Oregon Conference Pastor Wowed in India
Our trip to India was one Wow! after another. The traffic, the heat, the people, the hundreds of baptisms, the daily manifestations of God’s power at work, all of these and more leave me searching for words to describe our India mission trip, Oct. 10 to Nov. 4, 2004.
Our team was composed of Susan Armstrong, who has a master's degree in public health, my wife Verna and me. Susan gave the health lecture each evening, Verna gave the children’s story, and I presented the evangelistic sermon.
Our trip to Guntar, India, took us through Hong Kong where we were able to visit John and Connie Ash. John is currently the Chinese Union Mission executive secretary (both were classmates at Laurelwood Academy and Walla Walla College).
We left Portland Oct. 10, flew to San Francisco, and from there to Hong Kong. We saw the sun set on the way to the Portland airport and never saw it rise again until about an hour out of Hong Kong—about 21 hours later. Hong Kong was 15 hours ahead of Pacific Daylight Time. After a day and a half seeing Hong Kong, we flew on to Singapore and then to Madras/Chennai, India. We were met at the airport by Bob Robinson (Tonya Rogers' father). We were taken to a hotel for the night. There we met another Adventist mission group of 14 from Indiana. After seeing the churches of St. Mark and St. Thomas, we boarded a train in the late afternoon for an eight-hour trip to Guntar. With our extra luggage, we were very crowded in an eight-person compartment. There were pull-down cots for “sleeping.” However, sleeping was difficult on the hard cots with the very dusty blankets that were provided.
We arrived in Guntar in the wee hours on Friday morning and were taken to the Sindoori Hotel. This was to be our headquarters during our stay in India. After a few more hours sleep we met together for a briefing. We were assigned a taxi and driver for the duration of our meetings. We learned our group of five villages was about 40 km south of Guntar. The group from Indiana went to six other meeting sites with five villages each.
About 6 p.m., we met our driver and headed for our host village of Madala Malapalli. It was a frightening hour and a half ride, dodging animals, people, motorbikes, and other vehicles. Darkness only made the experience terrifying. The people at the meeting site greeted us most warmly with a traditional India welcome of leis. We soon discovered that we needed to wait for the trucks to bring the people from the other four villages. They would leave the fields about 6 p.m., return home and get something to eat, then take the truck to the meeting site. All this time while we were waiting, the local pastors and Bible workers led singing, which was accompanied with drums and a tambourine.
It was usually after 9 p.m. before all the people arrived. Verna began with the children’s story. By the end of the meetings, there were more than 300 children in attendance each evening. It was about 9:45 p.m. when I began my presentation. After the meeting, the people formed three lines to have one of us place our hands on them and pray. They came asking prayer for infirmities, for deafness, for muteness, for heart problems, for their children. We never in our lives so desired to have the gift of healing as we did in India. We longed for the presence and power of Jesus.
I had two unusual experiences regarding requests for prayer. On the first Sabbath evening, we went to the village where we were to hold the first baptism the following day. The villagers began crowding around as we were seated in front of the home of a village leader. Besides the usual requests, a mother came bringing her very young baby asking for prayer. I placed my hand on the baby’s head and prayed for God’s blessing upon it and her parents. As soon as I finished praying, I was told the baby was 15 days old and the parents wanted me to dedicate her. So I took the precious little girl in my hands and offered a prayer of dedication. But they were not through yet with their request. Next I was told, “You name the baby!” I was speechless that they would trust me, someone they had never met before, to give a name to their baby daughter that she would carry the rest of her life. I asked Verna and Susan to help me. Together we came up with the Bible name, Rebekah. On the last day of baptisms, I again was honored with the privilege of dedicating and naming a 15-day-old baby boy whom I named Samuel. We learned it is the custom in India to have someone they feel is important or special to name their babies when they are 15 days old.
Day after day we experienced the power of God at work. On the second night of the meetings, the new DVD player we took with us started smoking after I finished speaking. I was busy praying with people when Verna called me saying, “The DVD player is smoking!” I turned around to see smoke coming out of every opening on the machine. I quickly unplugged everything. But I knew that it was finished. As I was putting it away in my carry-on case, the thought went through my mind that I was placing it in its coffin. Then another overwhelming thought came: if Jesus can heal people, he can heal DVD players! So I sent up a prayer telling Jesus, “This is your DVD player. We need it for the meetings. Please heal it for your glory.” The next morning I told Bob Robinson about the problem. He came with a couple of replacement players he had. I decided to plug in our DVD player to see what would happen. It worked perfectly—all through the rest of the meetings! It was left in India to continue its work of showing the message of salvation.
