Passage to India

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Alisa Jost and her father, Lynn, know better than most: It’s a long way from Hillsboro to Hyderabad.


The Hillsboro High School sophomore recently accompanied her father on a two-month adventure that included a stop in that city in southcentral India of 2.5 million people, and a teaching and preaching tour in various villages.


Lynn, who teaches Bible and religious studies at Tabor College, was participating in a professor exchange with the Mennonite Brethren seminary and Bible institute in Shamshabad, which is near Hyderabad. He also preached in Mennonite Brethren congregations farther south in the Gadwal region.


The Mennonite Brethren, thanks to mission efforts from North America that began in 1899, today have an indigenous church in India that boasts more than 800 congregations and some 75,000 members-almost twice the size of the “mother church” in North America.


When plans for the trip finally came together, Alisa decided after some inner struggle to take a break from her HHS routine and go along.


“One day I just said, ‘Yeah, Dad, I’ll go with you,'” she said. “Then it started going into motion and I didn’t have any chance to change my mind.”


They left Feb. 1 on what turned out to be a long and arduous series of flights that brought them finally to India, home to an estimated one billion people.


While Lynn was carrying out his assignment, Alisa carried out hers.


“Going over there, my job was to assist him-and get my homework done,” she said.


Her HHS teachers had sent along various assignments and projects. She had Internet contact with some of them while she was away-including her track coach.


But the 16-year-old found herself more involved than she had planned. She regularly gave her faith testimony before her father preached in the village churches, then became an impromptu teacher of English.


“There were actually two seminaries-an English-speaking one and one that spoke Telegu,” Alisa said. “The one that spoke Telegu had an English class (for adults).”


Her move into the classroom was unexpected and abrupt.


“She took over the class,” Lynn said. “The guy (who was teaching) invited her to come one day, and then just disappeared.”


Alisa suddenly found herself deciding curriculum, writing exams and instructing people who were, in most cases, many years older than she was.


“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “I looked forward to doing that every day-even though I didn’t know what I was doing.”


“We consulted about what would be good things to do (in class),” Lynn said. “She ended up taking familiar Scripture portions in simple English and had the students read them and answer simple questions about them. That was one of the most effective and enjoyable techniques.”


Her students treated Alisa with honor-as Indians are taught to do with any professor.


“They were older than me, so it was kind of weird,” Alisa admitted.


“Alisa told me that without her teaching, (the trip) would have been a pretty long,” her father said. “She found it very invigorating.”


The Josts lived on the Bible school compound in a large bungalow built by missionaries of an earlier generation. They said their accommodations were considerably nicer than the average Indian would have.


Their hosts even provided a maid, who did all the cooking and cleaning during their stay.


“She was one of the best German-Mennonite cooks I’ve ever met-but she was Indian,” Alisa said. “Her Indian food was OK, but her other food was really good.”


The Josts said having a maid at their beck and call was appreciated, but uncomfortable, too. They said it was hard to be treated so luxuriously when most Indians live at various levels of poverty.


“It’s part of the way this place is organized,” Lynn said. “We know it’s not right, but we can’t change it.”


He said the warm reception they received was part of the local culture.


“One of the impressions we had is of the radical hospitality of the Indian people,” Lynn said. “They are genuinely happy to be with you.


“There are some people who seem to have an ulterior motive-which is usually some financial reward. But there are also people who seem happy to serve and grateful for the opportunity to have a relationship.”


Jost said the hospitality of Indian Christians is an extension of their faith commitment-which is no easy stand to take in a country that is predominantly and aggressively Hindu.


“They’re Christians in a place that’s not popular or comfortable or isn’t rewarded by society,” he said.


“Almost everybody makes a pretty strong financial sacrifice because of their Christian commitment,” he said. “They lose grants to schools for their children’s scholarships, they lose housing.


“All they would have to do, when the census guys come along, is to say ‘I’m Hindu,’ and they’d get it all back,” he added. “They could live any way they wanted to the rest of the time. But to them that seems as illegitimate as putting an olive branch on a Roman emperor’s altar. It seems very close to that first-century problem (for early Christians).


“We’ve got a lot of admiration for these people and their courage to evangelize and just live as Christians,” he said.


The Josts encountered a variety of cultural challenges, not the least of which was being tall, white and blond in a country of short and dark-skinned, dark-haired people.


“The men stared at me,” Alisa said. “They’d never seen an American before. At first it was very scary. But after that I sort of got used to it.”


India provided the Josts with a range of extremes, from visiting the exquisite Taj Mahal to encountering the sometimes dire physical needs of the people.


For Alisa, the latter was never more powerfully illustrated than when a Indian grandmother asked her to care for the infant she held in her arms. The mother had delivered the child by C-section and wasn’t doing well. The family had limited economic means with which to cope.


“The grandmother knew only a few words of English,” Alisa said. “She said, ‘You…take…America. Better.’


“I knew I couldn’t take it,” she said. “And I don’t know if she really wanted me to take the baby. But it was something I’ll never forget.”


Living in another culture, even if briefly, can be a powerful educational experience, the Josts agree. The lessons learned aren’t always easy to articulate, but they are profound.


“Alisa really emerged as a full adult on this trip,” Lynn said. “I depended on her a lot for emotional support and companionship. But she seemed to rise to a higher level of maturing along the way, too.


“Instead of demanding the kinds of things I’d expect her to demand around here, she seemed to cope with other things and refused to get upset and bothered by them-even with stuff that bothered me, and I’m supposed to be the mature one.”


Alisa, meanwhile, said the experience challenged her comfort zone. But the trip was definitely worthwhile and life shaping.


“I want to go back,” she said.


She hopes to become a doctor someday and perhaps travel to India for occasional short-term assignments.

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