From the other side: Scott and Jane Barber travel to India, serve leper colony
In November, Scott and Jane Barber took a plane to Hyderabad, India, where they planned to stay for nine days. Scott is a pastor at Worthington's Grace Community Church, and the couple planned to take part in a conference with AIM Asia, a mission...
In November, Scott and Jane Barber took a plane to Hyderabad, India, where they planned to stay for nine days. Scott is a pastor at Worthington’s Grace Community Church, and the couple planned to take part in a conference with AIM Asia, a missions organization dedicated to serving the people of India, mostly in rural areas.
“It’s a ministry started in India, by Indians,” Scott said.
They met the director, Joab Lohara, when they arrived. The ministry focuses on training indigenous pastors, planting churches, providing education opportunities and ministering to the “least of these.”
“One of (Joab’s) focuses is training and sending pastors to villages,” Scott said. “(It’s mostly) tribal church planting - their focus is not in urban centers.”
After 29 years of service, AIM Asia has more than 1,100 churches across the country.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Jane said, pointing out that Christians are a stark minority in India.
The organization also has started a university in Hyderabad, which currently offers an MBA program and a Bachelor of Education degree. It’s working toward adding a Masters of Social Work degree.
The university was started for two reasons, one spiritual and one centered on civil rights.
“First, Joab noticed that the Indians in these positions of business leadership were all Hindus, both here in the United States and in India,” Scott said. “In order to really effectively transform culture, they want to raise up leaders to be able to enter into those different areas of the marketplace.
“There’s a social justice side to this, too,” he added. “While the caste system doesn’t formally exist anymore, it functionally exists.”
India officially abolished the caste system in 1950, but discrimination against the Dalits (also known as the “Untouchables,” the lowest caste) is still widely prevalent. The caste system still exists socially, the Barbers explained, and it has consequences.
“Career opportunities opened up through… a master’s level education provides social and economic mobility for the Dalit,” Scott explained. “It’s a ministry to ‘the least of these’ - these are people that in our culture, the government might have a hand in (helping), but they’re not being cared for. … It’s part of living out the whole gospel, the gospel’s holistic impact, (serving) those rejected by society.
“A majority of Christians come from the Dalit,” Scott added. “… (Education can) strategically put Christians in positions of influence.”
“Still, (all of India) is only 2.5 percent Christian,” Jane said. “(Here) we don’t experience persecution.”
“It costs them something to follow Jesus there,” Scott said.
No common culture
The conference the couple attended is hosted every other year, and is sponsored in partnership with Summit Evangelical Free Church of Storm Lake, Iowa.
“They bring a team from the United States, several of which are pastors who do keynote speaking and teaching, and the whole team works together to do breakout sessions for encouraging and equipping the men and women in ministry,” Scott said.
As India is a huge, multilingual, densely populated country, many of the conference attendees spoke different languages and came from different backgrounds. The conference materials were printed in three different native languages, plus English, Jane explained.
“There was culture-sharing among the different Indian tribes and regions,” Scott said. “People share maybe a song or a dance, or they might wear some cultural dress…
“There are a lot of differences in terms of language and culture, when you’ve got that many people,” he said. The conference attendees came from all over India.
“There are differences. It was neat to see them appreciate that and give space to celebrate that.”
“The sense of humor translation was interesting,” he added, laughing.
Jane agreed. “The things we find funny, they don’t find funny; the things they find funny, we’re like, ‘We don’t get it!’”
The American personal bubble
Each day of the pastoral conference was punctuated by worship sessions, with singing, dancing and prayer in different languages.
“The worship was a big thing for them,” Scott said. “So much joy, eagerness for God and his glory, so much joy in worshiping him. There are things that we would find so uncomfortable in our upper-Midwest stoicism like dancing and raising their hands. And we were warned in advance… their physical space is so much different than ours.
“Guys - they’ll grab you by the hand and hold your hand while you’re dancing,” Scott said. “Compared to what we might find in our culture, they don’t have - the same constraints. … They’re freer and more comfortable to show their care and friendship for each other, within gender.”
That lowered physical boundary doesn’t cross gender lines, they explained - men and women rarely physically interact in public.
“You never know who’s married to who, because they don’t show it - the girls hang out with the girls, and the guys hang out with the guys,” Jane observed.
The Barbers both commented that they were treated with honor.
“(It) was surprising and humbling…” Scott said. “We felt like were were being treated like celebrities.”
“We certainly had enough pictures taken of us to feel like that,” Jane said.
“They wanted to shake our hands, they desired our prayers - they trusted in the power of prayer so much more than we do,” Scott added. “It was an honor for them that we would pray over them.”
After the conference, the team visited children at AIM Asia’s orphanage in Hyderabad. The city has more than 100,000 children living on the streets, Scott said; the orphanage houses 300.
“It was a fun day for them - we did some things like Bible stories, but we also did some things like juggling and magic, Minute to Win It games, pottery making…” Jane said. “We left them with a craft we tried to do.
“Braiding a bracelet and trying to put some beads on it with 300 children was pretty chaotic. We said, ‘If you can’t figure it out… one of us can help you,’ and then (we got) bum-rushed by 300 kids.”
“It worked itself out,” Scott said. “In our westernism, we like things so controlled.”
They also handed out a lot of candy, collectively called “chocolate” in India.
