Three years ago, my husband and I moved to India. Not just to India, but to a Muslim slum community in the northern part of the country. On arriving, we were bright-eyed twenty-somethings, bent on transformation. We learned the language, got to know our neighbors, and shared the narrow dirt alleyways and squat toilets and noisy polluted air with them. We also shared curried lentils and festivals; laughter over babies’ first words and children’s dance moves to Bollywood songs they saw in the movies. We were full of dreams of working with our new neighbors for a better future.
As we got deeper into our neighbors’ often-chaotic lives, we sobered up quickly.
There were the unjust laws and corrupt officials. There was drought and impoverished soil in the villages our neighbors hailed from, where fields could not be endlessly subdivided between generations of sons. The education and healthcare systems were inadequate. And among those we got to know, malnutrition, family cycles of violence, and psychological trauma all took their toll. Generations of discrimination too often meant that people in poverty didn’t expect much from themselves.
We were discouraged not only by the enormity of the problems faced by our neighbors, but also by the church’s failure to respond. Of the local Christians with whom we interacted, many seemed focused on a “spiritual” agenda – gathering adherents – though to be sure, they had material concerns as well: maintaining historical church buildings and air-conditioned auditoriums.
Judging from our conversations with these fellow believers, they seemed to believe that the only good reason for a Christian to set foot in our neighborhood was to proselytize. Not coincidentally, many were also downright afraid of Muslims (imagine the angry reaction if Muslims would be found handing out pamphlets about Islam to children in a Baptist neighborhood in America’s Bible Belt!) and could not understand why we would want to live with them. If we explained that we wanted to learn about poverty and then work alongside our neighbors to address their needs – employment, education, healthcare, domestic violence – Christian acquaintances would often nod and smile knowingly: “Yes, they will be much more open to your message if they trust you.”
To us, the message we proclaimed was part of our lives; befriending and loving people was not a calculated strategy, but an end in itself. But with fellow believers it was often impossible to get past the assumption of undercover evangelism.
But we believed that working alongside people to advance their communities’ physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being was an integral part of that message. After all, when Jesus first announced his mission at a synagogue in his hometown, he articulated a sweeping vision of justice that encompassed much more than saving souls:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18– 9)
To us, then, the message we proclaimed was part of every aspect of our lives: befriending and loving people was not a calculated strategy, but an end in itself. But with fellow believers – Indians and Westerners alike – it was often impossible to get past the assumption of undercover evangelism. This was a frustrating and isolating experience.
Then I met the nun. Within walking distance of our home, there was a convent and Catholic school where an eighty-year-old Carmelite sister ran a tailoring course for girls. I was unaware of the Carmelites until a local teenager invited me to meet the Sister who ran the course. I was intrigued. The nun, Sister Charis, having heard about the American woman living in the slum, was just as intrigued to meet me. She had assumed that I was a Christian, but she didn’t have any of the typical hang-ups to understanding why I was there. She understood. Her tailoring course wasn’t about making good Catholics out of the Hindu and Muslim teenagers who flocked to her classroom. It was an act of love.
She knew that these girls had precious little opportunity to just be kids – most had been confronted with the realities of hunger, violence, and hardship from a young age. Their family situations prevented some of them from attending school, and long before their twentieth birthdays, many would be married off to complete strangers, soon finding themselves caring for a baby or two. Without education or marketable experience, each of them would be completely dependent on her husband, whoever he turned out to be.
Sister Charis explained that whether or not the graduates of the tailoring program became able to earn a living from their skills, she hoped the course would instill confidence and self-worth, and provide a safe space: her classes gave one of the few opportunities available to girls in my neighborhood to leave the house, better yet to be carefree and to spend time with their friends for a few hours each day.
I was amazed at the success of Sister Charis’s modest endeavor. Five days a week, dozens of Hindu and Muslim teenagers – some donning head-to-toe niqab and veiling their faces for the walk – enthusiastically went to a convent to visit an old South Indian Christian woman. I saw the deep respect and affection with which they greeted her when they arrived, and I saw that same respect and love mirrored in her crinkled smile. I watched in amazement as the girls participated in a beautiful prayer, chanted in a style that I would have associated with Hindu worship, but simple enough to be prayed by a monotheistic Christian or Muslim as well. Their eyes lit up when they described the afternoons they spent at the convent, and there was pride in their voices as they told me about the skills they were learning.
Depending on her health that day, Sister Charis would either join the girls in the classroom or sit in the shade outside, dignified in her nun’s habit with a crucifix around her neck. Either way, the girls would clamor to talk with her. She was strict and held them to high standards, but she was fair. She was also willing to involve herself in their lives when they needed help, whether that meant subsidizing the purchase of a sewing machine or helping their families to pay for emergency medical care. The girls recognized all of this as the no-strings-attached care of a true parent.
Being vulnerable with people is both humbling and scary. When people become friends instead of projects, things get messier because they see our weaknesses and mistakes.
As class began, Sister Charis led me outside to talk. Neither English nor Hindi was her mother tongue, and I had a hard time understanding her accent. Although it was difficult for her to find words, it was clear that she had a sharp mind and a lifetime’s accumulation of wisdom. What was I doing here in India? I explained, and she seemed to understand. Encouraged, I went on to say that I thought it was hard for a lot of Christians to comprehend what my husband and I were doing in India.
“There are a couple of beautiful sermons recorded in the Bible,” the nun said slowly. “But in my experience, I find that preaching is usually not very effective. Your witness is your own healing journey with Jesus.”
I knew that her words were true. I thought of the three thousand people in Jerusalem who were cut to the heart at Pentecost when Peter preached to them in their own languages. I remembered Paul’s message to the Greeks on Mars Hill, connecting the local people’s literature and culture to the message of Jesus. But, throughout the book of Acts, it is clear that much of the early church’s growth was dependent on the daily lifestyle of rank-and-file believers, the welcoming community they created, and the work of God displayed in their own lives. As the writer of Acts tells us:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47)
At the time of that first meeting with Sister Charis, it was hugely comforting to have a kindred spirit who did not view my life in India with suspicion or judgment. But in the year and a half since then, her words have brought comfort in a new way: they have affirmed that my personal journey with Jesus is not less important than my “work.” In fact, these things cannot be separated from one another.
So many times, I have felt the tension of choosing between my own needs and the needs of the people around me. I have felt guilty about taking time out for a retreat, for prayer, or for rest, when there is so much wrong with the world and so much work to be done. When I was forced to face my own limits as a human being in a dramatic way by leaving India last fall, I felt conflicted about whether it was selfish to care for myself. I knew that I needed healing before I could continue, but it still felt difficult to justify – to myself as much as to anyone else.
My identity had become so tied up in what I did that to be separated from those things meant putting to death the self-image I had created. Who would I be when I was no longer following this recognizably radical path? I also saw the subtle ways in which my desire to serve people was mixed in with unhealthy motivations of fear and guilt: on an unconscious level, I had believed that my sacrifices were necessary to secure God’s love and avoid his wrath. The new questions I faced were not about whether Jesus had called me to a life of simplicity and service, but about whether I was able to pursue those things freely out of love rather than a sense of obligation or unhealthy striving.
I know that I am not alone in this experience, and that I’m probably not as different from the tract-toting, drive-by evangelists as I would like to think I am, either. It’s always tempting to try to serve or improve others without looking critically at ourselves, because the alternative is to be vulnerable with people, and that is both humbling and scary. When people become friends instead of projects, things get messier because they see our weaknesses and mistakes. In the close quarters of the slum, our neighbors overheard me arguing with my husband, saw me cry from being hurt or overwhelmed, and were part of situations in which I sometimes lost my temper or said an unkind word. But these situations – and the ways we worked to resolve them afterward – provided opportunity for my husband and my neighbors and me to practice forgiveness and grace with one another; to heal and to be part of one another’s healing.
Within the church, many of us are quick to jump into the busyness of “ministry,” and especially into teaching or preaching. Yet we are afraid to attend to the pain and the brokenness within ourselves. Perhaps our culture’s emphasis on performance and productivity prevents us from seeing the futility of trying to share with others something that we are not living and experiencing in our own lives. We forget that we can only share Living Water out of the wells that have been dug within our own hearts, and that inner work takes time.
I am thankful for the wise words of my Carmelite friend that day under the neem trees. Thanks to the unexpected twists and turns of my journey, I increasingly understand that it is only out of my own experience of God’s love that I am able to offer love to anyone else.
See also: Everyone Belongs to God: Discovering the Hidden Christ by Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, with a foreword by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.