India: One

I know a family who, when they laid the concrete slab for their new house, pressed their palms into the wet cement and wrote their names and the date with the end of a paintbrush. I thought it was so cool- as the frame went up and got surrounded with bricks and render and carpet was laid furniture arranged pictures hung on walls, their marks remained, set solid into the path around the back of the house. And over the years bushes grew over it, and one day they’ll move out and it will be someone else’s home, but their hands will still be there.

My friend Esther told me about something our other friend El said once. She said that kids are like wet cement, and while they’re kids, marks are made in that cement. And as they grow, it dries, and things might change around them but the indents and handprints and etched initials and surfaces have set.

***

There’s a small, soft hand in mine, the cocoa colour of its skin glowing against my own freckly white variety. Another hand belonging to another someone is clutched around my arm; I’m surrounded by so many kids I actually don’t know which limb belongs to whom. “Sister!” echoes around me as the surrounding children call for my attention- take a photo sing a song skip with us what is your name? This place is alive. Conversations begun in broken English end up in fits of giggles as the language barrier becomes too difficult and who needs speaking to have a bollywood dance off or play cricket anyway? The older girls push aside the others to hold my hand and ask how I am. I admire these girls- their depth of desire to learn everything about anything, their commitment to exploring such things with excellence and focus. I feel ashamed to think of my own attitude to learning, the lack of value I hold for the stories of others.

It’s a similar scene on another day in another part of India, this time though, I’m standing on the sidelines. Thoughts of the previous week tumbling tripping through my head: dirt horns beggars junk disease street hopeless need. There’s no rhythm to it, it all just happens all at once like playing six different songs all at the same time all at full volume. But then I look up and my heart explodes as I see a vision of heaven. I took a photo of it, but it doesn’t do the reality justice. The green, safe, clean field in front of me is full of children- young older boys girls, some disabled tired parentless not-so-smart, but all loved. Living, in that moment, with so much joy. The sun is shining and they’re all playing together or washing their hands getting ready to eat or drawing the most beautiful pictures all over the concrete. Surrounding the field are buildings that these kids meet in each week- for tutoring, or church, or youth group or art and craft. Singing and laughing are lifting through the air. It probably sounds corny or Disney-tastic to you, but shivers it was real and it was right. This was the way things should be.

These children- the girls who love to learn and the kids drawing chalk all over heaven- are living proof that the promise is being fulfilled. The darkest depths of despair and hopelessness cannot escape the light brought forth in these lives. They’ve been offered an alternative, and are themselves becoming the change-makers and alternative-offerers. These children are part of a Compassion project in their local community. As part of this, their school fees are taken care of, they’re getting fed a decent meal every day, they are being counselled, they are given a safe and thriving environment to grow and play (side note comprising much depth: all of this is initiated and maintained by locals). Above all, the love of Jesus is being shared with them, fostering a hope and value that cannot be matched by any earthly thing.

Much of this support is enabled by donations of sponsors in another country- but this is more than just giving 50ish bucks to some charity to ease our moral conscience. This is about being part of someone’s story and allowing them to be part of yours. Child sponsorship breaks down nameless, faceless poverty and in its place builds a mutually transformative relationship. Too often do we just lump kids into a category of ‘future adults’ and just pay attention to them when they’re old enough to vote or earn money or engage us in a witty conversation. In India I learnt that there are lot of questions answered problems solved hearts healed in allowing children to challenge us with their value. It’s not a case of adults ‘giving’ kids their value either- the value is there the whole time. We just need to get over ourselves, humble ourselves enough to be challenged and changed by it.

Siva is one of the kids supported by Compassion in India, in a little village called Suviseshapuram. That’s him in the blue checked shirt: a skinny little fella, short for his age, and he’s got one of those smiles that stays quietly and politely tucked away until you coax it out, at which point it turns into the biggest most hopeful and pure and joy-inducing grin ever. He’s not got the easiest life, especially since his mum took off with some other guy and his dad left with another woman, leaving Siva and his little sister Santhya to be cared for by their Grandma. If he’d been living in Suviseshapuram ten years ago, he would likely be working instead of being at school and Santhya would be a child mortality statistic. But since a Compassion project was started there, the whole community has seen massive turnarounds. Through children.

I’ve been sponsoring Siva for about four years and was so blessed as to meet him at the end of our trip and man, I am so blown away by this kid. They way he leaped at every opportunity, how he so carefully practiced guitar, the love protection listening he showed to his little sister, his simple rest in God. He sets an example for me that helps me see why God, in the bible, keeps urging his people to become like children.

Siva turned eleven last week. His figurative concrete sets a little more with each year. There will always be the indents of hurt and abandonment that scar him, but etched even deeper will be the irremovable hope of Jesus Christ. Compassion is rendering over the cracks of hunger and loneliness, and shaping Siva into a leader, encourager and giver.

Look at the kids within your reach (let’s think beyond borders here too). What is being etched into their concrete? What marks are you leaving?

