In late October and early November of this past fall, I was in India on a Global Ministries People to People Pilgrimage. My friend and colleague Frank and I co-led this trip which included 15 of us. Three of us had been on a trip together two years ago. On that trip we spent all of our time in southern India, where our home base was Mudiyor Balar Kudumba Grama Pannai, known in English as Family Village Farm, the home of almost 200 orphaned and semi-orphaned children, homeless young women and elders. From there we ventured to visit the Shieffelin Research Institute for Leprosy at Kirigiri, and Shanthigramam, a haven for elders who have been cured of leprosy but still have no place of welcome home.
This year we spent time in the south with these and other Global Mission partners; then we traveled some thousand miles north to spend time in Mungeli at Christian Hospital and the Rambo English School. We even got in a safari at the Kanna Tiger Reserve.
There were clearly life-transforming relationships, encounters, and experiences throughout — as there were before. But this time is different. This time the Global Ministries philosophy of ‘critical presence’ is still stirring in me in ways I have yet to fully understand. There were people in our contingent who were nurses, medics, teachers who planned and filled critical roles in health screenings, who guest taught in nursing school classes, who led music. But all of us, whether or not we had those particular skills, were simply open to being present, learning from our mission partners, and caring in the best ways we could.
Yes, I had the humbling privilege of preaching in chapel while at Christian Hospital in Mungeli, but the most meaningful moments for me were those holding the hands of women in surgery and in childbirth. Though I did not speak Hindi and they did not speak English, I will never forget the feeling of looking into their eyes and feeling the grip of their hands. I will never forget simply holding the clawed hands of women and men who have been scarred by leprosy. I will never forget standing in the wards at Kirigiri with those being treated for leprosy. I will never forget simply being with the children and the young women and the older women and men at Family Village Farm.
In these weeks since our return, I have first had to adapt to being back. The truth is that I did not want to come back. I want to be in India. I could very easily spend significant time at Family Village Farm, or at Christian Hospital in Mungeli. But the most significant realization has to do with critical presence. We talk about critical presence as a philosophy in Global Ministries; yet I am coming to believe that critical presence must be the heart of my ministry no matter where I am. Now I need to discern what that means for me — in congregational ministry, in presence with seminary students, in the community, and yes, in mission local and global.