Travel to India: “Preaching the Gospel in a Global Context”

Students experience culture, history, and religion from an entirely different perspective.
India ISSU classroom3
Dr. Dhyanchand Carr teaches in a classroom at the India Sunday School Union in Coonoor, India

A mountain retreat in Coonoor, a town in southern India, was the home base for Princeton Seminary students who traveled to India for a two-week travel course led by the Seminary’s Francis Landey Patton Professor of Homiletics Cleo LaRue. The class, “Preaching the Gospel in a Global Context 2019” marks the third time Princeton Seminary has offered this international course led by LaRue.

After a 15-hour nonstop flight, the students landed in Coimbatore and boarded a bus for the 7,000-foot trek up the mountains to Coonoor and the retreat at the India Sunday School Union (ISSU) which is run by Seminary alum Ajit Prasadam, ThM ’94, PhD ’05. At the ISSU, students preached in a Christian worshipping community and were critiqued by Indian scholars and church members.

Spending time in a country where Christianity is not the dominant religion gives students a chance to interact with a variety of different people in an environment of rich cultural and religious diversity, says LaRue. There students had the opportunity to preach to Christian communities in India – and receive feedback from their Princeton Seminary professor and Indian scholars.

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"The Sikh Temple in Delhi feeds 15,000-20,000 people a day, no questions asked,” says student Emmie Arnold.

“I learned that much of how I had been taught about doing ministry had come from exclusively Western lenses,” says student traveler Emmie Arnold, MDiv ’19. “I realized how much I wanted to become better at intercultural communication, relationship building, and ministry.”

The bonds between the Seminary and India continue to grow through the strong sense of community, transparent and fluid communication, and education. “Our Indian hosts and administrators have asked Dr. Joy Harris to return next year to teach intercultural communication to Indian students,” LaRue says. Harris, a burgeoning scholar in the field of communication and culture, took part in the 2019 travel course to India. “She was a hit among our PTS students and our Indian participants,” LaRue adds.

During their trip, students also visited one of the historical Mar Thoma Churches in the state of Kerala, at the southernmost tip of India. Historically, it is believed that the Apostle Thomas landed at a Kerala seaport during the first century of Christianity and preached the gospel to both Jews and Hindus in the area.

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Student Laura Fairchild at Gandhi memorial in Delhi

The trip concluded with a visit to the capital of New Delhi in northern India, where the group toured historical sites including the largest Sikh Temple in India. “The Sikh Temple in Delhi feeds 15,000-20,000 people a day, no questions asked,” says Arnold.

LaRue says the trip helps students gain understanding of how the Christian gospel may address matters of poverty, the environment, immigration, the global economy, health care, and education in a developing nation such as India. The travel experience in India, LaRue says, enables students to preach on these topics with integrity both abroad and at home in a North American context.

Students Reflect on Their Travels in India

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A beach along the Arabian Sea

The question was asked, “what new self has emerged or is emerging since being in India?” And my answer would be: a self that longs even more for God’s kingdom. I have thoroughly enjoyed our many hosts, such as, Sheila (Rev. Sheila Ebenezer) and Alem (Rev. Alemrenla Jamir); their hospitality has been incredible to experience. As we near the end of our stay — after living in their community, preaching on Indian soil, shopping with them, laughing with them, and eating with them, I feel that I have found a family in them. How quickly the distance between strangers is closed in the community of God.

After reaching the airport in Coimbatore, Ms. Rebecca pointed out a water fountain and explained that in India everyone drinks from "a common cup." That phrase — a common cup — has not left me alone and continues to minister to my spirit, even now. The communal implications of the phrase have challenged me to consider how I might unravel myself from a culture of individualism and independence. I wrestle with how I will share in this cup and continue to be refreshed by the worldwide Christian community. I wrestle with how I will let go of the privilege of privacy to gather at the fountain and be part of the many who are one.

I'll also add that this was so much more than a trip! It was truly an opportunity for transformation! You get up close and personal with peers and professors, you get to see how people live halfway around the world, and you get to learn from the traditions of the international Christian community. We were exposed to other faith traditions, such as Sikhism - on their own terms - and experienced the faithfulness of other seekers. It was an incredible experience that I hope the school continues to offer. Laura Fairchild, MDiv ’19

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The view from the retreat at Coonoor

Our trip to India was challenging, beautiful, and surprising for me. God caused so much growth in all of us, and I am still processing just how much I learned, to see the world with new eyes and respond to it with a deeper sense of compassion and heart.

