Thursday, February 20, 2014

Henna and Alligators

What do alligators and Henna have in common? Normally, not much, but they've both opened doors to some incredible conversations about my trip to India. I believe that each person on our trip had a purpose for being there, but all of us are called to share our stories and bring awareness and support to an incredible community. Tonight, I feel privileged to share a two short stories with you.

While there, several of us girls got Henna ink on our hands. Ten days later, my ink is still there and has raised more than a few eyebrows. Several times people have asked if they are authentic and ask why I have it. I view it as an open door to share a little about the work happening in Kolkata. Today when I was running through the Starbucks drive through (I cheated a little and used my gift card for a coffee), the nice barista asked me about my hands. I could tell by his expression that he could relate to my quick story. He shared that his church has a boys' home in the Dominican Republic and that he's excited to go on another trip there this spring. We probably would have talked a lot longer but the car behind me was less understanding of our story-swapping. I drove away feeling joyful and prayerful for his trip, while remembering my own.

While I was away, I picked up alligator keychains for the people on my work team. I wanted them to know that I was thinking of them while I was gone. One of them told me her kids were asking about the little alligator and again, a door was opened. When she told them about the kids I got to meet, they showed great empathy - especially for being so young. After hearing about them, they asked if they could support them at Christmas this year. How cool is that?! These kids get it at a young age - it's not all about them. They can see beyond more "stuff" and understand that the kids in Kalphar are really no different, but happened to be born into different circumstances. They took the opportunity to pray, which is really what these stories are all about.

So thank you. Thanks for listening to my stories. Thanks for praying for people you'll most likely never meet. Thank you for your open hearts. Most of all, thank you for helping me continue to find God's purpose in this trip.

The comment section has been changed and should be easier to post now!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Stand in the Gap

Putting experiences into words has been more difficult than I imagined it would be. In fact, I have struggled to write anything since I got home. Let's blame it on the jet lag. One thing I can say is that I never want to forget the things I saw and learned about in Kolkata. My heart is truly changed. While my trip is over, I still plan to share stories through my blogs, woven in with the rest of my life. 

Leaving Kolkata, in particular the sweet children, was harder than I ever expected. Their unconditional love and open hearts were incredible. I used to tease my mom when she cried every time I would leave. Now I understand how she feels! As the students left the zoo, I felt my heart break, unsure of when (or if) I will see them again. My goal is to find a way to go back so I can see them again and do more for the projects that SEED is doing. I sincerely hope to get more involved in the future. 

On our last day, Piyas prayed for us to stand in the gap. Upon looking through pictures from Kalphar, I noticed it is also on the signs for SEED. I interpret that as never forgetting what I saw and learned in India. Stand in the gap between the life I lead and the lives of those I met in Kalphar, and the countless others like them. Standing in the gap means not taking the blessings I have for granted, and finding ways to share those blessings.

So what does that mean in my life? Taking Andy Merrick's advice to heart, I want to do something each day to remember India: read an article, watch a movie, share the stories of the people there, pray for them, financially support them. I know that over time more will be revealed to me. In the meantime, I'll continue to pray, blog, share stories from my trip, and learn as much as I can about India, Kolkata, and the people who live there. 

Once again, here is the link if you would like to support the new industrial generator to support the school and vocational classes in Kalphar. Your gifts are a huge blessing and are greatly appreciated! Here's the link where people can find out more and also give money…

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Let there be Light!

Thinking back over today, I feel truly speechless. We live in a place that offers us the world, and we have every blessing we need, yet we find problems and thirst for more material possessions. Here, the people have met live in huts, don't have clean drinking water, and are mostly illiterate. Yet, they have hope and joy that most Americans I have met can't even comprehend. It is difficult to reconcile. Please don't think I am saying that I am exempt from that myself. I am selfish in ways that I didn't know until I met the people of Kalphar slum. 

We spent the day at a retreat center in the south part of Kolkata, celebrating a church service. Families from the different communities we serve came together for one large service, including Baptisms and communion. Over 150 people sat on the floor together for several hours, singing songs of praise and listening to a wonderful sermon. They have hearts that are so open to Grace, even though they have been hurt beyond measure. Several of the testimonies we've heard this week mention addiction, abuse, persecution, neglect, and disease. Instead of dwelling on problems, the people here have learned to pray and trust in Jesus. Their sense of hope and trust is incredible! 

