Monday, September 27, 2010

On a lighter note...

I assure you that this post is of a far lighter nature than the previous post so if you thought about not reading it, don't worry!

This week went by without much incident. I continue to adjust and become ever more familiar with my new surroundings, my new friends, and my new responsibilities. On Friday we met for our first monthly retreat of the year. Once a month (or near enough) we will be meeting up as a way of taking a break from our sites, seeing our fellow volunteers and to be exposed to different realities. This retreat, being our first, was mainly focused on all of us coming together and spending time discussing our success, failures, challenges, and even funny/weird things that had happened at our sites. It provided us with a safe space to talk about and work out our problems and to be open amongst friends. Achen led us in several bible studies which, as always, take old well known stories and turns them on their heads. I will reflect on one such story later this week. 

Backwater life is simple
Other than spending time together we ate a lot and laughed a lot and got to go on the world famous Kerala backwaters. If you haven't read or seen anything about them take time to google or wikipedia them. Essentially they are a series of natural and man made canals similar to Florida's inter-coastal waterways that links up the western coast of almost the entire state of Kerala. They were and are still used for transport goods and commodities-- especially spices. Life for the people who live along these backwaters is simple and many of the distractions of our daily lives are not things they deal with. Electricity is minimal and lives are often spent working in rice paddys or fishing in the backwaters.

House Boat
In more recent years, as tourism has increased in the area, the traditional barges used for transporting goods were converted into luxury house boats which can be rented out for up to a week. They take tourists up and down the backwaters in considerable style. They have bedrooms, satellite televisions, A/C, kitchens (and a chef), and basically every amenity one could possibly need to enjoy a few days on serene and relaxing backwaters.

A Palmetto State
South Carolina claims to be the Palmetto State but as you can see in the pictures the title is much more fitting for the state of Kerala. It was a relaxing day out on the backwaters before returning home, chatting late into the evening and then waking up early for breakfast and church. I can already tell that the time spent during our retreats is going to be a welcome break from our time at our sites. Future retreats will focus on more serious issues in India such as the lives of tribal groups high in the Western Ghats and the lives and challenges of Dalits in India.
Asides from our incredibly relaxing and peaceful time on the backwaters we also had a wonderful conversation with Dr. Rajan the Vice-Chancellor and professor of Economics at Mahatma Ghandi University about the Kerala Development Model (more to come on this later). And we also had a lecture from our newest friend Anne on teaching methods and suggestions which was very helpful!

Sunset at the end of our backwater cruisin'

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

WWJD- One Christian's Response to Anti-Muslim Sentiment in the United States

Early Christians were seen as outlaws, punishable by law and thus sought to worship in the safety of closed community and hidden worship. But, as is so often the case, the oppressed, upon receiving power, quickly become the oppressor. Throughout history Christians have, in the name of Jesus and of God, pillaged, killed, tortured, and oppressed many people from many places of many different faiths.
Today, we stand at a juncture—a volatile time of huge social change with massive implications. In the United States anti-Muslim sentiments coupled with the tragic events of nine years ago are giving way to mass hysteria. It is creating a mob culture against an entire group of people . For those who say that Muslims are misunderstood I would debate that. To be misunderstood people must first have taken the time and effort to TRY to understand. This is not the case in the United States. People are creating fact out of fiction. Those trying to burn the Koran admit to having never read it. This is ignorance and ignorance breeds hatred of the worst kind.
It is in instances of social and structural oppression and when the masses have managed to dehumanize their “enemy” that history has had some of its darkest hours. If something is not done, if people do not object to this ignorant hatred and stand beside our Muslim brothers and sisters the dark plumes that blocked out the sun on that horrifying day in September of 2001 will be stoked into a cloud that is so dark that no sunlight will ever break through.
The acts committed by the men on that fateful day in September were horrific and inhumane. But if we allow ourselves to blindly label them as acts of faith then we have already succumbed. Just because a handful of leaders and a group of followers bastardize a religion and drive it to its most violent and destructive edge we must not let uninformed judgment lead to the communal hatred of a people. The men who hijacked the planes on September 11th were not living out the words of the Koran or the teachings of Muhammad. They were deeply troubled individuals who read and heard and spoke words that did not exist and did it in the name of a religion.
Today, a community of peaceful followers wish to build a community center that will foster the sort of dialogue that is critical to calming the waters of this growing storm. Yes, there is a place for prayer, a space for Muslims to openly and freely worship the God they love. And why not? How is this a defamation or a dishonoring of holy ground? It was not Islam or followers of Islam that committed the acts of 9/11—it was headstrong, zealot, bigoted and ignorant people who took the lives of the innocent that day. WE have labeled them Muslims. The atrocities that were committed were not acts of faith, at least not to the God that Muhammad worshiped.
Nowhere in the bible is there a list, a hierarchy of sins, a log of which sin is worse than another. There is, however, a very clear statement by Jesus of what is most important in our lives. “’Love the Lord your God with all your heath, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.’”
This brings me to my title—the very common acronym for “What Would Jesus Do?”. I have two suggestions, surrounding this topic, of how we might change this acronym: “Where Would Jesus Dig?” and “Who Would Jesus Despise?”. To me, the answers are clear. He would dig the foundations of a building focused on peace, reconciliation and dialogue at the junction of war, hatred and suffering and he would despise only those without love.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Strikes, Holidays and difficult conversations

I apologize for the lack of blog posts. I could take the easy way out and say that I have been super busy but I don't think that would necessarily be true. I will be posting more regularly from here on out. First, I would like to say thank you to everyone who is following my blog. Both those who have registered and are "Followers" and those who are just reading it but have not signed up. For those who are interested and have not yet done so you can sign up to "follow" the blog which will give you access to leave comments and questions. I want to say a special thank you to all those who have left comments and I hope that on some of the more serious and intellectual blogs (not just the travel/daily life updates) the comment section can foster some good discussion and conversation.

Now for the daily life update:

I am continuing to adjust to life here at CMS College. It is being slowed by the continuation of strikes and holidays that are breaking up the normal routine here. There was a strike again yesterday, a holiday today, and there will be another strike tomorrow. This, coupled with the fact that on Thursday I will be leaving to meet up with Thomas John and my fellow volunteers for our first retreat/catch-up, has meant that I have not experienced a "normal" week here yet. For those unaware the strikes are being lead by the student government parties who are upset at the administrations decision to use parliamentary style elections as opposed to the desired presidential elections. A few months ago CMS was making headlines throughout India because of vandalism and riots surrounding the suspension of the SFI leader (the majority party) here on campus.

Although the strikes are happening students and faculty still seem to be in good spirits and I spend a lot of my day outside talking to various different groups of students and faculty. In talking to students I have realized that male students feel more comfortable and at ease in coming up and talking to me. Therefore, I have partnered with the Communicative English department to create a "formal-informal" time for groups of girls to come talk to me. These take place during the students free periods and lunch time. So far several groups of girls have come and chatted with me and have highlighted the importance of such interactions. They are happy to be using the English they have learned in a conversational setting because many of them have learned some English but have no means of using or practicing it. Additionally, they told me that if they were to come up to me individually when they saw me on campus the male students, especially those who cannot speak English, would ridicule them and make fun of them. So, for the time being it seems as if my solution is working.

Apart from this I will be giving a lecture in a weeks time on the current financial crisis focusing on its impacts in the United States. So, for all those who like to send Op-Ed pieces or Letters to the Editor... here is your chance! If you would like to weigh in on this subject leave a comment at the end of this blog! It just might make it into an Economics lecture at CMS College!

I am always learning new facts and trying to remember the dozens of names and faces that I come in contact with. It is exhausting having conversations all the time everyday with people who don't share a common first language as you. I started my formal Malayalam lessons yesterday and I am hoping that I can start putting to use what I am learning. Perhaps this will make communication a bit easier... but then again I'm sure their English will still be much better than my Malayalam.

Hope all is well state-side and around the world! Shout out to my fellow YAVs reading this... GOOD SELF CARE!!! You will all be hearing from me soon.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Kottayam, Kerala

My year will be spent in the city of Kottayam (Coat-tah-yam), Kerala. I arrived last Wednesday and was immediately welcomed into the campus life of CMS College. On Friday there was a holiday so there was no classes and the students have only just arrived back. Today, however, the students have decided to go on strike and so there are no classes today either.

This weekend I took the time to venture out into the city and surrounding area to familiarize myself with it all. I visited to Syrian Churches: Valliyapally and Cheriapally. Both churches were built in the 1500s by Syrian Christians here in India. These churches predate the United States and yet, by Indian standards they are relatively new. It makes for a very interesting place.

Apart from these churches I just strolled around the street to familiarize myself with the city and the staring people. The best is when I entered a restaurant by myself, ordered some food without looking at a menu and then proceeded to eat the meal with my hands-- this took everyone by surprise. The one good thing about eating with your hands is that you really have to concentrate on what your doing so I usually can keep myself busy and not pay too much attention to all the looks I get.

On Sunday I had my first rehearsal with one of the two choirs I will be singing with during my time here. It is a community choir made up of men and women from Kottayam and the surrounding area. Check out their website at                                   

Today, I was part of the Economics Departments Inauguration for the start of the years programs. Afterward, I went to meet up with the cricket/baseball team and played cricket with them for an hour and a half. Now I am just resting and reading. That is going to be one of the great things about this year. With few distractions I have time to do some serious research and reading. So I am looking forward to that.

Oh... and I got a new fan in my room so I don't sweat constantly while at home. I do, however, sweat constantly everywhere else.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Development Gospel

During our time here Thomas John Achen will be providing us with a daily bible study. Not your average, run of the mill, read through of a certain verse but a in-depth look at the bible through the eyes of a man who has spent his whole life within the realm of what many of us know as the "Third World". It is easy to read the stories of the Old and New Testaments from the relative comfort and safety of many of our homes or places of worship and not see the application in our daily lives. Here, reading many of the stories found through out both books of the bible can be eerily similar to reading the newspaper.

In the Old Testament book of 1 Kings chapter 21 verses 1-15 the story of Naboth, his vineyard, and King Ahab is told (for those unfamiliar with the story here it is) . In the story Ahab goes to Naboth to try and get his vineyard in order to make a garden for himself. Ahab offers what he believes to be a fair trade. He will give him other lands in exchange for his vineyard. Naboth refuses. Then, in what may be perceived by us to be fair, Ahab offers him the value of the land in money.

In both offers Ahab fails to realize how valuable the land is to Naboth. Ahab sees the land as a commodity something with a price that can be exchanged either for money or for something of equal value. He never once stops to think about how this land may have been in Naboth's family for generations. Or how Naboth's vineyard brings jobs and industry to the area. Or how Naboth may just be attached to this land because it is his own. Ahab sees none of this. In the end Jezebel sets up Naboth to be stoned to death leaving the land free for Ahab's use.

This is a story that has occurred over and over and over again through out history. In the past fifty years this story has become increasingly prevalent with the rise of Globalization and, as Thomas Friedman put it, the flattening of the world. More and more, foreign companies from the developed nations of the world come into developing nations to set up industrial plants, manufacturing centers and huge agricultural mega-farms. They see the land as a commodity and the people as expendable. It is how our nations have increased in power and fortune and how we have increased our comfort levels and material wealth.

Here in India one of the most pertinent examples of this situation comes, sadly, from an Atlanta based company and favorite soft-drink of mine, Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola has several factories throughout India that have been set up to access large amounts of water which are free. They set up huge pumping systems that take in up to 900,000 liters of groundwater per year. The most drastic example of the huge implications this process creates on the surrounding community is in Plachimada, a small town found in Tamil Nadu, the state directly to the east of Kerala. Here, Coca-Cola has used so much of the ground water that the surrounding farms and communities have no water with which to live. While the plant is still able to pump water the wells and systems of the local community are unable to reach the little water that remains. In addition to this, the small amount of water that is recycled from the plant is highly contaminated and unusable for the nearby populations.

It is hard to hear this and to apply it to the story of Naboth and his vineyard. In a land where everything is new to my senses all I want from time to time is something simple and familiar, a bottle of coke. I am not writing this to get on a soap box or to say I am different from anyone in the US or anywhere else. I play just as much a part in this whole situation as anyone else. However, in looking to the bible, the Development Gospel, we must at least take the time to question these practices and see how we can change them.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Arrived at site!

Just a really quick post because they are about to shut the internet off here (funny concept I know...). I have arrived at my site so a new phase has begun. Everything seems good here. A lot of bugs! More to come soon. My internet is very limited here but I will update as best I can! Hope you are all well!

Sunday, September 5, 2010


The past couple of days has been very busy. We continue to receive lots of information from Thomas John Achen about everything under the sun-- different foods,  Dos and Don'ts, how to travel, information about our sites and our jobs, culture and history lessons, and lots more. It is a lot to take in and by the time of late evening we are usually pretty tired (I think it has to do with the humidity and the final stages of jet lag and adjustment). In the past couple of days we have done a number of 'touristy' things during the afternoons.

