, but missed a picture of “chicken boy”.  As we walk, from behind us is the sound of chickens clucking.  Then who rides by on a bike, but a young boy with about 50 live chickens hanging of the bike.  Poor chickens.  Worked again at Daya Dan and did massive amounts of laundry by hand.  Hanging clothes on the roof in the 100 degree sun makes for a good morning.  I am still amazed at the different rules for hanging up laundry. Certain clothes/linens hung up on certain clothes lines and in their own unique way.  I did learn, “Pants,pipes!” today.  So at least I have that valuable knowledge for tomorrow.  It did warm my heart knowing that Dennis was on the ground floor caring for the boys while I worked upstairs.  It is a gift to be able to work together like this.  I am a lucky girl.  Just made it to the Blue Sky Cafe for lunch before the monsoon rain it.  Had a leisurely lunch, followed by a leisurely cup of coffee and yet the buckets of rain continued.  Foolishly, we decided to walk the one block to our hotel in the rain with one little umbrella.  Really, how bad could it be.  Oh Lordy, the streets were knee deep in water and it felt like buckets of water were being dropped on your head.  Needless to say we were drenched and decided to skip afternoon work for a leisurely reading in bed afternoon.  I just could not motivate myself to walk for about a mile in that weather. The rain did finally stop and all that water disappeared, so we enjoyed a nice evening walk after a late dinner.  Another great day.  Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Teresa of Calcutta.  Should be interesting.

Dennis says…Five years ago we travelled to El Salvador. My mission was to become reeducated and reenergized on Liberation Theology. I was, and I was able to find ways to further incorporate this understanding into my work at home. This quote by Lilla Watson sums it up perfectly.

“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

I learned a lot in El Salvador simply by walking alongside people and getting to know them. I do today in Norristown.

I can’t really say what I have come to Kolkata to learn but I am willing to explore. I know a question that I have. Why would hundreds of people come from all over the world to serve “the poorest of the poor” here, and not expend a fraction of the resources required to help those in need that are close to home?

This morning we jammed into the worship space at The Mother House to honor the woman that has mobilized thousands to join in the work for the poor and for Jesus. There were more than 100 sisters, 30 priests, an Archbishop, lots of us volunteers and a ton of press.

Why were we all here?

5A59E8E5-D1C6-456F-8ED3-5E63C1672F39.jpeg St. Teresa’s tomb, decorated for her feast day.

Dennis says…

.Delhi Belly. That’s what they call what I have. Joni says it’s bacterial and like the flu. I started with it Wednesday night, and was unable to get up for work on Thursday or Friday. Thursday has been a day off for the sisters since the beginning,in the early fifties. What I really missed was the trip to the leper community, which I’m certain Joni will tell you all about. I’m beginning to feel better, perhaps because I’ve given it to Joni.

Here are a few photos. One is where men pee…he other is where they bathe.

Joni says…Joni remains in sick bay.

Dennis says. It’s a little before five in Kolkata, the sun is up and it is quiet, my favorite time of day. Yesterday we spent a fair amount of time taking the boys to a nearby park, I escorted a 6 year old blind gentleman. There were balls to kick and swings and seesaw’s and the usual fare. None of them seemed like a good idea at first to me, but Sathyan’s obvious delight of being pushed on a swing encouraged me to just treat him like a seeing boy, and see how he reacted. He reacted like a seeing boy, he had fun. I received some criticism as I walked behind him up the ladder of a very tall sliding board. I had no idea if the sudden downward trajectory would frighten him, but down we went together. We landed on our butts together at the bottom in the mud. After a brief silence, he applauded. Sister applauded, I sighed in relief.

Many of the guests at The Galaxy Hotel have come to work for The Missionaries of Charity. People from France, Bangladesh, Mexico, Spain, Belgium,Portugal, China, England and Ireland. Some for six months, some for a week most for two to four weeks. So many different languages are spoken, and so many people are fluent in several. As an American I only need to know my own language and  can expect everyone else to know it also. Joni and I are often separated by two generations from our coworkers. Sometimes, by their culture, they defer to us because of age. Sometimes they must think that we are frail as their grandparents, the way that they defer. They don’t get that we see ourselves like them, physically. We are nobodies boat anchor.

