We were able to celebrate several holidays in India. We told them how and why we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday they don't have. About 36 of the kids packed into the back of a truck to make their way to a park on Christmas Eve. While there, we spent the day playing cricket, spikeball, team games, eating lunch and exploring. A lot of kids said that it was one of the best days of their life! We had the entire church congregation over to campus on Christmas Day, where we had church outside under a big tent. On Christmas, we gave all the children a bag of assorted goodies and we heard that one of the younger boys bit into a bar of soap thinking it was chocolate. They celebrate Old Year's Day and New Year's Day at church- from 10pm to 3am- complete with two sermons, lots of singing, cake cutting, poppers, reading over what their church is thankful for from the past year, etc... Prof. Gritters preached a sermon before and after midnight, and was sure he had never preached a sermon that late before! The ladies usually wear saris for this service, and we ended up wearing saris too. We thoroughly enjoyed being visited by all the other Americans while we were there. It was always a very exciting time for everyone when visitors come! Over our stay, we were blessed with visits from the Bruinooges, Uittenbogaards, Rev. Kuiper, the Wassinks and the Gritters. We were able to attend a day-long conference up in the mountains with the English speaking church. Rev. Kuiper spoke on a number of topics and it was a great day of fellowship, prayers, singing, and conversation. We were also able to visit the Christian Medical College (CMC), a large college and hospital that Vellore is known for. We were able to visit the Vellore Fort and Golden Temple in Vellore with some GFH children and church members. We visited the cities of Bangalore and Chennai too. The day that we were leaving India and flying out of Chennai, we visited the ocean in Chennai (the Bay of Bengal) before heading to the airport, with a couple of the kids that got to come with. It was an awesome memory.
A highlight of our trip was being able to visit most of the children's homes over the course of our stay. Only 3 of the children are actually orphans with no parents, and most of the children have one parent left who isn't able to take care of them. Some of them live in the same city, while some live a farther distance away. What might take us 2 hours to drive by Qualis, might take their parents 3-4 hours by crowded bus, which is their only means of transportation usually. If their parent attends church, this is the trip they are making every Sunday morning, without complaint. Think of how many churches we live within minutes of! Many of the children have heartbreaking stories of why they have come to live at Grace Foster Home. These stories might involve abuse, alcoholism, HIV and other illnesses, suicide, poison, witchcraft, extreme poverty, and abandonment. These children have experienced and witnessed a lot of these things. Some of their homes were so small that one bed could not fit inside it. We visited the father and mother of 2 boys from GFH, at their stand in the busy streets of Vellore, where they sell little things such a Q-tips, pouches, combs and necklaces. We visited Aravind's village, whose family weaves silk sarees. He was so proud to show us how they intricately weave these sarees on big weavers that are powered by foot pedal. We visited the home of Ramya and Kavitha, whose mother also makes silk sarees. Her weaver takes up half of her home, the rest of the space is where she cooks and sleeps. We visited Mani and Sathya's mother who lives in one of several rooms that come off a hallway. She and all the other tenants stand in a long line once a week to get water, where fighting often breaks out and she might go back empty handed. We visited the home of another mother, who makes cheap cigarettes on the floor of her dirt hut, and another mother who makes "fire cubes" for Hindu sacrifices. She makes them all day long and gets paid 35 rupees for one large bag, which is approximately 50 cents. We visited the home of Paneer, whose grandmother lives in a small hut with dirt floor. We couldn't stand up straight in it and there wasn't enough room for us to lay down in it if we tried. This was the very place where his mother committed suicide. Often at house visits, we'd have a crowd of people following us through the streets and often a bunch of random little village kids would sit in on our visit and listen to the prayers and the message. At every home, we were treated with lots of love. Everyone was beyond hospitable, treating us with coffee and snacks, sometimes meals. One time in Surya's village, we were served coconuts by his father and grandmother, fresh off the tree out front!
The most dominant religion in India is Hinduism, which makes up about 80% of the country's religion. It was very common to drive down a village road and see countless Hindu temples, loud music blaring, a vast variety of idols of any size, smoking offerings and sweet smelling sacrifices. We saw many Hindu funerals taking place. Early every morning, we'd hear Hindu "chanting" through our window coming from the next village. We visited the Golden Temple in Vellore and it was very eye-opening to see the crowds of people flocking to worship their idols. We'd see people on pilgrimages walking barefoot for miles, paying many rupees, and shaving their heads or even doing harmful things to themselves and their children for their gods. In the midst of all this, is the small church of Vellore PRC, and the other small Christian groups that gather in surrounding villages. These small groups are eager to hear the gospel, often meeting outside or sitting on the floor in a small one-room building. Pastor Paulraj has an undeterred ambition to teach and share the gospel (in classes, newsletters, outreaches, and conferences.) In this country full of ungodliness, idol gods and Hindu temples, Vellore PRC has an outstanding testimony even when they face difficulties, setbacks, and persecution. In a country where we have the freedom to share the gospel as much as want - how often do we?
Most of the children at GFH come from a Hindu family. It is required that their parents attend church at least once a month if their child resides at GFH, and many of their parents are now members at church and have converted to Christianity. While this is such a blessing, there are still parents that refuse to let their children be baptized because of the affect it will have on them and their child and the difficulties they will face in their village. So some of the youth are facing the hard decision to either be baptized or never see or speak to their families again.
Daily devotions with everyone (6am and 8pm) are always filled with meaningful prayers, important questions, and enthusiastic singing. The children are so loving and knowledgeable. They are clearly well taught and it is evident they are not shy about their love for God. Many are growing up to be strong members of the church! From our dorm, we'd often hear and see a group of senior boys sitting outside in a circle before bed, singing loudly, reading the Bible and praying on their knees for a long time. We'd hear the girls doing the same a floor below us, and we'd head down to join them.
The children are so thankful for their sponsors! They would ask about them daily, refer to them as their family, and pray for them often! Even though it's not possible to have consistent contact with them, they are so uplifted by your prayers, gifts and letters! What a blessing this Christian fellowship is. Right now they especially need our prayers. The Hindu Indian government is looking for any reason to shut down a Christian children home, making endless requirements and obstacles for GFH.
It was such a blessing to get to know and live with this body of believers. Though we were immersed in a totally different culture, we surprisingly didn't feel as though things were totally different. We shared the same faith in the same God and connecting with this group of believers on the other side of the world was such a beautiful, life-changing thing to experience! Elder Aarochim, a kind and thoughtful elder from church, served us bananas when we visited his house the last week we were there. After always being served random Indian treats (that didn't always treat us so well later on) we were abnormally excited. I asked him how he knew bananas were our favorite. He replied by asking how would he not know? We are family, and family knows one another. Leaving our Indian family was hard to do, but Lord willing, we will reunite with them all again someday! We hope this longer than anticipated summary of our trip helped you experience a little bit of what life is like for our brothers and sisters in Vellore. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers!