Journey to the Far East 2017
On Sunday, 29 January 2017, Caleb Traynor and I departed immediately after our Alabama Sunday morning church service and headed to Atlanta for our long flight to India with a flight change in London. Our hosts for the next ten days met us at the Hyderabad Airport in India with warm smiles and a bouquet of flowers for us. We arrived at Pastor Reddy’s home Tuesday, at about 10:30 AM (US Central Time, Monday 11:00 PM). It makes me dizzy just trying to compute the time zones but that put us about 34 hours of total travel time from door step to door step. I’m telling you, the joy of lying flat for just a few hours with your shoes off was heavenly. It’s hard for me to sleep on a plane.
We stayed with Pastor Reddy and family in their apartment which was nice and clean. He and his family went out of their way to make us comfortable and welcomed. They were exceptional hosts and took great care of us.
The next morning after a breakfast of vadas (type of Indian bread made from lentils, that taste like our hushpuppies) we took a stroll through a small section of Vijayawada stopping to visit with a Christian family. They received us as honored guest; the Indian people are over-the-top hospitable. When you visit their homes, you are sure to be given something to drink or eat. The gesture of kindness is wonderful but if you visit too many places within a short amount of time, you feel like Andy Griffith when Goober overbooked him for spaghetti dinners when Aunt Bea was out of town.
Wednesday evening, we had a Gospel meeting in a rural church in one of the agricultural areas. The worship was typical Indian style singing which is quite different from any of our western church music. It is usually accompanied by a small vertical drum that is played with a drum stick on one side and a bare hand on the other side. Often they will also use a tambourine and rarely a keyboard. Caleb gave a greeting and I preached. We prayed for almost everyone in the meeting. After the service, we distributed food to the widows in the church.
I was excited for Thursday morning’s agenda as we were having a pastor’s conference in the same church. There was a good turnout of pastors, perhaps forty. We had four sessions planned for the morning and one after lunch. Caleb spoke during one of the morning sessions and I preached the rest. From 10 AM until lunch break at 1 PM, it was interesting and challenging to preach one message and then go directly into another message. Well, interesting on my part but I’m not sure for the patient pastors who had to endure three of my 45 minute sermons in succession. At our lunch break we were escorted to the nearby pastor’s home for our meal. The Indian food is very spicy and I was relieved that we had chapti (flat wheat bread) and a mixture of chicken livers and hearts; we also had a chicken leg. After round one of this fare, we had a couple of scoops of rice ladled with curd (a fermented milk product not unlike sour cream)—this is mixed together and eaten with your right hand with no silverware.
After we washed the rice and curd from our hands, we were back in the church for the final session of the pastor’s conference. I was full spiritually and gastronomically—ready to preach. So here I go and about fifteen minutes in I notice some of the preachers dozing off to sleep. I thought, “Surely I’m not this boring and the topic should be interesting to the pastors”. I later became aware that many of the Indian people routinely take a little “siesta” after the noon meal. Well, that’s the story I’m sticking with anyway!
While in India, we spent a lot of time on the road; all totaled, we drove about twenty-five hours of in-country travel. After the pastor’s conference, we drove to a believer’s home to rest before the evening service. It was a beautiful home, far better than most. It was in an agricultural area and I wondered if they were a better-to-do landowner. The wife was very gracious and allowed us to take a nap in a bedroom. We were told the husband was not a believer but a good man. After our nap, we ate a few bananas and drank some hot tea with water buffalo milk and cane sugar. Off we go again…
We arrived at a home near the outdoor meeting, they were a sweet and kind family. We no longer had sat down until they brought us some lukewarm Sprite and a purple looking sweet cake about four inches across and ¼ inch thick. We were polite guests and ate it all. It was okay but I didn’t ask for the recipe.
After a few minutes, we were taken toward the outdoor meeting, set up in a neighborhood. We were taken to an upstairs area above the meeting. We were not hungry but they served us some food anyway. We ate a hospitable portion. I have learned in India you must get somewhat aggressive with your host because they will serve you more than you can humanly consume. When they approach me with another helping, I put both hands over my serving platter (yes, I said platter not plate!!) to emphatically demonstrate, “I DO NOT WANT MORE!”
