Monday, June 28, 2010

Hyderabad, June 23

Our exciting adventure story of the week. We got completely drenched on Friday night, there was a movie night at the church and we were trying to leave about 8:30 pm and make the normally-5-minute-walk home but it was completely pouring. That sister Pradeepa lives across the street but she had to call her husband Nagendra to come pick her and the kids up in their car it was raining so bad.

As for us we waited an hour for the rain to stop. It didn't, so we ran across the street and proceeded to carefully walk on the raised, six-inch-wide concrete curb to avoid slushing through the inch of water that had already made it onto the road. And to no avail - the dirt road leading to our apartment building was completely covered, and I ended up back in our apartment building with my feet and socks completely drenched, not to mention the rest of my body. And then the power was out. Luckily, our neighbors have a generator, and due to some strange circuitry it powers one light and the fan in the entrance room, so after changing clothes and hurriedly planning, I dragged my mattress into the room with a fan and promptly collapsed.

Life this week is otherwise pretty good. The branch that we were in split, which I'd been hearing would happen for 7 months. It's very exciting, now we're the only elders in the branch which is a bit weird.

Yeah, the Pradeepa story.

In the family there are five members: Nagendra, Pradeepa, their two children Vineela, 4 and Tej Abishek, 2 -- they go by Vinny and Bunny -- and Pradeepa's younger sister Prashanti. Nagendra and Pradeepa are in their early 30s and Prashanti is in her mid-20s.

(Sorry, this is a much more interesting story when Pradeepa and Nagendra tell it, but I'll do my best.)

They grew up in East Godivari, which is a coastal district in Andhra Pradesh. Their parents were friends, and Nagendra and Pradeepa went to the same college, so they ran across each other from time to time. They had each finished their bachelors' degrees in computer science and Pradeepa's parents were trying to find a match for her when Nagendra got wind of this and in typical Indian commit-first-get-to-know-each-other-later fashion decided to propose to her. Pradeepa, however, wasn't having any of it. They didn't have any contact for two months, until, Nagendra says laughingly, she called him back and said "Ok, I guess I'll marry you."

As you might expect, neither of their parents were at all happy with this. Both of their families are quite well off, but they were welcome in neither home and had to go live on their own for a while. Pradeepa's family not only constantly told her to leave Nagendra and come back, they kept searching for a match for her for three years. Though after 18 months in India I've heard of many ways that parents have threatened, harassed, or otherwise undercut their children's spouses, this seems to be the most innovative. They stopped, for the usual reason -- Vineela was born.

The first thing Elder Stephen told me about this family is: "They really love each other." And whenever we visit I see he was so right.

Gazing around at the crayon-marked walls and pile of toys falling out of the 1m x 1m x 1xm box and scattered around the floor, as Bunny sits in his plastic toy car, turning the pedals and driving it excitedly over the doorjamb and then turning into the hallway.

Pradeepa's comment, repeated many times over these seven months: "My children are crazy brother!" Sometimes this was phrased as a question: "Are my children crazy? Have you seen other children this crazy before brother?" I always said that they were only a little crazy (not true) to be nice; until we brought a member named Solomon with us who said "Yes," and Pradeepa was very happy. We realized then that she wasn't seeing if we'd criticize of her children, she was seeking our appreciation of her for managing her crazy children. Doh.

That same time with Solomon: Bunny started playing with a small rock and after throwing it up in the air a couple of times he decided it would be interesting to throw the rock at us (we elders were sitting on the couch with Solomon). Luckily I was watching Bunny at the time so I caught the rock. Somehow he got the rock back and when I tried to take it away from him he started crying and shouted at me in Telugu that the next time I tried to take it away from me he would come and beat me with it. Pradeepa's response was her typical response at her children's antics --- exasperated, loving laughter.

When Vineela started school, the family moved across the street from the church, so that she could attend a nearby school named Genesis International School. This is a parochial school but unlike almost all other parochial schools it is explicitly Christian but unaffiliated with the Catholic church. To give you a sense of how strange this is I should give you some background.

Pradeepa is Roman Catholic; her father ghostwrites speeches for the local Catholic archbishop. Nagendra is Hindu, but only in the cultural sense. At the beginning of their marriage they decided to adopt a policy of laissez-faire on religion. As we visited this family we kept having conversations like:

Pradeepa (when Nagendra was not around): "I'm not reading my Bible brother! Every time when I have some free time I do something else instead. Nagendra knows that makes me happy so he keeps telling me to read my Bible and come to church for prayer, but I'm not doing it."

