Lessons I’m Learning in India

It gets me every time.  You’d think that after visiting India 13 times, I’d be accustomed to seeing the extreme poverty on display, but there’s no way to prepare for it.

A woman comes up to our car window begging for money. (New Delhi)

Literally as soon as I drive out of the New Delhi airport – in my chauffeured car with my six pieces of luggage – I am confronted with signs of desperation and dire need.  Women holding babies come up to the car window begging for money.  So do barely clothed young children and maimed men.

Our car crosses people sleeping on the streets – too many to count; we pass by people in makeshift cardboard houses right before turning into the ritzy gated community where we will be staying.

And this goes on day after day.  I’m in India for a 45-day visit and my agenda includes everything from participating in my cousin’s wedding festivities to doing some charity work in the slums. The panoply of events I’m getting to experience is unreal, and it’s tough not to feel overwhelmed by the immense needs.

It’s also hard not to get confused by the chaos of it all.

A make-shift house in Gurgaon.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of Indian society is the huge disparity between the rich and the poor. I have the opportunity to interact with a wide spectrum of society, and the difference is unimaginable. Even though India is now ranked as one of the top economic powers in the world, the poverty is immense. In Gurgaon, a key “cyber city” in India and the home of numerous multinational business organizations, this contrast is perhaps most marked. While the affluent live in luxurious apartments, drive expensive automobiles, play on sprawling golf courses, have multiple maids and servants and host elaborate parties, a parallel economy exists where the impoverished live in slums and lack access to even basic food and clean water.

I wish I could tell you that in my short time here, I’ve already come up with bold solutions to solve India’s humanitarian crisis or at least deep insights on how to approach such monumental needs, but I find myself being reminded of some simple principles which help me keep things in perspective:

1.  Don’t look at what others should be doing with their resources, but at what you could be doing with yours.

A man with leprosy. (Calcutta)

It’s easy to look at others and develop a judgmental spirit, especially those who live in untold abundance with a seemingly callous attitude towards those in need.  I was at lunch with an Indian friend last week who proudly proclaimed, “My religion is buying jewelry, clothes, shoes, and bags… and I’m very faithful to it.”  She continued, “My problem is that I have so much money, I don’t know what to do with it… I may as well spend it on myself.”  It’s tough to know how to respond to something like that, but it’s a sentiment I hear echoed over and over again among India’s elite society.

While it’s good to encourage our relatives and friends to develop a generous lifestyle, I find that I have to constantly keep myself in check and remember that I’m accountable for my own resources and priorities, not someone else’s.  All I have to do is look at last month’s credit card bill, and I have no one to point the finger at but myself.

2.  Do for one, what you wish you could do for everyone.

Earlier this year, Atlanta Pastor Andy Stanley preached a message titled, “One, Not Everyone.” He set out to answer the question, “How can you make a difference in a big world with big needs when everything you have to offer seems, by comparison, small and inadequate?”  The answer, “Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone.”  I find myself repeating that over and over here in India.

Feeding street children in Ranchi.

With a population of 1.21 billion in India and an estimated 41.6% of them living in poverty (making less than $1.25 a day), I’m confronted with huge needs every single day, everywhere I turn.  I wish I could feed every leper I see on the street struggling to hold a tin can for food, clothe every old haggard woman with at least a warm sweater to help them through the cold winter months, adopt every child and somehow help them escape the vicious cycle of poverty.  But instead of being overwhelmed by the needs and giving up in frustration, I can commit to helping one person at a time in whatever small ways I am able… and trust that the seeds which are sown will multiply in their lives.  I have also connected with a number of missions organizations and charities here on the ground, and it’s encouraging to see them strategically and effectively tackling these problems on a long-term basis.  (More to come on these organizations, which I’ll be visiting soon.)

3.  Remember we are limited, but God is not.

The Delhi Bible Fellowship church holds an outreach event in the Khadar slum.

Nowhere do I feel more empowered to make a difference than I do in India… with the U.S. Dollar gaining in value here, the exchange rate is now at $1 = 52 rupees.  Even a little money can go a long way, especially when it comes to charitable efforts, so it’s rewarding to see my limited resources multiply and make a tangible impact. A local church I visited last week is collecting “hampers” for a Christmas outreach in the slums, and for only 150 rupees (less than $3!) one can provide a package of necessities (food, toiletries, candles, etc.) for an entire family.  That really makes me rethink my last trip to Starbucks.

Having said this, nowhere do I feel more helpless than I do in India. After all, there’s seemingly no real hope for the underprivileged to break through the class barriers and they have no choice but to follow the vocations dictated by their caste and cultural norms. The hopelessness has been etched on their faces over the years of survival.

Children on the street. (New Delhi)

In a society so compartmentalized based on the caste system along with the regional, religious and social fragmentation, it’s frustrating to even think about catalyzing change.  Whatever time and money I can invest seems like just a drop or two in the Ganges River (even missionaries who’ve been working here for decades often feel the same way).

But while we’re so limited – in our abilities, resources, and opportunities – God is unlimited in every respect.  He is a just God who “secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy” (Psalm 140:12).  A generous God who owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10).  A faithful God whose mercies “are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23).  A God who’s got the whole world in His hands… including the slums in Khadar, the leper colonies in Bihar, and the little girl I talked to on the street yesterday who didn’t even know how old she was.  If God won’t even let a sparrow fall from the sky without His care, I can be confident that He cares about these precious people much more than I ever could.

Christmas presents for schoolchildren from the Khadar slum. (New Delhi)

So there.  I am accountable for my own resources and priorities, not someone else’s.  I can’t help everyone, but I can help one (or two or three).  I am limited, but God is not.

As we approach the Christmas season, these are good things for all of us to keep in mind… regardless of where in the world we happen to be.

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