Sunday, April 25, 2010

Week 20: to Tamil Nadu

The featured photo this week shows Kris and I sharing with Fr. Thomas Rathapillil and some of those being served at St. Joseph`s House, a facility providing for terminally ill people. That we were able to take the trip to the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu was a minor miracle in itself, as a belated invitation for me to speak at Gandhigram Rural University nearly had to be declined due to AC bus or train transportation not being available. Our travel agent, Sebastian, managed to find an auto driver to help us out for four days (three nights) at reasonable cost. It should also be said that none of the experiences detailed by Kristine below would have happened but for the efforts of our extremely attentive host at Gandhigram: Dr. S. Narayanasamy.

Making this trip was also, in part, a pilgrimage into my past. 39 years ago (at age 21) I had traveled to Kodaicanal to interview Keithahn, an American who lived and worked with Gandhi for over 20 years – and who was very active in the founding of Gandhigram Rural University. Though I knew he had died some years ago, I wanted to visit his home where we had shared together for a week. So it is we drove the narrow road up to Kodaicanal (which, at elevation 6,000 feet also providing relief from the scorching heat of the plains). It was with difficulty that we were able to eventually find his home, now empty, and the place where he and I had worshipped together on an amazing cliff nearby. While there was a sadness to this experience (most folks we spoke to had no memory of this fine man), we met a woman supervising two young children up the road from his old home. While it was claimed that these two boys were Keithan`s grandchildren, it was later clarified by email from a grandson now living in the U.S. that they were not. We also found the worship place, though it had been partially destroyed by a road constructed to access a palatial home built by the billionaire Birla and given to Sai Baba for his occasional use. Ironic, yes?

The remaining portion of this week`s entry is a reprint of Kristine`s letter to friends sent out a few days ago. If you have already read it, please forgive the redundancy. Her words express our experiences so well would be no reason for me to cover them with mine….

Dear Friends,

We have just had a remarkable few days. Besides Mike speaking to a group of college students, we visited a prosthetic clinic where they make limbs for the rural farmers. They had pictures of amputees climbing coconut trees! Next we visited a live-in community college (not the same as in the States) for young people who need skills improvement before they can apply for college. We both spoke at that event and the young people were very lively and interested, and the Salesian fathers (Dom Bosco) were quite welcoming. The next morning we visited a business man who was crippled by polio, and confined to a wheelchair. He talked about the many challenges that physically and mentally challenged face in India. (ex. Most streets/sidewalks in India would be impossible for a wheelchair to navigate without another person`s help.) Nevertheless he and another teacher organized a hospital train where those with challenges could receive surgeries and needed services to improve their functioning.

We also visited a hospice for the destitute. The priest who started this place (fairly new-4yrs) had a personal experience of finding a man next to a garbage bin trying to eat some rice with the pigs who kept pushing him over. The man was paralyzed on one side and had a gaping, vermin infested wound on the other. So began his mission to help those who had been abandoned by society, often in their last days of life. With the help of an English woman he was able to raise funds for a building which now houses over 300 people. What is amazing is that this Fr Tom suffered a quadruple by pass some years ago (he is 60) and the other two priests who are Jesuits are both over 80 years old! They have a paid staff of about 20 nurses, aids, an MD on call. He now has received a land grant of 15 acres in south Chennai, where he hopes to start another hospice.

Our driver Jibi, was quite impressed with Fr. Tom and at dinner shared with us that he was a Pentecostal Christian (somewhat rare in India) and that their small church (about 10 families) had started an orphanage which we hope to visit soon.

I have to admit missing so many folks and all the comforts of home, but this trip has been a blessing in many ways. Our daughter Mira will be flying into Bangalore at the end of April and most of May we will tour the northern part of India, before returning to Pala for five days to say good byes to the friends that have made this stay so special. Then we fly to Italy, and eventually we`ll visit Israel and Egypt. After visiting my family in Chicago we will return to Portland the second week of August -- nine months of summer!

Love and blessings to all,

Kris (AKA Mrs. Michael)

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