Us (somewhat befuddled): "Well you should definitely read your Bible then Sister Pradeepa. And come pray in church anytime."

***(After we re-committed Pradeepa to stop tea and coffee; she was drinking six cups of tea a day. Keep in mind when we committed Pradeepa to stop Nagendra was at work.)***

Pradeepa: "I'm still taking two cups of tea a day brother! I'm trying to stop, but it's hard! I told Nagendra a couple days ago I was trying to stop so he completely left tea coffee, and he's telling me I can definitely stop also."

Pradeepa: "Since you brothers started coming to our house last May Nagendra feels a lot better about Christianity. He says, wow these brothers are serving God at such a young age. He wants to send [2-yo] Bunny for a mission. Should we start saving 5 lakh rupees?"

I'm sure that I would have encountered some similar situations had I served in America, but while India has many strengths, the supportive, understanding, caring husband persona is not really one of them. I'm pretty amazed by Nagendra. He speaks like the system administrator he is. "We can't force Vinny and Bunny to be good, we just have to create the best possible environment for them."

Elders have been visiting since last May, with some occasional interruptions. Mostly, if we don't think someone is ready, or could be after we work some more with them, to commit themselves, make necessary life changes, and be baptized, we'll stop visiting. Pradeepa was coming to church, but we didn't know because her kids would not leave her alone -- she would just come and sit with Vinny in Primary, so we wouldn't see her. I liked the family but thought Elder Stephen was wasting our time when he insisted on visiting the family so often. Moreover, we weren't really getting along so I didn't respect his opinion a lot.

When he got transferred Elder Gervais and I visited maybe twice in three months. Once when we stopped by their house in the afternoon Pradeepa was distraught, seemingly close to tears, that we weren't visiting their house. "Brother, come often, come without appointment, no problem." Tugging on my arm, to boot. Even Nagendra told us to come often, emphasizing we could definitely come visit Pradeepa when he was not there.

After that, to make a long story short, we started coming regularly, dropping by her house, giving her passages to read. She started reading, and by now has read about 300 pages of the Book of Mormon. She expressed her desire to make her children comfortable in the church. So then she started coming to church to meet us. We gave her scripture story books to read with her kids. And then she started meeting all the members. One really wonderful sister named Soumya took her out for shopping. They spent the whole afternoon together and looked happy as clams.

And her vision for the future: coming to church, not even attending services, just sitting with her kids in Primary. So they would get comfortable with church. Week after week, month after month. And last week we finally got them friends with the Primary teacher so they wanted to be in class and let their mom go to class.

Near the end of May, we invited her to be baptized, and she said definitely, yes. Because it was a strange situation with a husband that was supportive but not interested, we had her meet with one of our leaders. Nagendra was deeply concerned about how his extended family would feel and so asked her not to be baptized. Our leader said to definitely honor that request; she'll continue coming to church and when the situation resolves itself, she'll be baptized. She seemed pretty understanding of our youth and inexperience also; she didn't tell us this situation. Instead, she explained it to our leader, who broke it down for us. She told him: "they're like my little brothers, I love them coming, and they're helping my family, but there's no way they'll understand this situation."

Due to the branch splitting we'll no longer be visiting; the other elders will. Her story will pass out of my life and into other elders. Pradeepa seemed distraught again that I was leaving her, one another in a long string. But I'm content. The ribbon is tying together nicely and I'm moving onwards, but I love this family and feel like I have done some good.

With love,

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Hyderabad, June 15

A "share auto" - haven't you learned? Google image search it! :) It's a big autorickshaw that can carry 6 to 12 people at a time, that travel along major highways and bus routes picking up and dropping off people. Share auto drivers do it for a living but are joined by two groups of people.

(1) Private cab and bus drivers. These people pick up and drop off call center and other outsourcing people working night shift, as well as, less common, some people with extremely good corporate jobs on day shift. However, when they're not doing that they have nothing to do with their cars and often run the bus routes along with the share autos. Also many companies will have private buses to get their employees to and from work, and the bus drivers will do the same thing, which is very lucrative but will also get you fired if anyone in authority finds out and presses the matter.

(2) People driving to work.

There is an analogous name for this in the US, which I forget at the moment. I remember reading that these used to be somewhat common in cities until cities instituted the licensing system for taxis (because taxis and buses resented competition and leaned on city councils to stop it).

So no, we are not driving. Anyway, can you imagine Americans driving along Indian city roads?

