I've been home now for longer than I spent in India.
After all, 4 weeks is no time at all in the grand scheme of things, however large it loomed beforehand, and however lasting its impact.
Time, then, to write something for the diocese about what I've learned from my experience. I know I've been changed but to evaluate those changes is another matter.
People ask me "How was your trip" and I respond with something vague "Amazing..." and, if prompted further "The people have so little and give so much." "I've left part of myself behind there"
It all sounds worthy and appropriate, but what does it actually mean?
In part, the experience of stepping outside my own life for a month gave me a new perspective on what I value most, in terms of relationship and of ministry. While in India I found myself freed to be a priest in ways that too easily get squeezed out while grappling with the realities of parish life, of meetings and rotas, lost keys and bruised feelings. The inexhaustible hospitality of my hosts left me with no responsibility for my own day-to-day needs, nor was I concerned with any of the mechanics of church life in the places that I visited. Instead, I could spend my time looking for God in those people and situations, and was privileged to articulate God's presence through prayer and preaching. I was expected to be, above all, a "God person" - that was, it seemed, my main purpose - and it was a source of real delight for me.
Of course, spending time in a culture that has developed in such different ways from that of western Europe raised other questions too. I've written already about the wonderful women from Zion Church, whose faith seems to be the only thing of value in their lives, but who are nonetheless rich beyond any conventional understanding.
It's not just the elderly who leave me feeling vaguely wistful though.
The children, too, are wonderfully unencumbered by the sort of material expectations I'd never considered a burden till I went there. We met so many children, in such different contexts...
The privileged middle-class students at St John's or the Cathedral School shared the familiar concerns of exam success that dominated my own teens, but seemed less intent on challenging authority than their counterparts in UK schools.
But it was the underprivileged, the street kids, who taught me most.
The AIDS babies in Hosur, the beggar girl in Mysore, who was so excited that I had taken her photo that she insisted on giving me some of the flowers she was supposed to be selling…and whose smile I’ll never forget.
The tiny girls, newly brought in off the streets, to be bathed and dressed in their matching cotton prints for the launch of the “New Life for Girls” project , who sat patiently through endless speeches in many tongues, one all the time stroking my feet with intense concentration…
The tiny scrap of humanity, born that morning, that I cuddled in the CSI hospital, the children I baptised in Channapatna...
As I reflected on their lives, I realised that my preconceptions of privilege or deprivation were being challenged irrevocably.
I was most aware of this in the company of the boys of the Makkala Ashraya Kendra project for children in crisis, who gave me one of my happiest days in the whole month.
Before we visited the centre, just off Hudson Circle in Bangalore, we were given an idea of the situations from which these boys had been rescued. Living and begging in Bangalore station or beneath the city fly-over; working as slave labour in the kitchen of an international hotel; locked up in the shack that their parents called home because there's nowhere safe to leave a child while you work as a labourer...It all sounded truly grim. We expected to have our hearts wrung, and certainly the facilities at the project were enough to make anyone who spends time in British schools weep. 70 boys, with 70 small tin boxes containing all their possessions; no toys (and no space to play, had there been playthings in abundance); a television (which, I suspect, is switched on more than most western parents would feel healthy) ; meals in tin bowls reminiscent of the workhouse scene in Oliver!; communal living at its most basic.
But set against that, oceans and oceans of love and care for each one of them as individuals. The project’s leaflet includes among its aims “to shower with love” – and goodness, they succeed.
The result, of course, is that boys who would have every right to be traumatised and damaged beyond belief through their early experiences seem instead to be some of the most loving and loveable children I’ve ever spent time with.
When I first visited the project, I came away saying that I longed to adopt all of them…
Then I realised that this might be open to misinterpretation.
I longed to adopt them not to deliver them from a life of poverty and deprivation, but because I yearned to take home with me some of their joyous warmth and delight in the everyday…in ad hoc games of cricket and blowing bubbles, in action songs and lollipops. They seemed to see these things as symbols of an underlying benevolence, to live in a state of open-eyed gratitude that has nothing to do with servility or oppression, everything to do with recognising the real value of things.
Young people from Gloucester have visited Bangalore since 2004 to help renovate the building that houses the project. Among the fruit of their visits is a wall in the centre, painted with handprints of the children and the visitors, side by side...a lovely symbol of the diocesan link at its best.
On an adjoining wall is one lesson that I hope not to lose sight of, however skewed priorities sometimes become
So, what did I learn? Perhaps something more of the person I'm called to be, and of what is really needful to achieve this. And what it means to be thankful.