Each of the ten people we witnessed get Baptized this morning faces persecution and abandonment. It is truly a leap of faith for them to publicly proclaim Christianity and accept Christ. I can't imagine facing the hardship they face just to say that I am a Christian. My own walk of faith pales in comparison. But I have come to learn that it isn't about who has a more difficult journey, but accepting that no matter what, we can't earn His grace. We are all made in His image, and loved unconditionally. I am so grateful that my eyes and heart have been opened this week to the incredible things God is doing in this world. 

Throughout the week, our team continues to make small discoveries: piles of trash on the side of the road, men bathing on the sidewalk, cows roaming the streets, a family discarding snack waste over the side of a boat, dogs laying in the shadows of busses in an airborne sea of fleas. What is most interesting is that even in our short time, we have stopped being shocked by most of these things. In fact, we have already started becoming immune to some of it. If we, as outsiders seeing this for the first time, have become numb to the problems, how will people who live in this city fix some of these major problems? Fundamentally, making changes in those areas could change the lives of the people here by reducing disease. One of the aims of SEED and the trips we take through Cross Point is to make fundamental changes in the communities they are located through education and addressing practical needs. For Christmas they got solar lanterns to provide light in the darkness of night. This week we did a ribbon-cutting for toilets to improve health through sanitation. 

Our team has consistently wondered: what can we do to make an impact here? How do we rectify the injustice and iniquity? There isn't an easy answer. There isn't one answer that will solve the earthly problems. One thing we have learned is that small changes can make a BIG difference. So we set a goal: raise money to buy new industrial generators for Kalphar. The ones they have now are substandard for their needs. They emit gas fumes, are very loud, and get easily overloaded. We want to raise $5,500 so they can get quiet generators that can handle more power. This will allow power to support new computers to teach the school children and new sewing machines for the vocational women. They'll be able to do more complex work on these machines, and ultimately, make more money for their families, and the projects that SEED is doing. 

Are you willing to help us make an impact? Maybe you could make small changes in your life to give a few dollars. It's about more than just money - it's about your heart. Skip the morning Starbucks run once a week and give the money toward the generator. Eat at home a few nights or turn off the fancy T.V. (by that I mean cable or satellite). For each of us, it looks a little different. For me, it's cutting out drinks. I love nothing more than running through a drive-through for a cold, unsweet iced tea. But that money adds up and can make a big difference on a global scale. So I'm cutting out buying drinks for a year- tea, beer, coffee, and sodas. What can you do? 

Maybe you want to make a change in your life, or maybe you want to make a one-time donation to support the generators. Either way, you can learn more and donate here:  Your gift is appreciated and will make more of an impact than you can imagine! If you'd like to see some of people we have met who will be impacted, follow me on Instagram, user name Smithly, or check out the hashtag #CPIndia for everyone's posts this week. You'll see faith in action! Thanks in advance for helping us do great things in the world. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Trash, Dust, and Hope


My heart is burstring with joy! It probably sounds strange since we spent the entire day in Kalphar slum. The people we met were so full of joy and hope. The project that SEED started there in 2009 has gradually but radically changed the face of the commuity there. Children of all ages now attend school, there is light (literally - solar lanterns) where there was darkness, new toilets are installed, and many of the people there attend church on Sunday's because they believe in Jesus.

We spent the morning with the school, learning about them and doing a mini Bible teaching. They showed us dances and skits and we acted out the story of Joseph. Language barriers made us see their eyes and hearts more than their words. They were so excited to have us there and welcome us. They took time to make us special gifts - trinkets that in the U.S. might be discarded. To us, they are special pieces we'll cherish. Without knowing anything about us, the students wanted to be near us and love us. It was unconditional from the moment we walked in. They would invite us to sit with them, give hugs and fist bumps, and they loved taking pictures and looking at them on the camera screen. It was all about being together, not who could offer something to the other. Even with the conditions they live in, each of the children has hope and you can see it in their eyes. 

