Stoltedum! This word means, "Praise the Lord" and is a regular greeting between Indian Christians. It is often said while holding your palms together while making eye contact with the person you are greeting. On October 11, 2016 we (Emily Moelker and Liz Van Drunen) flew out of Chicago and into New Delhi, India. Our next flight landed in the Chennai airport. We were immediately greeted by Paulraj and Kasthuri, their children Jason and Joan and 4 other kids from Grace Foster Home (GFH), who made us feel very welcomed. They had a sign with our names and met us with traditional Indian flower garlands. We hopped in the Qualis (their van) and drove 3 hours west to Vellore, the location of Vellore PRC and Grace Foster Home. GFH is where Paulraj and Kasthuri live, along with their two children and 38 foster children and a small staff.
We stayed in Vellore for a total of 3 months. Over this time period we adjusted to a lot of different Indian cultures. Tamil is the main language of Tamil Nadu, the Indian state that Vellore resides in. All the children speak Tamil, and we did our best to pick it up. For 3 months we didn't use silverware, and used only our right hand to eat. We ate lots of different Indian dishes and lots of rice: corn rice, yogurt rice, carrot rice, lemon rice, tomato rice, vegetable rice, and the list could continue. A favorite snack of the children's was chili salt on mangos. We ate dinner at around 9p.m. every night. We were offered coffee or tea probably 4 times a day. We had a "pop party" with a few boys, and after drinking a sip of Fanta, a rare treat, Prabhu said: "My insides, very freshness." We enjoyed teaching them how to make some American dishes, and we loved learning how to make a lot of their Indian dishes. When we were there, they were harvesting peanuts on the land. The kids helped out a lot before and after school with this, and we enjoyed helping out as well. We heard that since then, they have been growing and eating a lot of different produce from their land- that's great news!
Wild animals are everywhere in India. We saw cows lying down in the middle of the road, walking down the sidewalk, pulling sand carts, standing next to us at the bus stop, and eating potatoes right off the vegetable stands. Herds of goats were walked down village streets. Monkeys would hang around in the temples. Wild dogs and puppies would wander around everywhere. Pigs feasted on roadside trash piles. One day, a few of the boys killed a bird on campus with a slingshot and then cooked it over a fire and ate it. Another time one of the boys wanted us to pet a baby bat that he had found. We also had a nice collection of lizards, beetles, and other large insects that enjoyed frequenting our room. Pastor Paulraj kept track of and was very proud of how many snakes he rode over with the car.
Traffic is crazy. Imagine driving down a street where cows are wandering, stray dogs are sleeping, horns are constantly honking, crops are drying in the middle of traffic lanes, there are zero stoplights, and all the vehicles are bumper to bumper. It is not uncommon to see a family of 4 or 5 on one motorcycle, a young mother often holding an infant on the back of it. Every day we'd see women standing in a line passing along buckets of water to each other, or carrying them on their heads. Fitting 19 people in the Qualis on the way to church or another function became normal to us. Whoever didn't make it in hitch hiked or biked to church, no matter how old they were. It is very common to "catch a lift" with anyone to go anywhere. If we weren't in the car, we'd ride in the 3 wheeled "auto" that Paneer, a senior boy would work on and drive. We'd often fit 7 or 8 people inside, and it would sometimes break down along the way.
The Indians never wear shoes indoors and rarely wear shoes outside. We got used to going around barefoot most places. Most days we wore traditional Indian clothes: chudis (dresses) with leggings and a scarf. We were there during their "winter", but it was still 80 or 90 degrees F every day. At night, it cooled down to a nice 75 F. When this happened, they would bundle up with ear muffs, bonnets and sweaters. It's hard to imagine them in Michigan's climate! We enjoyed having our families send photos and videos of snow, something they have never seen. One time, a girl was so cold that she skipped dinner because her lips were so chapped - it was 75 degrees! We gave her chapstick and had to explain how to use it because she had never seen it before. Some boys sleep outside, which they prefer. Some girls sleep without mattresses, blankets or pillows, because it's what they are used to doing. We hung our hammocks in our room! The kids loved to hang out in them.
The children are very responsible. They all do their own laundry, often washing their one and only school uniform when they get home from school. They do their laundry by hand outside on the pavement, scrubbing, wringing and hanging their clothes to dry. There is one washing machine on campus and one boy was so impressed by it, he watched the whole cycle in amazement!
We were in India during cyclone season. A couple of strong cyclones hit Vellore and the kids had to stay home from school. Chennai, a coastal city, gets hit by very strong and damaging winds. On the news we saw trees and cars getting blown over and people walking around the city in deep water. Rain is a blessing though, because most of the time India is a hot and dry place. While we were there, a new well had been dug to help provide adequate water for the girl's dorm. It was quite the process! It took a large crew 8 hours of work on a machine hammering pipe after pipe 800 feet into the ground. Unfortunately, they didn't find as much water as they were hoping for this time. Access to an abundance of clean water is something we definitely take for granted!
