Long ago I heard the story of John Wesley’s conversion. One of the key moments in it happened during a mission trip to America, when he met a group of Moravian Brethren on board the ship en route there. Their devotion to Christ deeply touched him and, at the same time, revealed the formality of his own faith. Wesley later wrote in his journal: “I went to America to convert the [American] Indians, but who will convert me?” The story seemed interesting to me, but only from afar. Partly because I didn’t think I would ever bring the gospel to the Indians, and partly because it seemed to me that I knew the gospel well. That is, those were my thoughts until the moment when I experienced something similar myself, only not with [American] Indians or Moravian Brethren, but with the people of India.
How did it happen? Our church (Cirkev bratrská in Prague 13) has, for the past number of years, been working on a considerably big mission project: evangelism and the building of a school in India. How could it happen, that a church somewhere in Prague 13 would begin such a project? Years ago an Indian student at the Czech Technical University became a believer at our church. After graduation, he returned home and began to witness to others where he lived about his new faith in Christ. He could have gotten a high-paying job as an engineer, which would have been a very lucrative position in his field, but the Lord called him elsewhere. In his home city he helped to start a church, then began to preach the gospel outside of his city, and more and more came to faith through his testimony. He eventually became an itinerant evangelist. He wrote to us about his travels, his preaching and about seeking God’s will. Our church liked what he was doing, and an idea arose to begin supporting him not only in prayer, but also financially. We bought him a motorcycle, so he could better travel to outlying villages, and we also helped with his living expenses. Then our Indian brother got an idea to combine preaching the gospel with building a Christian school. The church agreed that they would raise the money, and the school now stands. As a pastor, it seemed to me to be a bit crazy. For one thing, as a church we were already in the midst of a building project of our own. Also, we had staff whose salaries had to be paid. Lastly, there was no one in the church making any kind of large salaries. I agreed with them that we could send our brothers and sisters in India a few hundred dollars, but build a school? Sometimes it is better, however, when the pastor remains quiet…at least that’s how it is in our church. In the end, it was shown that the faith of those who came up with the idea to build a school in India was taken seriously by the Lord of the church.
When you are building a school somewhere in India, it is good to see and know how the money is being invested. In order to see the details, we decided to take a look at the school as well as at the work being done by our brother in Christ. Last year three people went to India from our church; this year there were four of us. The school is located in the poorest part of India, in the state of Bihár, near the city of Madhubání. If you enter “New Hope Mission School, Bihár” on Google Earth, you can see a photo of it. The school gives hope to 150 children who not only learn, but also are exposed to the gospel. As I mentioned, the school is in one of the poorest places in India, and education is one way to break out of poverty.
I won’t try to describe the details of our trip, because I couldn’t even begin to. India itself is another world; the city of Madhubání and its environs are considered an even different world from India. In other words, to go to Madhubání is supposedly something very different than going to India. When we told some people from India where we were going, they looked at us as we would have looked at someone who said he was going to Czech Republic, specifically to the town of Chanov [a ghetto in northern Czech Republic]… They couldn’t understand why we were going to this unattractive and poor locality; an ugly corner of India from the perspective of natural or historical landmarks. From our perspective, it was an experience that can be described as part science fiction, part dream and part alternate reality. Imagine a city in which the houses are completely rundown, in between buildings are piles of garbage on which herds of pigs graze openly. On the dilapidated streets you see cows, sheep and dogs walking along, with cars, buses, bicycles, rickshaws and pedestrians also going by. Fires fueled by garbage line the streets—that is, when someone is cold. People often “do their business” in such a way that they simply crouch down and… From the start you are bothered by the stench of smoke and garbage, the unending honking of car horns, the fact that you are constantly surrounded by dozens of people who are probably seeing a white person for the first time. In the countryside it is similar, except that there is not such a high concentration of people, animals and trash there. For our group, it was unfathomable how one could survive in such an environment. On the other hand, there is no war or famine there, so somehow they are able to survive. I don’t know how, but somehow they do.
We didn’t come to Bihár to just see something, but to meet with people and especially to encourage the Christian believers, who are a minority there—less than one percent of the population. At the same time, we were there to arrange further details regarding the school, look at the budgets, hear about how far along they are in the process of finding and hiring teachers, and discuss how to combine teaching with evangelism. During our eight days there we talked to many Christians from the area surrounding the city of Badhubání; I got to preach many times. Worship services there last about three hours; the reason being that we have watches, while they have time. It was also a great experience that there were four of us there together and we could get to know each other very well.
What does all this have to do with my introduction about Wesley? For me, it was also a new insight into my (lack of) faith. None of the Bihár Christians complained that they had little food, that they rarely can afford meat because it is so expensive, that they have poor medical care, that they cannot attend school, that… No one asked me the apologetic question which we are sometimes known to discuss over coffee: “And where is God, when there is so much evil?” Not once were we asked for money… And yet whenever we came to a place, they gave us chicken—which to them is like caviar to us—along with rice, and they simply asked us to pray. They brought their sick children to us and sometimes would tell us their stories (which would sometimes make you shiver), not in order to impress us, but rather in order that we would pray for them and their children. During one worship service, a man arrived who was under the influence of some kind of demon. He disrupted the service. Some of the members laid their hands on him, the demon left him, and it was quiet. I am sure that someone will try to explain theologically, psychologically, sociologically, philosophically and I don’t know how else, that it was some sort of placebo effect, a psychiatric illness, that the man was just acting, that I was overtired from a thirty-six hour trip, that things like that don’t happen anymore…I don’t know. I saw an insane man who, after prayer, acted normally. Similar to those in the stories we read in the New Testament.
When I returned, I thought a lot about what I had seen and experienced. The people I met showed me a “different gospel”: a gospel of prayer, thankfulness and power. Sure, they also have their own problems and are also sinful, but I learned a lot from them. And even more, I came to realize the scope of the gospel, which I had hardly ever seen here at home. Another positive outcome is that the whole church is learning to come out of its own “church-centeredness”. It is wonderful when we as a church body can support brothers and sisters with our prayers and our finances, when we can follow how the school is growing and how it is recruiting new students, and when we hear news of how more people from another continent have received Christ. Although most of the church knows the school only through testimonies, photos and Google Earth, we are still together with them. It’s probably not necessary to name who it is, who joins us together. And as was seen, the tens of thousands of dollars that we as a church raised from our own members and from others are not missed. Apparently a different kind of economics is at work here, one which “classical economists” don’t know anything about. If you are interested more in the project, you can look it up at www.stavimeskoluvindii.cz.