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India: Heavy

Post 2.0 reflecting on India. Read this one and get excited for the next one (spoiler alert: the good guys win).

I’m riding a borrowed bike down a little dirt track, the fine dust solidly compacted by wheels and feet long before mine. Thick grass whips my ankles as I pump rusty pedals veer round those potholes; the brakes are pretty shot so I don’t get the choice to stop, just have to keep pumping and veering. The dusk air is so ridiculously fresh out here, the descending sun so generous with the glow it drips all over everything, I smile. And breathe. This India seems so distant from that which is five hours down the road.

So distant from those kids I watched, uncomfortably, from the bus this morning. There are three of them, fraying white sacks slung over shoulders. It’s hot outside, and they walk up the hill with lead feet. I wonder if the younger two are sister and brother, and maybe the older one is just a stranger, though I reckon this might be one of those contexts where family goes beyond blood. The sacks are full of rubbish. Junk. You know, the stuff someone else didn’t want to keep because it was empty or broken or old. The stuff that settles along every curb, lacing the city like frayed denim. You didn’t want that busted piece of pipe any more, but it makes its way into a fraying white sack. And that plastic bag is actually pretty reusable, same with that water bottle, if only there was a matching lid somewhere. The boy and the girl and the stranger sift through rubbish to find their target- anything that might be useful for something. What the hell are they going to find in there? Who gets up in the morning to go to work: self-employed to sift through crap to find crap that’s a little bit better than the rest of it? Ah, but God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose them. What will their lesson be for me? What proud wise strong thing in me needs to be put to shame?

I rather ungracefully pull the bike to a stop and soak up the still. The last few locals are leaving their fields for the evening, heading to their mud brick homes. Peach light makes everything look real good, even when I remember the conversation I had with the church pastor earlier this afternoon: farming is about all you can do out here, but there’s no rain, and even if there was, there is no market for these goods apart from your own table. Which is all well and good for your belly but food can’t teach you maths or business or geography or hygiene. So you’re illiterate and consequently pick up a severe case of diarrhoea, probably from walking around with no shoes, and now you’re dehydrated and the lack of safe drinking water means you’re getting weaker and soon enough it’s not just health you’re losing, it’s hope.

Out here, we’re not really any further away from the unravelling edges of the city. Don’t let the lack of horn honking fool you.

And this is what I’m stuck with: unable to look away from the endless flood of people without food and school and hope. The weight depth complexity of poverty and hopelessness in India is simply overwhelming. You escape the pleading of one beggar to meet the eyes of another; you can’t find a street without someone sleeping on it. You quit school to try to earn some money so you never quite get the hang of reading and then you end up getting married at sixteen anyway and five years later you’re burying your firstborn.

I long for something to shift in India, for the nation to clear its throat. For a colossal tank of hot soapy water to pour out from the heavens, and wash over every inch of the streets stripping away the layer of dirt that has settled firmly over all of India. Rubbish swept away colours polished wounds healed darkness replaced with light. Streets that were paved with filth now paved with gold.

Later on, after the bike is pumped and veered back to its owner, I read Isaiah 65.

The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice in what I will create, for I will create Kolkata to be a delight and its people a joy… the sound of weeping and crying will be no more. Never again will there be an infant who lives but a few days… they will build houses and dwell in them, they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord…

That’s the promise. But its not just one of those promises offered as some kind of there there everything will be okay one day sit tight deals.

This promise is being fulfilled today.

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India: Shove

This is the first of a couple of posts I’ll be landing here, reflecting on a recent trip to India to witness the work of Compassion.

It’s about midnight when we finally leave the airport, and as we walk outside its like stepping into one of those stock exchange scenes in a movie. Our little group of weary passengers is stunned awake by air thick with new smells people noise people dirt porters horns (oh, the horns!) people taxis. We cling to our guide and push our way through half the population of India to wait on the curb for our bus. My pack is rubbing my shoulders raw but I don’t want to put it down- the volume of spitting I’ve seen since arrival/imminent stench of garbage/unidentified stains on the concrete have turned me off resting it on the little ground space not taken up by human feet. But the bus is here now, and I’m wondering how we will ever get through this ocean of taxis, there are no lanes lights limits laws. I learn my first Hindi word: weave. Weave: verb. Twist and turn from side to side while moving somewhere in order to avoid obstructions [or in such a way so that the obstructions avoid you. And don’t hold back on the horn]. We weave our way right to the heart of Delhi; here, the buildings are close and all piled up on top of each other and there is not a lot of light, but it makes up for it in haze and rubbish, and there are always people just sometimes they are standing and sometimes they are lying on the ground, awake and asleep respectively. I’m awake and asleep too, my senses thrown open (maybe this is why people get speechless, they have to close their mouths so that everything can get taken in and not slip out just yet) but I’m so, so tired.

