Saturday, July 23, was the CLCI team's last teaching day, with a pastors conference in the late morning/early afternoon and a VBS session in the evening.
Raven and I were able to sit in on the pastors meeting this time and listen to Pastor Joel and Pastor Peter teach lessons, following along in our English Bible translations as the people read aloud from their Telugu translations. There were some women in attendance as well, and a few of the Sunday School children came in and sat down on the floor to listen and to steal smiles and glances from Raven and me. In between lessons we had a "tea break" and were served yummy cookies and hot, creamy coffee. At first Raven and I only took one cookie, but the pastors made sure we were fed and said, "You can take four!" and insisted that we take three more from the tray. And Solomon got Raven and me seconds on our coffee, so again, we were well taken care of! :) After the break, Raven and I were asked to come to the front of the church to teach an action song to the Sunday School teachers and the children. We decided to teach the song "My God is So Great" ("...so strong, and so mighty, there's nothing my God cannot do!") and they all caught on to the song very quickly. After the meeting was over, we got a lot of comments from the women and children about how much they enjoyed our singing and loved the song. One girl, as she was shaking my hand and thanking me for coming, said to me with a huge smile, "I am so happy, Sister!" I think I told her that I am so happy to be with her too! A young woman came up to me and spent a lot of time talking to me. When I asked, "Are you a Sunday School teacher?" She excitedly said, "Yes!" and then asked, "How did you know??" Then she laughed and joked, "Is it because of my specs?" and she pointed to her glasses. I told her how the pastors had told me that there would be Sunday School teachers there, but also that she just seemed like she'd be someone who works well with children - she had a very warm nature about her that did just seem teacher-like! :) I told her how I was a school teacher in the States, and later when I was holding a baby, the Sunday School teacher in the "specs" joked to the baby, "Be careful, she's a teacher!" The baby was the first baby I held in India that did not seem to be scared of me and cry. In fact, she cuddled right up to my shoulder and seemed to melt into my arms the same way that she was melting my heart!
I was having so much fun talking to and spending time with my new friends, that I didn't realize that lunch preparations were happening all around me and a table had been set up on the dais for us mission helpers to eat lunch! The other attendees sat on mats on the floor of the church to eat. Someone eventually told me to go sit down and eat, and we enjoyed a really delicious meal of rice and chicken, and a vanilla ice cream dessert.
After eating, some of the women and children came back up to talk with us and take pictures. The Sunday School teacher asked me to "say something from the Holy Spirit" and I wasn't sure what to say...so instead, I asked if I could pray for her. She agreed, and then some other women and girls around her began putting their scarves and shawls over their heads in preparation for prayer. So I held out my hands towards all of them and did a group prayer for all of the dear sisters in front of me, thanking the Lord for our time together and asking Him to bless and guide all of us and to continue to grow the faith in our hearts so that we can more deeply know and love God and share that love and knowledge with others. Standing in front of a group of my beautiful sisters in Christ and having the opportunity to pray for and with them like that is definitely a moment that I hope I never forget, no matter how much time and distance separates us.
I must have lost track of time as I chatted with and took photos with my "sisters" because eventually the pastors were calling, "Sister, it's time to go!" As I was saying my goodbyes, Pastor Jyothi joked to me, "Do you want to stay here?" I think I said, "No, I want to take them all with me!" and Pastor Jyothi played along and announced with a sweep of his arm, "Everybody is coming to America!" which made the people laugh and follow us out the door to continue waving goodbye.
Our last night of VBS was memorable because the lights went out shortly before we were ready to start! A bunch of the men went to the fuse box to try to get the power back on, and one of the pastors was quick thinking and got the children singing songs to pass the time, even in the dark! It took some time and lots more singing and clapping and tambourine playing, but the lights eventually went back on and we were able to begin the VBS program. At the start of each evening, the congregation would honor us with flower garlands and clapping, and this night was no exception. The local pastor would introduce various members to come up to honor each mission helper, sometimes children and sometimes adults. This last night of being honored stands out in my memory, because three young girls came up to put the garland around my neck. Pastor Jyothi said as I was walking to the center to receive the garland, "And Becky is so special, she gets THREE girls to honor her!" That made me smile and laugh. Pastor Jyothi also had the children shout extra loud "Hello, Becky!" and "Thank you, Becky!" before and after my lessons that night (he did that for the other mission helpers too). I don't know if he did it on purpose, but it made that last lesson feel extra special. The last part of my lesson is about the Ten Commandments, and I would have the kids hold up their fingers to help me count each commandment as I said them. As I was saying each commandment and Jyothi was translating, I noticed that the kids seemed to be saying the commandments themselves after me. By the time we reached the ninth or tenth commandment, Pastor Jyothi gestured to some Telugu writing on the wall to my right and he and the kids read the commandment aloud together. I laughed and said, "Oh, you all had the answers!" and Pastor Jyothi chuckled. I truly enjoyed working alongside Jyothi and Nireekshana to teach the Bible lessons, and I loved that even though we were teaching the same things night after night, each session was slightly different and had its own unique circumstances and memories. And I am thankful for the patience and dedication of Pastors Jyothi and Nireekshana who translated for each of us, especially on our first few nights when we may have been a little more shaky and uncertain, and on the nights when our lessons went longer than we had intended.
