Perspectives: Passage to India
Alf McCreary visits India and reflects on the challenges to christians at home
Not long ago I attended morning service in New Delhi Anglican Cathedral and the next week in All Saints Anglican Church in Mumbai, formerly Bombay. There was a reassuring familiarity at both services, with inspiring singing in New Delhi of the favourite hymn "How Great Thou Art", and a classically evangelical sermon from the Rector in Mumbai.
NOT long ago I attended morning service in New Delhi Anglican Cathedral and the next week in All Saints Anglican Church in Mumbai, formerly Bombay. There was a reassuring familiarity at both services, with inspiring singing in New Delhi of the favourite hymn "How Great Thou Art", and a classically evangelical sermon from the Rector in Mumbai.
It was not unlike attending a Church of Ireland service at home, apart from the colourfully-dressed ethnic population with a few expatriates, and the cluster of beggars outside the church gates. Another eye-opener was the distracting sight of a large lizard scurrying up the wall in the Mumbai church during the Rector's sermon, which reminded me of the old show-business adage "Never share a stage with animals or children", or lizards.
However, I was not at home but in a sub-continent teeming with millions of people of vastly differing religious beliefs, and all of them in hugely differing economic circumstances.
In Mumbai, for instance, I dined in a restaurant full of prosperous middle-class Indians, while outside young men were taking their heroin fix in the streets, and outside my hotel whole families were sheltering for the night under sacking, before moving on the next day.
For 27 years I have been visiting development projects all over the world, but this was one of the most demanding and harrowing journeys of all.
There was inspiration, too, in the work of the local churches who are helping marginalised people, many of them trying to survive in a country where the age expectancy of men is only 60 years, and where a labourer earns roughly £1 a day - if he can get a day's work.
I was visiting India, with three Presbyterian colleagues, on behalf of the World Development Committee which is funding projects by Christian Aid and Tearfund. The range was wide - from the slums and brothel areas of Mumbai where there are an estimated 800 Aids/HIV infections each night, to the stunning scenery of the Himalayan foothills where Christian organisations are trying to bring help and education about HIV to the remote villages not far from China and Tibet.
The precariousness of life was all around. In one village high on a hillside we heard that a labourer had dropped dead that morning, leaving a wife and four children virtually destitute. There is no death benefit or widow's pensions out there, apart from the limited help which the churches can give.
It was refreshing to meet Christians, some from the mainstream churches and others from smaller independent groups, who were bringing help in such a committed way.
They acted like the Good Samaritan by giving practical help where it was needed, and they did so primarily in the name of Christianity. Their theology was uncomplicated, even conservative, but the fruits of their work showed the passion of what they believed. It reminded me once again that Christianity at its best is not taught, but caught.
The other factor which impressed me was their positive attitude, and hard-headed cheerfulness. Many of the doctors and others could have earned large salaries elsewhere, but they chose to work for the poor. As one attractive young psychologist said: "I have found that, in doing this work, I am transformed myself."
Such commitment is all the more commendable because Christians in India are a minority of some 2.6 per cent of the population, and a number of the churches face petty harassment from Hindu extremists.
On the way back by plane from Mumbai to New Delhi on Friday week ago I read in the newspaper about a prayer meeting which had been broken up by hardline Hindus.
The Christian response, I was told by a church-goer in New Delhi, was not to respond to such intimidation, but to get on with being better Christians.
All of which has made me ponder deeply about the witness of many of us back home. I know that all our churches carry out pioneering work in the inner cities and that nearly all Christians donate to charities such as Christian Aid and Tearfund.
Yet it is a long way from a comfortable church pew on a Sunday morning in our country to a Mumbai slum or an Indian hillside village where a handful of committed Christians are trying to make a difference to people in need.
I cannot help thinking also of how much we take for granted at home, how we moan about comparative trivialities, how we are divided by so much emphasis on theology, and how we are continually in danger of missing that still, small voice of Divine guidance in the midst of the storms we largely create for ourselves.
I wish everyone could have shared my journey, though for many it would have been physically and emotionally overwhelming to have done so.
But it would have demonstrated the true church at work in an international network which binds us all together to reach out to those who are in need. The modern world judges Christians not by what they believe or what they say they believe, but by what they do. For better or for worse, by their fruits shall you know them.
That is a sobering and a challenging thought for all of us.
Buildings of beauty
SOME time ago I was outraged when I read the crass comment of an English Test cricketer who described the Taj Mahal thus - "When you've seen one, you've seen them all."
During my recent visit to India, however, I found the Taj Mahal extremely beautiful, but a little disappointing. Perhaps it was due to the long drive from New Delhi or the bustle and cacophony of the nearby town of Agra, or the large crowds of visitors, or just plain tiredness after arriving in India from Belfast and London the previous day.
Some two weeks later I went to see the Baha'i Lotus Blossom Temple in New Delhi, and it was profoundly impressive both in design and function.
Perhaps the nearest modern, but secular, comparison is the Sydney Opera House.
There is also a first-class information centre, and if you are ever in New Delhi, I recommend a visit.
Back home, what church buildings would you recommend to overseas visitors?
I can think of three immediately - St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral in Armagh, Sinclair Seamen's Presbyterian Church in Belfast, and First Church of Christ Scientist, Belfast.
Let me have your nominations.