In the afternoon we dedicated the new toilets. Yes, I said toilets! Cross Point and One Life (our leader Andy's non-profit that supports SEED from the U.S.) raised money to install new toilet stalls. Instead of being directly in the ground where the waste sits and eventually gets back in the water supply, the new ones use bacteria to turn the waste into safe drinking water. We dedicated 5 yesterday, with 4 more on their way soon. They will still need another 5-10 after that to support the number of people who live there. 

Walking around the community is the hardest thing I have ever done. I haven't felt that kind of heart break before. My words can't truly give it justice. People lived in small huts that house anywhere from 4-10 people. Barely clothed or completely naked children are everywhere. Even though there is a school, many families don't send their children there because they don't understand. Dogs and goats wander and pick at trash. Several women handed us babies to hold, which we gladly did. I held a little girl name Pushpalia. Her mother and grandmother tried to have me keep her. I don't know if it is because they could see my joy in holding her or because she is considered a burden to them. All I know is that handing her back was herat-wrenching. 

In the afternoon we saw work from the vocational women and heard many of their testimonies. They have become a community of believers with faith stronger than almost anyone I have encountered. None of the people here have grown up knowing Jesus and His grace. Unconditional love was foreign to them until Piyas and Jaishree came in and taught them. There is a distinct difference in the eyes of the women, men, and children who are in the school and vocational programs and know Christ compared to the eyes of people in the rest of the slum. Please continue to pray for our work and SEED that we can reach more people and do more good in that community in the long-term.

I will leave you with a passage that came up twice yesterday. We discussed it on the bus ride to Kalphar in the morning, then later one of the women told us it was her favorite story. Matthew 6: 25-34. I encourage you to look it up and pray for the people here because this is what it's all about. 

KFC in India?!

This post is from Thursday, but I've been having trouble with the wifi and haven't been able to upload. Look for Friday's post soon!

I got up early to get some of the coveted hot water in my shower. Our hotel is very simple, more of a dorm style. We share hot water, which is heated using solar power. I have never been so happy to take a lukewarm shower!

Yesterday we got to hear more about the projects that SEED is doing here in Kolkata and learn more about the city and Indian culture. One thing to note before I continue: Kolkata is the new/old name for Calcutta. The British renamed most of the cities when they were in power. In the early 2000's Indians changed many of the names back, which is why you'll see 2 different names for many of the cities here. So Kolkata is the Indian name for what we call Calcutta. 

Our Indian leaders and translators are also the two that started SEED in 2009. They worked for Compassion International, which is a great organization doing amazing things all over the world. Their daily commute brought them past a slum, and they started opening their eyes to the needs there. Eventually Jaishree and Piyas took a giant leap of faith and quit their jobs to start SEED and do work in the slums. When I say leap of faith, I should be more clear - this meant they had to live off what savings they had and use any money donated for their projects. They didn't take any money for a salary. In fact, our trip leader, Andy, started working on a project to pay them and their now 30 staff members. I can assure you they are wise with each penny donated. Jaishree noted that spending money and doing work faithfully will be rewarded by Christ. She is one of the most selfless, faithful people I have had the priviledge of meeting. They are doing some incredible things! I can't wait to see them in action and share more witih you throughout the trip. I can already tell God is moving powerfully here, and will continue to do so on our trip. 

We also visited the Kali temple and Victorian Memorial in the afternoon. Kali is the Hindu god of destruction, the most worshipped god here in Kolkata. There was a feeling of coldness there, and in spots, just a dark, unsettling feeling. As we were walking out, many of us felt uneasy from it. Victorian Memorial was beautfiul and peaceful. It was built to honor Queen Victoria in the early 1900's. When we walked around the grounds, we noticed many Indian couples nestled together "secretly" in the gardens. For such a private, conservative culture, it was funny to see them publicly kissing. We also went shopping in the market, which was hectic and slightly stressful, especially with 15 of us at once. I was able to get a few things to bring home. We had KFC for dinner. I note that for 2 reasons. 1) I have never had KFC before I got here. I also never thought I would be so ready to eat fast food chicken. 2) They hire special needs employees, so we had to point to menu items because most of them are deaf. I think that's pretty great that KFC is doing that!

