Thursday, June 4, 2009

There is some problem...

For over a week now, I have woken each morning and faced the reality of no running water. In the States the only time I can remember not having water was when the power was out from a storm. Only during a hurricane would this waterless state of affairs approach twenty-four hours. I recently read a former YAV's blog on Americans' relationship with electricity and how crippled we are without it. Her basic argument was nearly all our activities, "productive" and otherwise, require electricity. In a similar way, when our water stops coming through the pipes, we have no alternative.

Here the alternative before I can bathe, brush my teeth, and/or shave is to take my two buckets and walk down with my friends to the nearby well. And I mean walk down, because the well is wonderfully positioned at the bottom of the hill our hostel sits on. While there's something fulfilling about dropping that silver pail down the well while trying not to get rope burn on your hands or let the pail hit the fern-covered sides, I miss the time when water kindly obeyed my request by falling out of the faucet in my wall when encouraged by the turn of a knob.

A couple day ago, as we waited for one of my friends to draw water, I commented to another that it had now been a week since we had water. His response put me in my place: "Yes, John, but we have water. In India, many people have no water. There is some problem, but we have water." I realized immediately he was completely right; because of climate change, pollution by Western corporations, and a whole host of other causes I know too little about, many people here (and elsewhere) have lost the ability to use the water near their homes and are forced to walk miles each day.

Leaving the States hasn't perfected my awareness of global problems. Even in India I take for granted the convieniences I do have and forget that there are those who suffer to meet their daily needs. It frightens me to think of how much more disconnected I will be from my global siblings once I return to the States, but one of my goals for is to constantly work toward a higher level of awareness. But it will take an extraordinary of initiative; even when we live in the Majority/Third World, it's possible to protect ourselves from harsher realities. But doesn't this only limit our immersion in God's creation.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

New Stuff for You!

You can find my most recent newsletter on the PC(USA) website.

Also you can find almost 200 photos from my All India Tour and new photos from Kerala.

(Blogs coming soon!)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Alive in Delhi

After a 48-hour train ride up the subcontinent, we arrived in Delhi Friday to be hosted by Sue and David Hudson (as well as their daughter Mary), who both work for the PC(USA). It's evident they belong in India, because they have Indian hospitality nailed down. And it tastes great!

After seeing India Gate and the seat of government at sunset Friday, we woke up and stormed Delhi with a vengeance Saturday. Last night I walked into the Hudson's apartment and informed them we had "conquered Delhi." Which is quite the overstatement as there is much more to see than the tourist sites we hit: Qutb Minar, Lotus Temple, Humayun's Tomb, Connaught Place, Chandni Chowk, Red Fort, Jama Masjid.

It's a little early for a full-blown "John's Thoughts" post on Delhi, but my first impression is that Delhi is so alive. The last place we visited, Jama Masjid - one of the largest mosques in India, is found in Old Delhi. What was so striking about the mosque was the long walk from the closest street to the bottom of the steps that led up to the mosque itself. So many people were gathered along the way selling, drinking, buying, talking, and throwing rocks at dogs. It was clear that there was such a sense of place for these people; they were so incredibly oriented to the mosque - it bound them together. From the top of the steps, I got the strong sense that I was standing right in the middle of so much. Such a sense of community! I just couldn't get enough. I can't imagine what it would be like if churches created that type of space.

From the top of the steps at Jama Masjid
Tonight we're headed to Agra via train and will return tomorrow evening to Delhi. I'm not sure how much internet access I'll have for the rest of the trip, so don't necessarily expect too much blogging along the way, but I'll do what I can. Here are a few pictures from the last couple days:

Sudie and me in front of India Gate
At Qutb Minar
Qutb Minar
The Lotus Temple
Pulkit - Sudie's best-friend from college - and Sudie
At the Red Fort

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


The essay I wrote regarding the church's call to remain in community with one another is something I believe I'll always be able to look back on and be proud of. The idea of community and the struggle and joy integral to the pursuit of bringing diverse people together is something that over that last three or four years has continued to grow in importance to my personal philosophy and theology. Beginning in my sophomore year as a Resident Assistant, and through my roles as a Peer Minister, pastoral intern, and now Young Adult Volunteer, I have continued to learn how difficult, yet rewarding this struggle can be.

But the struggle is so much bigger than simply looking at faith communities. It extends from churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues to neighborhoods, towns, cities, and eventually our society as a whole. Because it is easier, we often shy away from genuine, diverse community as it often asks something of us: critical reflection of our beliefs. As a result of the privilege of choice that wealth offers, we are able to move through our lives carefully controlling whom we interact with. Simply put, Americans are talented escapists.

