Today’s guest post is from Darren Duerksen, Ph.D., assistant professor of intercultural studies.
Fresno Pacific University has enjoyed a relationship with India for many years. For example, from the 1970s to the present many Indian Mennonite Brethren leaders have come to FPU and Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary for education and training. In addition, many of our own faculty and students have traveled to India to serve the church and study and learn.
As part of this ongoing connection, in 2014 FPU launched a new study abroad program: FPU-in-India. The first group of nine students spent the fall 2014 semester in various locations around India. This last summer we took 11 students for seven weeks as part of a summer/fall hybrid program. We spent time in Kolkata (Calcutta) serving some of the poorest and most marginalized people in that city through various ministries, including some of Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity ministry houses. We went with Mennonite Central Committee to learn about Christian development work. We lived with families from a small but growing Pentecostal church in rural Punjab. And we experienced the globalizing complexities of the city of New Delhi. Each student had his or her own highlight, but as I observed the team one that I could tell would stand out to many was the Ganges River.
Nothing represents India quite like taking a boat ride down the Ganges. With the city of Varanasi at its side, the Ganges brings various images and experiences with which to deal. There is beauty. The river, like the streets of Varanasi, curves and meanders, bringing new and interesting architecture and history every moment. Hindu men and women pilgrims, dressed in vibrant colors, flock to the riverside to take ritual baths in the sacred water. Laughing children jumped into the water from the steps of riverside temples.
But these images juxtapose themselves with others. As we traveled in our boat, smoke and ash blew over us as we passed the burning ghats, where families cremated their dead. We could see the immense pollution in the river and why Indian environmentalists have declared it to be in ecological crisis. Spiritually, there was the concentration of non-Christian religious devotion, causing us to wonder how God viewed this whole scene.
In a study abroad trip there are often one or more defining moments. A moment when images mix and collide within a person, calling into question what she thinks she’s always known, screaming for some kind of response, but leaving the person unsure of what it should be. And I could see that this boat ride was becoming one of those for some of our students. How should we respond?
Towards the end of our ride, as the sun was setting, it became time for people to light and float diyas, or floating candles, down the river. We watched as hundreds of small, burning lights began to float passed us. Though I had reservations about adding to the river’s pollution, our guide and I brought out a bunch of small diyas and invited our students, if they felt comfortable, to light one and send it down the river with prayers to God. The diya and prayer was a chance to acknowledge all that amazed and perplexed us, and to bring to God the questions we had about ourselves and others. Everyone did so. For some it was just a fun thing to do. But others silently watched and prayed. And as the diyas and prayers floated on the water we knew they were being held by God.
There were many other “moments” before and after the Ganges. But all together I am continually amazed at how a study abroad trip challenges students to see the world in new ways, to appreciate its perplexing and amazing diversity and to deepen their faith in God.