We had our last zone conference with President Nichols, which was nice but at the same time very sad. He and Sister Nichols will return home on July 1. I will miss him very much, he's perhaps the most understanding, insightful, and genuinely loving person I have ever met. I'm sure the new mission president, President Funk, will be good also, but he will always have a special place in my heart.

These last few days I've been getting better about my exercises and timeliness. I've been pretty bad at these because Elder John is new so he looks to me as an example instead of gently reminding me or inspiring me to do these things. Ie, I have to motivate myself.

It's my experience that if I can discipline myself to do those things, which are entirely within my control, it becomes easier to discipline myself to do harder things. On the most basic level if I don't have a good morning it's difficult to have a good day -- and I can tell that our days are better as I focus myself in the morning. On the time management level, I find myself hanging out and chilling less when we need to go and do something. I engage less frequently in that perennial delusion where I look at my watch and say "well, it won't really take 20 minutes to travel there." (This is of course more tempting in India where the "Baba 5 minutes" is a universal phenomenon.) It's only been a few days but I already feel happier.

There are many side tangents I could go on, but I think I'll leave it at that for now. Life's good, with love,


Hyderabad, June 8

A lot of things have happened this week but nothing neatly wrapped up in a bow to write you about. We started taking a couple of 13 and 10yo kids with us to some families we are teaching (they have kids the same age). We bug all the young single adult males to come with us all the time, so they're kind of sick of it. But Kevin and Calvin are actually way excited to come with us, they eagerly put on their white shirt and tie and jump on the back of our cycles or in share autos with us.

Of course, it makes complete sense - they probably never have any grown-up people other than their parents or their teachers at church pay attention to them, ask them questions, listen to their responses, or give them responsibilities. And we're Elders, which makes us (more-mature) BMOC. Also it helps parents of the family we're teaching get a vision for their family when they ask us about the story in the beginning of the Book of Mormon and a kid answers their questions. Kevin and Calvin are very mature, intelligent, and observant given their age and the parents can see a model for their children.

Not so much to write as I said but life is good.

Hyderabad, June 1

This week has been pretty interesting. I'm learning some lessons in delegation this week.

We had some spare time waiting for an appointment at the church, and was talking to the previously mentioned sister Soumya's husband Suresh. Suresh is in charge for all the young-adult-religion-classes in India, and was having some problems getting local leaders who have stewardship over young adults to take adequate responsibility and initiative for inviting and enrolling their students in these programs. He just started running some ideas past me, not really seeking my advice but just so as he talked to someone he could think more clearly. (I'm sure you know how that works). After he talked for ten or fifteen minutes, reasoning out loud and changing his plans in mid-sentence, figuring out how he would word letters and frame requests, he came up with something he was happy with.

"If I had just done the status quo, I would have left my office a couple of hours ago," he said laughing.

"Isn't it funny," I replied. "Figuring out how to delegate correctly takes more time than just doing everything yourself."

And then, the joke was on myself.

In this branch there are about 500 or 550 members on paper, maybe 200 will come on any given Sunday, and a significant fraction haven't come in several years. As I'm sure you know, technically branch members are supposed to visit each other and support all the members, including those who aren't coming to church, but in reality that requires habit-forming and dedication in busy lives and few members actually do that. The result is that a lot of people don't get visited.

As elders, we're pretty busy running around visiting and teaching people who aren't church members and don't have a lot of time to go spiritually shepherding people who are supposed to be (at least primarily) under the watchcare of the branch. In order to effectively focus our attention, we pay an especially close on people who were recently baptized into the Church and their families.

Generally elders are a pretty unifying force here; perhaps because infighting is a pretty big problem (some explanation: this doesn't have so much to do with the Indian people or the moral quality of people that join the Church; it's just a common problem that happens when a bunch of new people come together and try to form a family or society and happens pretty much whenever the Church is newly organized in a place.)

Moreover this branch in particular is filled with a lot of dedicated, experienced people that returned from their missions but don't have a lot of responsibilities in church.

The bottom line: there are many experienced people want more stuff to do and ask us, or say yes when we ask them.

I was explaining this semi-jokingly this situation to a church member named Raju. "We're entrepreneurs. Businessmen. We're paid to connect people who need stuff with people that have that stuff." (the monetary joke, of course, is on us) "There are lots of people who need stuff to do to grow spiritually. And there are lots of people who need people in the church to be their friend."

