AJ West was one of 19 Americans who flew to India to serve hundreds of local people during a six-day Compassion Clinic at the beginning of November. The following are his reflections on the trip.
Anytime I travel I’m always a little surprised that some things are exactly like the pictures, movies and the Internet might suggest. India was no exception. Traffic is just as whacky and nutty as the pictures make it out to be; lanes have no meaning, driving on the wrong side of the road seems to be encouraged, and the incessant honking will inevitably drive anyone crazy. Amongst all the motorized vehicles it was not uncommon to see a cart drawn by cattle, the iconic Brahman with painted horns, totally out of place. Best of all, motorcycles with an impossible number of pots balanced precariously behind the driver, suggesting that perhaps the laws of physics can be broken.
As always though, there are so many things that pictures, movies and the Internet do not prepare you for. I was not prepared for the number of stray dogs running around everywhere. Hundreds of them, all mutts, roamed the streets everywhere we went. Giant coconut tree farms littered the landscape, obviously a cash crop for the region.
Regardless of location, mission trips are the same as travelling. Some things are exactly what I expected, and others were not. I’ve been on medical/dental mission trips previously so I knew a little bit of what to expect. One thing I knew with absolute certainty was that I would come back from India with more questions than answers.
It probably shouldn’t surprise me, but I always find it interesting just how far people will travel to receive health care. Some of them travelled many miles by bus to see the clinic's medical professionals.
The doctors gave out quite a few injections for joint pain over the six days of clinics, something the patients wouldn’t get from a local office. After the clinics were over I remember talking to one of our doctors about the injections and some of the other things they were prescribing and just how lasting of an impact they would have. Sadly, nothing we could do would help people for a long time. The injections might help for six months at best and prescriptions always run out eventually, providing temporary relief from lifelong problems.
Reflecting on the care we provided people I wondered if there wasn’t more that we could have done? Can we provide real, lasting care to someone we might only see once in his or her life? Do we really understand the problems local doctors and dentists have to deal with? What if their problem isn’t knowledge but logistics and infrastructure? India’s population is 1.2 billion people. In contrast, the US population is 325 million. That’s roughly four times the number of people in India as in the US. How do you provide quality care to 1.2 billion people?
With such a bleak outlook I couldn’t help but wonder what were we doing in India? Could we really make an impact in people's lives? I may not have many answers, but I do know this: it was God’s love, as evident in the service of the volunteers from our team and the local churches and surrounding communities, which provided hope to the people attending the clinics.
At one of the satellite locations there was a young woman who had taken off four days from her work as a software developer and travelled by train from Chennai to help translate and, unbeknownst to her, be a dental assistant. I doubt she had ever helped pull a tooth before in her life, but she helped pull quite a few over the two days she worked with us. She was just one of many local people who, like us, had taken time out of their lives to be part of the clinic. Watching this young woman and all the other local volunteers I was reminded of Jesus’ words “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
We may not have explicitly spoken of Jesus as we provided care to the patients that came through our doors, but they saw him nonetheless. In the words of one patient, “I have never known real love, but if this is what love feels like and if this is what Christians are like then I'm going to keep coming to this church.“ Largely without knowing it we were not giving them a diagnoses. We were giving them hope. Hope in the knowledge that God’s love is real and available to everyone. Hope that their situation doesn’t have to remain as it is. Hope that, as the Hindu religion might suggest, the sins of a past life might not keep them from being loved in this one. It was visible in the glow of their eyes, the smile on their faces, and the step of a person less burdened as they exited the clinic. That kind of hope cannot be given by a doctor or a dentist, but by a group of people of all languages, ethnicities and even religions (many of our dentists were Hindu), coming together and serving one another as they serve their local community, and ultimately serving Christ.
On the long journey home I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on my time in India and the questions that had arisen. I allowed myself a small moment of pride for what our team, alongside the local Indian churches had accomplished. To be used as a vessel for God to touch so many people is a humbling experience. Anyone who has been on a mission trip of any kind will tell you the same. But on that journey home I was struck with one simple truth. I didn’t have to travel halfway around the world to share the love of Christ with someone and to give them hope. Everything that we saw in India, the poor, the homeless, the beaten and abused, the unloved, it all exists right here at home in our local communities, and it is up to us the Church, in unity, to reach out to those people and give them hope. Ultimately, it was the Church and our love and service to each other that affected people the most, and that can be accomplished anywhere. I was witness in India to the power that the Church, together with Christ, can have when it comes together. I hope and I pray that I can be witness to it here at home as well.