By Mike Mather, guest blogger
Less than a week after we (my spouse and our two sons – ages 5 and 10) had begun our Clergy Renewal leave in January of 2000, we found ourselves walking through the Darvella slum in Mumbai, India. One million people live in this one square mile area. The streets are so narrow that you have to walk single file, and on each side of the narrow street were open sewers. You had to step over the sewer to find yourself in someone’s home, and that home was usually the size of our very small bathroom back in Indiana.
We had come to India as the first part of our sabbatical because I served a small congregation in South Bend, Indiana in a low-income neighborhood. We had selected India as the first stop on our Clergy Renewal leave because I thought that going to a place where people really had nothing and yet were creating something out of that nothing would be inspiring and helpful. And it was. Our congregation in South Bend was very rooted in that neighborhood. Many lived there. Some had grown up there and moved out. All felt a deep connection and commitment to that neighborhood. Yet, as in many urban congregations, we felt overwhelmed by the need and struggle that we saw in peoples’ lives.
Just a few years before the Clergy Renewal leave, we had begun to turn our eyes from the neediness of our neighbors to their abundance. We had begun to trust our faith – that God’s abundance was prevalent even in places of poverty and struggle and illness. We had begun to build our ministry not on efforts to “reach out” but instead on efforts to join what God was doing in the lives of our neighbors. Still – our habits, our training, our practices were all oriented around building on our need rather than on our gifts.
To be able to spend time in India (and a short excursion to Bangladesh) gave me new eyes, new images, new metaphors for seeing and describing God’s presence around us in South Bend. To see children running, laughing around us, chasing one another through Darvella caused me to pause. When we worshipped that Sunday in the overflowing Methodist Church in the middle of that place, I was overcome by the real joy and celebration that was clear in the lives of these struggling folks.
From Calcutta to Goa, Arunghabad to Ooty, Delhi to Jaipur and Agra we were met over and over again by extravagant hospitality and generosity from people who by our standards back at home had nothing to offer. I saw incredible entrepreneurship (my favorite was the man who came up to me and told me that I needed his services – while offering me a card announcing himself as a professional ear-cleaner). We saw efforts large and small at cooperative economics. We witnessed businesses (like bookstores) very similar to efforts back in the United States but which were organized so that as many people as possible could work at them.
There were still people alive there who remembered Gandhi coming through their villages as a child. They would come together as a community and each person and family would offer something to the common goal of independence for their country (family jewelry, a handcrafted item that could be sold, etc.). There was still a very strong sense of what we used to call the common good.
This journey that had started a world away from our home opened our eyes to the giftedness and entrepreneurship around us back at home. We began to see inventors, cooks, cheese makers, restaurateurs (in home), bicycle mechanics, accountants and artists that had been invisible to us before. What a gift! Rev. Mike Mather is senior pastor at Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, IN. He is a past recipient of a Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Program for Indiana Congregations grant. The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) seek to strengthen Christian congregations by providing opportunities for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage in a period of renewal and reflection. To request permission to repost this content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.