I had written sermon notes within my travel journal and on several other scraps of paper, so assembled the whole batch in a shopping bag and we got ourselves ready for our last Sabbath in India. The girls wear chudy-das to church every week, now, and we always visit the jasmine flower saleslady on the corner every Friday afternoon, then keep the jasmine in the refrigerator for Sabbath morning. It does take some doing to get all three girls’ hair braided (jasmine flowers stay in best when they’re worked into a braid), but eventually we got ourselves ready and got to church.
A couple of weeks ago, Pastor Johnson had casually mentioned that perhaps I could have a short talk in the Tamil church downstairs during Sabbath School, then I could go upstairs just in time to preach for the English church service.
I was wondering if he still intended to do that, and was actually at a loss how to give my talk in just a few minutes. I was speaking on the topic of how God had sustained and comforted me through learning about Heidi’s limbs through a sonogram during the pregnancy, and how God has shown us, so very clearly through our precious Heidi, what He can do with our limitations when we put them in His hands. I focused on explaining how God gave us a miracle in Heidi—not the miracle we asked for, but an even greater miracle. This topic, I thought, takes some explanation—setting the scene, giving background information, then talking about the sequence of events that led me to my understanding and acceptance of God’s plan. How can I condense this into 10 minutes (not even counting the time it would take for the translator) in the Tamil church? I kept praying about it.
As we drove to church that morning, I told Mani that I would be speaking up front. He looked surprised, and said, “I come hear you, ma’am.” Wow! If that’s what it takes to get Mani to step foot in a Christian church, then I wish I had spoken up front before our last Sabbath in India!
As we entered the church compound, the pastor was nearby and he asked me, “Are you still able to talk for about 10 minutes in the Tamil church this morning, before you preach in the English church?” He asked me to come to the Tamil church near the end of the Sabbath School meeting time.
We climbed the stairs and started off in the English-speaking adult Sabbath School. Immediately we noticed another westerner in the congregation—this one was a 40-something man whom we’d never seen. When the adult Sabbath School dismissed for classes, I stayed to chat with him for a few minutes while Byron went with the girls to their classes. He said his name was _____ Folkenberg, and that he had been helping set up some meetings in another city that week and was on his way home. He had decided to stop in Chennai for the Sabbath.
I asked, “Folkenberg, as in THE Folkenberg?” (FYI: A recent former president of the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference (headquarters) is named Robert Folkenberg. Probably most SDAs are acquainted with that name.)
The man said, “I’m his son.”
I said that I’d love chatting with him later, but that I needed to join my family at the children’s Sabbath School just now.
This was Byron’s first time attending a Tamil children’s Sabbath School. We walked in, and again within minutes I was summoned to the front to tell a story. Though I don’t like to do much verbal practice or even overt planning of what I’m going to say up front, that doesn’t mean that I enjoy ZERO time to think or plan. Oh well.
This story was rather lame, as I realized in the middle of telling it that it was too complicated for the kids to easily understand—too many things to explain, especially with the language barrier and cultural differences.
The story was Uncle Arthur’s “The Two Carolines,” if you are acquainted with it. It’s about a girl who is very sweet and kind at school to her teacher, but comes home and treats her mother very rudely, and how the mother deals with this problem. Sounds simple enough. But I realized halfway through telling the story that one of the things Caroline does is to set the table sloppily for her mother, and the Indians I knew didn’t set the table with utensils, so my explanation of how Caroline “carelessly threw the knives, forks and spoons all over the table,” wouldn’t work with these kids. I couldn’t think of what an Indian child might set the table with, except for banana leaf plates, and how sloppily can they do that?
So, thinking on my feet, I cut out all the stuff that would be hard to explain, and the story didn’t really work very well. Oh well. Then the lady in charge asked me to sing some songs with the children. I led the children out in a few songs, including my favorite which they had taught us the week before—a variation on “I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing,” with some really fun new verses and actions, such as “I’m gonna zoom, zoom ,zoom, into the room, room, room. . . .”
As soon as I was done with the story and songs, I sat down and another lady came into the room. She started talking to the kids in Tamil, and then she led out in another song service, singing every single song that I had already sung with the children. I wondered if the children would mind, or say something, or be bored with this repetition. But they sang as enthusiastically as if they’d just been eager and bursting at the seams for another chance to sing. The room just rang with these kids’ voices. No one was a shy, quiet singer here. It was quite lovely.
Byron and I had originally arranged with the assistant pastor, we had thought, that our girls would attend a special children’s church so that they would not have to sit through a sermon all about Heidi. We are not eager for the two older girls to hear a sermon all about their little sister (we don’t want to appear as if we focus on just one of our kids, at least not in front of the kids), and we don’t wish for Heidi to feel as if she’s “on display,” as I talk about her.
