Saturday, August 2, 2008

Headed Home!!

Update - Jack just called me (Sami) and asked if I would post and let you know that he and Raj and Prema just took the teams to the Chennai airport where they said their goodbyes! The teams are now headed for home!! Jack is staying for an additional few days to teach a Core Class to the church planters. He will post more later!

Perspectives: Dan Blacketor - Twenty Bucks a Month?

This week we had the chance to visit both privately funded schools as well as those funded by the Indian government. The cost to send a child to a private school varies but ranges between $20 and $25 per month. When you are making less than $5 per day this becomes a huge sacrifice for many parents and for those families earning less than $2 per day completely out of the question. Even at this huge sacrifice over 30% of students attend a private school – and the educational metrics are overwhelming.

In the private schools the children were well mannered, attentive, wearing a school uniform and learning at levels that were at if not exceeding American schools (a young girl in the 4th standard [4 to 5th grade] was showing me her homework where they were studying geometry, algebra and beginning to learn about mathematical signs and co-signs. Every student had a seat and they shared a 6 foot long table with 4 to 5 other class mates. Now understand this is a village that is at least 8 hours by train, then an additional 90 minutes by bus up and around windy dirt roads just to get to the village. Each class we taught was attended by 30 to 35 students and even the youngest students (2nd and 3rd graders) were able to have conversations after 45 minutes of instruction. Conversational English was practiced among 2 or 3 students.

The government operated schools were a completely different story. First, we did not have the opportunity to meet with the teachers in a separate sessions because the Head Mistress (oversees the school) shared that “the kids would run wild” if we took teachers out of the classroom. Not exactly sure how bad that might have gotten (see Jack’s post) but we took her word for it. The children also received a free lunch each day where the two women cooks were responsible for serving and supervising nearly 600 children (the teachers completely disappeared for nearly 1 ½ hours for their lunch break leaving us and the two cooks to watch over the children – pity the cooks on the days we were not there!)

So, our teaching environment was this – 150 to 175 students squeezed into a room that was 20 feet wide by 50 feet deep. Everyone sat on the floor and they carried their book bag with them. At best the children wore tattered and dirty clothes that had the colors of the school uniform. Kids in the back could not see or hear and children in the front were being squeezed by more and more students wanting to get a closer look at these Americans. Practicing their newly learned English was moved to the school court yard where each of us would take 45 to 50 students and attempt to have quality instructional time. I witnessed very, very little classroom instruction or learning

What was extremely interesting to learn was that the teachers in the private school were most times earning much less than the teachers in the government school. Even though the children from the private schools went home to the same environment as the kids attending the government school I would match the competency and competitiveness of the privately funded students with any student (private or public) in the world.

The question that I keep rolling around in my head is “what would happen if the church –both India and GCC) could figure out how to help Christian Indian families send their children to these private schools?” What would the India church look like in 10 years? What would India look like? All for less than $20 per month!

Perspectives: Dan Blacketor - You’ve Got to Be Able to Think Indian!

Meet Professor. He is one amazing communicator. By day he truly is a college professor but he is also a full time pastor and church planter. 24/7 he is about bringing Kingdom from Up There to Down Here. He started a church about 6 years ago and now has over 700 people attending. This week he was given the task to accompany the Conversational English team as we worked with grade school students, their teachers and the administration of the schools.

Jack has always talked a lot about how Indians always add so much spice when they were translating for our teams and teachers – well this is the Professor to the nines. He could capture a class of students quicker than anyone I have ever seen. Within minutes he would have them laughing, repeating English words and phrases and communicating with each other (in English) in short sentences.

We Americans did our best – but I think the students were more interested in seeing these different looking people, hearing them speak and eagerly repeating a few short words back to us. But, with the professor, the kids wanted to LEARN English as if their lives depended upon it. With the world getting much smaller and the common thread of communication seemingly being English this might be very true. The professor understood that Tamil should never be replaced as these kid’s native language but learning English was more like learning the internet or any other skill set that enables you to enhance your standard of living.

Friday, August 1, 2008

“Just Point and Shoot”? Hardly!

Truthfully, I don’t even really know what this thing is. I DO, however, know what it’s NOT. It’s NOT an advanced GPS triangulation device used to give us hyper-accurate coordinates for drilling a well in a remote Indian village. It’s NOT the hardware for setting up a turbo-speed wireless “hot-spot” so that my blogging can be faster and better, even from a village in the middle of nowhere. And, despite it’s looks, it’s NOT a 30 mm light infantry mortar complete with laser range finder and ambient light magnification. It’s also NOT something that fits my typical gift mix. THIS thing is all about sensitivity and artistry. It’s about angles and perspective. Light and glass. It’s about sound-levels and mic checks. It is fragile, and requires battery changes. It runs out of tape, and requires a “Sherpa” to carry the backpack full of “ammunition” (i.e. extra batteries, tapes, wireless mics, etc). I can’t find the trigger. I’m afraid that I’ll drop it or crush it or scratch it or breathe on it wrong. But in its defense, Gene Ort tells me that it takes KILLER pictures. I’m sure he’s right… provided that I actually managed to record anything of value. Guess we’ll see if I’ve been a good “shooter” or not when I get back and he has a chance to take a look at the footage.