We move into neighborhoods, dine at restaurants, go to events, join churches, sleep in hotels, and shop at stores all in places that are frequented by those like us. This is often based on class and/or race. But no matter what factors influence these choices, it is those that we see as the "other," those that make us feel uncomfortable, that we subconsciously weed out of our lives. And once they have been successfully weeded out of our lives, we look around to find only those most like us.

All of this works to affirm our position, ideology, theology, and politics in life. We surround ourselves with our "Yes!" men and women because we are afraid that we may be challenged in our notions, and God-forbid, proven wrong. How can we grow if we weren't challenged? The status quo would simply remain. No Reformation, no Emancipation Proclamation, etc. Growth and critical reflection can only come to true fruition through placing ourselves in communities that are diverse in their views and challenge us to take a critical look at our own.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hopes and Concerns

When I was applying to seminary a couple months ago and came across this prompt: "Austin Seminary understands itself to be a seminary of the church of Jesus Christ. In a brief essay (1 page, double-spaced) please state your hopes and concerns for the church," this is what I wrote:

Though the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is only a small piece of the mosaic that is the “church of Jesus Christ,” I have chosen to address a hope and concern through the lens of my own faith tradition while understanding that it is a challenge for all traditions. My hope is that as the PC(USA) continues to struggle with discerning God’s call concerning difficult questions (e.g. the ordination of homosexuals), above all, its members remember the importance of their own call to remain in community with one another. My resulting concern is that if we fail to work for God’s will as a diverse, loving community, we will splinter into smaller groups that simply affirm what we already believe and cease to challenge one another to grow.

To use the aforementioned example, the arguments for and against ordaining homosexuals tend to be both passionate and personal. This results in people’s fears keeping them from genuinely listening to each other, and particularly to those who they disagree with. Listening to one another and scripture is one of the most important aspects of being in a faith community; the humbling act of listening affirms our respect for one other, challenges our own beliefs, and empowers all. This process of listening and evaluating our own theological beliefs offers an exciting opportunity for spiritual growth as a community. If faith communities abandon the call to actively listen to all voices and divide into the seductive comfort of sectarian groups, they lose the opportunity to have their faith challenged and reformed by varied perspectives.

So as the PC(USA) and other faith traditions passionately discern where God is calling them, I pray everyone realizes the importance and beauty in listening to each other out of love and continues to wrestle with the questions that seem daunting, but in the end, strengthen all. Otherwise, I fear this gift will be lost and the opportunity for spiritual growth will be limited as people simply surround themselves with their personal “Yes!” men and women.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Money and Forms, Horse and Carriage

You wouldn't know it from the amount of attention that this blog receives, but I am indeed alive, still in India, and functioning fairly well (according my own standards). As I discussed in a previous newsletter, I've found myself a little burned out on reflecting on my time here. To some degree this bothers me as I want to continue to be critical about what's going on with me, those around me, and God in this place and time. But I also feel it's fairly reasonable at this point for me to be a little tired of my attempts to reflect, chronicle, and distribute my musings. Now that I got that out, we can move on...

Being accepted to seminary was a milestone in my life. It felt kind of like getting a stamp on a form that had been sent through a long bureaucratic process over the last three years. Not because the journey was particularly difficult or stressful, more because there was a lot at stake and I didn't feel "secure" until the final approval was certain. I couldn't imagine myself coming back to the States to do anything other than study theology. And I couldn't imagine myself doing that anywhere other than Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Having that stamp of approval allows me to slump into my chair and let out a deep breath. Or, so I thought...

I had personally felt relatively unaffected by the "financial crisis" (said in a booming, pessimistic voice) until it hit me about seven minutes after getting the news that I was accepted: graduate school is what we would call expensive. It seems I have my own little financial crisis. Indeed, there are plenty of sources other than my own volunteer-stipend-stretched bank account to pull from. So that is what I've spent plenty of time over the last few weeks doing: searching for and filling out scholarship applications and - here's the kicker - attempting to coordinate references, transcripts, and sending my own forms from India.

Third parties have definitely made the process as painless as possible, but I had felt so relieved after dealing with all of this when applying for seminary that it never occurred to me that it was only the preliminary round of printing forms, scanning the same forms updated with my answers, and pelting emails at people. All the while having my mom do plenty of work State-side (thank you!). After this week, when I hope to have them all turned in, it seems that I'll have a bit of a respite from form-hugging until I hear back and get a sense of my financial situation.