In the morning my head is throbbing and the fact that breakfast is curry screws with my toast-and-juice-for-22-years mind and is just a little assaulting on the stomach. Silently I freak out that I’ll be feeling sick the whole trip and will have a horrible time and not learn anything, but after a coffee and some green barley I’m on the up and up and have to close my mouth again to take everything in. I’ve never been a particularly quiet person, but I reckon India will bring out the introvert in anyone. There is so much noise that anything quieter than a yell struggles to move beyond insignificance. Not to mention the language barrier that can only be transcended by head wobbling, except of course if you don’t know that language either, so that after asking “where can I get some bottled water?” you are no closer to acquiring said water as you’re not sure if that was the “that way”, “yes”, “no”, “I don’t understand the question”, or “you are very beautiful madam” head wobble.

We are in the car, heading to our first Compassion project visit (more on that later). My sense-exploding midnight introduction to Delhi doesn’t compare to this morning’s action scene, because now there is haze and rubbish and light, and the light reveals: indents on the front/back left/right of every vehicle (a side effect of weaving); more people; cows and goats and pie-dogs ownerless and half-wild mongrel dog common around Asian villages especially India fossicking through the piles of rubbish that no one seems concerned about; they smell and they grow and they hem every curb. The light shows colours, green blue orange gold aqua pink, they are a kaleidoscope of disorder that makes me dizzy, giddy, stirring up the artist in me and feeding me a delicious array of visual aesthetic. In the light there are ancient men sitting on ancient steps, there are children walking arms around shoulders, there are women in saris- maybe you are the poorest woman in India but I think in your sari you look like royalty, you are beautiful! There are billboards put up by an India trying to be an America. There are vegetables and spices being stirred in a pot on the side of the road. There are new buildings wrapped in bamboo scaffolding, walls of bricks stretching up, only to start falling apart as soon as they are finished. It’s strange, I see nothing new here- cracks dust grime posters cover everything, whether it was built last week or last decade. It’s like anything new already has a lifetime of stories written through it. I even see it on people- infants have the weight of the elderly under their eyes; there are too many scars on kids.

There’s a woman at the car window now, she’s trying to say something. Her baby bobs on her hip as she taps the glass, making sure I look at her, and holds her hand out. I swallow. As she brings her hand to her mouth, she tilts her head to the side. I’m pretty sure this is the “please” head wobble, only I don’t want to admit it. I don’t want to understand without a doubt that she is asking for food, or money, and she has a kid with scars on her hip, and we’ve momentarily stopped weaving the car is stopped and she’s not going away. She repeats the display: hold out hand bring to mouth tilt head please. She smiles- I’m not a threat, and this is awkward for both of us, but you’re the only car of white people on this stretch and I know you’ve got thousands of rupees you can give me some please for some milk for my child. I do have thousands of rupees, yes, and they are burning a hole in my heart yet all I can do is mumble a pathetic sorry and not look in her eyes.

In India I see so much beauty and so much wretchedness all at the same time; delight is shoved against me the same moment that horror is. Kind of painful. I guess that’s the thing about light: it shows up everything. Delightful ugly dirty secret new fearsome alive, it is all seen in the light. Things you don’t want to see, things you want to understand but can’t, things that burst your heart with joy; there, in front of your eyes, and you can’t look away.

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Create

I really like making things.

There’s something about taking raw materials and chucking them together, mixing/gluing/pressing/tying/printing them, sometimes waiting a little bit and then suddenly, there is something new.

When I was a kid I had a Useful Box (in some households this is known as a “rubbish” or “recycling” bin). I still have one of those, but it’s a bit tidier and has more grown up things in it like a stanley knife and black block ink. One day I’ll have a whole room that is especially for art- I’m planning on a pottery wheel and lino printing press and sewing machine being in there, as well surround sound speakers. It’s gonna be awesome. And I’ll hold Crafternoons where you can come over and make things and eat afternoon tea that we’ve baked.

If you have never made something before, please start today. Make a birthday card, or a paper plane, or a friendship band. Make a cup of tea! Just do it. And then when you’ve made something, give it away.

That’s the best part- letting someone else share in the joy of something created by human hands/heart/mind.

I resonate with the heart of God when He saw His creation and said, this is good!

And then making man because he didn’t want to keep it all to himself.

Knowing all the while that man would totally screw it over.

How generous, how gracious and selfless is that?

So in summary: What God makes is good, and we should delight in it and in Him, not trash it (reminds me of restoring the sacred…). And I reckon God has placed in all of us the ability and desire to create, and then to share.

***

From time to time I’ll put bits and pieces of stuff and things I’ve made- feel free to get inspired, pass it on, share your own ideas.

I’ll start with this: I made a series of linocut prints for Compassion’s Blue Easel exhibition next month. I picked up lino printing after helping the Year 7s learn it last year at work, and am getting pretty excited about exploring it more. These prints are on A3 recycled card (recycled brown is my favourite colour. Not even kidding.), and based on photos of kids I’ve met in South Africa and the Solomon Islands.

If you really like them, I’m selling a couple of prints (they’re on a limited run of 20) at $50 (framed) or $30 (unframed) a pop- if you fancy having one on your wall or the wall of a loved one, email me at mgroenen@gmail.com and we’ll sort something out!

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