Having received kind invitations from Indian brethren both in Detroit and India, on December 26, 1988, I left Detroit’s Metro Airport for Kerala, India, in company with my choice friend, John Chacko. In all honesty, India is one of the last places on earth I have ever dreamed of visiting. John, a chemist, was born and raised in Kerala. Now a United States citizen, he and his wife and two children make their home in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, and fellowship at Martin Road Gospel Chapel in St. Clair Shores, where John serves as an elder in the local assembly. I shall always be grateful to our Lord that He led John to go with me, else my first trip to India would have been much more difficult without his fellowship and expertise.
Travelling via Air India from New York to London, our flight path then took us over Belgium, W. Germany, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and on to Bombay. Wrestling with culture shock, which I experienced in Bombay, we then traveled via the domestic Indian Airlines 500 miles south to Cochin, Kerala.
Kerala, meaning “land of coconut palms,” stretches 360 miles along the Malabar Coast of the Arabian Sea and occupies 15,000 square miles. As near as I can determine, it is little more than 120 miles at its widest point from west to east. Although one of India’s smallest states, it is its most literate and prosperous state. With a population of 30,000,000 people, Kerala is one of the most crowded places on earth, squeezing a population larger then California’s into a tenth of the space. Most of the people live along the coast, woven with 41 rivers and thousands of canals. It produces coconuts, rubber, tea, coffee, cardamom, pepper, cashews, and seafood. Politically, Kerala has a communist administration, although not the Russian brand of communism. Its language is the difficult, rapid-fire Malayalam, the people having impressed me as being energetic and aggressive [not unlike their spoken language].
With a population of some 800,000,000, India has 16 major languages and over 800 dialects. Kerala is one-fifth Christian, one-fifth Muslim, and three-fifths Hindu. Tradition tells us that the Apostle Thomas preached the gospel there in 52 A.D., historians agreeing that there have been Christians there since the 4th century, if not before. Its narrow, rough roads abound with overloaded buses, trucks autorickshas, and numerous cars and jeeps [all honking incessantly], plus bicyclists, and, ever-present garbage-collectors—crows. Thanks to the British influence of past generations, they drive on the left-hand side of the road. Admittedly, I found riding in a car or autoricksha [and occasionally a jeep] rather nerve-racking. And most drivers, like King Jehu of Israel, drive “furiously” [2 Kings 9:20].
Dhotis and Saris
Areeparampu, Kottayam, Kumbanad, Pampady, Puthupally, Tiruvalla, and Trichur are places I had the joy of ministering God’s Word. As far as I know Kerala has more assemblies than any state in India. The circumstances in which I preached varied: assembly buildings, an upper room, a mission hospital chapel, an orphanage, under a thatched roof, the open air, a wedding, and homes. The smallest gathering was of some 50-60 people at John Chacko’s family home, while the largest was 2,000 plus at the climactic close of the week-long Kumbanad Convention.
In the Kerala assemblies, including the outdoor gatherings, the men sit on one side and the women on the other. A scene I will never forget was of 1,000 veiled women in their colorful saris at the final sessions of the Kumbanad Convention, which included a Breaking of Bread meeting. The teaching of the head covering is very strong and consistently carried out. Most of the men wear skirtlike dhotis. Sandals are generally left at the door of an assembly building.
While in Kumbanad I had the joy of meeting and fellowshipping with Miss Phyllis Shirtliff and Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Hewlett. Miss Shirtliff was commended to the Lord’s work in India by New Zealand assemblies and has faithfully served in Kerala for almost 50 years. She has not been home on furlough for 18 years, mainly for two reasons: first, Kerala is home to her and, second, if she were to leave India there is the possibility that the authorities might not let her return for more than a short period of time. Doug and Ruth Hewlett are full-time workers in Auckland, New Zealand, and were on an extended ministry trip to India. Prior to arriving at Kumbanad for a few days, Doug had spent several weeks teaching at Stewards Bible College in Madras, while Ruth ministered to women’s groups as she had opportunity. Neither they nor I shall forget the kind hospitality of Miss Shirtliff, since we had numerous meals with her on the wide verandah of the large house which has been her home for so many years.
Among younger and older believers, I was privileged to meet and become acquainted with many of Kerala’s commended workers. They have my love, respect, and prayers. I saw in them, and in virtually all of the Lord’s people there, a dedication and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ which by and large exceeds the quality of North American Christianity, and this, because of our general lack of commitment and preoccupation with material things. Evangelism among the assemblies in Kerala is strong and there is a concerted effort also to reach out to the needy and neglected areas of India, although some of the veteran workers expressed to me their concern that evangelistic vision is slackening somewhat.