Early in almost every conversation people will subtly fish around for my opinion on Mr.Trump. My best response seems to smile while giving a thumbs down, which opens the gates. Basically they want to know why I would elect such a man. Mostly, I just shrug my shoulders.

The conversation that I want to have is about why they come here. What has motivated them. The answer that I often get is troubling. Apparently Mother Teresa is a bit of a rock star. More on this later, I have a bit of listening and thinking to do.

Soon, I’m off for Eucharist at an Anglican Church, taking the day off from the early Mass at Mother House. Then, off to work.  Thursday is the off day around here.

Your photo of the day. This is our private laundry center at the Hotel Galaxy. It’s nice to have ensuite laundry so close to the shower.

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Joni says…Well, greetings.  Y’all haven’t heard from me in a while because I did in five days on this trip what I avoided during the 5 weeks of my previous trip, yep, I got the dreaded “Delhi Belly”.  Haven’t been out of my room for three days until this morning.  No need for gruesome details, although I feel I made penance for quite a few sins.  On Thursday I traveled with about 20 volunteers to Titagarth, the town where one of the leprosy villages is located.  Please note, I have been educated, there are no lepers, only leprosy.  Sister instructs us to take no valuables except a change purse for transportation costs.  We will take a bus, then a train to our destination and the train is rampant with pickpockets.  For once I am not the oldest in the group!  Marion from the UK is 79 and frail.  But she is a trooper and we are all in this together.  We arrive and are greeted by a priest.  He answered our questions and the took us on the tour.  First the weaving room, a very long dark corridor with women on one side and men on the other. The women sit on low bricks and spin the thread.  Across from them, the men work the looms.  The rhythmic sound of the looms is soothing, almost musical.  Everyone stops their work to greet us with a Nameste.  They are making the material for the sisters’ saris and the linens for all of Mother Teresa’s home. Gorgeous material, but will not be sold to the public because, due to ignorance, anything a person with leprosy handles is considered tainted.  By the way, all the workers have been cured of leprosy, but the disfigurement is permanent. We walk through beautiful vegetable and fruit gardens to the hospital. About 100-150 men an women are being treated for leprosy at any given time.  It takes 6 months to 2 years to cure the disease.  Once cured they go back to their families, but will forever be outcasts.  There are dorms for the orphans who had leprosy, but their families will not take them back.  The will live here till they die.  I use the word orphan because that is what the priest used. The residents were well over the age of 40 or 50. Typically I think of children as orphans, but at any age, without parents and family we are orphans.  It’s so sad. Then we headed to the next building.  I heard children’s voices and was dreading seeing children suffer.  Nope, it was a day care center for the workers’ children, all happy and healthy.  One of my fellow volunteers brought his guitar and we all sang a song for the kids.  So we have many, many countries represented in our group, what was the song we could all sing?  The Lion Sleeps  Tonight.  We then walked through the pig pens and goat pasture (we got to see a goat born, super cool). Back to where we started for tea and biscuits.  Father stated if we wanted to volunteer at this facility you have to spend your time there as the commute is too dangerous. What?!  The return trip is a whole other story, for tomorrow .

Dennis says… You wouldn’t expect to see a goatherder tending his flock in the middle of the city…at least I wouldn’t.

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Of course, I didn’t expect to see fifty chickens hanging upside down from a bicycle either, but now I see it every morning. I guess if you get far enough away from home, everything is different. Different by design. The streets in the slums of Kolkata are where commerce occurs and they are narrow. Far too narrow for a delivery van let alone a truck. Bicycles pull four foot long by five-foot carts piled far higher than any orange-vested, strapped in Lowe’s forklift driver would allow. Rickshaws carry loads that exceed the weight of the driver ten times over. All so very different.

Actually, it’s only different to me, and I need to keep that in mind. India doesn’t appear to be very diverse. Everyone looks so similar. But they are Hindu, and Muslims and Sikhs. They are from India and Bangladesh and Pakistan. What seems to be in common is their good nature and peaceable way.

