Slums and Cinemas: Billy Graham meets Doubting Thomas

The meaning of names and preaching in a slum; beating up worship bands at the flicks; praying at the doubting apostle’s tomb – I check out three churches in Chennai.

Few of us in the West think our names have significance.  Bill or Burt or Bob, it’s pretty much the same.  In many cultures, however, your name expresses your character, your meaning, who you really are, and why you are here.

In the Old Testament God renamed Abram (“exalted father”) as Abraham, or “father of many”, because all Jews would be his descendants.  Jesus renamed his disciple Simon as Peter or “rock” – the cornerstone of the nascent church – and in the final book of the Bible he promises, “To the one who overcomes…  I will give a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”  (Revelation 2:17)

Many still view names as important.  Western converts to Islam often take an Arabic name, and Hare Krishnas or other Hindus receive a Sanskrit name from their guru at initiation.  Indians are often named after a Hindu God, and are baptised with a new name if they become Christian.  Many go for a Biblical hero like Samson or Thomas or Paul.  Some look to church history: Martin Luther lectures here at the Hindustan Bible Institute.  Others choose the names of more contemporary greats: yesterday I met Pastor Billy Graham.

Billy Graham has little leisure.  His business card lists “Church Ministry, Prayer Ministry, Slum Ministry, Village Ministry, Healing Ministry, Teaching Ministry, Pastors Conference & Open-Air Meetings.”  With a congregation of 450 in a slum of 13,000, he may be woken in the wee hours to pray for a parishioner’s sick child, or even the slum’s Hindu priest.  I asked a few questions through a translator and sometimes my meaning didn’t get through.  “What excites you most about your work, what is the most rewarding?”, for example, evoked no intriguing stories of slum dog millionaires he has known, but the brief, pious, and uninformative reply that his reward is in heaven.

We briefly toured the slum.  I expected to be shocked but it didn’t look much poorer than other Indian streets.  One-room houses were shabby and small, not unlike tramping huts I’ve slept in, and many had colour TVs – one way that political parties purchase slum votes.  Men rode motorbikes or chatted on cell phones.  Women fried bread and chicken curries on their doorsteps.  Scores of scruffy little hands shook mine.  In a World Vision craft shop, women were weaving baskets and making handbags, pillowcases, and attractive greeting cards.  I bought a packet.

They don’t seem desperately unhappy.  In India: a Million Mutinies Now (1990) V. S. Naipaul interviewed people throughout India about changes they have seen.  I was most struck by a few born in slums who had prospered and upgraded to comfortable private homes.  They felt alone and missed the community in the slum, so they moved back in.  Poverty is complex, and not always easy to assess at a glance.

Today I attended a 7am service at Billy Graham’s church.  I was taken by a smartly dressed auto-rickshaw driver from his flock, a large gentle man who was a “terrorist” before conversion.  Maybe I was paranoid, but I feared a few of Billy’s newer converts might find their faith – or their fingers – tempted by a rich white worshipper in their midst.  I left my camera behind, and planned to keep a mental eye on my pockets.  On arrival, however, I was seated in honour on stage behind Billy Graham – who was dressed in a white shirt and skirt like an Island pastor – which I found embarrassing, though I had a good view.

The concrete room was under a bridge (technically illegal, so a change in political climate could eject them), equipped with fans, microphones and speakers.  Through the open rear door I saw a hut with thatched walls, chipped bricks holding down the plastic roof sheet, below a billboard advertising designer fashion clothes for motorists on the bridge.  Women passed carrying yellow water-jugs on their heads.

Inside it was less crowded than I expected.  Men sat on one side, women on the other, their heads covered with saris.  Musicians pounded drums and cymbals while the congregation chanted and clapped for all they were worth.  Without an occasional “hallelujah”, I’d have guessed it was some Hindu celebration or an African tribe.  No Sunday sleep-in for the neighbours!  They asked me to share and I wondered what I – with so much – could offer those with so little.  So I talked about a Psalm that has comforted me in times of fear or uncertainty, as a man translated into Tamil.

I lift up my eyes to the hills –
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip –
he who watches over you will not slumber…
Psalm 121

From the slum I directed my steps to a very different service.  The “Powerhouse” is an English-speaking congregation, one-quarter white with several American aid workers, and meets in a cinema.  A Western band played familiar songs rather loudly.  Then the worshippers left and moviegoers arrived.

Movies are big in this state.  The leading political party was founded by a scriptwriter; the best-known Chief Minister was a big-name actor, his successor was a star actress.  Both films and politics draw fans by championing lower caste South Indians over high-caste Hindi-speaking northerners.  So what better way to educate myself and avoid the midday sun than to stay here in the air-con cool?

The flick was in Tamil but that hardly mattered.  The hero Shivaji was a Robin Hood type who cheated the rich to help the poor.  There were snatches of English, as in normal Indian conversation, so I got some jokes: “Business ethics?  This is India!”  Dance and fight scenes were fun, some with Matrix moves.  Best was a melodic punch-up in a music shop – glissandos as mighty blows slide villains up double-bass strings, stumbling across kettle drums with tooting trumpets stuck up their behinds.  After 2 ½ hours, it began to drag.  I purchased a flaky pastry “vege puff” in the intermission while trailers displayed censorship certificates.

After slum drumming, cinema service, and a bit of biffo with Shivaji, the day cooled down with more spiritual depth at a third and very different church again: the whitewashed neo-Gothic St Thomas Basilica.

Two days after Jesus was crucified, he rose from the grave and appeared to his disciples.  Thomas wasn’t present.  He was a scientific sort of chap – when Jesus walked on water he probably looked for a sandbank or a surfboard – so he refused to believe that Jesus was alive until he saw the scars for himself.  One week later Jesus appeared to Thomas, who responded “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

The story goes that Thomas sailed to India in A.D. 52.  It could well be true.  Traders sailed every year with the monsoon winds and there are first-century Roman coins in southern India.  After building a palace for an Indian king – rather slowly as he kept giving the funds to the poor – the tradition is that Thomas wound up in Chennai and was speared to death while praying in A.D. 72.  (See my sermon on doubting Thomas, “Believing Scars and Faith in the Night“.)

Under the basilica is a small chapel with his tomb.  At the entrance hung Caravaggio’s painting The Incredulity of St Thomas.  With brow wrinkled in astonishment, Thomas advances a finger towards the scar in Jesus’ side as he emerges from the darkness in chiaroscuro light.  The chapel was almost empty.  I sat on a pew and was still.  I thought of how I relate to Thomas: I’m often cynical and uncertain, fearful and of little faith.  Then I remembered that earlier in John’s Gospel Thomas said something that is less well known.  As Jesus set out towards Jerusalem, his disciples recalled that up there people wanted to kill him – it could be more fun to travel someone else.  But Thomas said “Let us go too, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).  The infamous doubter could be a man of courage and loyalty and, if tradition is true, he lived up to those words right here.

An unusual crucifix showed the risen and ascending Christ with arms lifted off the cross in victory.  Behind me a girl softly sang hymns in an Indian language and in English.  Amazing Grace – how sweet the sound.  In His Time – not mine: a message for life and especially in India!  “Take My Life and Let It Be Consecrated, Lord, to Thee”.

My reaction was less spiritual when tourists entered, loud, chatting, ticking off another sanctimonious site, ignoring signs requesting silence.  I left and as a memento bought a plastic “credit-card” containing a few grains of holy sand from the tomb, believed to have miraculous healing powers, with the blessing:

“May St Thomas, through his powerful intercession, enable you to be free from fear, anxiety and pain.  May you be blessed always with courage, confidence, success, health and happiness.”