Sunday, May 31, 2009

Chennai, May 27

Life has been well for the last week over here. Things have been going very well. We were able to get a lot of things done, meet a lot of new families as well as a bunch of bachelors from Kerala living together. It's always amazing getting to know new people, their lives and challenges. The guys from Kerala are really interesting, they couldn't find work in their native place so they came to Chennai and found a job working in this cell phone company mostly dealing with prank callers. They spend their time watching the one English channel they get as they don't speak Tamil. It's an odd combination of youthful fun, resignedness at having to work, missing their families, and general lack of purpose. Also with another guy of the same age, who we feel like finally understands his general hunger for happiness and/or trusts us enough to share with us. All of them look to America (to move there or recreate it), and they're never sure for what -- they miss something, and they blame it on India and her problems.

The families we met are another story -- I'm sure we'll find out about them more in time. We get to know people our age quickly. Families' struggles and problems and hopes and fears, you are only able to observe them (or they share them) slowly, unless they are really obvious like substance addiction. Or like another young family that we'll be trying to help recently, who have a basketful of problems like that.

I have to get to know people really quickly, so I'm really learning to ask questions and actually listen and observe instead of think about what I'm going to say next. Various elders have different styles of doing this, and developing my own is a learning process. It's kind of hard to describe, I try to let them talk and tell me about themselves first. Elder Tuscano is more of an outgoing guy so he chats more than I do in doing that.

One or two stories.

Yesterday we were in the house of a brother (all males here are referred to as brothers; females as sisters) named Prakash. Prakash is a drunkard who probably beats his wife and (while drunk) was telling us how he was contemplating suicide. We were thinking of just leaving, because he was obviously drunk, when he started talking. All the sudden my companion starts reasoning with him. It was crazy, I was playing "Tough Love With Drunk Guy" -- and learning how to do that -- and my companion just starts reasoning with this guy about his 1.5 year old son. He gets this guy to say that he needs to set a better example for his son. We get him to realize he needs the tools to end his fighting with his wife, we tell him we've got them and will come back on Sunday to teach him. So we'll go back and tell him about how faith, repentance, and baptism can make him a new man and change him. We walk out and look at each other. My companion says he has no idea why he did that, the Spirit just helped him remember something we both read. I resolve to be more attuned to listening to the Spirit, waiting for it, something I've already learned a lot.
Another story that is really the same story repeated four times, that will probably repeat itself a few more times in the next two years. We meet a guy in his early 20's, who speaks good English so is working in a pretty good job, who finds some satisfaction in life but doesn't really know why he is alive.

LDS have a deep belief that living morally and faithfully on earth is not simply an emulative process of praising God but actually part of a slow, gradual process of deification, really becoming like God or Jesus Christ. So we tell them that.

Before, they don't really know who God is, even though some (2/4) have been raised Christian, they just see God as some force driving them on, supporting them, some mysterious life force (which is basically just Hinduism). They recognize the everyday importance of learning and growing, and the existence of challenges and struggles -- so we explain the deep, eternal significance thereof. How the actual sufferings of a human being -- Jesus, the Christ -- can lift the barriers from their life and help them in this path, if they choose to accept the help. And then I open my heart further, letting them change my own life more. A concrete example: as you know, for twenty years of my life I have been comfortable with high levels of absentmindedness and low levels of awareness. Slowly, that is beginning to change.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Chennai, May 6

Life over here is pretty well. I am so so so excited to be with Elder Tuscano.
Elder Glade was a great trainer and I learned a lot from Elder Siyyadri but
Elder Tuscano and I are really on the same page and get along so well. Work
hard, walk fast, prepare and plan hard, love the people and never, ever, ever
stop thinking about them, trying to help them, and trying to be a better

A lot of things are going on as usual, but hard to distill it to an e-mail. We
met this wonderful 20yo guy named Joshua who we had two great lessons with, but
who is now going to his native place for two years to study and be with his sick
grandmother. That's probably what's best for him and her, but as I said
to Elder Tuscano walking away from the house, "And sometimes life
sucks." One big thing I'm learning is patience and humility - right now
most of the people we're teaching are progressing, but slowly, so I have to
learn to love them and not get frustrated; we'll go and bring a brother from
church over for a lesson, and all of our time will be taken up in chatting,
which is good but not what we planned, so I must have the humility to
emotionally accept a good result than wasn't because of *my* plan.