When I started to think about it, I realized there were three recently baptized sisters who really needed more friends and advice, plus about four or five recently baptized or married brothers whose wives aren't church members and don't really feel comfortable coming to church.

The former lack supporting sources and counselors as they seek to make important decisions about jobs, marriage, and living location. As elders, even if we had the time we're not allowed to counsel sisters.

For the latter, (and yes, I really believe the following statement) the Church and the teachings of Christ make their most dramatic impact in the relationships Church members have with others, especially family members, and it's difficult for the Church to help a family become stronger, to heal deep wounds and build loving, trusting relationships, if only one spouse is a Church member.

Moreover, we are brothers, and so if we visit their homes their wives will probably just go and sit in the kitchen as per Indian culture, and if they stay outside they might not speak English.

So taking all of this in mind we started organizing Church sisters to go visit these two groups of people. So far we've made plans for five sisters to be visited and four sisters to visit them and have more plans for several of them in progress. It's going to take a lot of coordination, specific instruction and follow-up, but I'm really excited. And this is completely new for me, I've never done it before and never dreamed it was possible to like, coordinate something!

With love,


Hyderabad, May 25

This week some interesting occurences went on with a 22yo brother named Siddharth that we're teaching. The first time we met him about eight weeks back, he was wearing a Playboy shirt (though he might not have known what that actually meant) and was telling us how his primary purpose of life was 'to enjoy', along with rather lewd references about sisters in general and specifically his plans to visit his two girlfriends in Pune. (He's from Maharashtra, a place called Solapur.)

I sighed, took a deep breath, questioned how I could ever connect with this worldly person, thought deeply, and opened my Bible. We read with him a story in the New Testament you might know or remember, the Parable of the Talents. A brief review either way: one man is given five talents, another two, another one, the last buries it in the ground and is scolded severely, the first two take theirs and double it and are rewarded richly. He had a book his friend Lakshman, a church member friend, had left him, and we assigned him to read a chapter on the same topic, called "Developing Your Talents." We came the next day, Tuesday, and he was completely changed.

He read the chapter, he loved it, and he wanted to listen to everything we had to say. He stopped drinking 4 cups of tea a day, changed his plans with his girlfriend and his whole attitude and demeanor towards life, and started praying, reading the scriptures and coming to church and volleyball, also spending several hours in the hot sun searching for a new room for a church member named Vijaya whose family is kicking her out of her house.

This Friday, a chain of events started with his cousin-brother going and taking a couple thousand rupees worth of diesel from Siddharth's work site that he maintains (a cell phone tower). Siddharth let him take it - he thought it was a legitimate request and didn't realize his cousin-brother was going to steal it. His cousin-brother was caught and fired. Siddharth didn't get into any trouble but suffered several consequences like his work site being moved 30 minutes away - it used to be next to the church, so he would come every day to pray and play volleyball - and not being able to come to church and his scheduled baptism on Sunday. Siddharth was pretty let down and depressed about this. We were talking on Monday night. The conversation went something like this, in more broken English than this:

Siddharth: "All of my relatives are calling me and asking me, why Parmeshwar has come back?"

Me: "Did you tell them the truth?"

Siddharth :No, I just told them 'Job is not there.' Tell me, I did the right thing?"

Me: "[some hemming and hawing on my part because I had no idea what the right answer was.] Well, why didn't you tell them?"

Siddharth: "I was praying about what to do. Immediately after praying, the idea came to mind, don't tell them. It's the first time he's done that. If I told them, afterwards they would all be scolding him, 'Why did you do that,' 'Why did you do that." Then he might feel all embarassed by that and do it again." (Jacob omit this) [He later went on to explain how he spent 10,000 rupees out of his own pocket to erase the police complaint against him in case it ever came up for future jobs. And keep in mind this guy earns maybe 4 or 5 thousand rupees a month.]
Me: {deeply impressed} "Well, I think you did the right then Siddharth."

Siddharth: "He said, ki (='that' in Hindi), let me stay at your site and do other job. I told him. ki, you can't do that. Maybe some supervisor come, then they say, We trusted you Siddharth. And I kept telling him, ki, don't smoke, don't drink. (He used to keep coming to Siddharth's site 'fully drunk') He's my elder brother. Each time I told, he just tells, ki, 'I know what is right and what is wrong.' I was sitting next to him on Sunday and I told him about stopping the police complaint and that I wouldn't tell our relatives. I told him, ki, I'm doing this for you."

Me: "What did he say?"

Siddharth: "Silent."