Byron and the girls were all settled into what we thought would be a long children’s program—going straight from a Sabbath School program into a children’s church. But we discovered that children’s church had been cancelled because the adults wanted the Tamil church to be full, children included, for a special speaker.
I wondered who the special speaker in the Tamil church was, and wondered if I was considered competition for him/her as I would be speaking in the English church simultaneously. We also figured out that our arrangement of having the girls attend an alternate children’s service was no longer in place. Oh well, I guess the girls will be listening to Mama talk about Heidi.
At our dismissal, I thought it might be about the time I needed to speak in the Tamil church. Our family walked into the Tamil church and stood hesitatingly in the back. As soon as the pastor, who was speaking up front, saw me, he gestured for me to come right up front immediately and talk. As I was walking up the aisle, I was praying about what I might say, but I couldn’t even think straight. I couldn’t figure out how I would begin, what information I would include and leave out in condensing my message into 10 minutes. . . but I sensed a strange feeling of peace. Then the pastor introduced me, and I was on. God must have given me the words, because without much thought, I started talking, and the words just flowed.
When I had preached sermons while I was a student missionary in Korea (20 years ago), I had always found it useful to have a translator beside me. I appreciate being able to say a couple of sentences, then pause for the translator, and during that pause think of what I’ll say next. It’s also fun to hear the translator use your same expression and intonation!
I told the congregation that I really wished I could spend more time telling them so much more about how God had blessed us through Heidi, and urged them to come upstairs for the English church service so they could hear the whole story.
I wrapped up my talk, and the pastor asked Byron, I and the girls to stay for a few minutes so they could present us with a gift. We did feel awkward at that point, but found a place to sit as we listened to a Tamil service for the next 10 minutes. Then, the pastor called us up front and presented us with a lovely gold-colored platter.
As we were returning to our seats, one of the members of the upstairs English church rushed up to me and said, “You’re supposed to be upstairs for the church service, right now! It’s time for you to preach!” Oh my. I quickly reminded Byron to go get Mani, as Mani has said he would come to church if I was speaking up front.
Then I rushed upstairs so fast that I forgot to put on my shoes (everyone takes their shoes off before entering the sanctuary, and since I was leaving one sanctuary, running up the stairs, and entering another sanctuary, I completely forgot about my shoes. Afterwards it took me 20 minutes to remember where I’d left them!).
I joined the assistant pastor and an elder on the platform, and smiled as I saw Byron lead Mani into the sanctuary and they both sat down with the girls. As the elder led the church in a song, the assistant pastor leaned over and whispered, “How long is your sermon?”
“I really don’t know,” I answered. “I haven’t practiced it.” (I figured it was too much trouble to explain how I do better when I don’t practice things I do from up front.)
“Well,” he said, “If you keep it short, that’s fine. There’s a speaker called Folkenberg downstairs whom we all want to hear anyway, so if you finish early, we’ll have time to go listen to him.”
My confidence was shaken to the core. My! To think that your audience all wishes they were someplace else, and hope that whatever you have to say is short so they can go where they really want to be!
I stood up, started talking, and didn’t finish until 30 minutes later, which is just about the time the church service downstairs let out. This was not on purpose! I just had that much to say. I apologized to the assistant pastor later, who said, “It’s alright. You had everyone’s attention—everyone was interested.” Hmmmm.
I was so humbled and heartened to have many people come up to me and thank me for my testimony-message. We bid our friends from the English church goodbye, and then went on a hunt for my shoes.
It turns out that it was a blessing that my shoes were downstairs, because many people at the Tamil church wanted to speak to me about my talk there. Most the Tamil-speakers had to find someone to translate in order to talk to me, (many of them grabbed nearby children who could speak some English), and some were nearly in tears as they told me how much my testimony had blessed them. I was quite humbled, especially since I thought giving a 10-minute talk was so impossible as I wouldn’t be able to get enough of the message across in that short a time. I know it wasn’t me who came up with what to say in those 10 minutes, and I am astonished at how God used such a scatter-brained, unprepared speaker as I to touch these people’s hearts!
People gathered around us to say goodbye, especially the children. They all wanted our American address, and wanted to give us their addresses but were having trouble figuring out how to write them in English. Finally, we were able to return to Mani, who had returned to the car immediately after I was done speaking, and waited patiently for us.
On the way home, I asked Mani, “Did you understand me when I was speaking up front?” as I had not had a translator for my 30-minute sermon in the English church..
“Yes, ma’m. You talk about Heidi,” he smiled.