Raven and I did not get a lot of individual prayer or conversation time with the children and women that last night, but we did get to have a few bonding moments with Solomon and Premkumar (who we affectionately call our "paparazzi" and "entourage"). Premkumar came to us for cross necklaces for his wife and children, and after I handed them to him, I smiled and asked, "And one for you too?" He laughed, but agreed, and laughed even more when I insisted that I put the necklace over his head and around his neck just like we had done night after night for all the other children and adults. Later Solomon asked for two necklaces for his children, and I asked if he wanted one for his wife....and then I made him take one too, which also got a laugh and smile from him. It made me smile when they wore their necklaces back to the hotel. Raven also asked for both of them to write their names in her journal, and I was able to capture the moment with a photo just as they had captured so many special moments of ours with their cameras. I was sad as we pulled into the hotel parking lot that night, knowing this was the last time I'd be in the Scorpio sitting between Pastor Jyothi and Raven, with Pastor Joel in the front with Solomon driving us to our destination...but it was hard to be too sad when "White Christmas" was humorously playing on the mix CD and the car came to a stop just at the exact moment that the song was ending, "And may all your Christmases be white..." Not a song I would have ever expected to associate with India, but I'm pretty sure it will now trigger the memory of that night in the Scorpio from now on!
As we were making travel plans for the next day to go back to Chennai, and Pastor Peter asked our opinions, I joked "We could just stay another day!" I think he took me seriously at first and said, "Really? And do what?" I gestured to the CLCI men standing around us and said, "Spend more time with these people! Or let's just take them to Chennai with us!" Pastor Jyothi said, "Thank you so much, Becky!" and I don't remember much else from that night, except for saying good night and feeling sad, and Pastor Joel most likely whistled the song "Jesus is happiness..." from the car CD just to get it stuck in our heads before we went to bed, as he did that several nights in a row. ;)
I woke up on Sunday morning feeling very sad that I would not be getting into the Scorpio to go to another church and teach more children that evening. I wasn't ready to say goodbye, and the goodbyes seemed to go so fast that morning as we finally went downstairs with our luggage and said thank yous and farewells to one another. We took final "group pictures" with everyone, and we were just about ready to get into our vehicles when I decided that I wanted to ask Pastor Jyothi to pray for me, just as he and our team had prayed for others throughout the trip. I walked up to him, feeling a little bit shy, and asked if he would be willing to pray for me. He agreed and I bowed my head as he lifted his hand and said a personalized prayer for me. Shortly after, we were all in our vehicles waving goodbye through the car windows until we parted ways, as we Americans headed back to Chennai to reunite with the other mission helpers, and the CLCI men went back to Nidubrolu.
Before I end this post, I have to mention that I did get to see some of the BELC pastors the last night we were in Chennai, who are also so very dear to me! The BELC leaders came to Peter Evensen's apartment on our last night and they did their own small honoring ceremony, giving each of us shawls and applause. Pastor Moses wrapped the shawl around my shoulders and then said, "You were here a couple years ago!" and smiled really big. Pastors Sampath, D. Paul, and Bhaskar also gave me really big smiles and nods, and I wish I could have spent more time with them, but the warmth in their smiles and eyes was enough to show me that they remembered me and were happy to see me again. The mission helpers and pastors prayed together, and Pastor Sampath handed out invitations to each of us for his daughter's wedding, which I thought was really sweet! The wedding is in August, and believe me, I'd go back and attend if I could! :)
I thank God for blessing me with two incredible experiences as a mission helper to India. I fell in love with the people and places of the BELC in 2013, and now I feel the same for the CLCI! I don't think words can even truly express the love and thanks I have for the people I met and worked with in India and how they have touched my life! And I cannot thank everyone at home enough for your prayers, support, and encouragement throughout the trips! Just as I did in my first post, I think I'll turn to words of the Apostle Paul to express what I am feeling as I wrap up my memories of this mission helper trip: "I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ..." (Philippians 1:3-6)