Conversational English: Feeding Frenzy…

For reasons that will hopefully become obvious as you read this, I did not and could not actually take a picture of the Conversational English team this morning. They left the hotel to head toward their Village #2 experience at about 9:30 am, knowing that unlike the first 2 days, they were going to be working in a Government School for the remaining two days. Government Schools are the “lower echelon” of India’s educational system. They are where rural, poor or low-caste children go to school. Tuition is free, discipline is lax, and the teachers can do little more than barely “manage” impossible student to teacher ratios in their classrooms. Raj and I drove separately from the team (I was making copies of the team’s hand-outs, and it took me a little longer than I anticipated), and when we arrived, I was amazed to see several hundred little swarming bodies in powder blue uniforms piling around a small concrete room, peering in with hungry little faces at whatever was inside. As I approached, the swarm temporarily diverted to me, and I was immediately surrounded on all sides by hundreds (literally… I’m not joking...) of little munchkins smiling, laughing, shouting and tugging at me. It was like piranha attacking a cow trying to cross the Amazon, except that I had the sense to quickly duck for cover into the little room where the mob had previously been staring. Inside, I found the Conversational English team, laughing and looking elated, but rather nervously at me. “Um… they said that they have 600 kids, will divide them into 2 batches of 300, and that we can ‘take it from there’”, Dan said with a gritty chuckle. I looked around at the teeming mass of “HELLO!!!”-shouting smiles, reaching through the windows to grab hold of clothes or anything else that came within reach and said, “Yeah…uh… this place sort of seems to lack the discipline of the private school from the last couple of days, doesn’t it?” Dan cocked an eyebrow and the rest of the team nodded solemnly. “So you guys are going to take these kids in batches of 300?” Again, grim nods mixed with a sort of daringly joyful anticipation. Mental impressions of The Alamo, Custer’s Last Stand, and The Battle of Armageddon flashed through my mind. “How exactly are you going to do that?” I mused incredulously. Then Dan shrugged his shoulders like the battle-hardened veteran that he is, “It’ll be just like After School at MC3… plus or minus a couple of hundred.” I laughed, then remembered the legendary Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi’s words in his classic treatise on swordsmanship (The Book of 5 Rings). It goes something like this, “When you have achieved true mastery, then whether you are engaging one opponent, or ten, or a hundred or a thousand matters little.” Then one of the wild-eyed teachers frantically muttered something that was translated as “they’re ready for you”, and the 4 team members stood up and strided Zen-like into the gaping maw of the waiting mob. I smiled with pride as I quite literally watched them sink beneath the surging swell of tiny humanity and took the opportunity to make a quick exit under cover of their temporary distraction. A couple of the swarmers saw me and peeled off a hundred or so others in a mad dash to try to beat me to the vehicle. I’m not kidding, it was like trying to evade predators. I would have stopped to take a picture except that a camera to small Indian kids is the equivalent of a bleeding elephant seal to a Great White, and so decided to focus on speed and evasion rather than shutterbugging. I made it to the vehicle with a laughing Raj getting into the other side. As we pulled away, there were literally kids hanging off the siderails, shouting “HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!!!!” as we went and finally picked up enough speed for them not to be able to hold on. I cast one final look over my shoulder and the team was nowhere to be found. I shook my head and laughed. “Like bees on a honeycomb!” Raj chuckled. “More like sharks at a frenzy!” I retorted.

Off and Running… Again.

Starting at 9 am this morning, the teams assembled downstairs and were greeted by two “vans” (think M.A.S.H. era personnel carrier), one for each team. Basically, the idea is this: each team will “flip-flop” and head to the village where the other team just finished operating. That way, each village gets to have both a Conversational English and a Medical Team, which is good since our community surveys yielded that both areas requested that sort of help. Their time in their second villages will be slightly shorter than the time they spent in the first, and will look something like this:

Meet Village Pastor and Relevant Leaders
Afternoon program

Morning program
Afternoon program
Leave on overnight train for Chennai

Did You Know?

Did you know that while the 7 US team members (plus me) are here in India, GCC likewise has a team of 35 students and leaders bringing the Kingdom of God from “Up There to Down Here” in Monterrey, Mexico? You can track them and their team blog by going here:

A MUCH Deserved Rest-day…

Raj picked up both teams before 9 am and brought them back to the hotel where we have been staying. It has air-conditioning, comfortable beds, and… that luxury of all luxuries… hot showers. The purpose of the day is just to rest and relax, catching up a bit before heading out to the next set of villages. There really isn’t much on the agenda. Basically, I just told them that we’d see them all at 1 pm for lunch. Eat. Talk a little bit. Dismiss for naps, rest, shopping or whatever they wanted to do. Then see them again at 7 for anyone who wanted to eat dinner together. In the past, we’ve not done a “mid-point” break like this, but I think that it’s really a good thing, and will be a “keeper” for future teams. Even if you’re tough-as-nails like Melinda (I’m not kidding… the girl’s made out of steel! She could hack SEAL training… I guarantee it!), three days and three nights of sweaty floor sleeping, different food, high energy-high demand activities, little sleep beforehand from the straight 40+ hours of travel, etc. will take the varnish off your normally pleasant demeanor. Taking a day in the middle to recoup really seems to help people catch their breath before diving into another village environment, and was a good call to insert into the trip.

Conversational English: Graduation!