Eventually, we found ourselves on stage. It was a good size crowd in attendance and the area was lit with bare fluorescent light bulbs hanging vertically with a naked ballast attached by a wire. It made for some interesting pictures with these vertical light sabers shining amongst the crowd.
In this meeting, I preached about Jesus being our life and told the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. He is life and no one can have life outside of Jesus. My message was straight forward and simple about life is only in Jesus. When you preach in India the norm is a full altar area after you preach; they swarm the front for prayer but these folks did not move. Wow, nothing!! The service was closed out and I was disappointed and confused. I asked Pastor Reddy about it and he said it was a heavily caste area and the people were intimidated by their neighbors about responding. Wow!
Spiritually at this point, I am emptied out and need to rest but wouldn’t you know it, they took us back to the second story room to feed us again. Caleb and I looked at each other like, “Where are we going to put this food?” I can’t remember exactly but I think we ate a small portion to save face. It had been a long day with a lot of preaching and a lot of food.
With a good night’s sleep and a warm bucket bath, we were ready for another day of travel and ministry. We packed a few days change of clothes and loaded up for a four-hour journey to the mountains. We arrived at the lodge in the mountains that was to be our home for the next three days. It was the only place to stay and it was quite dirty. The floors were black tile but they were brown from lack of cleaning. The bathroom had an un-painted concrete floor that was mostly black from scum. Of course, the bathroom had an Asian style toilet (squattie pottie meaning it is floor level) which was probably a good thing considering the hygiene standard in the lodge.
Caleb had a UV flashlight and we scoped the bed sheets with it—not good! The top sheet where most of the people had slept was dirty; we pulled it off along with the pillows. The bottom sheet was a little better but fortunately, Sister Sunnetha had brought clean sheets from home for us. We survived living in the lodge for three days and two nights; an experience that we will not soon forget.
We ministered in a rural mountain church on this Friday night. We prayed for many people with some coming for healing prayer and others for salvation. It was a sweet group of people seated directly on the floor on mats made from sewn together fertilizer sacks. You cannot forget the faces of the children who are seated up front just inches away from the podium-table looking up with expectant eyes. You just want to be Jesus to them. In this Eastern culture, you feel more in tune with the culture of the Bible than with our western ways. I can just see Jesus taking the children in His arms and blessing them when He said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14 NKJV).
Directly across from our mountain lodge was a Muslim mosque. Our first morning in the lodge we were awakened at 5:30 AM with the woeful sound of the “call to prayer” on the mosque’s loudspeakers. Just above our door in the lodge is a picture of a Hindu god. It is then you are very aware that you are not in the Bible belt of Dixie. When I go to these places, I do not preach against any religion—I just preach Jesus crucified, buried, and resurrected. When we preach the Crucified, Resurrected Christ, Who was, and is, and shall be—there is nothing more to say! He is life and there is no life except through Him. If I did not believe this—I would just stay home where it is comfortable and safe!
Fresh from a cup bath via a faucet in a black-floored bathroom and invigorated with two cups of Indian expresso coffee flavored with the usual water buffalo milk and cane sugar; I am ready for another day of preaching. Here we go!!
Today is another pastor’s conference with four sessions of preaching. Lunch was white rice with curry chicken, and two types of fish. Quite good but a little spicy! Then we top it off with another helping of rice with curd and a banana which we squish together and eat. Mmm! I developed a liking for the combo of rice, curd, and banana—it neutralizes the spiciness of the first course. Even though I looked like a two-year-old playing with his food, I find myself craving a helping even as I write this.
We returned to the lodge and rested late afternoon through the night. When you are in an area for a short time there is a tendency to work, work, work. Jesus even pulled away from the crowds to rest and pray. It is important to pace yourself and get a few hours just to let your mind and body catch up with your spirit.
Sunday morning, we had our breakfast of dosa (thin bread that taste like pancakes), a few bananas, and another round of Indian expresso coffee. Note to self: “Bring a small jar of peanut butter next time for these short excursions.” I did bring a big jar of peanut butter but we left it at Pastor Reddy’s home.
