As we waited at the home of Ben & Rachana Isaacs, the escort vehicle arrived to transport us all for dinner. I am not sure if I have ever been picked up in an escort vehicle for dinner before, never mind for dinner in Silguri, India. After swerving our way through traffic, rickshaws, tuk tuks, cows and people on the streets of Siliguri, we eventually arrived at the former Deputy Minister of the State of Sikkim and his wife Gem's home. The Deputy's first wife, Tula (Big) mommy as they called her, was also there to greet us, along with Gem, the minister and their 2 teenage daughters. Gem, at least that is what all her friends call her, is the daughter of a Buddhist monk. It was her idea to invite us for dinner, before her big day of celebration the following day. The family had prepared a meal in their home and as we arrived they garnished us with ceremonial scarfs to welcome us to India. We were taken aback and stunned, as no one really had prepared us for where we were going for dinner that night, never mind how we would get there. The minister was a kind man and spent much of the evening communicating with us through his broken English and us through charade gestures, as we spoke zero Nepali. Lots of smiles were exchanged.
The State of Sikkim, situated in the Himalayas, is bordered by Bhutan on the east and Nepal on the west. Sikkim was its own country connected culturally and in language to Nepal, until 1975 when it joined India. The minister had been in politics for 20 years and his party had ruled the State of Sikkim for two decades. He, no longer an elected official, works in management of his recent re-elected party and has a 2nd home in Siliguri, where his wife and daughters live while he commutes each week to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. That evening, as we shared momos together (a Nepali dish), the minister let us know that he had given his wife Gem, "permission" to be baptized into the Christian faith at the next day's baptism. He himself a Hindu, was willing to support her choice and wanted to let us know that he would be present at the baptism, as well as the Sunday's service at the Vineyard. In fact, he had given the Vineyard money that week to pay for the entire meal to feed the community after the baptism service down by the river. After we ate momos together that evening, sitting in the living room eating until our stomachs content, we asked Gem to share her story with us. She told us about growing up as the daughter of a Buddhist monk and how she hated Jesus as a child and teen. She told us of how "Tula mommy" had introduced her to Jesus years earlier but how she had walked away from that relationship with God. Then a few months earlier, Gem had been invited by a friend to come to the Vineyard and as she walked into the room she felt these invisible arms of love wrap around her and God inviting her home. She knew it was Jesus. She joined the community, stepped into God's invitation and wanted to seal her faith with baptism. After we heard her story we prepared ourselves to leave for home when we realized culturally we had missed what was going on....The momos were just the appetizer. After Gem shared her story, we as guests were all invited to the dinner table and served a huge meal (after a huge meal of momos) where the minister, Gem, Tula mommy, their 2 daughters and servants all served us and watched us eat. It was humbling, oddly moving and wonderfully touching as we ate at their table being served by them. We soon learned that in Indian culture you talk first and eat a meal later, the opposite of our experience of hosting in the west. We also learned in India, or at least that part of India, your guests sit at your table and you serve them not eat with them. We went home with our hearts and tummy's full of life and hope that night.
The next day was a Saturday. Late that morning we met together at the church and 70 to 80 of us jumped on a rented bus as two escort vehicles for the minister and his family followed us. We headed a hour outside of the city to the river for baptism. The ride was filled with joy, as the fully loaded bus sang their hearts out in Indian song the whole way. We arrived at our destination, sort of. A rugged dirt road, off the main road, led to the river... so we thought. After winding our way along the river banks through boulders and gravel we realized our destination, the river's edge, would be reached only on foot. We parked the bus and like a band of nomads crossing the desert, we made our way up hills, over rocks and sand dunes to the river's edge carrying everything in arm. With great joy we sang, shared and entered into the sacred experience of baptism for 4 individuals that day, one of them being Gem. Joy was in the air, a historical moment was taking place and we gratefully were present to witness it. It is not always easy to see what God is doing around us as we live it in everyday and lose perspective to His unfolding narrative, but it is much easier to see what God is doing in places outside our daily routine. Often it can be as plain as the nose on our face. We were thrilled to join in this unfolding story with Ben & Rachana and the vineyard team there in Siliguri and eat momos, sing Indian songs and wear cool "green" scarfs... although Ben assured us the "yellow" scarf he received was more special.