After seeing the Medical Camp (and leaving my secondary camera with The Camera Ninja mentioned in my last post), Raj and I headed back to the private school where the Conversational English team was preparing to hand out certificates of completion to the students who spent the day with them. In typical form for this school, the kids paraded in neat and orderly lines onto a sort of large patio in the back of one of the main buildings. The boys sat on one side, the girls on the other, and we sat at the front. Then, the principal spoke several words of gratitude for the team and also for Raj, who helped (in conjunction with Devisetham) to bring about the connection. Raj and Dan both followed, and I was especially impressed that pretty much everyone conducted the entire ceremony in English. Even a few of the teachers came up to speak, which was fun to see, and even a couple of the students. Even for the latter, whose speeches were brief, you could tell that they made very deliberate efforts to speak clearly and use words beyond the “standard vocabulary”. We were all impressed, and enjoyed the time immensely. As each student came up to get a signed certificate from us for completing the day and shake our hands, each of the other students cheered warmly. What a blast!

Camera Ninja: Prema Rajendran

We got some GREAT footage of the whole Medical Camp and Women’s Meeting, and I can’t take any credit for it, alas! Want to know who can? Raj’s wife, Prema! Yup, among many other things for which Prema absolutely ROCKS, she’s also a phenomenal photographer. In addition, because she’s Indian, she can move more seamlessly through crowds, be less conspicuous in groups, and get closer to people in the Women’s Meeting than I would be able to. She’s like “The Camera Ninja”. Invisible. Inconspicuous. Lethal. Well…okay… maybe not lethal, but certainly knows the tools of her trade well!

Medical Team: Women’s Meeting

While Jim and the doc’s met with patients, Barb and Andrea met with the women of the village and surrounding area, talking at great length about all sorts of things ranging from empowerment, HIV/AIDS transmission, caring for chronic health issues (personal or family), and even marriage and family related topics. They were aided greatly by Sindu (the young woman to the left of Andrea in the picture here), who is a post-graduate student and a phenomenal translator, and you could tell that the atmosphere around the women was quite honestly electric. The village women leaned in closely to hear what Andrea and Barb had to say, interacted aggressively and positively with one another, and also with them. I think the “biggest” thing that happened as a result of the meeting time was Prema and Sindu’s comment that they thought that this was probably the first time the women had all been together for something like this where they could talk openly about the issues that they are facing, and that because they felt empowered, validated and helped, even from just a “peer to peer” point of view over and apart from the expertise Barb and Andrea provided, would most likely continue to do this kind of thing on their own even after the GCC team leaves. Cool! Mission accomplished! We always say that we are trying to foster and facilitate things that can be replicated infinitely after we leave, so I think that we can say with great confidence that the Women’s Meeting was a great success!

Medical Team: Medical Camp

When I got to the Medical Team, there were already a 100 or so people lined up to be seen by Jim and 3 Indian physicians, plus a host of nurses and other personnel waiting to take orders from the doctors and distribute doses of on-hand medicine. The closer we got to 10 am (the anticipated start time for the camp), the more people came flooding to the camp. When it was time to start, Pastor Devisetham (one of our SuperPastors) introduced the doctors, then the rest of the GCC team. He explained that the doctors would be doing basic screenings, medical analysis and medication distribution, and that Barb and Andrea would like to speak with any women who were present about women’s issues whenever they had received treatment from the doctors. When the pastor finished speaking, he introduced the Village Elder (kind of the like the Mayor), who thanked the team for coming, and also for the other doctors in the mix coming as well. Then, when he finished, he marched right over to Jim and sat down. Jim checked his vitals, and then asked him some very targeted questions about his lifestyle. The Elder seemed thoroughly happy to be listening to Jim, and also to be listened to by him. He thanked him thoroughly, and then went on his way, after which time, Jim saw a steady stream of patients for the rest of the day. All in all, I think that Jim and the other doctors saw 176 patients during the camp, but Jim continued to see patients well into the evening as stragglers made it to the village from the outlying other communities.

Bo-Peep Lives Here!

Okay, now, Salem isn’t like Metropolis or Gotham or anything (no, I mean in regard to size of the city, not in regard to comic-book characters), but it’s a pretty good sized town. And we’re staying in a decent hotel (well…okay… IIIIIIIII am staying in a decent hotel… the teams are sleeping on the ground in their villages… and yes… I feel guilty… but having spent plenty of time on the ground on previous trips, not TOO guilty) that functions as an effective “base” and midpoint between the two villages. As a result, just try to remember the last time you walked out of a Marriott and saw a lady with a herd of sheep or goats come walking through the carport. “Pardon me, sir, can I get your car? Yes sir… just a moment, sir… we have to wait for the goats to pass.”

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Medical Team: A Little Off-guard!

It didn’t take Jim long to finish with little Moses. When he did, Moses’ mother walked over with all smiles and extended a warmth and vibrancy that lit the Indian twilight. Then she asked me if I would take a picture of her and Barb together, and I said “sure”. I pulled out my camera and watched her sidle up to Barb. Thinking that this would be just the standard “we both stand here and smile for the camera” gig, I set up and prepared to click the button. Before I knew what was going on, however, the little lady reached up and grabbed Barb’s head with both hands, pulling it down to her face in the most energetic and grateful smooch I have ever seen! I think it really caught Barb off guard. But it was awesome! When it was Andrea’s turn, she received similar treatment, and it was amazing to see such a massive outpouring of affection.

Medical Team: SuperDoc!

Anyone who knows Jim Blechl knows that he rocks anyway, but today, I gained a whole new appreciation for just how much! We showed up at a family’s home just before twilight, and found this little guy sitting on a cot outside the back door. His name is Moses. Apparently, he had been riding his bike down the street a couple of weeks ago when his bare little foot caught in the spokes, thus ripping a huge chunk of his skin right off and exposing the top of his foot to both infection and a difficult healing process. There was a rudimentary bandage on the wound, which is being treated regularly, but Jim sat down and set to work, carefully engaging the little guy so as to keep him comfortable and yet making sure that everything was analyzed well. But here’s the part that blew my mind. We’re in the middle of a remote Indian village with really, pretty much nothing. The family didn’t even have peroxide, Neosporin, band-aids or any of the things that most of us have just “on hand” in our medicine cabinets at home. The entire environment is far from sterile by ANY means, but Jim was absolutely undaunted, carefully looking through the wound, suggesting remediation and care, and also ensuring long term care as the wound heals. So often, I think that we see doctors in our pristine US offices and hospitals and think that somehow, all that equipment and the latest tech is the “real solution”, but let me tell you, it’s not. It’s the key people like Jim who can take that knowledge anywhere and make it work, improvising even when “the latest scanner or gizmo” is simply unavailable. And even more than that, it’s the fact that when he was done, Jim laid his hand on Moses’ head and prayed for him. Prayed with a passion and humility that was amazing to see in action.

Ziggy Was Right After All…

Maybe I’m the only American who thinks that the perception of most Americans about India is that “gurus” live atop every mountain in the country. You know Ziggy (the big nosed, huge headed, cute little guy who shows up in your newspaper comics)? You know how “the guru” is one of the prominent characters in his little strip? Ziggy is forever encountering this wise man with pithy advice and contemporary wisdom as he journeys to the top of Indian mountains for advice. Well, guess what! Today, while hiking up a little mountain near where the Medical Team is working, Raj told me that there actually IS a guru atop the adjacent mountain. He lives in a little temple at the top, and people DO actually hike up there (it’s about a 5 hour hike) and ask his advice about things. Only downside is that the zoom on my camera wouldn’t allow me to give you a very close picture of… well… anything but the mountain, so that will have to suffice. Just know that atop the third peak from the left, there’s a little guy up there somewhere, and if you have a big nose and oversized head (and 5 hours to spare), you could probably come pretty close to looking like the comic inserted here.

Medical Team: Comfortable…

Okay, so I was wondering how I would find the Medical Team upon arrival. They had, after all, been in the village for a good 12 hours, and I was anxious to make sure that they were doing well. Upon arrival, therefore, I was amazed to find that not only had the team “adapted” to their new environment well, but you’d think that they had grown up there. Check out these pictures! I look up and see one of the little kids from the village just crawling up into Jim’s lap. He didn’t want a thing… just wanted to sit there, and did so for the better part of half an hour. And the little lady here holding Barb’s hand so carefully was their hosts wife. A firecracker of a little lady, she made absolutely certain that the team absolutely lacked for nothing. We learned later that she quite literally just got up every few hours at night to go and check on the team “just to make sure they were okay, didn’t need anything, and were comfortable”. I looked up to see her just holding Barb’s hand like they were long lost sisters, and it amazed me at how quickly that bond had formed. Andrea as well was right at home, and the kids in the village absolutely ADORED her! There was also one particular young pregnant woman (probably about 20 years old) who kept just staying close by, smiling and doing whatever she could to help. I asked at one point who she was, and Anand told us that she is a young mother in the village. “She has never seen a white person before,” he explained, “and now that you are here, she is so happy that you are here to help."

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Medical Team: Promotion

Okay, so you’ve got a team of US doctors and nurses on the way, and have also negotiated having 4 Indian physicians to showing up for a one day health camp as well. How do you get the word out? Well, immediately, I start thinking of all the things Kem Meyer would say (and then I look reverently at my W.W.K.D bracelet and chant a little mantra about Google vs. Yahoo), but in the absence of Web strategies, Wired Churches workshops, News Releases and the Blogosphere, not to mention all the other cool things that we at GCC and our Comms Dept do so well, I thought I would show you how we do it here in India.

Step #1: Poster Bills
You get the critical information that you need and have hundreds of 18”x24” “bills” printed at a local printer. Then you soak said bills in a watery glue solution, and go to find every available square footage of surface in the surrounding village. Once you find a highly visible section of facing, you smack the glue-soaked bill onto it. Find another section somewhere else. Repeat. You should watch out for sections of space that say “post no bills”, because if you post there, you can be fined by local police or building owners. The odd thing is that the “post no bills” signs look worse, generally, than the bills themselves, but that’s probably not for me to say. Pictured here is actually a house where one of our little bills was smacked. Close-up also attached.

Step #2: Mobile Megaphone
Hire a local auto-rickshaw and then rig it with a makeshift, battery-powered megaphone system. Add music and a nifty jingle about the benefits of health camps, where the health camp will be, and all other relevant details, and then send the rickshaw throughout the entire area of more than 3,000 people.

Step #3: Await the Masses
Having accomplished the above two steps, people will most assuredly show up. Seriously. We expect to have some 200+ people come to the Health Camp tomorrow. Guess we’ll see.

Medical Team: Initial Notes

Some quick notes before I move on to the actual Medical Team itself. For those who are unfamiliar with the team’s objectives and methods, we will be attempting to do the following things in our time through the ministry of the Medical Team:
a) Train church members and Christians about HIV/AIDS and related issues, as well as other chronic illnesses that are present in the village and surrounding.
b) Visit local families who have HIV or a chronic health issue in order to help them determine the best next course of action medically, keeping in mind the need for adjustment culturally.
c) Conduct a one-day long “Health Camp” for anyone who wishes to attend, and in conjunction with Indian physicians from a nearby hospital as well.
d) Conduct “women’s meetings” whereby Barb Blechl and Andrea Welch attempt to engage women regarding issues that uniquely affect them in regard to HIV and other illnesses.
At the end of our time, our hope is that the people of the village perceive the local church as a place that has an interest in helping them in their day to day lives, and also has the power to resource experts or other critical personnel to make that happen. We also hope that the church begins to be viewed as a sort of “clearing house” for positive connections, great care, a Message of Hope, and the Love of Jesus.