“Everything is ‘chocolate,’” Scott said. “Even if it’s a life saver, it’s ‘chocolate.’”
The orphans, students - and adults - were overjoyed.
“I can’t remember ever in my life being grateful for receiving one piece of candy, especially for one that I don’t necessarily prefer,” Scott said. “I have so much abundance; (to them), to receive a piece of candy was such a joy.”
The leper colony
The day after visiting the orphanage, Scott and Jane and the team met a group of leprosy patients.
“They had to transport (the patients) like livestock, in a truck with high walls in the back, so they couldn’t be seen,” Scott said. “They’re still considered by many as contagious and feared, even though it’s treatable, it’s preventable and it’s not contagious.”
Hyderabad has over 40,000 leprosy patients, who are forced to live in communities outside the city. The infection impacts the nervous system, causing patients to lose the ability to feel pain and occasionally resulting in the loss of extremities, including fingers, due to unnoticed injuries. There have been intentional efforts to show that the disease is easily treated, controlled and eradicated.
“Joab shared that there are doctors trying to advocate on behalf of the leprosy community, showing that this is not contagious,” Scott said. “He shared one story of this doctor who would stick his thumb in an open sore and put it in his mouth to show, ‘This is not something to be feared.’”
However, leprosy patients continue to be marginalized.
“There’s so much social stigma,” he said. “In some cases… family members of those with leprosy are still ostracized.”
Part of AIM Asia’s ministry is providing for the leprosy patients, and during Scott and Jane’s visit each patient received bags of rice and lentils, and hygiene items.
“They’re missing their digits, and in some cases appendages - it’s amazing how much fingers mean in terms of functionality - but… they were helping each other,” Scott said.
India’s low physical boundaries threw the leprosy patients’ treatment into stark relief.
“I noticed they didn’t reach out for you, because I don’t think they expected (you to return it),” Jane said. “You had to reach out for them.”
“But when you did, they took hold,” Scott added. “This is God - this is so much like God stepping to us… that he became untouchable (forsaken) that he might embrace us.”
“They are utterly forsaken,” Scott said. “They are feared to be touched, let alone to be near - to step toward them and to hold their hands, to give them that embrace and that touch… It was just so powerful to … be in that space with them, to pray with them, to receive their joy - how precious it was…
“You’re blessed so much more by them than they are by you.”
“We got on a bus and went way out from Hyderbad to a village,” Jane said, explaining that the group’s leaders had to make sure the long trip was safe for western Christians to make in a sensitive Hindu culture.
The couple participated in a church service there, under a tent made of tarps outside the town’s church. A meal was served, and the group prayed for visitors and handed out a small gift. The event drew a crowd.
“To be honest, (the village visit) just made me seem so spoiled,” Scott said. “We were cloistered, really, within the university and orphanage … kind of this Christian bubble. Being in the village was really good to experience - more of real life.”
“There’s a great juxtaposition of modern technology and yet still primitive lifestyles,” he said.
“They might have a smartphone, but when you are traveling there’s nowhere to go to the bathroom,” Jane explained. “Their billboards are like ours in that they show the perfect person - or (you’d think), ‘Is that person even Indian? Because they look really white to me.’”
“(One of the group’s leaders) said racism is in every culture,” Scott said. “In the Brahmans, the upper caste, there’s a greater value of lighter skin. There is racism based on the color of skin, it’s across so many cultures historically.
“It’s so easy to kind of romanticize your first experience of a culture, to see all these good things and beautiful things,” he continued. “It’s tempting to do that, but it is just as fallible as any other cultural system. It has great values that we can learn from, but it’s also flawed like our culture is, and there are things that need to be redeemed.”
Bringing India back home
“As much as we were there to bring something to them, we were served so much by them,” Scott said. “We came away learning and gaining with so much more than whatever we gave, from all of the people there - not just at the conference but at the orphanage and by the leprosy patients.”
“I hope this isn’t something I forget, but (the trip) helps you see what’s really important,” Jane said. “To see their joy in what they don’t have, stuff doesn’t seem important anymore.
“I think it helps me to get the focus off me to love others better.”
“The busyness here makes it difficult to let what happened have root and substantive effect on the soul,” Scott said. “One of the things I appreciated there was just dependence on the Holy Spirit and being released from the sense of control that I feel we have so much of in our culture and even in our expression of Christianity.
“We are a very doing culture, versus being,” he said. “And (in India), they had things like chai, twice a day. They had things built into their day of pausing and enjoying each other, and I think that there are aspects of life there that touch on something of me I’ve seen, the contagion of my soul of being so doing-oriented and not… well-balanced with being.”
“There’s little cost for us to follow Jesus here,” Scott reiterated.
“We get caught up in trying to protect our comfort and our abundance rather than seeing as a privilege and an honor to lay it down and lose it to serve others, to serve the king.”
“Who am I, to speak into their lives?” Scott asked as he reflected upon being a teacher to the Indian pastors. “(It felt) improper - I needed to be learning from them, so it was hard to recognize and appreciate what they say that we could offer them.”
And what would the couple say to readers?
“If they’re a believer, pray for them,” Jane said. “There are a lot of unreached people groups in India.”
“There’s more to India than people doing technical support,” Scott said. “There’s much we can learn from them, many ways that we can love them and serve them well.”