Even growing up as a flaming redhead I never felt so much like an anomaly. I haven’t met any other Americans here, on the street, at a restaurant, at our hotel or amongst the volunteers at the Missionaries of Charity. Because of that, sometimes we get stared at a bit, and are asked unusual questions. People sneak pictures of Joni, she of the blond and purple hair. All are kind.

Here is my point. I am a stranger in a strange land. Everything around me is different than I know. My appearance is vastly different from everyone I see and although most can speak a bit of my language, I know none of theirs. And it doesn’t matter one whit. There are no mean and degrading words for me as a minority. No profiling.

While I am grateful for the acceptance, I feel a bit ashamed of some of the folks at home.

Joni says…Now let’s talk about that train ride back from the leprosy village.  We volunteers were told that the return train would be very crowded, loaded with pickpockets and does not wait for you to fully board. Okay, I think I can do this.  We are trying to stay together as a team of 18 volunteers, because there are only a few who know what station to get off and how to then get to the bus.  The train arrives.  Oh lordy, there are people bulging out of every door. I don’t mean hanging out, but bulging.  A solid mass of moving humanity.  We are directed to push on, and I mean actually mean push.  This was no time for genteel manners or personal space which does not exist in Kolkata anyhow.  I tried.  I put on my best roller derby girl face and shoved the bulge, but, alas, was unsuccessful, as were 7 others.  We stood there in disbelief.  None of us left behind knew where to go.  But we rallied as a team an came up with a plan to board the next train.  Now Marion was part of our team.  Brave, frail, 79 year old Marion.  Tom and Seamus, a father/son pair, stated they would sandwich Marion, one in front of her and one in back and get her on the bus.  Here comes the next train, no less bulgy than the last.  Off we go.  We shove our way on only to her women’s cries of “ Ladies only, ladies only.”  Oops, this the ladies only car, although there were just a few ladies on it, if you catch my drift. Tom and Seamus quickly abandoned Marion and ran for another car.  We got Marion on.  We did it.  I was packed in with the “ladies”, one hand grasping my small backpack to my chest, the other trying to grab onto anything.  We arrive at the next stop and this mass of women begin moving both in and out of the door.  With much determination, I barely managed to stay on the train.  Our posse moved to the back of the train.  As we did, I looked at my backpack and saw that all three zippers had been moved, one fully open.  Nothing was gone, I packed wisely and brought little of value.  I warned my friends, and sure enough, Rachel had her money stolen.  Still packed at the back of the train car, we are trying to determine what stop to get off and how will get back to the door in time.  We have not given up and are even having a bit of a laugh.  Then comes a guy with a display of bags of popcorn on a tall stick.  You have got to be kidding me.  We can’t move, women can’t get around him, but they are buying up the popcorn and snacking away.  Marion had no patience for this, told him to go away and even swatted sat him.  He did not care and didn’t move, business was good.  Luckily we soon found out that the last stop was ours and departure should be easier.  It was a little bit, but the actual train station was much like the inside of the train, shoulder to shoulder, back to front people.  Tom and Seamus showed up and we were happy to see them.  We managed to get back to Mother Teresa’s House all intact except for some money.  As we departed, we were triumphant, we survived the train!  Yay.

Dennis says… Looking for Jesus in India

I don’t know anything about India really. Just how much can you know about a huge country with over a billion people in two weeks? I know just a little bit about a slum area of Kolkata, I have not come here for sightseeing but to learn how to improve my ministry to the poor by going to where the world meets to serve the “poorest of the poor” as Mother Teresa says. I haven’t traveled far, a thirty-minute daily walk to Mother’s House for Mass at six AM, followed by a breakfast of banana, slice of bread and Chai tea. Following additional prayers and instructions, we head off to the various houses for work. It’s a short walk and then a long bus ride that costs 7 rupees, or ten cents. Everything is cheap here, everything. For example, our modest hotel room is $14 per night, for both of us. Considering the gasoline and food that we won’t buy at home, we are actually spending less money than we would in a normal two week period. Our only real expense has been airfare.