C’mon, What’s the Hold-up? Oh…

Came to a railway crossing and the gates were down. Living in South Bend, naturally, I was neither surprised nor unfamiliar with this concept, but couldn’t remember the last time in South Bend that I was parked at a train crossing behind an ox-cart full of agricultural products and people. Now true… I don’t spend a lot of time in Amish Country either, so that probably still exists not too far from away, but here in India, it’s a really regular occurrence.

I had video footage from Robin William’s portrayal of Adrian Cronaeur in Good Morning, Vietnam running through my head.

“There's a water buffalo jackknifed up there. It's not a very pretty picture. There's horns everywhere. I don't know what to say. Might have to drop some napalm in down there and see if we can't cook 'im down."


Okay, couldn’t resist this one. Driving from Conversational English team to the Medical team, I saw this little guy walking down the road. From a distance, it just looked like a massive pile of hay with two little legs (like a Muppet or maybe “Gossamer” from the Looney Tunes – pic below), and I began immediately calling it a “Hay-fro”. I’m going to try to convince Tim Stevens that he and I need to adopt this for our next hairstyle. It would be a massive shift from bald, and we wouldn’t even have to grow hair to try it!

Indian Paper Plates…

Ever hear the term “sitting Indian style” (i.e. cross-legged on the floor)? Well, here in India, you do that a LOT, particularly for meal-time. After the day with the teachers, we evacuated to where the English Team is staying (a small village about 15 minutes from the school) and sat down to share a meal with the hosts. Now, in India, there are no “paper plates”… at least not the way we have them in the States. Rather, in India, disposable flatware is really just a cleaned off palm leaf. And… since you don’t use silverware (you eat with your hands in Southern India… no silverware), there is no need for plastic utensils either. Honestly, if we had palm trees in South Bend, I’d be sorely tempted not to adopt the same practice as it’s eco-friendly, cheap and effective.

Shown here is a traditional South Indian meal, complete with steamed rice, sambar (a sort of saucy soup that can have a variety of ingredients), a warm rice “chutney” (I didn’t catch the name) and a crispy wafer (also forgot the name…sorry… but think “Munchos” potato chips, and you’ll have a pretty good idea).

As mentioned, you eat with your fingers, and the best method of approach is to sort of scoop all the ingredients to the center of the leaf, and then just dig in. Indians often get a laugh out of watching us try to eat with our fingers, and I’ve seen our friends call the improvised techniques we often employ range from “elephant” to “steam shovel”. All are probably accurate, and you absolutely can’t help but get your fingers absolutely messy in the process. If you want to try and experiment with the consistency, try this. Make 1 quart of Minute Rice. Dump a can of Campbell’s Sirloin Burger soup on top of it. Eat it with your fingers. It’s not as easy as you might think… particularly sitting cross legged on the floor.


So I look up for a quick second and see Dan Blacketor shaking hands with this small group of brave little boys who wanted to try their English. Surrounding him like little piranha, they circled and jumped in, extending hands and taking pieces of his, shaking vehemently as they did so and shouting “Hello! Hello! Hello!” all the while. He was holding his own pretty well… until I pulled out a camera to take a quick shot. It was like throwing horse meat into a feeding frenzy, and within seconds, Dan was literally stormed with nearly a hundred little boys and girls (mostly boys) increasing the “Hello!” volume and darting in and out to try to shake his hand before running away giggling. By the time I got close enough to get the first picture, I had to start retreating to take the second in order to be able to fit everyone in.

Conversational English: Incentive

When the teachers began to develop a level of comfort with the basic vocabulary and phrases, Raj stood up and offered a challenge. Having divided the group into four teams, he offered an “incentive” of 100 RS to the group that could do a skit with the most participation from their group with the most usage of English vocabulary and concepts studied in the small groups. After about 10 minutes of prep time, each group yielded the best skit they could, and they ranged from very “serious” skits featuring teachers and students interacting about career choices, to more comical skits where teachers parodied the struggles that they have with their kids in the classrooms and trying to keep them quiet and attentive. In the end, each did such a great job that Raj doped out a 100 RS note to each group, and even another 100 to an “MVP” teacher who was especially creative (and hilarious) in one of the men’s groups. As a general rule, India (particularly South Indian) culture is extremely expressive artistically. It is not uncommon for everyone to play multiple musical instruments, be familiar with literally hundreds of folk and contemporary songs, and adapt quickly and readily to drama or other means of expression. If they think or believe something, it comes out in their arts and expression, and those expressions are vast in number and depth.

Conversational English: Work Groups

After using a computer-based Tamil/English language program for some initial pronunciation and basic skill drills, the team broke into small groups headed by each team member. Each group worked through a set of basic phrases and interaction, and each group of teachers listened carefully to each native speaker as words were clearly spoken. They continued to go back and forth, both among the team members and each other, working diligently on their pronunciation, and also their inflection. It was fun to see their confidence burgeoning right before our eyes!

Conversational English: Team Intro and Initial Matters

Before diving in to the time with the teachers from the school, our team was introduced by the school principal (pictured standing below) and welcomed accordingly. Both Raj and Dan did great jobs explaining why they are there, what they hope to accomplish, and how much the entire process is intended to be collaborative and participatory. The teachers responded warmly, and so Dan and Raj set about jumping in to the first round of training.