The winter weather in Kerala was much wanner than I expected. When we landed at Cochin on December 28 shortly after noon, the sky was clear with a temperature of 90 degrees F. and fairly high humidity. Some of the brethren used to tease me a little when I mentioned the heat. One of the them would respond something like this: “My dear brother, this is our winter; the worst is yet to come. You should return in two or three months if you think it’s hot now.” I never once wore a necktie when preaching, and only on one occasion did I preach in English. This was to the staff of the Tiruvalla Medical Mission Hospital. The rest of the time it was necessary to use a translator, I was told by some of the brethren who translated for me that I speak “English English.” They meant by this that I had no detectable American accent and further appreciated that I spoke loudly and distinctly, making their task of translating easier. Some days I preached twice and on occasion three times. With a twinkle in his eyes, one of the veteran servants of Christ said to me one day, “We have an expression here and it’s this: ‘Here comes the preacher; let us kill him.’”
Thankfully, I kept well throughout my entire time in Kerala, the Indian food having generally agreed with me, although at times I was warned about a particular dish that would probably be too hot for me.
On my one open day without a meeting John kindly arranged for us to visit the Thekkady Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Ghats, a range of beautiful mountains which form the eastern boundary of Kerala. In the sanctuary are elephants, wild boar, tigers, monkeys, panthers, wild dogs, gaur [a buffalo-like herbivore], birds, snakes [including king cobras], deer, plus a variety of smaller animals. During our stay of almost 24 hours we managed to see a mother elephant and her baby, wild boar, and monkeys. Included in our “sanctuary safari” was a boat trip of several miles which ultimately led to a dam, at which point we turned around for the trip back. I found the dry, cool air of the mountains gloriously refreshing, especially after two weeks of heat and humidity in the lowlands.
While cobras are occasionally seen in the country areas where I stayed, I am happy to relate that to this day the only cobras I’ve seen have been in the reptile houses of American zoos.
Power and Paper
Two additional things come to mind about Kerala and India in general. First, electric power failures are frequent. This was especially so when staying in country areas, and the further away we were from a transformer the dimmer the lights became, that is, if the power wasn’t shut off altogether. I recall one late evening in particular at John’s family home when I wasn’t sleepy and had hoped to read for a little while. However, the lights were so dim it was impossible to do any reading. The second thing is that paper is expensive. India produces its own paper, but there is neither the abundance nor the quality of it that we are used to and take for granted in the United States and Canada. I still have in my possession notes, letters, and envelopes which, by our standards, are poor quality paper. In my personal observation it appeared that little is wasted in the way of paper used for correspondence. etc.
On January 16 we left Cochin for Bombay, having arrived there in the early evening. Since our Air India flight to London and on to New York did not leave until 7:00 a.m. the next day, we had the joy of several hours’ fellowship with a few of the Christian workers in the area, including brother Silas Nair. Bombay, with its 11,000,000 people, has 28 assemblies representing eight different languages.
Thanks to a seven-hour plus delay at London’s Heathrow Airport, we arrived too late for our connecting flight at New York’s JFK International Airport, so at Air India’s expense we spent what was left of the night at the nearby Viscount International Hotel, then the next morning winged our way to Detroit and home.
Some Final Comments
Thus ended my first sojourn to India. It remains an unforgettable and, in many ways, an indescribable experience. True, I went there as a novice and returned as one. Nevertheless, I have a much greater appreciation and understanding of India’s needs, and more particularly the needs of Kerala. In some ways I will never “recover” from my trip, since certain memories are indelibly etched upon my heart and mind, some evoking joy and others sadness. As never before I pray for India, especially for the Lord’s people and their continuing labors, but also for the hundreds of millions of souls in that part of the world who still sit in spiritual darkness “without Christ…having no hope, and without God” 1Ephesians 2:121. Will you not also join me in praying for them?
Were I a young man with a divine call to India, my chief burden would be to work among the children. To me they are precious jewels and I totally fell in love with them. They smile easily and are so warm, friendly, and trusting, even toward a stranger like myself. Wherever I went they immediately won my heart.
Fittingly enough, while in Kerala I read a biography of Amy Carmichael. What a remarkable woman of God! I urge you to get acquainted with her writings and biography [there are several biographies, the latest having been written by Elizabeth Elliot entitled, “A Chance to Die].
The door to India is closed to foreign missionaries, so the work of the Lord must be carried on by His people there. Nevertheless, we who have been blessed with so much, both spiritually and materially, can pray and provide practical help on behalf of India’s indigenous workers, so that they may be able to more effectively forge ahead with the glorious mission of spreading the gospel of Christ, teaching God’s Word, and starting new local assemblies.