Tag Archives: churches

Biblical Power Plagues: Sweating in Suburban Bangalore

I find churches of every persuasion, marvel at Bangalore’s IT boom and measure its electrical bust; I’m as hot as James Bond but wet as a frog when it comes to catching snakes.

The surrounding suburb seems like the Bible Belt of Bangalore.  I’ve found no mosques, though heard a distant prayer call at night and passed the Masha Allah Chicken Biryani Hotel, so there are Muslims around, and I’ve only seen a few small Hindu temples which are mostly closed.

temple-entrance-gateThe 1.5m high granite slabs lining the road are painted with arrows to Christian organisations like Home of Hope – a rehabilitation center, Prison Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ, Union of Evangelical Students.  On an advert for “Nazareth Inc. UPS”, glowing electric blue stars radiate from an Uninterruptible Power Supply – something you can’t do without here: there’s a sermon illustration!

bangalore-biryani-restaurantWithin 15 minutes’ walk are Bethel Brethren, two different Assemblies of God, a large Church of South India (roughly like Anglican), Roman Catholic convents, a sign pointing to “Christ the King Church”, and the Infant Jesus Children’s Home.  Further along, past Omega Christian Books and the Galilee Fish and Chicken Center, a tall poster proclaims “Jesus, I trust in you”, with rays of light like red and blue sari fabric streaming from Christ’s heart.  The St Lourdes Grotto mimics the pilgrimage shrine in France with a small alcove of stones set in concrete beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary.  Murals depict the Nativity, life of Christ, and ascension of Mary.  A row of tea lights flicker as a tearful woman prays.

bangalore-catholicFor a software developer like me, Bangalore is a notable town.  In 1906, it became India’s first city with electricity.  It now has the country’s second highest literacy at 83% (after Mumbai), and the most engineering colleges, as well as the most pubs and the highest proportion of smokers (34%).  In the last two decades, it has become India’s IT capital.  The inventor of Hotmail grew up here and many Americans have been “Bangalored”, losing their jobs due to outsourcing.  Foreign IT campuses are self-contained cities, enclaves of America with first world facilities.

There are still open fields nearby, even a few with cattle, but my brief run before breakfast or dinner also passed new buildings covered in wobbly-looking bamboo scaffolding, while a construction crane overlooked the flat roof where I cooled off.  The civic infrastructure can’t handle the rocketing population.  A billboard over the entrance to the Ajantha Hotel where I stayed in central Bangalore showed a woman wielding an electric iron bigger than her and read:

Excessive power consumption in one home leads to darkness in ten homes.  SAVE POWER.
Let us do our bit.  Avoid ironing clothes during peak hours between 6 and 9 in the morning and in the evening.

I experienced this darkness in my own home here.  My flat is equipped with battery backup light, candles and matches on the desk.  Gas rings to boil water when the electric water filter and jug won’t go.  On top of the Samsung fridge is a heavy object shaped like a flying saucer with red “input” and “output” lights that went off and on every day: a V-Guard Electronic Voltage Stabiliser.  For techies, the specs read, “Output voltage: 200-240 V, from input: 170-260 V.  Low and high voltage cut-off: 145 V and 270 V.  Time delay: 2 to 4 ms”.  Wished I’d brought a pocket multi-meter to measure the mains variation, and graph it against fan rotation frequency.  My students could have used their new vocab to describe the plot, with plenty of “sporadic fluctuations”, “imperceptible lows” or “fitful spikes”.

bangalore-potboilerThe spasmodic vacillation became more predictable and more vexatious in the final weeks when classroom fans stopped around 3 pm, just as the temperature climbed to the mid-30s.  Without the breeze, mosquitoes buzzed by my ears and little bugs flew at my eyes.  At 920 m above sea level, Bangalore used to be pleasantly cool, but is heating up as trees and lakes are replaced by buildings and pollution – which makes the sky glow red at night.

Magazine articles like “Sunny Side Up!” or “Bangalore Potboiler!” said, “You can no longer look smug when friends from Chennai and Delhi complain about the heat in their cities”.  The whiteboard markers dry out almost overnight, and I never use my shower heater.  I sometimes wake sweating with itchy arms: the fan over my double bed has stopped, dropping my shield against heat and mosquitoes.  After dark I feel like James Bond, padding around my flat bare-chested with a wet flannel cooling my back and a Maglite for his Magnum stuck in my waistband.

bangalore-sunnyAs well as heat, we’ve had dramatic thunderstorms and downpours, when drains overflow and traffic crawls as windscreen wipers are overwhelmed.  In 1961 Bangalore had 262 lakes, but all except 80 have now been filled in, which makes the flooding worse.  My salt shaker proclaimed “remains free flowing even in the rainy season”.  One night – without power for six hours – lightning strikes were so frequent I set my camera to ten seconds exposure and let nature’s flashbulb illuminate the garden outside my window.  After the rains, small frogs hopped around, providing, I was told, tasty meals for snakes – so look out where you walk.  It wasn’t idle advice.  Our driver stopped short of the gate one night for a cobra to cross the road.  A stray dog fled.  Campus boys were thrilled to find a snake under the house of teachers Dennis and Barbara, who were somewhat less delighted.  Our students were unperturbed.  One informed me that snake tastes something like chicken neck and said, “You catch; we cook!”  I said I’d prefer, “You catch and cook; I eat!”  In the words of Christ,

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake?”  Luke 11:11



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.”