Daya Dan, where I work, houses orphan children. I work with the 31 boys, Nearly all of them have mental and physical challenges. Only a few can speak. I begin my day by hand washing tons of laundry and making beds while the sisters and workers bathe the boys. We then gather for prayers, and two of the boys do their best to read a prayer and the Gospel. It’s difficult to listen to them struggle and quite moving and beautiful. Sister beams with pride as they read. Then it’s therapy time, many of the boys have braces put on their legs and we just walk around. A boy that I spend a fair amount of time walking with has Downs Syndrome and MS. But he walks and sometimes giggles at my foolish antics aimed at encouraging him to walk a little more. After feeding the boys a small snack, the volunteers, workers and the sisters get a break, with tea and sweet biscuits. This is when the volunteers get to visit together, and from whence my consternation begins.

There are 28 million Christians in India, but that’s only 2% of the population. 85% are Hindu, 11% Muslim. Nearly all of the volunteers are Christian, except for Max who is from China and claims to have no affiliation to any religion. They come primarily from Europe and Japan. I ask, “why do you come here and do this work? Mind you, these are good people and are devoted to this work. Almost always the answer has two parts. Fistt, they say that they want to help people, and secondly, they know that Mother Teresa’s life was dedicated to helping others. None of them come for Jesus, they come for Mother. I see good and trouble in this.

Mother Teresa is a brand. Her constant use of the term “ the poorest of the poor,” immediately removes the ability to judge anyone for their poverty or circumstances. You just help, it doesn’t matter how they got to where they are. Her ministry to orphans began by removing children, the type we see at Daya Dan, from trash heaps. How could you not help? I only wish that I could better communicate this sentiment to Americans, where it’s just too easy to ignore someone in need if you can blame them for their own circumstances. Why would help someone that is lazy, or an addict? It’s not true, and it shouldn’t matter. The thing most in common too American homelessness is a wide expanse of mental health issues.

Anyway, the beautiful teaching of Mother Teresa is that Jesus suffered, and we are to serve the suffering. She knew Jesus cast no judgment on the poor but did on those who were self-righteous enough to believe that they didn’t suffer because they didn’t deserve to. Most importantly, Mother never made it about her, it was about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. She pointed to Jesus, thanked Jesus and praised him. If you read her private letters you can see that she was so engaged with the suffering of Jesus that she could feel it herself, and therefore feel it in others. I believe that she would chastise those who come to Kolkata to serve her and her ministry. Perhaps Jesus is too difficult for us to truly grasp and so we need Mother Teresa as our example. It is hard work to devote everything to Jesus as she did, but for all that I love and respect and admire about her,  I need to let her be the light that shows the pathway to our salvation. Jesus.

Photo of the day. Men bathing on the street. At first, I felt guilty of spying, but they are bathing on the street. Imagine if this was your best choice.

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Dennis days…

Kolkata observations. These are physical differences I considered as I was on my way home. This is my next to last post on the trip. The last one will be when I sort out some of the spiritual knots I seem to be tied up in.

-Driving. Let’s get that out of the way first. This will probably include the most whining.   The most important thing to know about driving in Kolkata is that you should never stop, for any reason. Just slowing down is frowned upon. Then, you have to figure the number of lanes available for you to drive on, and add one more. It’s a system that works pretty well if your from here, or a lunatic. Other than that, don’t drive here. In America, the competition for street space is you vs. other cars. Here you have to contend with rickshaws, bicycles that are like rickshaws, bicycles that haul five foot long trailers, regular bicycles, buses, tuk-tuks, (these are three-wheeled motorcycles with a roof and a bench seat, they seat three plus the driver,) the occasional private car, lots of motorcycles,tons of taxis, and people walking. Except for the people, there is a symphonic assortment of horn noises, and horns are used constantly, particularly when you are signaling your intention to create a new lane, which is anywhere that your particular vehicle can fit. By the way, vehicles do not have to give way to pedestrians, not one bit. In the event that two vehicles are vying for the same spot, it’s a duel. If I didn’t mention it, sometimes there is a herd of goats to contend with.

-Food preparation and eating. I suspect that kitchen utensils last a long time, apparently, they are a secondary choice for fingers. Also, eating utensils are often for show only, you eat with your hands.

-The people I worked with and most of the non-Indians were European and Asian. Kolkata isn’t a hot spot for Americans. I met one other American on the trip.

-Everyone I met and spoke with from India was kind, kind of low key and gracious. Of particular note were Sikh men. They seemed to be a bit more refined in dress and speech and quite kind.

-Dogs. On the Kolkata streets, there are dogs, and they don’t bark. Because the humans are largely indifferent to them, they have no territory or people to protect. So they just hang out quietly.

-“Where you from?” After talking with folks for a while, this question comes up, it’s just natural. When we said America, a brief silence would follow and then some careful way of asking what we thought of Trump, or if we “liked Trump.” I have no interest in debate on the topic, but wanting, to be honest, I would say something like “ I don’t care for him.” Two things followed every time. They were relieved by the answer and

Then Indicated their own feelings. To a person, they despise Trump. Several people asked, hoping for an answer that I could not supply, how such a man could be President of the U.S.

-I am a stranger in a strange land, I cannot speak the native languages…and yet everyone is so kind, helpful and welcoming.  Here is an example. On Sunday morning I get a cab to church and agree to a sum where he will wait for me, and then take me to work.

We get to church and I pay for that portion of the trip and tell the cabbie that church will be about one hour long. Babu promises to be there in one hour. He wasn’t. I’m not quite sure where I am, but I have an address for where I want to go. I walk a bit looking for a cab, with no luck. Then I happen upon two policemen. As I am trying to ask for help, they begin saying “No English.” A man, 70ish, appears and says that I look like I need help. I agree that I do. “Come and have some refreshment with me,” he says, which I am suspecting is a scam for me to buy his breakfast. Actually, he offered to buy mine. We talked a while, and then walked me to a cab and got me the Indian rate (about 1/3 of foreigners). Apparently, I looked befuddled, because he then got in the cab. when we arrived, he walked me to the door. Amazing.

-No alcohol, no coffee. For 16 days, I had no coffee. I think that the last time I did this I was fifteen. It’s a tea drinking country. It also lacks the drinking culture of America. In my hometown, there is a bar every couple of feet. I saw one place that sold alcohol in Kolkata but was told that some of the swanky hotels have hotel bars. The last time I went 16 days without some kind of alcohol…was a long time ago.

From Dennis, Final thoughts.

As mentioned earlier, I was troubled by the lack of Jesus in India. So many fine volunteers, so much hard, sometimes grueling servant work all around me in the various houses of The Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata. None of it was done in the name of Jesus. I respect those fine people that say that they simply want to do their part to help those in need. However, I worried that it might be a bit self-serving. I was equally troubled by the people that said they were doing it for Mother Teresa. In my gut, I worried that the servant message of Jesus was simply absent.
Anyone that knows anything about Mother Teresa knows that she served the “poorest of the poor” as her way of serving Jesus. I believe that she would be appalled at the notion that people were called to serve her.
Mother Teresa has started 517 houses, all aimed at serving others, all in the name of Jesus.
Still, I worry about two things. First, while the work is being done, and people are truly helped and served, Is God’s Kingdom being built up if there is no proclamation of Jesus in the work? Secondly, I worry that the service to others can start and stop in Kolkata, rather than inspiring those world-wide volunteers to bring this ministry to their own cities and neighborhoods. Simply put, Can we transition from serving the “poorest of the poor” to simply serving “the poor,” and doing so without judgment? I hear far too often that Americans in poverty are getting what they deserve through their own laziness and addictions. While I know this to be largely untrue, I believe that our judgment of the poor and homeless in this way is the greatest barrier to finding if not solutions, at least some relief.
I struggled greatly with this until I finally realized that it’s all none of my business. After all, anyone that serves “the least of these, is serving me,” Jesus says. Whatever their motivations or inspirations are, simply do not matter, and I have no need to understand them.
After all, the Kingdom is spreading. Maybe we shouldn’t deify Mother Teresa, but instead simply look for Jesus in her works of service. Perhaps we simply cannot envision the Jesus that washed feet, but we can see him in a withered and smiling old lady, wrapped in blue and white.
From there it is a very short distance to go to see Jesus in the face of every one of those beautiful volunteers that I was pleased to work with side by side.
As MT says:
“How do you know, love, and serve God?  How do you prove that you love Him?  In the family, the father proves his love by all that he does for his children, for his wife.  We prove our love for Jesus by what we do, by who we are.”
IMG_0050
A typical Kolkata street scene. Lunch anyone?
IMG_0089 So long, for now.
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Walk A Mile In Soggy Shoes

The Storm…that’s what was on everyone’s mind. As often happens, it wasn’t nearly as bad as forecast, but bad enough.

