In July three students from WSC joined students from the Queen’s Foundation Birmingham on a visit to Madurai in the state of Tamil Nadu, Southern India. We experienced a warm welcome by our hosts at TTS, students, staff and lecturers. For all but one of the group it was our first taste of India, and there was a wealth of new experiences, sounds, sights, smells and tastes to encounter.
We had lectures from the TTS staff which gave us valuable background information and helped to put our experiences into context. We participated in a daily programme of visits to projects which have been set up by the seminary; an HIV aids clinic & orphanage, a home for the elderly, a women’s refuge. The visits were a challenge in different ways, spiritually, emotionally and intellectually to many of our perhaps pre-conceived ideas. However we met many wonderful people who were so friendly and hospitable, despite their circumstances.
We also visited the slum areas in the city, where the second year theological students are required to live in order to be alongside and get to know the communities and share the love of God. As we visited the student rooms where the majority slept on the floor and had to rise early (2.00 or 3.00am) to go and get water from the community water point, we realised the comforts which we too often take for granted!
As we travelled around parts of the country we saw the contrast of well appointed houses along with shacks and rough built shelters. We also witnessed God’s wonderful creation in some beautiful countryside & wildlife; palm and banana trees, paddy fields, ants and geckoes, elephants and monkeys! Indian culture was colourful and vibrant in so many different ways. The trip has provided many memories to share with others & challenges to enrich our faith.
Reflection by Anne Coates
Helen Bamber added
When I was offered the possibility of a place on this trip, I knew it would be a life changing experience. I had never been to India before and my foreign travel was limited to Europe and Australia. India was out of my comfort zone.
When we arrived, I was struck by the noise, the smells and the poverty. Everywhere we looked there were people and most of the properties would be on the condemned list in this country. I looked for a western oasis in the midst of it all but there was none. Local tv channels showed adverts that were a world away from what was outside the doors – skin whitener and western lifestyles. I struggled to relate the reality to what was being portrayed.
TTS was a challenging experience in itself. With a focus on contextual theology, there are high expectations made of the students. In their second year they live in local slums, collecting water in the middle of the night and dealing with rats, snakes and cockroaches living alongside them. They do this to get a realistic insight into the plight of the underprivileged and to get alongside them seeing the problems they face day by day. In their third year they live and study in a rural setting, to prepare them for the realities of ministry once they leave college. As if this was not enough, they also spend time on placements engaged in social action including a women’s refuge, in prison ministry, at an HIV/AIDs hospice.
It was the last of these that had the greatest impact on me. I used to teach secondary school children about HIV and AIDs, but to meet people whose lives had been turned upside down by the disease was profound. To hold out my hand and have it grasped by someone who was seen as totally untouchable within their society pulled at my heart strings. To look into the eyes of a six week old baby, not knowing if she had HIV or whether she would live a full life once her mother was taken by the disease brought all I used to teach into a clear reality. The faces of that mum and baby continue to hover in my mind. I think I left my heart with that mum and baby.
I left India with one question: what can I do? At the moment, I don’t have an answer. I know that I am drawn to ministry to those who are the outcasts of our society, and have been shown very clearly the power of touch as part of that ministry. I can tell others of my experiences, but most of all I can see the need to follow the example that TTS sets and to connect with those who are shunned and thrown aside by the society they live in. As TTS works with the Dalit community, so I should work with the outcasts of our society – after all, that’s who Christ would seek out.
picture taken by Helen Bamber