From Numurkah to Amritsar

By Deb Bennett

Rev Deacon Jean Mayers has been a minister with the Uniting Church for 12 years, for the last five at Numurkah and Nathalia/Picola churches. While juggling commitments as a minister in three congregations with grandmother duties would be enough for most 77 year olds, Jean decided that she wanted more of a challenge.

Last year, Jean decided that she wanted to ‘trade places’ for a month with a minister from the Church of North India (CNI).

Jean spoke with her long-time friend and Bishop of the Church of North India (CNI), Bishop Samantaroy (Bunu), who shared her excitement at the idea.

“The aim of the exchange was to ‘swap places’ – to be totally submerged in each other’s church and to learn from one another’s ministry, comparing and contrasting with one’s own, each other’s cultures and customs,” Jean said.

After consulting with a myriad of people throughout the Uniting Church – church councils, presbytery, moderator and general secretary, and UnitingWorld – it became clear that this initiative had not been undertaken before. Although all expressed enthusiasm, Jena found there was little anyone could offer in the way of practical advice.

Rev Vijay Kumar was chosen by Bishop Bunu to take part in the exchange. The congregations of Numurkah and Nathalia/Picola helped to pay for Vijay’s visit, and UnitingWorld offered to pay for his travel insurance. April of this year was chosen as the time for the swap to take place, as the weather in both countries would not be too challenging.

Mindful of the difficulties inherent in overseas travel, Jean said she also planned well in advance in case there was a “spanner in the works’. As she explained, there were plenty of those.

“I had had previous experience in sponsoring an Indonesian deaconess on a visit some eight years ago and so was aware of the difficulties which can arise – especially with visas,” Jean said.

It turned out Jean was right to be concerned. After a lot of paper work and phone calls, the visa was finally granted after the Office of the Minister for Immigration intervened in the week Vijay was due to depart.

In the meantime, Jean’s congregation were busy preparing for Vijay’s visit.

“It was decided that a month would be a good period of time for the exchange,” Jean said.

“Time tables were drawn up for both of us in order that we experience day-to-day life as a minister in each other’s placement; a ‘Vijay committee’ was formed consisting of people from my congregations, and roles and jobs assigned.”

Vijay finally arrived on 25 March this year, a week before Jean headed off to India.

Jean arrived in Delhi on 1 April and flew on to Amritsar. She describes her experience in India as truly ‘life changing’. While issues such as poverty and the unjust caste system were challenging, the faith of the people in the face of adversity was inspiring.

“To hear of female infanticide from mothers, talk with people recovering from HIV, and to see how UnitingWorld – on our behalf – is helping in education, brought forth mixed feelings including powerlessness, anger and admiration at the way people made the best of their lives.

“I was invited to preach in the Amritsar Cathedral and participated in worship, aided by an English speaking interpreter with the Hindi speaking congregation.  Home praying and laying-on of hands, pastoral visiting, Easter foot-washing, praying in the cemetery, Bible study, requests from pregnant women praying for a son, driving out demons, made up aspects of my daily time table.”

While understanding the cultural and economic reasons why women wanted boys, Jean explained she declined the invitation to pray for a son.

“I learned that 99 per cent of the congregation had been members of the Dalit caste (lowest caste in the Hindu caste system) and that they are very passionate about their faith and love of God. There were differences when compared with my ministry, such as administering communion to 400 communicants compared with 60 at Numurkah.

“Nevertheless there were many similarities in both the Indian and Australian experience. It truly was a learning experience.”

Jean stayed in Amritsar for a week after Vijay returned so they could discuss their experiences together. Both agreed the exchange had been a successful learning experience.

When asked, Jean is unsure who suffered the greatest culture shock.

“It took both of us a couple of weeks to settle back into our respective placements and we both suffered stomach upsets and sleeplessness on return. After seeing so much deprivation, I found it hard to adjust to my western lifestyle; Vijay of course had experienced western excesses and comparative luxury. How much harder it must have been for him on his return.”

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