I'm looking forward to sharing more with you after today. We'll be spending the day in the Kalphar slum, teaching and playing with the school children and seeing what the vocational women are working on. They have safer jobs, making more money because of the donations and support we provide them. Please pray for us as we dive into our true purpose here in India. 

I love and miss everyone back home! 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Cows, cows everywhere!

After 43 hours of airports, planes, shuttles, and layovers, we are finally in Kolkata! It's a miracle we got here today because of snow in Newark and rerouting our entire trip. The entire trek was a game of hurry up and wait. We either waited 8 hours in an airport for a flight or did a Home Alone style mad dash through terminals in other countries. Thankfully, we all made it, and so did our luggage. We checked into Seva Kendra, a dorm-like hotel. The rooms are simple - about half the size of my college dorm room. 

Here are a few first impressions of India:
1) The air is thick and has a smoky quality. I have been sneezing since we landed. 
2) Indians seem to find deodorant to be optional. Unfortunately, they also feel the same way about personal space. 
3) They have a slower pace of life than Americans. There are multiple people doing a job that either one American or a machine would do. At least 15 people checked my passport and boarding pass. It gives more people jobs, which is a good thing. 
4) Traffic rules are pretty loose. Two lane streets have cars driving 4 wide - it makes for some tight driving. They honk a seemingly abnormal amount to let other cars know how close they are. Pedestrians don't seem to mind cutting right in front of busses. Despite this, it seems oddly safe because everyone is very aware. One of our drivers got a speeding ticket and it was the equivalent of about $4.50. 
5) Bathrooms are much different than I'm used to. Many of them are in the floor, even in the airport. Toilet paper is a luxury that Westerners enjoy. Indians use water and their left hand. I'll let you use your imagination on that one...

During preparation we were told that at least 50% of the population is in poverty, with many more at risk for poverty. It is pretty clear when you drive through the streets and see cows and goats along the curb rummaging through piles of discarded trash. It makes me wonder what the slum will be like when we visit. I am trying to prepare myself, but I don't think there is any way to fully grasp it until we are there. 

Since we were delayed getting in, we are going to get dinner as a group, then come back and rest at the hotel until the morning. Tomorrow we'll learn about SEED, our partnership here in India, as well as visit Mother Theresa's house and the market. I'm looking forward to immersing myself into the Indian culture. 

Wifi at the hotel is spotty, at best. I'll do what I can to keep everyone updated. Thanks for the continued prayers!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The first step

Several years ago I started feeling called to go to India. My pastor got back from a trip with Compassion International and set out to make some big changes. Time and circumstances kept me back and I began to put it out of my head.

This summer I started hearing the call again. A new worship song at church struck me. I crumbled in my seat in tears. Hillsong United's song "Oceans" spoke right to my heart (and is incidentally the inspiration for the blog title.) I included the lyrics and a video at the end in case you haven't heard it before.

So it was time for me to take the trusting step onto the water. With incredible support and encouragement from Aaron, I went to the missions meeting, then signed up for the February trip. Right away people were telling me they knew it would be the best decision I could make. Friends, family, and in one case, a near-stranger, gave me the funding to support the trip. Doubt about the trip quickly dissipated, and excitement settled in. It was incredibly humbling to accept such generosity when I did nothing to deserve it.

One Monday night a friend introduced me to her sister who's been on the trip twice. Her photos and stories further solidified that I made the right decision. So now, 4 months after putting down my deposit, I'm counting down the hours, not the days, until I leave. I've done everything I can to prepare - okay, well, maybe not everything. I didn't read the 900+ page book recommended to me. But I did read the 77 page packet our trip leader provided, watched some videos, went shopping with a travel abroad expert, and continue to pray.

Monday around noon, I'll be boarding the plane with 14 others. I believe we are all entering with open hearts, hoping that God will use us to make a difference. When it comes down to it, I think God will also use this trip to make a difference in us. No amount of reading materials, photos, videos, stories, or meetings can prepare us fully. All I'm asking now is that you pray for us to keep our hearts open to every experience. Thank you for your support, prayers, and love. Check back on here throughout my trip for updates - I'll try to post stories and pictures daily!

You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You've never failed and You won't start now

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior