After a little girl in school uniform welcomed me off the bus with a flower and a smile.
After we were lead into Mar Thoma Child Development Center by a marching band.
After the kids danced and sang ”Goz lof ees so wonnerfool.”
After I told the kids how far we’d traveled just to meet them because we love them so much.
A prayer was said and then the kids and bloggers left the breeze of the ceiling fan and the cool of the shade to play cricket and swing in the schoolyard in 118 degrees of humid Indian heat. I stood to join them and John told me to sit with him instead.
John was the founding director of Mar Thoma Child Development Center, a church-based Compassion “project” meeting the physical, spiritual, academic and economic needs of about 300 kids every day. He’s “just” a board member now, he said, but he was standing in as head honcho the day we visited because the current director – pastor of Mar Thoma church – was away.
The kids call John “Uncle.” And he asked me to also. Then he took my hand in his – a sign of friendship in India – and held it for the next couple hours while he told me story after story.
He reminded me of Tony Campolo – balding on top, squinty-eyed, gruff persistent voice, incredibly quotable and a little pushy.
“Mars Thoma means Saint Thomas,” he explained. Uncle grew up on the west coast of India in one of the seven communities visited by Saint Thomas in 52AD, shortly after the ascension of Jesus. He worshiped as a boy in one of the churches started by Saint Thomas – or that’s how I understood it and explained it to Becky when she walked up. “No, no,” Uncle said. “Thomas did not start churches. He started Christians. Man started churches and denominations. Thomas preached only Jesus. Simple.”
This was a thread that ran through our whole conversation. Like the story he told about Mother Teresa. He was helping “Mother” financially at one point but she wanted more from Uncle than money. She put him to work one day caring for a drug addict going through withdrawals. There Uncle sat, a successful businessman on his knees with a wet cloth in his hand, dabbing a drug addict’s sweaty forehead. “I had no choice. Mother told me to,” he chuckled.
He kept helping Mother and her sisters in any way she asked until she paid Mars Thoma church a visit. They talked together that day about the needs of Uncle’s own community. Mother told him to take the hours and effort he’d poured into her urban ministry and invest them instead in his own rural neighborhood. “She said Jesus was here also,” he said.
He said he felt unqualified to lead a ministry to people in his own village. He thought he needed to become a pastor first. But he couldn’t argue with Mother. With her encouragement he and Mar Thoma church started taking in the sick, rehabilitating addicts, counseling the mentally ill, and teaching children how to read and write and pray.
“Mother didn’t mind that we were not Catholic. She did not make me Catholic before she accepted me.” Right on cue, a woman walked into the room with two coconuts in her hands and gave them to Uncle. He handed one to me. “This is God’s best. All pure. It revives in this heat. I know you are thirsty.” I took a sip, wondering whether the straw was clean. “Do I ask you to follow Saint Thomas before I give you drink? No. Do I ask you what church you are? No. Do I know you are Christian? Many of our children here this morning are Hindu. We love them even so.”
He said he liked what I’d said to the children, how I’d brought what he called “the simple message.” I’d told the kids I loved them and that Jesus loved them. “That is what we teach them. God loved the world. He sent Jesus,” he said. “And let them decide. Until then, eat, drink, learn.”
He explained how Mar Thoma church’s ministry to children grew to the point that they needed help and asked Compassion to partner with them. That’s how the Mar Thoma Child Development Center was born.
He showed me pictures of the rehabilitation center the church is building to care for the almost 700 patients it’s currently treating. “Our church is growing and so we asked God if we should build. God told us to build for the sick. There are enough making bigger and bigger buildings for church. There are not enough making buildings for those poor and sick. So we will build them something.”
Eventually he started asking me questions. “What is your job?” It’s more complicated than this but I told him I play music – so his head wouldn’t explode trying to understand exactly what all I do these days.
“I trade,” he said. “But that is not life. Jesus is enough.” I nodded, realizing how profound the simplest theology sounds when spoken in an accent by someone living halfway around the world holding a coconut. “You sing music, “he said. “But that is not your life. Love Jesus. Is that enough?”
Uncle stood and took me by the hand and we walked to the doorway, around the kids and bloggers coloring pictures on the floor together. We stood silent for a minute while he looked out across the schoolyard for someone who could bring us another round of drinks. “It is hot,” he said. ”You’ll drink more with me.”