For me, it played out this way, five or six inches of snow, coming down all throughout the morning and afternoon, finally clearing off at four in the afternoon.

For about two hours, we had the dreadful experience of losing power. Dreadful, no TV or internet for nearly two hours! We had heat, the woodstove was cooking. We had the light of day, but still, two hours with no power.

At four, with the snow ended, we could begin to clear the driveway and reconnect to civilization. It’s a pretty long driveway to clear, nearly six hundred feet. The snow blower groaned under the heavy snow, the melty parts at the bottom sometimes clogging up the chute. It took nearly ninety minutes to get the driveway open.

I don’t much like the pioneer life, being snowed in for almost a whole day, unable to get to work, braving two hours of power loss. It made me cranky.

I did give some thought to others. There was much talk on Facebook about others suffering much longer than us without power. No heat in the house, no way to get out, no way to cook dinner. And I thought about my friends in Norristown. With the Hospitality Center closed because the employees couldn’t get in, where would they go for breakfast and warmth? The lunch program was closed for the day, the volunteers were unable to make their way in. Were my friends there hungry?

On the day after the storm, I was able to get to work, without delay or incident. The Hospitality Center was open, and I settled in to talk with my friends. I assumed the talk would be about the storm and all of the hardships that it caused. I was only partly right.They shrugged when I told them that there would be no lunch again today, as the volunteers were not comfortable with driving on the icy spots that were predicted.

There was just a wee bit of complaining. Several talked with gratitude for the opportunity of making good money shoveling snow, even though it was much heavier than normal. By the way, this is shoveling with a shovel, not like my snowblower. One wished his shoes weren’t ripped. “Wet feet are the worst,” I said, although mine were dry inside of insulated leather. His were cheap and ripped sneakers, revealing soggy socks.

A few laughed a little when I asked about losing power, and I knew why.

Blessed are the poor. They don’t complain about little things like I do.

Of Meat Cleavers and Murder and Mental Health.

St.John’s Norristown is right in the middle of our town. We are across the street from the courthouse; many of our neighbors are those that are employed there. We don’t get to know too many of those neighbors.

We are closely aligned with many of our other neighbors, those who come to our church for lunch and those that we sit with and minister to at The Hospitality Center next door. We are committed to serving our neighbors, all of them.

Donnas service

Memorial Service for Donna at Norristown Hospitality Center

 

A few days ago, we led a memorial service for our friend Donna. Donna was a good egg and a good friend to me. I got to know her on the day that she came to Norristown, last summer. She worshipped with us, along with her “boyfriend” Jimmy at St. John’s.

You may have read about how Jimmy murdered Donna on the bridge, apparently incensed because Donna had another friend, and was no longer interested in Jimmy’s attention. They argued, he stalked her and stabbed her. For most of us, we deal with break-ups with sadness and some anger, but not violence.

On the day following Donna’s service, I spoke with another friend as we sat at the Hospitality Center. He is a handsome and bright young man that has been left behind by his family. Most nights he sleeps at the Transportation Center. The Transportation Center is a favored place for many to bunk. It is dry and somewhat warm. I asked him about the lump on his forehead and the eight or so stitches that tractored through it.

“What happened?”I asked. In a matter of fact way, he replied that (name omitted) had attacked him with a meat cleaver. “You know how he gets, he’s kinda crazy.” “Crazy” may be an accurate observation, but it is not a diagnosis.  

If I have told this story correctly, you should understand two things. First, we came far too close to having another memorial service. Also, there is a fair amount of mental health issues in our neighborhood.

From the outside, most people would define our neighbors at the daily lunch program and at the Hospitality Center as either poor or homeless. Although that may be true, that is not the true defining factor.

Some years ago, I was asked this question. “How do people become homeless?” After offering some hollow and hypothetical answers, I decided to get the truth. I asked that question of many people. “How did you become homeless?” Here is their answer.

You get homeless when you run out of friends and family to help you out.

That is what defines our neighbors and our work and our ministry at St. John’s. Many, but certainly not all, of our neighbors struggle with mental issues.

As they become family to us, we work hard to gain a more compassionate understanding, a fuller knowledge.

Why do I offer this story? Because so many have come to the conclusion that anyone that is in need of a meal, or a place to stay is either lazy or addicted.

That’s not always true. So often these are simply folks that have trouble managing their thoughts and emotions. So much so that they become unmanageable.They have been given up on by their friends and family.

See How They Love One Another!

I have recently heard this little phrase quoted, and misquoted. I have been bothered by it; perhaps by guilt but more likely by disappointment. As I write about it now, I know that it is for encouragement, but is it for myself, or for all of us?

“See how they love one another,” is sometimes stated as a quote made by the amazed pagans (Greeks) as they observed the Christians at the end of the first century. They were amazed, it was said, by the love-your-enemy-and your-neighbor-mentality. They were amazed that there were no poor in the community, because of all of the sharing out of love. It’s all wonderfully idyllic and beautiful and I want to believe it. I know that this persecuted group of believers were enjoying a time of tremendous growth, just as Jesus said they would if they would just love each other. the-exhortation-to-the-apostles-by-james-tissot-detail-featured-w740x493

What seems to be a little more accurate is that Tertullian, writing one hundred years later said that this is what others should say about us. That we should live our lives in a community so that we reflect the love of Jesus through kindness, forgiveness, and generosity.

Consider this axiom, stated in a variety of ways by many. “A civilization is known by how it treats its weakest members.”

How would an outsider judge this civilization of this country, or your town or neighborhood.? How do I judge myself?

I work at a church in the center of town that is amazing in its beautiful architecture and detail. A church in the middle of town that works hard to provide meals for those in need, but is so dreadfully lacking in providing wholesome shelter that the whole city seems to groan under an air of indifference. Several area pastors talk about having just a handful of people in church on Sunday where there once were hundreds.

There is an obvious conclusion that can be drawn. The greater the indifference toward the poor, and the smaller the Christian community gets, the larger the population will be for those sleeping under bridges.

We all hear the same things, comments like “they should get jobs,” “it’s not my fault or problem,” “I didn’t turn them into addicts,” and “what am I supposed to do about it?”

I am challenging my town, Norristown, my church, St. John’s, and myself to trumpet the message of love and care. To fill the church with a community of believers that knows the care for the weakest among us is a reflection not of them, but of us.

See how we love each other.

homeless woman

 

A Month of Sundays

It’s been a month of Sundays for the re-opened, re-imagined, old-and-yet-new and renewing  St. John’s Norristown.

Prayers have been raised, the Eucharist shared, the Gospel preached. A wonderfully diverse group have come for worship, some have just come to peek in, to see what it is, as though they are able to see what it will become.

In the space between Sundays, folks have come to pray, some to sleep in a pew, some to marvel in the physical beauty of the sanctuary, some to get a few dollars.

One came on a Sunday at four in the afternoon, in need of a pastor. He found one. One was “sleeping one off” by the front door before coming in and mildly disturbing the worship.

St. John’s is a downtown church, flanked by a post office, the county courthouse, an adult probation center and a hospitality center for the needy. The kitchen space in the downstairs provides a meal for 120-160 nearly every day. There are a few nearby restaurants and the kind of stores that are intended to serve those that are at or near poverty. There are many lawyers offices on our street, but not many private homes.There is a cacophony of street sounds drifting through open doors and windows; it’s the usual mix, people laughing and arguing, car horns, loud buses, and sirens.

Folks have come and gone from the church both in disappointment for not getting the help the need for the light bill and with gratitude for the blessing of a bit of time and a prayer with Fr. Andy Kline.

Fr. Andy and I talked recently about the many and diverse people that have seemed to find their way to St. John’s in this month of Sundays. Some have come in hardship, some with a generous spirit. Some have come needing reconciliation; some have come and provided a blessing. 

