By Jeff Brumley
Walking through ritually sacrificed goat’s blood at a Hindu temple and watching Buddhist monks meditate for hours on end didn’t shake Baptist Rebecca White’s faith one bit during a three-week trip to India.
It was just the opposite for the Waynesboro, Ga., native and student at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology . She came away from the “mission immersion” experience with faculty and fellow students inspired to strengthen her prayer life.
The fact that some of those inspiring her were Hindus, Buddhists, Baptists and Catholics didn’t seem odd to her all, she said.
“We are all searching for divine presence and some of us are doing that in very different ways,” White said. “In our human nature, we all have that yearning for contact with the divine.”
White and others from McAfee who traveled to India in May said the excursion continues to reap academic and spiritual benefits for them two months later.
Their attendance of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples and worship provided some of those benefits. So did volunteering with the Catholic order founded by Mother Teresa and preaching, teaching and worshiping with local Baptist churches and ministries founded by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel.
The trip wasn’t meant as one to evangelize or solely provide service. It was also designed to expose students to what previously founded missions look like in India and to the religious life of Indians, said David Garber, professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at McAfee and one of two faculty members who led the trip.
‘A real antithesis’ to polytheism
Another goal was to show students what being a Baptist in India means.
“The Baptists we encountered in India offered great hospitality to us and were similar to other Baptists in terms of their love for fellowship and deep spirituality exhibited in worship,” Garber said via email. “The Indian context offers some key challenges, especially since there is a law against proselytizing.”
Unlike their American counterparts visiting at the time, Indian Baptists have an extreme aversion to entering Hindu or Buddhist temples, said Robert Nash professor of missions and world religions and co-leader of the immersion journey.
For Baptists and other Christians who grew up as Hindus, Nash said, Hindu practices and its belief in around 300 million deities provide significant challenges.
“What I notice on the part of Indian Christians is a real antithesis toward that polytheism and they are really careful not to go into … or near a temple.”
India a ‘biblical world’
The polytheistic society in India provided students insights into the Bible they can get in few other places around the world, Nash added.
That became especially evident when Garber taught a class during the trip about ancient Canaanite religions.
The class examined the gods and goddesses of ancient Canaan with those of Hinduism. Students learned that both traditions got their start in Mesopotamia before migrating east and west from there.
“You enter into the biblical world in India in ways we are never able to do [in the United States],” said Nash, who formerly led the CBF global missions program.
‘We saw God’
The group also had memorable opportunities for ministry, among them volunteering with the ministry immortalized by Mother Teresa in Kolkata.
“We did a variety of work with the Sisters of Charity, including serving in a nursing home where some of us shaved the faces of male patients while others helped by clipping their finger and toe nails,” Garber said. “We also served a meal and performed some cleaning duties after the midday meal.”
Garber said some of the most powerful moments of the trip, for him, came during such service phases and also working with various churches and other organizations. Those included helping a sewing ministry and leading Bible studies.
“We saw God in the faces of our Baptist sisters and brothers, the women whom we met at the sewing center ministries, the children with whom we sang and played at the ministry centers in Hyderabad and Kolkata, the patients at the Sisters of Charity ministry,” Garber said.
‘What money can do’
Another point of the trip was to showcase the consequences of ministries that become dependent on single sources of revenue. The McAfee group visited schools and other ministries initially established by foreign mission groups who eventually became unable to sustain those projects financially.
It was a powerful lesson for White, who’s working on a master’s in organizational leadership along with her master of divinity at McAffee.
Guided by CBF field personnel, White and her fellow travelers were introduced to ministries and other projects she often reads about in her job as a global missions finance assistance at CBF in Atlanta.
“It was real interesting for me to see how money is being used, the importance of what money can do and what happens if that money shuts down,” White said.
‘Allowing other to serve you’
Another aspect of healthy missions learned on the trip came from the Indians of various faiths who facilitated the McAfee visit, said student Karen Zimmerman.
That aspect, she said, is hospitality. It was modeled for them by Christians but also by Buddhists and Hindus who allowed them to be spectators in their temples.
“They made us feel welcomed and included in ways I’m not sure American churches would have reciprocated,” Zimmerman said.
They and the other Christians encountered showed the many ways hospitality can be lived, she said.
“Hospitality can include allowing others to serve you and not always insisting on being the giver.”
‘We serve a big God’
Organizers say the trip, which followed similar visits to places like Cuba, Liberia and the Philippines, was ambitious in terms of service performed, missions best practices and cultural emersion.
And they were thinking just as big theologically and spiritually.
Nash acknowledged that some may take exception to the way other faiths were engaged without attempting to proselytize. But he dismissed the notion that observing worship in another religion is a threat to one’s own faith.
By examining and entering into the worlds of other faiths, Christians can gain a fuller understanding of how different cultures grasp and experience the divine. That process does not compromise one’s beliefs in Christ, Nash said.
“You don’t have to accept everything you hear and see,” he said. “But … we serve a big God and we can’t put that God simply into the box of Christianity and say Christianity exhausts God.”