Interestingly, the first round of training actually featured a “Learn Tamil” CD software program that I bought a couple of years ago in Chennai on a previous team. Even though the intent of the program is to help English speakers learn Tamil, the program actually works in the opposite direction just as well (Tamil to English), offering pronunciations for all sorts of words, and offering a vocabulary map that increases in difficulty for both languages. Because India has a very “repetition” driven pedagogical system, the teachers quickly complied with requests to listen and repeat words, and were careful to listen closely to the exact pronunciation of Dan and the team.

About half way through the first module, we were joined by Mr. Shivasetham, the regional English coordinator for a variety of private schools in the area. He speaks phenomenal English, and was ecstatic that a team of native speakers was present to share and help. He also had some great ideas for improving things along the way, and it was obvious very quickly that he not only has a passion for language, but a passion for teaching children as well.


Hey there. Quick note to all of you who are following just to let you know that I’m having a lot of difficulty with both Internet connection and access to Blogger. In most instances, the connection is slow enough out here that I can’t do much other than slooooooowly load anything (think circa 1992 15k modem and early era AOL), and when I have had a decent connection, Blogger seems to either be down or not wanting to cooperate very well. I have also taken a ton of brief video, and was excited to load for you to see, but even at 100 meg or less, it’s taking too long to load and is timing out the connection, alas. Anyway, please just suffice to say the following:
· I am continuing to work on updating. Have just been foiled regularly. Thanks for your patience.
· The team is doing GREAT! Wish you could be here to see them in action!
· By the way, for those of you concerned that we are proximal to the bomb blasts that have been plaguing some of the cities throughout India, let me assure you that really, the areas where we are operating are pretty remote, and therefore, the risk is considerably if not altogether minimized. If we begin to sense any sort of emerging or pressing danger, we have great ground staff and ready evacuation plans. Appreciate your continued prayer, of course, however, and just know that we are taking no unnecessary risks and are in good hands.

Thanks again for following along. Know that you are loved, and that your friends and loved ones over here are charging the line with a fervor that would make Gen. Patton envious. I’m going to try a couple of more unconventional means to post, so we’ll see if any of them work. In the mean time, thanks again for your patience.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Conversational English: Prep for the Day

After waking up at 6:15, I got re-packed and headed downstairs. A little while later, Raj and I were joined by “The Professor” (Irilingaraj… who is an English Professor at a local college - pictured here) and all piled into a vehicle to head to the Elementary School where the first day of Conversational English Team training would begin. According to plan, the first day would actually seek to train the teachers and help them to be comfortable with some basic conversation skills before seeking to engage the children in similar training tomorrow. At this particular school, there are about 1,000 children (K – 6th Grade), and as soon as we were introduced to the teachers, we immediately fell in love with them. Bright smiles, sharp minds, courageous spirits and dedicated passion for their children simply radiate from each of them, and so as they gathered into the room, Raj and Dan prepared the team for action, checking last minute details on schedule, modules and approach for the day.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles Reloaded...

After skeedattling from Anbuannan’s place, we sprinted back to Chennai to catch our train to Salem. You might have noticed on the news that there have been several bombings in bigger cities over the last couple of days (don’t worry, moms, we’re pretty far from big cities, or the cities where the “action” has been happening), and so I was interested to find that while we entered the train station, security personnel were x-raying all the luggage. I’ve never seen that before, but was glad that things were being taken seriously. Anyway, we loaded our gear onto our train, and then settled in for what was supposed to be a 4 hour ride to Salem. After multiple delays, however, our 8 pm arrival time progressively stretched on… and on…. and on… until our actual arrival time was more like 10:30 pm. Erg!

After we finally arrived in Salem, however, we were greeted by Raj and about 20 others on the platform, all bearing traditional Indian flower laurels as a welcoming gift. From there, we split our luggage up into Medial and Conversational English teams, and then loaded separate buses as each team was heading to different villages to begin their work. In order to be more centrally located, Raj and I will be staying in Salem proper at a hotel (yes, I feel guilty because the teams are all sleeping on the floors in their villages, but no, not too guilty as I’ve slept on plenty of floors in previous trips :- ) and then making ½ day jaunts to each village to check on each team’s status.

Shown here are both team’s buses parked in the train station lot, ready to depart with each team tired, but happily entering the last stage of travel before they can begin the work for which they have so diligently trained.

Lunch with Pastor Anbuannan and Family

After surveying some of the home types for construction, we headed to Pastor Anbuannan’s house for a quick lunch before heading to Chennai to catch our train to Salem. Pastor Anbuannan has a wife and three beautiful children, and we were served rice, broiled fish and beef curry. The really fun thing is that they also served us spoons with our plates (most South Indian cuisine is just eaten with fingers… no silverware), which was funny because I’m so used to eating with my fingers here that I almost didn’t know how to approach it with a spoon. As with all of our Indian brothers and sisters, their hospitality is absolutely legendary, and were treated to the absolute best of the best of everything that they had. From a ministry point of view, Pastor Anbuannan oversees more than 100 churches in the surrounding area, and operates continually for the benefit of literally hundreds and hundreds of believers in Purpose Driven churches throughout his area. This man truly is a “Super Pastor”, and we are grateful to know him!