While I am sure that Mani understands much more English than he speaks, I am not sure how much of the sermon he understood. I did catch his eye several times while I was preaching, and he kept his eyes on me the whole time. I wondered if he felt uncomfortable being in a Christian church? I had hoped that he would approach it with the same open-mindedness and curiosity that we had approached the Hindu temples. (Not that we were open-minded in the sense that we would consider becoming Hindus, but that we weren’t approaching the Hindu temple or worship with a critical or condemning attitude.)
I talked to the girls about my sermon, asking if it bothered them that I had talked about Heidi. Erin and Lily said, “Oh, Mom. You talked about things we all know about. Why would it bother us?” And Heidi said happily, “You talked about me!” and didn’t seem to be negatively affected. This was another blessing of the day!
We were set to return to the church that evening for our television interview with Pastor Johnson. I don’t remember if I mentioned that Pastor Johnson had asked us, several weeks ago, if Byron and I would be willing to have him interview us for his television ministry. While we weren’t sure what our television interview would entail, we wanted to be helpful if having us featured on a Christian television program would attract Indian viewers.
As we climbed out of the car at our apartment, we were greeted by Mr. Jacob, the landlord. “There has been an accident,” he reported. “Sahji fell off a ladder and hurt his arm.” Oh my! Was it broken? “Not broken, but it is hurt. He went to hospital for x-ray, and it is not broken.” Later, we learned that Sahji had been perched on a ladder in Mr. Jacob’s house, cleaning a ceiling fan, and had fallen.
We then spotted Sahji, whose arm was all bandaged up and who looked like he was in pain. But his brother had arrived, and was here with Sahji for the day at our apartment complex. It was exciting to meet his brother, who is also an accomplished cook. His brother joined Sahji and Chandra-shake-uh in the kitchen and helped prepare supper for us, as Sahji couldn’t cook very well with his arm in a sling. Sahji’s brother is a vegetable artist, and carved the most beautiful rose out of a tomato as a centerpiece to an incredibly artistic vegetable tray for supper. Our vegetable tray was so pretty we had to take a picture of it.
We were also pleased to find that Sahji had purchased us a big roll of bubble-wrap! We were actually momentarily rendered speechless at our shocking success at having effectively communicated with Sahji about the rather obscure subject of bubble-wrap. Sahji looked pretty pleased with himself, too.
We rested a bit that afternoon, knowing that we would be up late that evening with the television show taping. Little did we realize HOW late that would be. When Mani dropped us off at the church that evening, it seemed so strange to be there at night in the dark. We stepped into the compound, and suddenly heard shrieks of joy as two little girls who had befriended our girls at church caught sight of us and came running pell-mell to greet us. They had been teary-eyed earlier that day as they had bidden us farewell for what they had thought would be the last time, so they were very happy and surprised to see us show up again a few hours later.
It turned out that these two girls are sisters (Marilyn and Nancy—we’ve known them since our first Sabbath here, but it wasn’t until now that I realized they were sisters. Marilyn in particular speaks very good English—better than many adults I’ve met while in India. I asked her once how she had become so fluent in English, and she said, “At school. I go to school here,” indicating that she attends the SDA church school on the church compound.), and their family lives next door to the church. Apparently the girls often play in the church compound, and just happened to be there when we arrived.
We made our way into the English sanctuary upstairs, where we met the pastor who ushered us back to a small recording studio a few yards behind the pulpit. I’d had no idea a studio was even on the church/school grounds—and we’d been sitting just yards away from it the whole time we’d been in church.
The pastor wasn’t ready for us, so asked us to wait until they could set up the lights and get the sound, etc., working. We returned to the sanctuary where we waited for over an hour. Our girls were happily playing with Marilyn (about 11 yrs old) and Nancy (about 8 years old) so didn’t mind the wait very much. Curiously enough, the pastor came out at one point to see how we were doing as we waited, and he snapped at Marilyn and Nancy, saying some harsh-sounding words to them in Tamil, and they both looked scared and ran away. Then the pastor turned to us and said, “I’m so sorry they were bothering you.”
Byron and I protested, and said, “No, really, they were not bothering us at all. Our girls were really enjoying playing with them.” The pastor nodded vaguely and rushed off to the studio again. Our girls went out to find Marilyn and Nancy hiding in some shadows, and Lily returned to Byron and I, saying, “Marilyn and Nancy won’t come and play with us. They are scared.”
I went out to talk to Marilyn and Nancy, and asked them to come back and play. They were hesitatant, as they said the pastor told them to leave us alone. I told the girls I would talk to the pastor if he told them to go.