And that respite will be nice as I've got quite a bit coming up in the next couple months. Next week (March 17-21) will be spent at Achen and Kochamma's home in Aluva for a retreat and to meet his daughter and her family as they are flying from Bahrain. I will then return to CMS College for what I predict will be a frantic week and a half as I prepare to tie up lose ends before leaving April 1 for a month-long tour North India, which I'm am absolutely ecstatic about. Upon returning we'll have another retreat in Aluva, visit a festival in Thrissur, and then go back to our sites around the end of the first week of May before we hop around doing summer camp style children's programs as a team at each other's sites (April-May is the summer holiday here).

I'm just praying for some stamina!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Hello, February

I'm so glad it's February and Monday all in one. For one, January seemed to absolutely crawl by. After spending so much time with the other volunteers in December, it made it more difficult to enter back into my sites and reengage. And I'm glad it's Monday because I missed my idli yesterday, as we had to go to a different hotel since our favorite is closed on Sundays. But today, I'll be having my idli and chutney.

This week itself is fairly exciting for a few reasons. The first is I'll be visiting two new schools Tuesday that I may be teaching at from now on. One is an all girls school and the other is a connected all boys school, both of which cater to lower income families. I believe they are Malayalam medium schools - meaning the classes are taught in Malayalam instead of English- so, that's a bit intimidating as I'll have my work cut out for me.

Thursday I have my long-coming seminary interview. Last year, when I finally visited the seminary officially, they offered interviews to all the visitors, but being John, I didn't like not being mentally prepared, so I told them "no thanks". Now they're having to foot the bill to call India... I guess that wasn't very considerate of me. I'm really looking forward to this interview as it is the last of my application requirements; after Thursday night, all I have to do is wait. That should be fun.

As far as seminary in general, I'm so glad that I waited. If I hadn't become a YAV, I would most likely be in seminary right now. It probably wouldn't have been bad for me at all, but I would have been going almost by default; last year I certainly wanted to go to seminary, but not to the same degree that I do now. Right before I came to India, I had a conversation with my Campus Minister about how I thought I didn't want to go to seminary, which I think was a healthy stage to work through. However, since living through the last five months, I'm dying to go to seminary and explore the truck load of questions and spattering of realizations I've picked up along the way. Naturally, I feel the next three years will be much richer on the heels of this year's experience.

In other news, it looks like the only first-year will be moving out of PG Hostel this week, as it is rumored to be closing before next year. I understand that he wants to move sooner than later, but I will miss him. It will also be pretty lonely down here in the forest - it's pretty overgrown - once the second-years complete their courses this summer and go off to their homes. I'll survive and it will provide an opportunity to visit the house he will be living in with four other men.

Finally, I've put a few pictures that actually have me in them, as they were taken by another American that visited my sites with me. So, now you know I'm actually here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Nuthin' Special

I just finished my morning run, went to take a bath, and found there was no water. Not an ideal situation, so I decided to write a post as I listen for water to coming rushing from the tap. Unlike other days when there is simply no water to be had, today the cause is the college has been turning off the water at night so that students don’t sneak into the science labs and turn on all the taps – apparently recently a frequent pastime.

Tuesday, after a “normal” day at CMS, I went over to Mandirim, Becca’s site, via the back of a friend’s motorcycle (much more fun than a bus). We were joined by a girl from California, Kacee, who was traveling in Thailand and decided she wanted to volunteer for a few weeks in India, so she’ll be staying at Mandirim and helping out. As many Malayalis did, we stayed up quite late to watch the President’s inauguration. It’s phenomenal how important the rest of the world, from the looks of things, and especially India, from firsthand experience, sees this moment in history.

I was impressed with the inclusivity of President Obama’s speech; reminding our country and the world that our nation is one of “Christians and Muslims,” etc. is powerful in reminding people of the identity of a democracy that claims to represent all its citizens. I also appreciated that he bluntly told the nation we can no longer afford to be “indifferent” to the relative poverty of other nations as we continue to selfishly consume. Apparently, he agrees that all of God’s children deserve fundamental necessities. I know that these are things that many people don’t want to hear and/or don’t agree with, but I believe it’s crucial to have leaders who will faithfully challenge the complacency we often slip into.

Wednesday we spent a lot of time sitting with the grandmothers and grandfathers at Madirim, which has begun to confirm what I learned through my senior project on Older Adult Ministry – I really love old people. That afternoon Becca and Kacey joined me for my usual hour of talking in English over coffee with a social work student. I was really moved when I watched him interact with Kacey (who, unlike Becca, he was meeting for the first time); his confidence in English has grown exponentially since coming to me last Fall for help.