Left to Right: Achen, Me, Maggie, Madison, Binu
On Friday we went to an elephant training center to see them raising and domesticating elephants for use either for heavy manual labor and in temples around India. We were the first groups of YAV volunteers who were not able to take an elephant ride upon visiting this training center. Selfishly I was disappointed although I think the change in policy is a good thing. It comes from recent legislation that has passed raising elephants to the status of heritage animals meaning that the government recognizes their status as a symbol of India and of many of the states, businesses, organization, etc. within the country (fun fact: Kerala's state emblem has two elephants facing one another with their trunks raised). So for good reason we were unable to take an elephant ride. We still spent a lot of time around them and were able to take pictures with them and play with them.
Me in my jubba and mundu and the girls in their churidars
Today (Sunday), we all got up at 6am to get ready and have breakfast before heading out to a church about 30 minutes away that Achen was preaching at. There we were introduced by the other minister and we were asked to say a few words about ourselves and our time here in India. After this we sang a song to the congregation that we had learned during our week long orientation in New York but that was further taught to us by Achen and Binu. The song is in malayalam although the verses were translated into english by a group of past volunteers. After the service a lot of people came up to us and thanked us for our visit to the church and said how wonderful it was to see foreigners know such a traditional and well known malayalam song.

 After church we headed further north to Kochi. Kochi is a port city which was widely used by traders from all over the world including Jews, Portuguese, Spanish, Arab, and many others. The highlights on our tour around Cochin were:

Jew Town-- an area of the city that at one time held several hundred Jewish families (many of them left when the state of Israel was created although still 50-60 roughly remain).

The synagogue, located in Jew Town, is the oldest synagogue in the lands formerly contained in the British Empire. It was built in the 1500s and remains operational to this day.

St. Francis
St. Francis Church which was a Catholic Church until the British came when it was operated as an Anglican church and finally, now, it is a church of CSI (Church of Southern India). Its claim to fame, which draws a lot of tourists, is that it was the original burial site of Vasco da Gama before his remains were moved to Lisbon, Portugal.

After a long day out and about we came back home exhausted. We have been lounging and napping and relaxing (all under the fans of course). Only 30 more minutes until tea time!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Flesh into Bread

We have been in the Sub-Continent now for three days. This has been a time of acclimatization in every sense of the word. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes and thoughts that I have experienced have been unlike any in my life. Whether it be the saffron parade of some Hindus including an elephant carrying an representation of a Hindu God or the sounds of the local Mosques call to prayer (I can distinctly hear three when) or the taste of all of the new food or the distinct smells of India. It has all been new to me. And, no matter how much you prepare mentally for this immersion I think it is safe to say you can never be fully prepared. Part of this must also come from the stark realization that these will, over the course of the year, become somewhat common place to me in my daily life.
Thomas John Achen, Kochamma, and Binu have been so wonderful in how they are handling our entry into this new environment. Achen teaches us Malayalam and cultural lessons. Binu continues these lessons with history, politics, music, etc. And, most importantly, Kochamma has the difficult task of slowly familiarizing our bodies with the food. With the touch of a master chef and the care of a mother she is slowly bringing us into the world of Indian food. Starting with more bland and less spicy foods and slowly working our way up. Last night at dinner she smiled to us after our meal was finished and said, “Today I included one pepper in the curry”— small steps to a larger goal.
As our minds and bodies become more accustomed to our surroundings we begin to take on bigger challenges. This morning we scoured through the Malayalam newspaper on the dinner table to try and find examples of vowel signs we had studied the afternoon before. It is a long process but with the support of those in our immediate surrounding and the encouragement from those close to us yet far away we will succeed.
We have short bible studies whenever we are at Achen’s house. He uses these bible lessons to highlight situations in an Indian and global context. Areas of injustice and oppression that we are all called on, not only Christians, to stand up against. We were looking at 1 Corinthians chapter 11 verses 17-34. Focusing on our call to provide food for those who need it as a way enacting how God has called us to live our lives. Today’s bible study ended with a moving quote from a Catholic colleague of Thomas John Achens. He said, “We are so concerned about turning the bread into flesh that we often forget to turn our flesh into bread.”
Be it through a secular organization or company, or through an organization or program linked to a certain faith or denomination, or even through an ecumenical organization bringing together many beliefs and faiths we should all be set on helping out those who need. Many of us have been blessed with having more than we need. As it was so eloquently put (in describing the YAV program) "We are rich enough to be poor for a year". It is not bad to have excess but it is important that we use this wealth in ways to help out other who are in need. You can never go wrong when you end with a Winston Churchill quote so I will do that now: "We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give."