Donell Peck and I celebrated the new year by flying to Kolkata, India. We are eager to share our excitement about the programs we conducted there.
The very early-in-the-year travel was necessitated by an opportunity to present the Empower material to 200 women leaders from throughout India.
In Kenya two years ago, several of the Empower team had the opportunity to meet Dr. Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India.
According to their website, “The EFI is a national representative voice; articulating Biblical values, training our partnering members, addressing issues, and advocating for the poor and marginalized”. It is an umbrella organization for some 30,000 evangelical and Pentecostal churches in India.
Dr. Howell asked did we work in India, which we didn’t at the time. So he connected us with Koki Desai, who is in charge of EFI’s women’s ministry, and her husband, Johnny Desai, a regional leader with EFI. David Nutter and I conducted the New Man, New Woman, New Life seminar for an amazing and accomplished group they mobilized in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India in February 2013.
Donell and I have since learned that this seminar had been a chance to “check us out”. (Can’t blame EFI for wanting more information on us — Dr. Howell and most of the Empower team shared a small dining facility while we were in Kenya, and we do tend to carry on.) We passed the test, so EFI afforded us exposure to these outstanding women leaders.
I presented a Bible study on NMNW on all four days of the conference. Two hundred is a big group for Bible study, but I made it as interactive as possible. This was a great group! I would throw out a vague reference to a scripture in Romans, and within 30 seconds someone would give us chapter and verse. Dr. Howell and his wife, Sunita, attended all the sessions.
We have had several offers to translate the study guide into local languages, as well as many invitations to come and present the seminar. Donell had her picture taken about a hundred times with excited participants, and was shown how to wear a sari by some of the ladies David and I met in Gujarat. (I am still declining to buy a sari, but did get another style of Indian dress).
In discussion with Dr. Howell, Koki and Johnny, Empower is planning to return to India, probably in January 2015. Since visiting some of the areas to which we were invited requires a helicopter, we decided the best bet was to bring together leaders from throughout India at the EFI facilities in Shillong (north-east India) and Delhi.
Following the conference, the Desais had originally planned a NMNW seminar in a hill station (retreat area) in the state of Gujarat. Johnny learned at the last minute that the retreat center had double-booked the facility. He and Koki scrambled to find us another venue and audience, which they did overnight before Donell and I even knew anything about it.
We taught the seminar for a group for a church in the Surat area of Gujarat, about a 6-hour (often terrifying) drive from Mumbai. (Don’t believe anyone who tells you that they drive on the left in India. Our drivers spent most of the time on the right side of the road, running against traffic, or at best in the middle.)
We stayed in the town of Vyara. This rural area was beautiful and open. Vyara is the first town I have been in in which pigs are allowed to roam freely. Donell thought it was a good idea, as the pigs kept the town free of rubbish.
We enjoyed working with the group, although we did have to make some scheduling accommodations to allow some participants to get home in time to milk. An agency has given the tribal group we were working with water buffalo, and the program was thriving. We enjoyed the milk as part of the daily menu, as well as stopping along the road to watch the buffalo being milked.
Donell and I next flew to Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, where we were met by the Bishop, who drove us to Pollachi. David and I conducted a program for this group last year. The women there are still rejoicing in the good news that they were not cursed by God! (Koki told me that the belief that women are inferior and born to be slaves is part of the Hindu karmic wheel – i.e., that fact that a woman was born a woman meant that she had behaved poorly in her last life.)
The group from last year met us with rejoicing for the Master Class. As part of the Master Class, we had reports from participants about what they had learned and what they were teaching. The good news had been shared with neighbors, relatives, Bible study groups, and in churches as far away as Malaysia.
The program was held in the same Catholic retreat center as last year, but in a different building. We were about 15 kilometers out of town, and on the second day, the car got a flat tire. The driver whipped out his phone and called the Bishop, who along with one of the other men, Jesudab, came to our rescue on motorcycles.
We had a lot of lively discussion, especially with questions coming from three men sitting in the front row, who kept throwing up challenges like, “If women are equal to men, then why…”, followed by a verse taken out of context. We answered their questions, often by referring to the larger textual or cultural context in which the verse was embedded.
On the last day, the participants had an opportunity to share what they had learned. One of the first-row-gentleman said (to cheers from us), “I used to take a single verse and argue about it. Now I have learned to interpret scripture in context.”
Our work here is done.
One of the, “If women are equal to men, then why…” questions was, “If women are equal to men, then why did Jesus choose only male disciples?” We clarified that women were certainly among the disciples, with some of them contributing to Jesus’ support. (This group was puzzled to learn of women’s active participation in the early church. Perhaps as Tamil-speakers they do not recognize as female the names of the many women cited by Paul.)
Jesus did choose twelve Jewish males as apostles. The best explanation I have heard of this is that he was symbolically recreating the twelve tribes of Israel. But the twelve tribes were instruments of exclusivity, of the pulling in and isolation of the people of God from the pollution of their idol-worshipping neighbors. The name of the New Tribe of Israel, however, is “apostle”: one who is sent out. And indeed, the apostles went all over the world. The early church in India was founded by St. Thomas. Instead of pulling in on themselves, the new chosen people includes everyone – even women, and even those of no caste and despised in their traditional culture, as most of this group is.
At the end of the second day, Donell led the group in the “face-to-face affirmation” (created by Kristina Sachs), in which husbands and wives are asked to find each other (since the women sit on one side of the room and the men on the other), hold hands, and look each other in the eye as they tell each other that they love him or her, and wish to serve God in their marriage. Afterward we asked them to pray together. As the couple came together, there was much giggling – it had been years since many of these couples had held hands – and some of the men leant back as far as they could. But they did it, and Jesudab whispered to me, “Do that again tomorrow.” And when I forgot the next day, he reminded me.
The next day, Donell and I flew back to Kolkata, and after a few more adventures, got back to Hong Kong and then home. It was a good and very productive trip. Thank you for your prayers and support.