Tag Archives: Ecumenical Christian Centre

Meeting Minnesotans and Ecumenical Encounters

Strange species break out of the box: millipedes, mynahs and Minnesotans; snakes and sparrows; roses and reeds.  I’m touched by an Arab traveller and a Nobel poet, and taunted by a false friend.

When I taught English at school holiday camps in South Korea there was a teachers’ orientation week when the campus was quiet, but our supervisor kept warning us with glee: “the monsters are coming!”  In the last few days of solitude I’ve been thinking, “The Minnesotans are coming!” and wondering how monstrous or mild the species would be.

Yesterday they arrived: 28 students from St Olaf College, Minnesota, supervised by a husband-and-wife professor couple.  Mostly 19-21 years old, with only 6 guys.  From a range of churches, or none.  Their five-month course is called “Jesus in Cross-Cultural Perspective” and asks “how interactions with ‘native’ culture and religions shape Christian faith and life”.  They first hit the UN in Switzerland, then swung via Athens to a month of Egyptian history in Cairo, from where they’ve just come.  After India they’ll have a week’s break in Thailand before one month each of Chinese art in Hong Kong and Korean culture in Seoul.  The St Olaf Global Semester programme has come here annually since 1974 when I was born.  Three students have parents who attended, three have older siblings.

Today we were officially welcomed to the Ecumenical Christian Centre (ECC).  A band with three oboe-like instruments and three percussionists led us to the meeting hall, where our foreheads were marked with a red powder dot, and we received a pinch of sugar and a rose.  Five people, including me as the honourable kiwi, lit the five wicks of the oil lamp.  One speech recalled Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats, where how people respond to human need is how they respond to Christ.  I liked the director’s phrase of “critical theological imagination” – left-brained analytic and right-brained creative united in studious passion for God.  He exhorted us to release God from the cages we chain him in and discover “God outside the box”.  Perhaps that sums up one purpose of this course.  As well as such advice, we were given elephant-emblazoned satchels, umbrellas they said we’d soon need, baseball caps and stationery.

The ECC (www.eccbangalore.org) was founded in 1963 to promote “wider ecumenicism”: a 4D unity of churches, faiths, humankind, and all creation.  It has about 50 staff, including four ordained clergy, two with PhDs, a dozen administrators, half a dozen cooks, two librarians, three drivers, and four guards.  The 29 acre campus resembles a park.  (See pictures of the campus and my quarters here.)  Signposts bear environmental messages, inspirational proverbs – “The tree does not withdraw its shade from the woodcutter”, and scriptural verses – “For only a penny you can buy two sparrows yet not one sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’s consent.”

Striving to count every sparrow, at least every species, several boards list “birds spotted on the ECC campus”.  There are harriers and herons, buzzards and babblers, warblers and drongos and Tickell’s flowerpecker.  These ecumenical avians embrace all castes, from Brahmany kites to pariah kites, and span the spectrum from white-breasted kingfishers to black-winged stilts: the grey-headed mynah, brown flycatcher and golden-backed woodpecker, the red-vented bulbul, green bee-eater and blue kingfisher, the purple-rumped sunbird and yellow-wattled lapwind.

Other animals live here too.  I’ve seen metre-high white ant hills, 10 cm-long millipedes, 2-inch moths.  There are skittering squirrels, small lizards on the walls, and lines of big ants – after a bite, my arm was still slightly swollen the next day.  The odd stray dog sneaks in and there could even be snakes – so stay off the grass at night.  But don’t forget to smell the rose garden, where a sign has this poem:

To a bee,
a place of courtship.
To a poet,
a poem.
To a scientist,
a thing to be crushed and analysed.
To a woman,
a piece of decoration on her hair.
To a priest,
an ingredient for puja.
To a rose plant,
life’s fulfilment.
To me,
a mystery.
To my God,
a media: the gospel of fragrance.
A rose!
You are one in many,
Many in one!

The first few days here I felt sleepy by dinner, but I’m recovering from jet lag and beginners’ street shock.  One of the best medicines is of course the library.  Here I stumbled across the collected poems of Indian Rabindranath Tagore, who won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature.  After reading these first lines of his Gitanjali or Song Offerings (which I briefly reviewed here), I borrowed the book for bedtime devotions.

Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again,
and fillest it ever with fresh life.

This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales,
and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.

As well as enjoying nature and poetry, I love the food and my stomach is fine!  ECC water treatment must work, while bottled water undergoes multistage purification: labels list ultraviolet treatment, micron filtration and ozonisation.  My friend Grant, of the sweepstake on how often I get sick, feels it’s unsporting of me to drink such processed stuff:

“Given my interest in when you succumb to the water isn’t it cheating on your part to use puritabs etc etc?  Go on – play fair.  Try every source of water you can find!”

The Americans seem friendly, and I’m making good progress on names, helped by artistic name-tags on their doors.  Two turned 21 on Friday.  There were celebratory charade games, with confusing references to American sport and entertainment.  Jogged with three in the cool air at 6:30am this morning.  At our first group meeting, they contemplated their Global experience so far.  Many nodded with understanding as their professor read out these reflections of Ibn Battuta, a 14th-century Arab traveller to India and China.

At first I was terrified, but then I learned to love the sea… Travelling: it makes you lonely, then gives you a friend…  It offers you a hundred roads to adventure, and gives your heart wings…  It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller…  It gives you a home in a thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land.

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Day One: Chapattis, Chips and Polychrome Chaos

Fighting for curry and setting up shop, my first taste of combat and sensory shock.  My first day on the ground brings fear and fascination, exhaustion and new shirt and colour and spice.

I’ll be in this room for the month so I dusted shelves, spread clothes on one and stood books on another. I untied the mosquito net – considerately equipped with holes so I can reach through and swat any bugs – and pushed my bed under the fan.  No sign of mossies last night, mesh on windows looks intact, and I will drape my untorn Bivouac net over the bed frame if needed.  The bathroom “hot” tap is warmest on sunny afternoons – its water comes from a solar panel and tank on the roof.  In the small library I discovered daily print editions of the papers I’d perused online from Auckland, and I met the Ecumenical Christian Centre director (he graciously dismissed the wake-up call last midnight) I’d been emailing for months – wow, I’m really here!

Right now I’m the sole white face, but ECC staff are preparing for the 30 American students to arrive on Thursday.  Women are in colourful saris, men mostly grey shirt-and-trousers uniform, some with a turban.  They swing sickles to cut the grass and sweep with twig-bundle brooms that seem to work well. Some are climbing ladders to clean windows.  I waved to one and he brought his hands together in respectful greeting, almost losing his balance as he let go of the rung. I was about to shower when another began scrubbing at the skylight above.  A maid carried a pile of sheets on her head between rooms.

At breakfast the cooks delivered 4 sausages, 3 eggs, a bowl of porridge, 4 pieces of white toast, butter and jam – no risk of starving here!  I only managed half.  As I left the refectory, staff kids were heading off in the van to school.  At lunch, the workers tucked into rice and vegetarian curry, but I was ushered to a table with a mince dish, boiled cabbage, white bread, packet potato chips, rice, and a symmetrical platter of fresh sliced vegetables.  The care is touching but embarrassing – it made me stand out, I left the veges untouched, not knowing how they were washed, and the staff curry looked yummier!

At dinner, I took a plate of their chapattis and rice, but was also given toast and potato chips again, cooked potatoes and chicken (which seemed kind from the vegetarian Hindu cooks) and warned their food would be too hot for me.  I left the bread and chips untouched and hoped they’d notice that, however clumsily, I was indeed breaking bread, gathering rice and curry with my right hand, and not exploding with the heat!  The water is filtered with a faint chemical taste so is probably fine, but until I see the Americans’ policy, I’ll continue purifying it.