I do find it curious that the pastor would automatically assume that we wouldn’t enjoy having Tamil children around us, especially since we have three children of our own.
Slowly, Marilyn and Nancy did return to play with our girls, and soon were having a grand time pretending to have their own church service (they were playing with microphones that one of the helpers had turned on for them, and having a lively praise service). Then Erin asked Marilyn if she would teach her the words to a song in Tamil, and they were busy with that for awhile.
Then, the pastor arrived and said he was ready for us. We had arrived at 7:00 p.m., expecting to be done and on our way home by 7:30 or 8:00 (the pastor had said it would take a total of 30 minutes), but here it was 8:30, and we were just now entering the studio.
As his crew put lapel mics on Byron and I, Pastor Johnson explained that he would be speaking in Tamil, and that he would turn to Byron and ask him a question in Tamil, and that Byron was to speak on the subject of “contentment and the importance of family” as if he was answering the pastor’s question. This is harder than you might think.
The pastor then explained to us that many Indian men do not value family time and certainly not family worship, and he wanted Byron to emphasize how he spends time with our children and how we have family worship together everyday. I wondered how the pastor knew that Byron is such a good father and indeed does place his family and family worship as a very high priority. To my knowledge, the pastor had never discussed this topic with Byron. Could he tell just by watching Byron interact with the kids during the church service?
Then the pastor had an idea, and said he wanted it to appear as if he was joining our family for worship, and wanted our children to stand around us and for us all to be singing a worship song. When we finished the song, he’d say a few things, then appear to ask Byron a question in Tamil, and Byron would launch into his “contentment and importance of family” talk. He asked if our children would sing, “With Jesus in the family, happy happy home.” The taping began, we got the signal, and began to sing.
After Byron’s spiel, the cameras went off, and Pastor Johnson said he wanted our family to sing, “Jesus Loves Me,” and then he would turn and ask me a question in Tamil, and I was to act as if I was answering him and launch into my talk about how God has blessed us through Heidi. Boy, was that hard. You have a pastor sitting near you, the lights and cameras are on, and the pastor is passionately preaching 100 miles an hour with great expression, then he turns to you, says what sounds like, “Blah, blah blah blah,” and you smile and do your best to sound coherent and conversational as you talk about your subject.
After my spiel, the pastor wanted to get some shots of us just sitting there smiling, and then some shots of just the girls, and then he asked if we could get some footage of Heidi doing something. They taped her walking, and also taped her grabbing a water-bottle, hoisting it up to take a drink from it, screwing the lid back on and handing it back to me.
Finally, we were done. I was surprised to see Erin approach the pastor at the end of our taping and ask, “Could you translate a song from English into Tamil for me? Here’s a piece of paper.” The pastor, who was rather frazzled and seemed ready to tape another show right after ours was done, pointed out the Tamil church choir director (who also ran the sound board in the television studio) and said, “He could help you.” Well, the church choir director was busy getting ready for taping the next show as well, so we were directed to another church member named Robin Bright, whom we had chatted with several times before.
Robin attended the English church, and has recently returned from Ireland where he had vacationed with his wife, who is a nurse living in Maryland. We were always rather confused about why his wife lives in Maryland and he lives in Chennai. Marilyn and Nancy found us again, and between Robin and Marilyn, they translated two songs, “All to Jesus I surrender” and “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” from English into Tamil. We videotaped them singing it, so we would get the pronunciation, and were off.
A couple of church members accompanied us to the car, where Mani was patiently waiting. Marilyn and Nancy were begging our girls to come into their house (which was right in front of where Mani had parked the car), and our girls really wanted to go in, too. Byron went in with the girls, while I chatted with Robin and asked him if he could explain to Mani which TV channel and the time that our interview would be broadcast. I thought that Mani would enjoy watching it, and that way he could show his wife and kids the American family he’d been driving all over Chennai the past two months.
I was dying to go into Marilyn and Nancy’s house, as I’m always interested in Indian houses and wanted to see what it looked like inside, but Byron and the girls were out again before I could join them. Byron said he is quite sure that Marilyn and Nancy’s mother was not expecting visitors that evening, and that she looked quite surprised to see him and our three girls traipsing into their house with Marilyn and Nancy. He reports that their house was very small, just like Mahalakshmi’s and Odyssey’s houses had been.
Finally finished, we loaded up in the car for the 40-minute drive home. It was very late (for us! It was about 10:30 p.m. by the time we left the church)—the television taping itself had taken at least an hour, and we were tired. Mani also seemed tired. We told Mani that we wanted to spend most the day packing tomorrow, but that we would need him about 2:00 to go to Hina Collections. We were also going to Sahji’s house for supper tomorrow.