Every night we arrived back at our hotels exhausted around midnight or 1 a.m. Beginning the first Sunday, we were up and on our way the next morning by 9:30 a.m. to a baptism. We traveled to the village where the baptism would take place. Always we were greeted with the highest honor and respect. We were always presented with leis; and many times the welcome included a shower of flower petals. Children were out in the road jumping for joy at our arrival. We were escorted by ox-drawn carts and by tractor-drawn carts. After a brief Bible presentation on the significance of baptism, there was a parade through the village. Each was a joyous celebration they wanted their entire village to know about; they were going to be baptized as Seventh-day Adventist Christians. The baptisms were conducted in irrigation canals which ran through their fields of cotton, peppers, and rice paddies.
As they came to the place of baptism, one of the pastors began entering their names in a notebook. As rapidly as their names were entered into church membership, they went into the water to be baptized. Especially the women and girls came in their finest clothes to be baptized. These were bright beautiful Indian sarees and salwars (pajama-like trousers drawn in tightly at the ankles). Old grandmas and grandpas who walked with walking sticks and needed assistance came to be baptized. Young adults, along with older children, eagerly awaited their turns to be baptized into Christ. At the first baptism we saw 112 people baptized. In each of the five following baptisms there were more who made their commitment to follow Jesus. By our last meeting, we had witnessed 879 baptisms!
Such a response is the direct result of the work of the Holy Spirit and the dedicated local pastors and Bible workers who go to live in the villages prior to a mission team’s arrival. Before we ever come, the villagers are taken through a complete series of studies, and many are prepared for baptism. In one village there was a Baptist pastor who accepted the Adventist message and urged his members to follow him in being baptized into the Adventist Church. There were 181 of his members who were baptized in the first baptism!
After each baptism the candidates lined up to receive Bibles in their own language. They would come and clutch the Bible in their hands as their eyes filled with tears of joy. They could now read the Word of God for themselves. We had planned for 250 Bibles. After giving out 800 Bibles, the supply on hand was exhausted.
We went with the intention of doing a five-village campaign. But God had other ideas in mind. Before the second Sabbath of the meetings, we noticed a group of village men talking with the coordinating pastor. We learned the next day the men were from another village. They had gone through the preparation over a year ago. But for some reason they pulled out and were not included in the meetings and baptism at that time. Now they were asking to be included. On Sabbath we went with the coordinator to the new village. About 80 villagers pressed around us earnestly begging us to include them. They said there were 150 waiting to be baptized. All my life I have heard mission stories of people in far-off countries coming to the missionaries, begging to learn about Jesus and be baptized. I never dreamed that it would happen to me. There was no way our team could tell them we wouldn’t welcome them to the meetings and come to their village and baptize them. The day of the baptism, a sudden illness kept some away. In spite of that, there were 128 more people added to God's family.
So now we are faced with a challenge. Instead of needing $17,500 to build churches in each village, because of the blessing of God, we need to build larger churches in six villages, and we now need $35,000 for churches! God will just have to solve the problem He created! I don’t know how He’s going to do it, but I know He already has a plan. In India it is a church building that gives validity and standing in the village for our members. Without a building members are told their God is not powerful because they don’t have a building in which to worship.
The heat and humidity were oppressive to us even though it was the “cool season” in India. The 100-plus-degree weather was exhausting (During the hot season it gets to 120 degrees and higher.). At night the hordes of mosquitoes nearly carried us away! We mostly ate food we brought with us. It wasn’t safe to eat anything that couldn’t be peeled, boiled, or baked. In addition, the Indian food was way too spicy for our palates. We had to be exceptionally careful about only using bottled water, even for brushing our teeth.
But what will stay in our memories are the hundreds of people with their faces wreathed in smiles as they became a part of the great Adventist family of God. To experience the powerful working of God on such a large scale is profoundly moving. It filled me with awe and humility that God would permit me to have a part in such an experience. It thrilled me with joy to the core of my being to see the Spirit of God changing and healing lives on every hand. It left me with the deepest longing to experience the same outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our homeland. I want the work to be finished quickly so I can meet my Indian brothers and sisters again!