Before dinner I checked email at the “Communication Centre” and started this missive.  Battery and generators maintained the PCs when power cuts interrupted the internet.  Then Jabaraj walked me into Whitefield’s main street and India’s “assault on the senses” attacked  (see my Whitefield shots here).  It’s overwhelming, too much to process, like the “one great blooming, buzzing confusion” that psychologist William James said babies experience, “assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once”, before the infant brain turns down the sensory volume and shoves it all into boxes so we can cope.  I kept one eye on the ground avoiding potholes and litter, several eyes evading push- and motorbikes, cars, trucks, buses – footpaths barely exist.  It took my whole concentration to follow Jabaraj without being hit and, like a toddler, I was terrified of being left behind alone.  Little energy was left to observe the people: some in leather shoes, smart trousers and collared shirt, others barefoot in a lungi waist wrap-around.  Women’s saris were monochrome or multi-hued, pastel or dazzling, like all the spectrum of light swirling around me; plain or floral, striped, chequered or polka-dotted; silver-threaded or begemmed.  A few wore Muslim headscarves.

A large white bullock pulled a cart past churches and shrines.  Behind waste-filled gutters, walls guarded manicured gardens and elegant houses or multi-storey flats.  Overgrown sections in between are littered with tin shacks or tarpaulins – apparently not mini-slums, as I first thought, but temporary abodes of itinerant construction workers on the many building sites.  In a small store stacked floor to ceiling with clothing and trinkets, small statues of gods stood next to Western lingerie: Brahman nudged Bendon.  The proprietor offered me a tiny plastic cup of steaming sweet chai tea, and Jabaraj helped me buy a cool cotton shirt with a retro look.

One hour “in town” was enough.  Drained and bewildered, I stumbled back to the ECC grounds, a tranquil haven of trees, verdant lawns, and fresh air after the churning dust and fumes.  I cleaned out gobs of black from my nostrils.  After my first glimpse of the “bracing, or exhausting, anarchy of Indian streets” (Michael Palin, Himalaya), I can see this country could be bracingly exhilarating, but I was thinking: “two months to survive – what have I got myself into?” and hoping I’d not forgotten to pack anything important – I doubt I’d manage to find and purchase the simplest item.  I felt more positive after a refreshing shower and dinner and more smiles from the staff.

I recalled that night falls fast in the tropics, when it did about 6pm.  More brief power-offs required the headlamp torch from my local NZ hardware store to navigate my room and the two-minute walk to the refectory for dinner.  Reading at night, my bedside light often alternated bright and dim every few seconds, rather like my alternating feelings of fascination and fear about India so far.  The fluctuating power levels mirror my morale.  I switch off the erratic illumination and drift off, soothed by the lullaby of the fan overhead, speeding and slowing, whirring up and whizzing down, now eager, now dismayed.

Bangkok Butterflies and a Bangalore Nocturne

Auckland International Airport, Saturday 6 October. A few stomach butterflies already airborne. As in past flights alone, I was comforted by the words of my namesake three millennia ago, “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” (Psalm 139). Withdrew US$300 against credit card failure, chomped a last beef Big Mac, hugged my parents at the departure gate, and followed the butterflies aloft.

11 hours to Bangkok with Thai air, “smooth as silk”. Videos on the Thai king and Buddhist history, key phrases from the Thai language game. A tip for visitors to Bangkok airport: don’t drop your tickets on the floor while heaving luggage off the carousel. The guard won’t let you back in. You’ll spend the next near-midnight hour chasing round the facilities, chatting up the staff, chafing at their English, till the dozenth grasps your plight, so you can re-enter the luggage area, scour the naked lino with growing disappointment, flag down a friendly taxi salesperson to translate for the cleaning lady, who reaches deeply into her bin and – better than any rabbit from a seedy conjurer’s hat – draws out your creased tickets. I tried to keep smiling and practising “thank you” from that in-flight Thai game. Though in principle, as one official said, it shouldn’t be necessary as it’s all electronic…

A night of luxury in the Bangkok Novotel, with the grandest hotel foyer I’ve seen – outclassing my usual backpackers’ digs. Three books in the bedside drawer: a Gideon’s Bible, “What the Buddha taught” and “A Constitution for Living: Buddhist principles for a fruitful and harmonious life”. Through my window a highway flanked with billboards beckoned towards the city. But I’d been warned of travellers who taxied quickly into town, to rush hour-crawl back – with un-harmonious and unfruitful sentiments – as their plane taxied for take-off.