Today, we head a little further up the mountain to a congregation about one hour from the lodge. This is beautiful mountain forestland with winding roads that remind me of the Appalachian foothills that I call home. When we first drove up to this area, we passed some groves of teak trees harvested for the wood used in our expensive outdoor furniture. My agricultural background seeps out when I see some of these biological wonders of God’s creation—I just had to take a picture.
Driving further up the mountain, we were stopped by a roadblock of three non-uniformed guys with AK-47 type weapons. In moments like this, whether these guys are doing their jobs or perhaps a bunch of thugs it gives you a sense of…not fear but okay Lord, I am literally in your hands! Thankfully, they caused us no trouble but only looked in the back of our vehicle. Pastor Reddy said they were checking for items being taken in and brought out of the forest area. They didn’t seem too interested in the two Americans in the vehicle so that made us happy and relieved.
We ministered in a small village church that was so small the congregation overflowed out the back to the point there were as many outside as inside. It was a good service; Caleb and I sang and I preached. As we went back to the lodge, we stopped at another small village and visited a home where the house had a thatched roof but no walls. It was about as rustic of a home as I have ever witnessed. The chickens and a couple of “wild” peacocks just meandered through the house like they owned it.
Since our lodge accommodations were so bad, we decided to pack up and be ready to make the four-hour drive home after the evening meeting. We went to the outdoor tent meeting and were met with a beautiful crowd of people. Many of these people were tribal folks who also spoke a different language than the Telugu of this area of India. A group of men sang a tribal song in this other language and they swayed side to side as they sang. I caught the cadence of their “dance” and joined them. Pastor Reddy and Caleb joined our impromptu group and the people loved it. I did very good on the song lyrics when it was “ay ay ay ayyy”.
We left the mountain area about 9:30 PM and arrived at Pastor Reddy’s apartment just a little after 2:00 AM. I washed my feet, hit the bed, and died until the next morning when I was resurrected from the dead by the sounds of the household beginning the day.
Earlier in the week as we traveled through Vijayawada, we saw those wonderful and inviting golden arches of a McDonald’s Restaurant. Seven days into our journey, we were ready for some American style food. I asked our host family if they had ever eaten at McDonald’s; they answered no but Ravi (15 yrs. old) and Ramya (12 yrs. old) eyes lit up at the prospect of eating at McDonald’s. Ravi and Ramya are two very polite and sweet kids of Pastor Reddy and Sister Sunnetha and they affectionately call me “Uncle”. I told them on Monday night Uncle was going to treat the whole family to a night out at McDonald’s. They were very excited.
We caught an “auto” (a three-wheeled motorized cab) and zoomed off to McDonald’s. It was quite busy but not overly crowded for the one Mickie Ds in a town of one million. Well, the menu was quite different: no Big Macs, no cheese burgers. They had some chicken sandwiches and veggie patty sandwiches. They had a “Maharaja MAC” available in veg or chicken patty. We all ordered a chicken sandwich, fries, and a soft drink—all like our items in the States. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, especially the Americans and the kids. Sunnetha questioned me about the “leaf” in the sandwich which was the lettuce. Ravi asked me about the “cream sauce” which was the mayonnaise. After our main course, we ordered ice cream for everyone. “Uncle” picked up the tab which was cheaper than in the U. S.; six combo meals and ice cream came to less than 1,300 rupees (don’t have a heart attack, that is less than $25 USD!).
Tuesday afternoon, we went shopping. Caleb bought some clothing for himself and his family and I picked up a couple of shirts. The clothes are quite inexpensive—for example the two shirts I bought were very high quality but cost only about $10 each.
Later, we went to a ribbon cutting for a church that had extended their sanctuary. It was a small village church that had increased their capacity by 30% which was not a lot of square footage but they were excited about the new addition. I was given the honor of cutting the ribbon and we all marched in singing a song of thanksgiving to God who increases us all.
All in the same afternoon which was a little taxing, we went to another church one hour away. It was in a predominately Muslim neighborhood with a mosque and many of the men and women dressed in their distinctive garb. We visited a home prior to the service and were welcomed as honored guests. Of course, we had to receive the hospitality of soft drink, bananas, and two kinds of snacks. All of this with the anticipation of another meal after church of curry eggs, chapti, etc.