I learned that much of how I had been taught about doing ministry had come from exclusively Western lenses. I realized how much I wanted to become better at intercultural communication, relationship building, and ministry. With the astounding hospitality our hosts gave us, I had a safe space in which to try, fail, and try again. I learned more about my desire to see God’s face in everyone around the globe, regardless of any demographic factors that leave them in the dust, at the bottom, in their country. It reminded me of just how much I want to remind people of their inherent worthiness, lovability, and dignity when I serve as a hospital chaplain (or whatever roles God will put me in throughout my life!). And it taught me more about how I can do that for people who have very different backgrounds and life experiences from me.

I grew spiritually by seeing the love of God played out in the lavish hospitality we experienced. I was inspired to do ministry with a greater focus on that, especially when we entered the kitchen of a Sikh temple that feeds more than 15,000 people a day without deciding who “deserves” the food. I saw the love of God in the hands of faithful people who were making bread, stirring enormous pots of lentils, and putting the food on trays to pass to people of all castes who sat together on the floor without separating themselves from their neighbors. As one of my classmates said, “We can’t go home and say that this can’t be done.” We can’t be unchanged people who do ministry as we always did before because God breathed new life into us, gave new knowledge to us, and brought us into new environments that challenged and inspired all of us. I am so grateful to have gone. It was one of the most important classes I took during my time at PTS. Emmie Arnold, MDiv ’19

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Student travelers gather before the India Gate in Delhi.

In the 12th chapter of John's gospel, Jesus says to Judas, "the poor are always with you," but there are two acceptable translations of this phrase – 1) the poor are with you always or 2) have the poor with you always. My time in India has convinced me that we should read Jesus’ statement, not as an indication of the way things are, but as a command. Maybe Jesus is challenging and inviting us to do something new. Maybe Jesus is giving us THE plan for eradicating poverty – by keeping the poor with you and me.

With that model, none should ever get hungry, thirsty, or be without clothing. Mahatma Gandhi called it a “spinning wheel” community. With that model none should be without access to good education, shelter, or family. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it a “beloved community.” With that model none should go without love. Jesus calls it the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to do a new thing and has called and invited all of us to follow. Daniel Heath, MDiv student

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Students take an afternoon tea break in the beautiful gardens surrounding the village of Coonoor.

I found extreme beauty in the simplicity that surrounded me during my time in India. Limited access to WiFi, no TV, no access to cell phone service, disconnection from friends and family, allowed me to see that God sometimes needs to remove these distractions for my sake. Being able to commune with God in the beauty of God's creation is the epitome of beauty. Three of the most profound changes that occurred there are (1) I became more self-aware since being there, (2) I am more intellectually curious about India in relation to geopolitics, and (3) my western epistemology was somewhat dislodged, if only just a little. India helped me become closer to God and to go deeper in my faith. As I encountered the hospitality of our hosts, observed the realities of Indian living, and reflected on the adjustment to my time away from America, I felt myself confronted, comforted, and affirmed by God.

India is a country with a rich and storied history that is rarely told in context and detail in American classrooms. As one who identifies as a proponent of social justice, I learned that I must expand my worldview to include both the tragedies and triumphs of the Indian people in my exploration of history and examinations of justice. Better understanding Indian history, culture, and current events will help me better position myself as a sojourner for justice in the world.

I left India with a sense of awe and pride in the nation’s contributions to the world. Their history of pluralism, dialogue and debate, as well as history of communal living across difference is notable. Even with the challenges and difficulties, observing the resilience and perseverance restores my hope that other countries can summon the collective will to become more inclusive, communal, and loving. This experience continues to fuel my desire to become better informed and get engaged beyond America’s borders.

On this trip, I discovered a deeper meaning of community. Even better, God blessed me with a phenomenal group of people to go deeper with. I am now more open to receiving new information and critically re-engaging with things that have become comfortably lodged in my psyche. I believe that this trip was the beginning of a new process of self-discovery and growth that will ultimately lead to transformation in my personal, professional, and spiritual life. And I know that this is the beginning of a renewed relationship with God, as I am being equipped for the next phase in this journey to find, follow, and fulfill the will of God for my life. It is in the simplicity of a nonmaterial world that I have come to better know the God of my salvation. Kerwin Webb, MDiv ’19

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