Chennai, April 30

Mmm, what’s new and exciting. Each Wednesday seems to come so soon. Our lives
are lived in six-week intervals called transfers; each missionary planner is six
weeks long. I just finished my second one, which means I’ve been in Chennai
twelve weeks. Amazing.

It’s really amazing how much you learn in that time period. The constant
battle is to keep trying to improve, to avoid slipping into complacency. I could
teach most of the lessons in my sleep, but they wouldn’t be very exciting.
Right now I’m focusing essentially on my social skills, to show that I
genuinely care about the people we’re teaching. Elder Siyyadri is teaching me
a lot about this, which is very helpful. One of the members – a native,
long-time church member who served a mission 20 years ago – called it
‘working smart, not working hard.’ (Because building greater friendship and
trust with the people you’re already teaching is a lot easier and more
time-effective that walking the streets and finding twice as many people to

We had a family come to church this last week that really loves us and the
church services and our message (and dislikes their church). Their only problem
is that when they came to our church their pastor called them and asked why they
weren’t at church. All they need now is to find out for themselves that our
message is true – otherwise, joining is just church-hopping. They have the
desire so they will probably continue to progress quickly. We are going to bring
the husband of our recently-baptized family over to their house tomorrow, it
will be the first time we’ve brought him with us which is exciting.

The main problem is that people are far more likely to give commitments in
India (or generally to LDS missionaries?) than keep them. From what we
understand, this is a combination of having just met us, Indian culture of
don’t-offend-guests-in-your-house, and that we are asking them to do new
things – coming to (a different) church, reading a new book, praying in a
possibly different manner. We planned for everyone who told us they would come
– four families, two bachelors, and maybe two others. Of those people, one
family and one bachelor came to church. Apparently you get used to this but I
still find it rather frustrating. I suppose I will just have to work on making
stronger commitments.

The heat notwithstanding, we’re all pretty happy because in Chennai we had 14
baptisms this month, which is about as many as we had the whole beginning of the
year. Basically there’s a sequence of events which usually happen in a
particular order, for them to get baptized – first, you find them, then you
get a return appointment (which means they get counted as a ‘New
Investigator’) then you teach them, hopefully when bringing members along with
you (which counts as ‘Member Present Lessons’), then they come to church and
get counted as ‘At Sacrament Meeting’, keep other commandments and get
counted as a ‘Progressing Investigator’, and sooner or later you invite them
to be baptized on a certain date (if it’s better, with the caveat that once
they know our message is true), and they get counted as ‘With a Date,’ and
then they get baptized.

During each stage in this sequence of events some people will lose interest
and fall out of the sieve, or they will gradually become converted and
eventually get baptized (with some odd exceptions). Our current situation right
now is that we baptized Michael and his family, another of our main families
lost interest, and we’re working on moving the ton of people we have through
the funnel, while using our little spare time to find more people and go visit
less-active families and recent converts.

One thing I'm trying to figure out now is whether people have a 'time-clock' on them,
ie whether if they don't really gain interest by a certain time they will start to give up and lose interest. I think so, but it depends a lot on the person - for example, one of our investigators wasn't keeping any of his commitments like reading the Book of Mormon but recognized that he needed to repent so it wasn't a problem. Other people didn't keep their commitments, but after a couple of visits decided (or seemed to - sometimes we couldn't tell) that they had nothing new to learn from us. The relevant problem that I'm worried about is this: if you can't get them to keep commitments initially, will they as a result not be getting real spiritual nourishment and so give up quickly? (And so you don't get a second chance to get them to keep commitments?)