Peter’s voice is reverberating off the pale blue paint of the cement walls, easily filling the room with his presence. He is a commanding figure by any measure, but especially so in this room, where the audience sits so quietly, with a resounding humbleness. Most of their eyes are aimed downwards as they listen, as if looking at the speaker is a privilege they haven’t earned yet. These are our conference attendees, the men and women we’re to spend the next three days teaching the basics of Christian leadership. Where I come from, attending a conference is, at worst, an inconvenience. For some of these, discovery might put their lives in jeopardy. People have lied to their families, their husbands, to be here. Our lesson plans seem an inadequate reward for that sort of daring.
A tuft of breeze fills my nose with an overpowering scent of flowers from the lei that hangs about my neck. It is an honor I will never get accustomed to, to have a hula hoop-sized wreath of marigolds dropped over my head just for showing up someplace. I’m treated like a visiting dignitary and seated at the front of the room, to be stared at curiously by a pack of people I’ve never seen before. I don’t want to be up here. I want to be standing in the back, where I belong. I want someone to give me back my camera. The light is coming through that back window at just the right angle to catch a red-and-orange sari back there, and I want to take a picture of it.
Peter removed his lei seconds after they placed it on his head. Am I being perceived a prideful by keeping mine on? That I feel that I deserve the honor? Out of the corner of my eye, I see John moving in his seat against the wall. He slowly takes off the lei and lays it carefully over the arm of his chair. That decides it.
“I’m gonna take mine off,” I whisper.
Sarah’s fingers dig into my arm. “Don’t you dare,” she hisses.
She’s probably right. If I’d taken the lei off immediately after getting it, I might have made a statement about humbleness. Now, it’ll just look like what it is – me trying to escape from the discomfort of these expectations, of these curious, hopeful glances.
I’m back in Bihar. Even now, when I’m prepared for it, the difference between it and the rest of India shocks me.
Everywhere we traveled, the smoky white pollution of Delhi had enveloped us, closing around us like a dome. But as our plane descends from the clouds on the approach to Patna, we slide silently above green fields spotted with brightly-hued villages, metal roofs winking in the sun. From this distance, Bihar is cheerful and idyllic. I’m fooled by the image somehow. I should know better.
Patna is noisy and crowded unlike anyplace I’ve ever been. Even the constant honking of Delhi seems like peace and solitude compared to here. We’ve landed amidst one of the city’s biggest festivals, Durga Puja, the honoring of the goddess Durga. The countryside pours in to visit the hundreds of pandals that dot the city, small tents and stages that hold up the eight-armed deity, symbols of power clutched in her hands. Peter’s team shuttles us nervously about, always keeping their eyes open for revelers who might turn aggressive against a group of wide-eyed white visitors.
The stress of it wears on them in a way that I won’t realize for several days. The festival is not just dangerous for us, but also for them. People might grow suspicious of our presence. Hindu leaders might lash out against them, against their homes. I think of their delicate wives and chubby-cheeked sons. I can’t fathom being so responsible for their danger.
It makes our discomfort at being here seem so strange and small. We checked in this afternoon at the Windsor Hotel, a title that conjures a grand English estate, which only makes the reality that much more jarring. The building is relatively luxurious by Patna’s standards, but it is ragged by ours, and we look askance at the crumbling mortar and unfinished walls as we tug our luggage up the stairs. We’re not used to cold showers, blankets pockmarked by dark stains, and wiring done by someone who had a strong belief that electrical work is a trial-and-error system. There is a bundle of wires dangling down from a hole in the ceiling above my bed. I’m not certain if it’s an invitation to try and wire up my appliances myself, but I content myself with using the few working wall plugs in my room. My last time in this hotel, my air conditioner had caught fire one night, and I inspect my current unit carefully. The power cord ends in a stretch of unsheathed, blackened wiring. I decide to let my roommate have the bed closest to it.
Peter’s voice rises with fervor, and my mind drifts back to the room. Even the back-and-forth drone of dual translation has not dinted his enthusiasm, nor, it seems, the concentration of his audience. Even though their faces are all but unchanged, it feels as if there’s a faint buzz of electricity vibrating the room.
“God is already doing the work!” Peter says, stretching out hand towards the crowd as if to push the word of God towards them. “All we have to do is stand there with him!” There is a low hum of appreciation in response to his words. Their standing is braver than mine, though – many of these people are likely the only Christians in their village or neighborhood. They may be standing next to God, but no one is standing next to them.
The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few, I think. That’s truer here than perhaps anywhere else. And less true where I live than anywhere else – the joke always goes that God keeps calling people to start churches in the Woodlands – funny how he never seems to be calling them to start churches in the poorer communities around it.
Tonight in our meeting, John will give us some sobering statistics. In America, there is one Christian worker for about 750 people. Worldwide, the figure is one in 450,000. Only 1% of India is Christian, and almost all of those live in southern India. The figures here must be astronomical. One Christian worker for every million? Two million?
I wonder if I could do it. To live in a place like this, the weight of it all would surely crush me like a bug. I can’t imagine rising every day and facing it.
And the cold, uncomfortable truth of it is that there’s a big part of me that just feels glad I don’t have to.