Summer 2008
Volume 8, Number 3

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Our India Assignment

Earl Zimmerman

Maybe it was a 10-year itch. Our children sometimes tease me that I’m like Pa Wilder in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. When things get too settled I have an inner compulsion to move on. Or maybe it was one of those change-of-life decisions.

I like to think it was the prompting of the Spirit, but I’m more cautious about claiming divine guidance in such matters than I once was. Perhaps that’s because of all the political and religious leaders who claim God’s leading in ways that are rather dubious. I’m more aware of our capacity to deceive ourselves than I once was.

In any case the decision to take an assignment with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in India with responsibilities for programs in Afghanistan, India, and Nepal was an exciting new challenge. Ruth and I were keen to learn from people outside our American context. She wanted to build closer relationships with many Asian students she had come to know during her years as co-director at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU). I was feeling more and more distance between the global ethics courses I was teaching at EMU and my past experience on the field.

Both of us felt a pull to return to Asia, where we had previously spent eight years. It was hard to explain; we felt an inner tug in our spirits. And we clearly wanted to follow Jesus wherever our adventure would take us.

Saying goodbye, however, was much more difficult than we had imagined. We underestimated how firmly we had put down roots in Virginia, where we had lived and worked for the past 14 years. Our identities were deeply shaped by our family, our many friendships, and our professional roles, mine as a pastor and teacher and Ruth’s as an administrator.

There were the many memories associated with our passive solar home we had built when I was a seminary student. Our children had spent many of their growing years here. Ruth had spent countless enjoyable hours laying out and caring for our flower gardens, perennials, and groundcovers.

The hardest part was saying goodbye to our three children. They had gone with us to the Philippines on our first Asian sojourn. Now they had their own lives, and we would have to relate through emails, phone calls, periodic visits, and the wonderful new technology of calling from computer to computer while using a web-camera through which we can see each other. There was no such thing when we went to the Philippines back in the 1980s. In those days we’d put through an expensive phone call to our family during Christmas and hope we’d have a clear connection.

Saying hello to our new world has had different challenges. To be honest, our lifestyle in North America had slowly grown cushier than we realized. Our 50-plus-year-old bodies complain more about physical discomfort and stifling heat than our young adult bodies did 25 years ago. We expected the smog and the press of people in a large Asian city but were still not prepared for the intensity of Kolkata (Calcutta), the city we now call home.

I knew the statistics on India from classes I had taught at Eastern Mennonite University. One-third of the more than a billion people who live in India earn no more than one dollar a day. But such statistics are not the same as actually seeing how the constant influx of economic and political refugees over the past decades has shaped Kolkata. The global gap between rich and poor has grown wider in the years since we lived in the Philippines.

At the same time, a third of India’s people are doing quite well in the new globalized economy, thanks to information technology and Indian resourcefulness in various other fields. India is also home to a cultural and religious history thousands of years old. Indian intellectuals are among the best in the world. And Kolkata is a hub of such artistic and intellectual genius.

Ruth and I had read many books and watched various films on India to prepare ourselves for our new assignment. But nothing could prepare us for our arrival in Kolkata. It rapidly sank in that this was all quite foreign, even though we had previously lived in Manila, another huge Asian city. We would need to start over in a very different life. We swallowed our rising panic and tried to put on a brave face. What had possessed us to leave our secure world in Virginia?

Such panic was quickly calmed by the welcome we received from the Indian MCC staff. They were a wonderful oasis in this strange teeming city. We saw the passion on their faces as they explained the various ministries they were involved in. And they so much wanted us to succeed.

After three months at language school studying Hindi, we’re now in the thick of working at many social service and peacebuilding ministries. After busy days in the office we enjoy walking around our neighborhood. We walk past many small shops and streets full of people. We pass flowing water hydrants where people are washing. We pass machine shops that spill over onto the sidewalks. We pass poor laborers who have thrown up a piece of plastic supported by sticks against a wall as temporary shelter. And we meet desperate beggars seeking a handout. People everywhere are friendly, and we’re surprised at how quickly we’re beginning to feel at home.

Along with other MCC staff, we recently visited a development project near the Bangladesh border. We enjoyed the verdant green scenes of growing crops as our train traveled through the rich river delta. At the end of the train line, we walked to the river and were ferried across on small boats. We then climbed onto motorcycles that had been converted into huge tricycles for carrying passengers.

When we arrived the local welcoming committee showered us with music and flower petals. They proudly showed us their beautiful demonstration farm in the middle of the vast delta, interwoven with canals and small rivers.

In this very poor area, seasonal agricultural workers earn only $25 a month and primary school teachers earn about $125 a month. Local women’s groups and farmers’ groups are working hard to transform their villages and create a better life for their families. One women’s group was in charge of preparing the gourmet feast for our outdoor picnic. It was so rewarding to see their pride and confidence in hosting us. They are clearly determined to create a flourishing community.

Some of the challenges they told us about are the dowry system and early marriages that force women into prescribed roles with little future. In addition, micro-credit economic schemes, raising social awareness, and adult education are all part of their efforts in social transformation. They believe women are crucial to the well-being of the family and the entire community. Empowering women is a key to the empowerment of their villages.

How we wish the faithful supporters of MCC in North America could have been there with us to see the many ways in which their contributions are put to work. Ruth and I have the blessing of serving at the intersection where it all comes together and God’s reign is brought closer. "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

—Earl Zimmerman is the author of Practicing the Politics of Jesus: Engaging the Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Social Ethics (Cascadia, 2007). He and his wife Ruth are the Mennonite Central Committee Regional Representatives for India, Nepal and Afghanistan. They live in Kolkata (Calcutta), India.


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