We enjoyed the sweet Spirit of God in the worship service. We preached and then prayed for most everyone in the church. After the worship service, we distributed food to the very appreciative widows. This pastor along with all the other pastors were all very humble and gracious men of God. He gave Caleb and I a garland of flowers each. This was the third gift of flowers we had received on this trip. The Indian people are so honoring and gracious hosts.
I was relieved that we were not going to eat at the church but we were going to carry the food furnished by the pastor home. Please don’t take this wrong, but it seemed we had to eat something at everyone’s home and at each stop. Yes, the food was different and I could handle the difference but the quantity they tried to feed us was almost overwhelming. I like to eat but when at home I typically eat two meals per day with a few snacks. One day, it felt like we had eaten five times and had to refuse additional helpings almost to the point of being rude. (Really, I was afraid I had hurt their feelings a few times but you can only eat so much curry chicken with rice.) Indians have extreme hospitality and your “No thank you.” means one more helping to them.
Explaining their extreme hospitality to Jennie, she reminded me of my dear Mother who only had a recollection of a skinny, little Harry who she tried to fatten up my entire life even after I was thick. So, thank you Daddy and Mother, you prepared me for India even though you were not around to know I would travel so far. Daddy, you fed me hog tongue, tripe, raw oysters, turtle, bone in chicken, creek caught catfish, squirrel brains in scrambled eggs, beef liver with onions, rabbit, and even an occasional road-kill quail (no joke). Mother, you kept piling on the food even when I was “full-as-a-tick” with a, “Here Hon, have some more…” If only they had used curry as a spice, I would have been fully prepared.
Wednesday, we were packed and ready to begin our long journey home. We had a big breakfast of two Indian style omelets with onions and cheese (brought from the US); then topping that off with four dosas smothered with peanut butter and jam. We were full to our eyelids, left our plates and came back to find a chicken leg in our plates—way too much food for a four-hour car ride. I am ashamed to tell you but we just had to be horrible guests and tell them plainly we could not eat anymore. The thing that made me ashamed of my actions the most; I knew the Indian custom is not to eat from other people’s plates. They would not eat this chicken! I did not want to waste it but sometimes you just can’t eat anymore especially facing a long road trip.
Our trip to Hyderabad went well. We drove straight through telling Pastor Reddy adamantly, we did not want to stop and eat. During the journey, he asked and I gave a firm no—however, we did stop for a spot of tea. We checked into Novotel Hotel near the airport for our night of rest before the early long flight home.
Our time in India was wonderful. It is literally on the other side of the world. The Eastern customs are quite different from us and as I said, it gives you a better biblical perspective because Jesus lived in a culture more like theirs than ours. Pastor Reddy, wife Sunnetha, son Ravi, and daughter Ramya were such a blessing to us. They were great hosts and made us feel so loved and welcomed into their home and country. I am sure we disrupted their lives for almost two weeks but they smiled and loved us as kin folks from afar. Uncle is always happy to be with them. God blessed us with a great time of ministry where we saw about 50 plus salvations, we prayed for perhaps 200 people or more, distributed food to about 40 widows, and encouraged our brothers and sisters a world away that they were greatly loved by God and us.
Arriving home after a long trip is such a blessing. It is crazy how your own home looks a little different even though everything is the same. I dragged my luggage into our spare bedroom at about 11:00 PM, took a warm shower, kissed my beautiful wife, laid down in my oh-so-familiar bed longing for a sweet nine hour sleep after flying literally half way around the world. I slept like a fat baby for four hours and then, “Boom!”—I am wide awake with my eyes as big as saucers. Yes, that is jet-lag and it stays with you for about a week until your sleep cycle reboots and all is normal again.
It takes a few days to get your sleep normalized but it also takes a while to process what you have experienced and what you have felt in your spirit. Just as your sleep cycle is on the other side of the world, part of your heart is there too. I think when we go anywhere in the world with the love and light of Jesus we leave part of us there as well. By God’s grace and provision, we had the opportunity to go, by His grace we shall return.
You can view my India Photos 2017 here.
Harry L. Whitt