I’m now back at CMS, but will be leaving today to travel to Wayanad for the weekend with the other volunteers. We will be meeting with a tribal community there to learn about their struggles and joys. I’ll probably save that upcoming story for my January Newsletter, so you can look forward to that!

Monday, January 19, 2009

I'm Back... For Now

I'll admit it. I've been a terrible blogger these last couple months. Both of December's post were taken directly from my November Newsletter. Just shameful, John. I've reprimanded myself and hope to be blogging in full force again soon. I've just posted a couple picture-heavy blogs that I thought might interest a few people who are interested in either beef or food in general.

My blogging pre-YAV wasn't reflective enough, I felt. And my blogging during my time as a YAV has felt a little overly serious, which isn't my style. So, yet again, here I am trying to strike a healthy balance. I'm hoping if I allow myself to be a little lighter here, I might feel like blogging more often - instead of making myself feel like my blogs are under the scrutiny of an admissions committee (which my seminary application is about to be).


I can't believe I'm actually doing this. But my father, being the cow connoisseur that he is, requested pictures of cows. Enjoy!

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A Lesson in Food

I thought I’d treat you to an assortment of foods that I’ve eaten since coming to Kerala. With riveting commentary, of course!


That’s right. We just call this “meals.” Basically, this is about as traditional Keralite faire as you’ll ever get: an assortment of curries and other random, sometimes scary, goodies [not labeled] to mix with your rice [A], all lain upon a freshly chopped off banana leaf [F]. Also included is a banana itself [B] and something that I can’t spell that sounds like “pop-a-dumb” [E] – a very tasty (as in salty), crispy item that I usually save for the end and eat separately instead of breaking into the rice as most people do. And don’t forget your pickle! [D] “Pickle” is any kind of random fruit (mango is the safest) that has gone through some kind of process – maybe be pickling if I dared to guess – that creates one overwhelming flavor in your mouth; it’s an intricate fusion of sweet, sour, and spicy that I stay away from. Also in the same not-so-tasty category is (don’t know how to transliterate this one either) “pie-a-sum,” a thick drink full of rice that is so sweet you’ll pucker.

Tender Coconut – Stage 1

You can find vendors along road selling these. They’ll simply chop off one from their little bushel, then take a hatchet and create a hole in one end, stick a straw in, and then present to you for your drinking pleasure. The vendor will tell you that the coconut water will cure anything from insomnia to both types of diabetes, but I’m not convinced. However, I do believe it when they say it’s hydrating and about the purest water in Kerala.

Tender Coconut – Stage 2

After drinking, the vendor will chop open the coconut for you to eat the meat. Now, the meat was definitely an acquired flavor for me, but I’ve learned to enjoy it. You scoop out the meat with a sliver of coconut the vendor will provide from your very own coconut. Quite the process!


If the picture I took weren’t so washed out, I’d trust you could figure out this one on your own. Pineapple grow all over Kerala it seems (there’s a farm just outside of CMS). The pineapple tastes pretty much like you’d expect, but it’s always a fun, tasty experience whether in liquid or solid form.

Christmas Cake

Oh, Christmas cake. So, I’m not a fan of cake at Christmas; I feel like it should be reserved for birthdays. Maybe this is because I’m not really a fan of cake in the first place (I usually ask for an alternative for my own birthday), but at Christmas?! It kind of tasted like a carrot/fruit cake hybrid. You do the math. I survived, but this won’t be something I incorporate into my Christmases in the future.

Kappa and Meen

This is a personal favorite! Kappa is Malayalam for tapioca, a yellow, potato-like root I’m sure you’ve heard of, and meen is fish. The fish curry is arguably the spiciest that I’ve had, but it goes great with the mashed potato like consistency of tapioca. Also included here is what we call “small fish fry, ” a whole plate of fried fish so small you eat them whole without the bones bothering you, but large enough to see their beady little eyes. These fish, with curry leaves and onions atop, can be dipped in some kappa or simply popped into your mouth. Now, if you know me well, you’re aware that whole fish being something John now enjoys placing in his mouth is what we call “growth” – or possibly regression – I’m not sure. And don’t forget your discard pile for curry leaves and the tough fiber that runs down the middle of the tapioca.

Chicken Biriyani 

I saved the best for last! Easily one of my favorites here in Kerala, biriyani [D], whether chicken [B], beef, or vegetarian, is delicious. Very similar to fried rice, the difference, a Malayali recently told me, is that biriyani is cooked with the meat and/or vegetables. This biriyani came with a few personal favorites, a hard-boiled egg [C], “salad” [A], and a “pop-a-dumb” [E].