December Recon: Construction Opportunities

After leaving the bonded labor factory, we moved on to visit a couple of houses that would be typical of those that our December Construction Team will be renovating. In most of these instances, the houses are in desperate need of “permanent” roofs. You see, here’s how a roof works in India. In most instances, the roof is just made of a lattice-work of thatched palm leaves. The life span of such a roof is only about 18 – 24 months before it has to be replaced, or “patched” with whatever else is available (see hodge-podge coverings augmenting the thatch roofs in the pictures here). I made the “mistake” one time of asking why the roofs have to be replaced so often, and an Indian family told me, “well, it’s not just that the thatch gets dry and brittle and lets in the rain (as if that were not enough in and of itself), but rather that the bugs get into the thatch the drier it gets. But the bugs aren’t really the problem either. It’s the rats that go up into the thatch to get the bugs. But the rats aren’t really the problem either. The REAL problem is that the cobras go up into the thatch to get the rats… and sometimes the cobras are too heavy (a 5 foot cobra can weigh 30 lbs or more) for the thatch when it is old and they fall into the house with the family.” Oooooooookay… yup…. Cobras… got it. Now THAT’S a problem. So then, our teams will be going in and seeking to provide more permanent roofs (clay tile, cement board, etc) to homes that are currently having to regularly replace their roofs with thatch. In the end, the team will hopefully also be able to train church members how to replace the roofs on their own.

December Recon: Bonded Labor Issues

After church, we jumped into the bus and drove a few km further into a complicated network of brick kilns and brick factories. There are some 25 – 50 brick kiln operations in this area, each of which is owned by companies or individuals who “employ” large numbers of bonded laborers in their workforces. Let me tell you what that means. That means that if you are poor in India, you can go to one of these brick kiln owners and “sell” yourself and your family into slavery. The owner of the factory “owns” you. You are only allowed to leave to get food, and if you try to escape, they will find you and beat you (if not worse). You sleep at the kiln. You work whenever the owner tells you to work, and you work as long as he tells you to work. Because of cycles of debt with few opportunities to ever “get the upper hand”, many people just stay in slavery (along with their entire families) for their entire lives.

We spoke with one man and asked about his life situation. He told us that his son is very sick. That the hospital bill for his child is about the equivalent of $1,000 USD (an astronomical sum for a poor Indian family – it would be the equivalent of $100,000 USD for us, or maybe even $1 million), and that without any way to secure a loan to pay the bill, he was left with little recourse other than selling his entire family into slavery. You see, the owners aren’t dumb. By loaning the man $1,000, they own him for life. And because he can’t get money any other way, the owners know they will always be able to depend upon a continual stream of desperation to fuel their workforce.

Bonded slavery is illegal in India, of course. There is rigid legislation to prevent it. However, most Indians still don’t know that it’s illegal, and there is a tremendous “gap” between legislation and enforcement at all levels. As a result, our teams will be seeking to provide that education to people like those pictured here (each one a bonded slave laborer in a brick kiln similar to the kind mentioned above), as well as provide training and opportunities to other options so that people don’t have to resort to these extreme means to cultivate necessary funds when they need them.

Church in Vellavedu with “Super Pastor” Anbuannan

We had a great time with one of Anbuannan’s church! Sorry I couldn’t get pictures on this one, but to have done so would have been conspicuous and probably not very appropriate. But there were probably 300+ people in the small building (it was so packed out that there were men and women sitting in chairs outside the building, crowding around it in little groups), and the worship was enthusiastic and fast-paced. Raj introduced us, and we delivered our impromptu rehearsed song. The team did great! Raj had a microphone, and so was able to help “carry” us most of the way, but everyone participated, and the effect was more than satisfactory! Everyone applauded and cheered, and while we were a little uncomfortable, were glad that it delivered well (as well as that it was over). I spoke (with Anan translating) for about 45 minutes on the Kingdom of God, and then, the pastor (Anbuannan’s eldest sister) prayed. After that, everyone dismissed. Honestly, I was shocked. The typical Indian church service goes on for hours. This one was over in about 55 minutes. Sound familiar? Yep… it was like GCC India!

Impromptu Troubadores...

We try to train our teams to be as flexible as possible. We try to tell them that they could literally be asked to do just about anything from speaking in public to tasting goat intestines (which, by the way, are as rubbery and disgusting as you would think… no “tastes like chicken” for those nasty little pieces of gut-hose!). True to form, therefore, the team responded with panache when Raj announced that we would be singing in church. I cocked an eyebrow. “Singing?” As in, we need to speak, but do it to a tune? “Yes, yes, yes,” remitted Raj, “just a good song that you all know and can sing easily together.” We were stumped. Humorously, an unforeseen “drawback” to attending a phenomenal church like GCC is that we don’t exactly regularly sing a repetitive catalogue of “old favorites” or hymns. We vary our worship sets so much (which is a good thing!), that when we were all pegged suddenly with having to come up with an “old favorite”, none of us were sure what to say. “No problem,” Raj said, “I will teach you a song in Tamil.” (Raj shown here doing just that... in the middle of the Indian restaurant where we were having tea). “Oh great,” I thought, “as if singing isn’t difficult enough… now we’re going to try to do it in a completely foreign (not to mention difficult) language with 10 minutes notice!” But sure enough, Raj set out transliterating the lyrics on napkins and giving us a quick walk-through. Within 10 minutes, we could at least say the words. The tune was still a little stilted for us, but we could limp through it. Attached here are napkin copies of the song (transliterated Tamil and also English).