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St. John’s joins with Healing Word Church for a Sunday evening healing service.

 

“I guess that’s the kind of Church we’re going to be,” was the wondering statement that he made.

I guess so. I hope so.

“Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Romans 15:7

 

Meet Fr. Andy Kline

We come to church to worship God and Jesus. That, of course, is primary. Often we decide to stay because of the Pastor. I invite you to come to St.John’s Norristown for the primary reason, I recommend that you get to know Fr. Andy Kline.

Today Father Andy is fussing about how to create some proper signage to let folks know that the church is open. It may not be near the top of the list for his skill set, but nonetheless, it is his to do, along with the thousand other details that he has needed to see to, to re-open St.John’s Norristown.

Fr. Kline is not new to Norristown. The people, their needs and all of the local clergy are well known to him as he has spent the last seven years shepherding the good folks at St.Augustine’s. I have worshipped there with him, he is well loved and will be missed.

Andy is a father to four and husband to Kathy, whom he cares for deeply. He depends on her in ways that only a devoted spouse can. He is terribly bright and sincerely humble. The diplomas from Dartmouth and Yale in his office are a testament to his acumen, yet he carries no Ivy League airs about himself. He is a down-to-earth man with a laugh so raucous that he can shake the glass in the windows.

He is grateful for being raised in privilege, giving all credit and thanks to his parents.

All of these things about Fr. Andy Kline are true, but none of them are the reason you would choose him as your pastor.

If you come to St. John’s you will hear his energetic and deeply thoughtful sermons, but moreover, you will be drawn into his great compassion and love for others.

You will experience his great faith in the way that he prays for us all. Deeply moving prayers, prayers from his soul.

Most of all you will meet a man that begins and ends his day with Jesus Christ, and wants the same for you.

 

Come and see.

 

Can St. John’s Norristown succeed?

That’s the question that I was asked recently, and it bugged me. Perhaps it was because I didn’t know how to answer, perhaps it was the way that it was asked.

It sounded more to me like “St.John’s Norristown can’t really succeed can it?” Although I didn’t appreciate the attitude…I understood. Perhaps what really bugged me is that at  that moment, the most honest answer that I had was, “I don’t know.” What would success look like? What would failure be?

Just because I can’t answer it, doesn’t mean I can’t speak to it, so here goes. stjohnsopeningad

There is no expectation for St. John’s to be restored to some point that was glorious in its history. Bishop Gutierrez said to open the church, and that’s where it had to begin, with that simple statement. Everyone involved has aligned themselves with the belief that churches cannot stay closed. An abandoned church is just too ugly to endure.

To the person that asked the question, if you are asking if I can make St. John’s succeed, then please know that I cannot.

Fr. Andy Kline has poured a great deal of time and prayer and energy into re-opening for worship on September 24th. He will preach well and welcome all and I know that he will be joyful, but he cannot make St. John’s succeed. It is too great a task for even such a devoted priest.

Can success be measured by hitting someone’s guess at how many people in attendance would be good enough? Should we measure by how many dollars go into the plate?

St. John’s is already succeeding. People are gathering on Wednesdays for prayer. Dean Koshy Mathews has reminded the Valley Forge Deanery that they all have a stake in this venture. Rob White, from St. Davids Radnor, along with their Rector Frank Allen, are organizing the support positions for the liturgy and spreading the word. Prayers will be lifted up, there will be singing and the Eucharist will be shared. The Holy Spirit will be present.

The Word will spread. People will come because someone was blessed by being there and they will share it with others.

Before long there will be that symbol that makes God’s presence undeniable. Diversity. Worship will occur and all will know that St.John’s Norristown is truly inclusive. We will look across the pews and see people of all ages, ethnic groups, genders, and sexual orientation. In short, we will see a family and a neighborhood.

People will return to church knowing that everyone at St.John’s is a newcomer, there will be no talk of “we didn’t use to do it that way.” There are no cliques to enter or avoid, it will be impossible to sit in someone else’s seat. We are all on the ground floor.

Will St. John’s succeed? Of course, it will.

How do I know? I’m not so foolish as to think that I am the only person that Jesus has called to this place.

I am anxious to join with others, for His glory.