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Hyderabad: How one cynic changed his mind about missions

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Somehow the word snagged an old scene from the 1950s and dragged it into my memory.

I must have been about ten years old, sitting in one of the front pews of East Chilliwack (B.C.) Mennonite Brethren Church, probably on a Sunday evening. The young woman on the platform was reporting on her missionary trip to India. She’d worked in Hyderabad.

I was fascinated by the slideshow and her commentary. She told us about the Indian culture, the caste system, and the incredible discrimination commonplace in India at that time. As a naive and idealistic youngster, I remember being emotionally overwhelmed and repulsed by the idea that a person’s destiny was predetermined by the social status of the family he or she was born into.

How unfair. How depressing. In Hyderabad, if you lived on the wrong side of the tracks, your life was over before you got started.

That flash of memory hit my consciousness about a half-second after the dining room steward answered my simple question: “Where are you from?”

“From Hyderabad,” he replied.

My wife and I, along with my daughter, her husband, and our three grandchildren were seated in the opulent dining room of the Royal Caribbean cruise ship, Liberty of the Seas. Surrounded by a host of service staff, and confronted with a magnificent menu and wine list, we were obviously being deliberately pampered.

We were all dressed in our best, of course, and thoroughly enjoying the laid-back decadence of living the “good life.”

We’d had some difficulty in arranging appropriate seating for all seven of us, and the head steward had come over to make sure everything had been set up to our satisfaction.

From his appearance, I assumed he was from India. He was probably about 40 or so – about the same age as my kids. He was pleasant and straightforward as he asked us if things were arranged according to our liking.

His direct engagement and easy smile instantly impressed me, and for some reason, after I’d assured him the arrangements were just fine, I inquired about his home town.

“Hyderabad,” he said.

Opening up

He started to explain to me about Hyderabad’s location and other details, but I interrupted.

“I remember Hyderabad!” I informed him.

In 30 seconds or less, I told him how I had heard about Hyderabad at that little church over a half-century ago, and how those people had sent a young lady to India to spread the good news of the gospel.

And then I felt a little silly. I had opened up my personal life to a complete stranger. He’d probably assume I was some kind of fanatic.

But his smile broadened. He leaned toward me and let me know that those missionaries, several generations ago, had been divinely sent.

“They taught us that there is one God,” he said with sudden intensity, “and that he loves us all.”

It took a long time to get to sleep that night. Over the years, I’d become somewhat cynical about the effects of “missionary” efforts by the Christian church. I’d pondered questions surrounding the “white man’s burden” issue, and the debate about cultural genocide. I wasn’t so sure sending missionaries to India had been such a good idea.

But I had just been confronted with a flesh and blood result of those efforts.

A few days later, before we disembarked, we thanked our steward and said our goodbyes. We’d formed an easy bond over the week we’d been at sea, and saying goodbye was difficult.

“God bless you and your family,” he smiled with a handshake and a hug as we finally left.

I was in tears.

Isn’t it amazing how God shows up when you least expect him?

Sam Penner is a retired teacher who lives with his wife Carol in Vernon, B.C., where they attend Grace Bible Church.

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