The words are as follows:

Yenna yen anantham, Yenna yen anantham, sollak koodathe.
Yenna yen anantham, Yenna yen anantham, sollak koodathe.
Mannan kiristhu yen pavathai yellam mannithu vitare

What a wonderful joy! What a wonderful joy!
What a wonderful joy! What a wonderful joy!
I can’t explain everything!
Christ the King has forgiven all my sins completely!

Mornin' Ride to Work...

We woke up early Sunday morning, grabbed a quick buffet lunch downstairs at the restaurant (the breakfast was “complimentary”… taking a page from the Hampton, I guess), and then jumped on a small bus with Anand, who was to journey with us to our rendezvous with Raj just outside of the village of Vellavedu (some 35 km outside of Chennai). When we connected with Raj, we knew we would have a quick cup of chai, and then head to a local church pastored by Anbuannan (one of our 7 “Super Pastors”, who administers a network of several churches in the area). After chai and church, we knew we would do some quick exploration for the December teams in both areas where there are high instances of bonded slave labor (the Justice Team will be working with International Justice Mission on these issues) and also basic housing (Construction Team will be working on roofing and basic renovation). After that, we knew we would join Anbuannan for lunch at his home, and then make the trek back to Chennai where we would catch a 4 pm train to Salem. If all goes according to plan (and it almost NEVER does in India), we should be in Salem by about 8 pm on Sunday night.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


Well, i suppose that it's a good thing that we crashed after we landed rather than before (bah-dum-bum), but suffice to say, at 5:00 pm, while sitting at Sparky's, i started to look around the table and note that we were all beginning to resemble zombies rather than our normal selves.

As a result, we made an expeditious payment of the bill, and then turbo'd it back to the hotel, where, by 5:30 pm, we were all heading to bed. As things aren't expected to really "slow down" any in the next few days, we figured we'd better catch the rest while we can.

St. Thomas: Apostle to India

One of the fun things about coming to Chennai is getting to spend some time with the life of an Apostle of Jesus. Remember "Doubting" Thomas? The same guy who is credited with both "doubting" Jesus' resurrection (i.e. "unless i put my fingers into His hands, and my hand in His side, i will not believe" - John 20:24), and also acknowledging His divinity upong doing so (i.e. "My Lord and my God!" - John 20:28)? Did you know that once dispersed from Jerusalem, he actually made his way all the way to India? He arrived sometime around 50 AD, i think, and immediately began speaking to the people he found there about the Good News of Jesus. Around about 70 AD, he was murdered/martyred for his faith on the top of a hillside by a spear through the back while he knelt in prayer. Later, his bones were taken from the hillside and he was buried near the beach in what is now modern day Chennai. Both the site of his martyrdom and also his burial are now critical Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites, and there are chapels or churches erected over each. In each place, Thomas is lovingly remembered and appreciated for being the "Apostle to India", and the start of the Christian faith in that nation dates all the way back to him.

St. Thomas Mount

The hillside where Thomas was martyred is called St. Thomas Mount. It is near Chennai's international airport, and the roar of landing or launching planes is constant. As you ascend the hillside, reminders that the place is sacred and intended to be a place of prayer, meditation and reflection abound. If you want to take photographs while there, you have to pay an extra (minimal) fee, and you will also need to be prepared to take your shoes off before entering the chapel that now sits over the site where Thomas was killed.

In the chapel, there are four main points of interest. In addition to the small altar and sparse pews with kneeling or praying parishoners (they still hold regular mass in the chapel, by the way, i think), there are 3 reliquaries at the front. The first is a bone fragment of Thomas encased in a vacuum-sealed cross. The second is an ornate stone cross that Thomas himself supposedly carved. And the third is an icon of Mary and Jesus that Luke supposedly painted and gave to Thomas, who brought it with him to India when he arrived. Finally, in the chapel, the martyrdom of each of the 12 Apostles is featured, each in a painting depicting the apostle and also the method of their death.
St. Thomas Basilica
While you would think that they might have buried Thomas closer to where he was killed, his followers decided to put him somewhere else. That spot is now the site of St. Thomas Basilica, and is some 15 km away from the Mount. However, it's an absolutely stunning cathedral, largely made out of white marble, and glistens, as Boromir would say of Gondor in LOTR, "like a spike of burnished silver, glistening in the morning light."

At the site, there is a library, the church itself (where the team here is posing), a museum of relics and other related items (they have a small case with [supposedly] the remaining lance/spear fragments of the spear that pierced Thomas as he knelt praying), and then the tomb of the Apostle himself downstairs.

One interesting legend told about Thomas is called "The Girdle of St. Thomas". According to the story, there was a huge tree that no man could move that had fallen across a road that the Apostle was travelling. When he was told that the obstacle was immovable by the local king, he simply took off the rope around his waist (i.e. "girdle"), told the king about the Power of Christ, tied the rope around one end of the tree, and then hauled it across the road and out of the way of the traffic. The king was so amazed that he instantly granted Thomas permission to preach his Good News to the people of his district.

Below the flooring of the Basilica is the actual tomb itself. The basement walls and floors are covered with white marble, and while you can hear every single solitary sound (no batting or acoustic baffling, and marble reverberates sound something fierce), everyone stays exceptionally silent in the little chamber. There is a plaster replica of Thomas resting peacefully in a Snow White-ian glass case (the actual burial site is located some 10 feet below the case), and there is another reliquery with a hermetically sealed bone fragment to the right of the exhibit.

Roman Catholic pilgrims and tourists from all over come to visit this site, and i tell you, it's something you really should make a point to see if you're ever in Chennai.

Click here to see Wikipedia entry for Thomas the Apostle.