Overnight, the Indian government banned the Indian 500 and 1,000 rupee notes. These two notes accounted for 80% of the Tamil Nadu's currency in circulation. The intention was to get rid of counterfeit money and illegal cash holdings. Unfortunately, the rich people who were guilty of this were forewarned of the switch and had already exchanged. Instead, it hit the poor people the hardest. In the cash dominated society of these small villages, suddenly no one had bills to spend at small businesses and people had a hard time paying for even the simplest necessities. A new 2,000 bill was introduced but no one had change for it right away. The entire time we were in India, there were long lines at every bank and ATM. What a headache! Kasthuri and Paulraj had to spend some time at the bank trying to exchange notes, often only being able to exchange a small amount at a time. We got very quick at mentally calculating the exchange rate from rupees to dollars!
In India, if you don't pass all of your 10th grade exams, you are unable to continue on to 11th grade. Because of this, three of the boys at Grace Foster Home were unable to attend school until they try retaking their exam again the following year. We taught them weekday mornings and had a lot of fun doing it in the classroom, on the porch, out in the field, or under the tree! After our lessons, we would play card games, write letters, color pictures, go on scooter rides, fix broken things, bike to the shops, take care of the animals, (all while sneakily correcting their English). Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights consisted of English classes for the elementary, middle, and high school students. The children were at different levels of English, some could speak it quite well, while some were learning the very basics. We taught all the kids English songs and really enjoyed listening to their accents while singing "Go Tell it on the Mountain" and "Seek Ye First." We were happy to hear that the kids at Georgetown were able to sing these songs along with them at their Christmas program! At their schools, their English lessons consist of them memorizing pre-written answers to questions and writing them word for word at exam time. When helping the children study, many would be able to recite their English paragraphs flawlessly, but when asked what a word meant, they often had no idea. Seeing what and how they were learning English in schools was frustrating for us. In a country where colleges are 100% English, it's very important for the kids to learn it, to give them a better opportunity when they go for higher study and seek employment. The children are very dedicated to their studies. Kalai, a senior girl who is about to start college, often studied until midnight and then woke up around 4am to continue studying. College students, staff members and villagers would have English class on Saturdays.
In order to get the word out to the villagers, a thousand posters were made to announce the free English lessons. It was fun to see the posters plastered on buildings when we were out and about in different villages. Later we saw a couple posters completely gone or torn apart and we were told that the cows and goats had eaten some of them! On Tuesdays, Pastor Paulraj would teach a group of pastors at the Sola Gratia Bible class who join weekly for a time to study Reformed Theology. We would give them a short English lesson before their class began. We reviewed the books of the Bible, a few Bible verses, the letters of the alphabet, grammar, sentence structure, and the like, with the hope that this will help them in their future study of the Scripture. Throughout our time there, we were able to visit the variety of schools throughout the area that the GFH children attend. Some of their schools are in English while majority of them are in Tamil. The class sizes ranged from 6 to 70 students. Seeing their classrooms, reading their curriculum and meeting their teachers was quite a memorable experience for us. The children walk, bike or catch a lift to get to school. Because a lot of the bikes were broken, at one point we got a bunch of new tires and supplies and spent a day fixing up all the bikes with some of the boys! We were also able to visit Vorhees College, where 3 of the senior girls attend and are at the top of their class! This is an opportunity they probably wouldn't have had outside of GFH, so they are very thankful for this and are studying very hard.
The thing that struck us most was the confidence the kids developed in their conversation skills and English speaking abilities over the time period that we were in India. Because we only learned a little Tamil, the children really tried hard to communicate in English. We were so proud of their ability to convey what they wanted to say by asking questions and thinking of different words they'd learned. They were very attentive, eager to learn, and worked so hard. The language barrier never really phased us. There was always some way to get across what we wanted to say. At the goodbye program that they threw for us at the end of our stay, the children spoke thank you speeches in English, which is something they weren't able to do before. We also heard from Kasthuri that many of the children have since received higher marks in their classes! At devotions, they children would sometimes pray in English, or read and recite Bible verses in English. We were able to find Tamil/English Bibles at a small Bible shop in the city, and now most of the children have these Bibles.
During our time in India we were also able to take photos to present the mission in India and promote awareness to the congregations at home. A photo of every family in the Vellore church was taken and printed for their family to keep. These photos will be used for a future church directory. We were also able to get some footage for the upcoming documentary, take updated photos of all the GFH children, and snap some pictures that could be used for their website. (if you'd like to see some photos you can visit http://emilymoelkerphotography .com/2016/10/19/india-grace- foster-home/
) It was also a lot of fun to be able to give all the children new pictures of themselves and pictures with us and each other! Emily also thoroughly enjoyed giving Jason keyboard classes, where he first started learning how to read written music! All this time, he's been learning on his own and playing by ear, which is super impressive. We were able to find a piano book of Christian Tamil songs that they sing. It was the first time they'd seen these songs written out to piano music! It has been wonderful to see Jason's confidence grow in his musical abilities! Many children also liked to be involved in art classes, and a couple senior boys were also given guitar lessons, which they picked up quickly. It was so enjoyable to see them learn and improve. We were able to fix up some of their old guitars and purchase them a new guitar as well!