As a visiting pastor, I was treated like royalty on a hectic itinerary. In the mountains surrounding Munnar, Kerala, we toured missions, homes, and congregations of the Church of South India.
This meant racing at breakneck speed, careening around corners while blasting our horn. It meant politely eating food prepared at each stop. Like a goose being stuffed for foie gras, I felt my body ballooning. I smiled with each swallow of curried delicacy.
I have NEVER experienced as much gracious hospitality as I did on that trip. Still, by the end of that day I was worn out physically, emotionally, mentally.
Could I respectfully decline? Ravaged by jet lag, dizzy from our ride, food level dipsticked to my corneas, I just needed to sleep.
“Sounds wonderful,” I said. I’m so glad I did.
The church was in a poorer neighborhood of Munnar called The Colony, home to laborers who tend surrounding tea plantations. They traverse verdant hillsides, picking leaves for less than subsistence wages. Others haul rocks in baskets on their heads, repairing roads eroded by annual monsoons. Long hours under the blazing India sun.
We arrived at our destination – one room for a family of six. No lights, just dozens of flickering candles. Seated on straw mats were more people than I imagined could fit in that space. Their lustrous eyes and broad smiles welcomed me. My guide/interpreter was a younger pastor fluent in both English and Malayalam. We sat in spots at the head of the room.
After beautiful singing that lifted my soul, there was a Q&A time.
One woman asked why I had come. I replied, “To make new friends and see God’s love at work in the world.”
Another asked if I had ever experienced a miracle. I nodded and described my journey with a special needs son. I told them how doctors predicted he would never speak, and yet today he carries on conversations.
The room suddenly erupted in Malayalam, a Pentecostal torrent. People raised their hands and shook. It lasted a good five minutes. Finally, like an orchestra conductor, an older man stood and gestured for silence. They all settled down and gazed at me in the flickering candlelight.
“What was that about?” I whispered to my guide.
“Simple,” he said. “They were praising God that you have come to be with us, and that God has blessed your son.”
Tears filled my eyes. I pressed my hands together and said, “Namaste. Thank you so much for your hospitality.”
A woman sitting near me gently grasped my forearm, saying something in her native tongue. She was probably in her 30s, but her face, etched by hard labor, looked far older.
“She wants to know,” said my guide, “if you will carry their burdens with you when you return to the U.S.”
Had Peter felt that way when Jesus found him along the Sea of Galilee, saying, “Follow me.”
I swallowed and answered, “Yes.”
To this day, I struggle with my vow. Every time I serve someone hurting, or seek to remember the least, or advocate for justice rather than my own comfort, it all comes back to me…
…a night in India I will never forget.