Underneath the concrete flyover, surrounded by a cacophony of car horns, a cow sleeps peacefully. Inches from the traffic and with no protection, a man crouches by the side of the road, painting the white lines by hand. A warren of narrow lanes, bicycles and carts jostling for space past open shops piled high with multi-coloured fabrics, gives onto a vast brand-new pedestrianised plaza, complete with statues, where a police band in turbans is playing the bagpipes. Amritsar, India: the beginning of a journey.
In November 2016, a group of three – John Parry, Paul O’Connor and myself – went from Thames North Synod to the Punjab, North India, for two weeks. A fourth person was unable to come through illness. John was passing on his knowledge and love of the area to Paul and me and generously introducing us to his friends and contacts, through whom we got to meet new people and make further contacts. It was a rich and wonderful experience.
We began in Amritsar, then spent 4 nights in Chandigarh and two nights at the Christian Medical College in Ludhiana, before returning to Amritsar for one night and flying home.
In Amritsar we visited the Golden Temple, centre of Sikh devotion; met students at the Guru Nanak Dev University who spoke very openly about their faith and life; and we went to the city of Qadian to meet Amadiyyah Muslims. We took part in a Diocesan Youth Festival which was taking place the weekend we arrived, visited a Christian Education project in one of the villages, and attended church worship in English and a youth service in Hindi.
Chandigarh, the state capital, designed and built in the 1950s with wide boulevards and fine civic buildings, offers a complete contrast to Amritsar. John arranged a meeting of about 25 local pastors and church workers to share their insights and concerns of being a minority faith group. A man who had been identified to help us with hotel arrangements shared lunch and his own explorations of faith; and we took some time out for shopping and sightseeing.
At Ludhiana the hospital chaplains invited us to join them on their corridor rounds, praying in the waiting rooms for patients and relatives. The chaplains are all Christian but the prayers were welcomed, even expected, by people of all faiths. We met Dr Santosh Matangi, a specialist in rehab for severely disabled people, and some of his patients; his skill is matched by his passion and his gratitude to God.
Many sights and moments stay in my mind. The ferocious chapatti machine turning out 10,000 chapattis an hour for the community kitchen in the Golden Temple and the graceful rhythm of those preparing, serving and clearing food there; the frequent requests for photos and selfies with us; people queuing for banks after the government suddenly withdrew the main denomination bank notes from circulation; being greeted as a sister by village women. I wrote so much in my journal I needed to buy extra paper.
The abiding memory, though, and for me the reason for being there, was of meeting God in so many people. Whatever differences we may have had of faith, of theology, of background, when we spoke openly, God was present in those conversations. It was wonderful, and deeply moving.
My thanks to John, for initiating and leading the trip; to Paul for being such a good travelling companion; to Thames North Synod for the finance; to the many people from the Church of North India who helped us; and of course to God.
Rev. Sue McCoan