So a day of countdown in the airport, that no man’s land between worlds. Breakfast was instant noodles from my room’s “minibar”. Lunch with the Bangkok Post over spicy mushroom and crab soup. Vietnamese vege wraps for tea. Boarded the flight, and spent two hours on the ground for repairs. Next to me sat a young Bangalorean, visiting home from his IT job in Taiwan – one of India’s new global tech successes. After a 3 ½ hour flight, we touched down about 11:30pm in Bangalore, India!

Less light and advertising from the sky than more Easterly Asian cities I’ve seen. Airport signs in three scripts: curly circly Kannada, straighter-lined washing-on-a-clothesline Hindi, and English. After Bangkok’s airport (completed last year), you’d hardly call this an international airport (to be fair, it’s to be retired next year). No air bridge to the terminal, but steep stairs to an old bus. Flashing Christmas-tree-like lights framed the elephant god Ganesh above the driver’s head as the bus coughed and bumped along to the terminal building. Stained walls, loose wiring. A slight scrum at the baggage claim. Passport check at a bulky cathode ray computer screen, less high-tech than high time for retirement, certainly not the cutting edge IT I’d expected in India’s IT capital. A short queue past customs, and it was time to face India.

After the two-hour delay I feared I might be stranded at midnight. I ventured into the foyer and saw only eager transport and accommodation touts. No ATM in sight, so squeezed back through a row of plastic chairs to change US$50 to Rupees, officially unobtainable outside India. Later realised I’d been too flustered to count them. My plane seat-mate lent his cell phone to ring my course director, who told me to go out further. Slipped back through the seats, and an official told me off – that line of chairs demarked pre- and post-customs areas. The official (or not – too dazed to tell) insisted I go through customs. I protested – I already had! He changed tack, grabbed my trolley. I held on. We push-pulled it out together as he wheedled for a tip. Seldom have I felt more grateful than when I spotted a slim man with a big ECC sign. The pseudo-official chappie vanished.

Jabaraj chaperoned me through the chaotic parking-lot, into the jeep, and we were off. No seatbelt for the front passenger (me). The driver tooted and flashed headlights before swerving to overtake. Excitement and exhaustion anaesthetised my fear. Streets were dark, many lights dead. We wove past hopeful hitchhikers, shadowy pedestrians, clusters of stray dogs, small temples or shrines through the gloom. 15 minutes later we reached the suburb of Whitefield, turned and bumped down a dirt road and the iron gates of the Ecumenical Christian Centre (ECC) loomed out of the dark. The guard emerged from his gatehouse, swung them open, and we entered the compound. Walked for ever down a corridor of empty bedrooms, shadows receding as Jabaraj flicked on cold fluorescent lights, past two open courtyards, and arrived at my room. Jabaraj opened the heavy door, assured me it was boltable and guards were on duty, promised to return at 8 in the morning to take me to breakfast, and left me alone in the building.

I shot the bolt and turned to inspect my room. Spacious and tidy, walls painted cream. On two walls (a corner room) were windows with bars and insect mesh, frames painted blue and turquoise. I drew the burgundy curtains to shut out the foreign night. White mosquito nets shrouded the twin beds. Two cane chairs and a desk, with reading lamp, vase of artificial flowers and carafe of water. Rummaged in my bag, found the pot of medicaments, dropped in a Puritab. Watched it slowly fizz through the amber glass. Paint was peeling on concrete shelves; their deep recesses reminded me of Roman catacomb graves. Empty except for a candle, matches, and cake of Medimix Ayurvedic soap, with “a unique formulation of 18 herbs”, recalling KFC’s secret herbs and spices. Tiled concrete floor, swept clean. In the corner, two towels and a few coat hangers dangled from a wooden frame. The bathroom had big plastic buckets and a cold shower. Washed my feet under the tap labelled “hot” – it wasn’t. Cleaned my teeth, rinsing mouth and brush in a cup of the purified water – my tablet didn’t leave much taste.

It was 23°C on landing, down from the 28°C night in Bangkok, and there was an overhead fan, so I had a cool night and even put one blanket on, but didn’t sleep much. Fluttering with adrenaline, my butterflies hadn’t all landed yet, and like Prospero’s enchanted isle the air was full of noises, sounds, and strange sweet airs: dogs whining and barking outside the compound, chanting or singing – perhaps a distant temple or wedding music, a train horn, airplanes; nearby were loud crickets and the calls of unknown birds.