Me: "It's so frustrating, isn't it? You love someone and you give them all of your help and attention and love and they aren't even grateful."

Siddharth: "So frustrating yaar!"

Me: "[laughs] Well I know how it feels too. We deal with that every day. Listen, I want to tell you something. Can I tell?"

Siddharth: "Tell."

Me: "I was asking my leader about that a while ago, and he said, 'Welcome to the club.' Every person who wants to do good things feels like this. It's part of being a good person. We can't feel the joy from helping others without feeling like that. It's all part of the package. [I open my scriptures].

Here, look at this in the Book of Mormon, a brother named Alma. "I trust that I shall also have joy over you, nevertheless I do not desire that my joy over you should come by the cause of so much afflictions and sorrow which I have had for the brethren at Zarahemla, for behold, my joy cometh over them after wading through much affliction and sorrow.'

Or here, a brother named Ammon: 'And we have suffered all manner of afflictions, and all this, that perhaps we might be the means of saving some soul, and we supposed our joy would be full if perhaps we could be the means of saving some.''

Or here, this brother is named Mormon. 'And my people began to swear before the heavens that they would avenge themselves of their blood of their brethren who had been slain by their enemies, and would cut them off from the face of the land. And it came to pass that I, Mormon, did utterly refuse from this time forth to be a commander and leader of this people, because of their wickedness and abominations. Behold, I had led them, notwithstanding their wickedness I had led them many times to battle, and had loved them, according to the love of God which was in me, with all my heart; and my soul had been poured out in prayer unto my God all the day long for them; nevertheless, it was without faith, because of the hardness of their hearts.''

So you're not alone."

[Siddharth continues describing his brother's behavior and complaining about it, but it's clear he's happy to have someone to talk to, who understands.] Siddharth: "In world, 80 percent of the people don't care about other people. They only care about 'Myself.' I'm happy to be here with 20 percent." [He smiles, and slaps my knee.]

That's life - all's well.

With love,

Hyderabad, May 18

Life is good. Elder John and I are doing well. Elder John is writing his friend and decided to test her by seeing if she is paying close attention to his e-mails. How? She asked what his birthday was, and he replied, "February 30."

This afternoon there was a wedding so we were attending, eating lunch and then playing table tennis and cricket. This morning we were studying the section in our manual on asking questions and we discovered that the effectiveness of the questions we ask. It was really interesting, an opportunity to reflect back on sixteen months of interacting with people and I found I actually learned a lot, the manual presented some situations like 'The person you're teaching faces opposition from colleagues at work' and I was able to think of the right way to ask questions to show genuine interest and understand what's going on without making the person feel uncomfortable.

Then we looked at the people we're visiting now and realized that the effectiveness of our questions is generally determined by the truthfulness frankness and seriousness of the person answering, which directly correlated with the strength of our relationship with them. Duh, but actually really helpful and interesting.

Probably being able to communicate the right way and ask the right questions in the right way is a large part of building a strong relationship in the first place. So a bit of a chicken and egg problem I guess.


Hyderabad, May 4

Elder John and I after we improved our relationship

Life is good.

Elder John and I had been getting along fine, but 'getting along fine' isn't the goal, 'loving, understanding, supporting and serving' is.

So I was thinking a lot about what I told you about earlier, how President Nichols had been saying that everyone has different ways of communicating and I was trying to figure out how my companion communicates. The immediate cynical answer was "He doesn't," because he's so quiet and it's hard to figure out what he's thinking, on top of that he's new and so probably uncomfortable voicing his opinion due to lack of experience. That made it hard to plan together, talk together, counsel together.

But on Friday morning it came to me. "He makes small jokes."

Some sort of intuition; not prompted by memories, but as soon as it occurred to be a flood of memories marched forward as evidence.

"Okay," I thought. "I can do this."

And so I set off, determined to make fun of my companion until our relationship blossomed. We taught together, we practiced asking questions or teaching material together. And I made fun of him. And the weather. And everyone we knew (in a good way). And voila, it worked, or rather is working. Now he's making fun of me too (which as you know is pretty easy). He has this great, drawn-out way of saying "Elder Bhagwat," and I know, the joke's on me.

Most importantly, a lot of lessons we're in my mouth has been firmly shut for most of the time. Elder Gervais - one of the most people-people that I know - told me before he went to let Elder John talk, because he'd been stunted by a second companion that didn't. He only really started to talk his half of the time when he was with me - after being on his mission for nine months.

Elder Gervais.

Yesterday was zone conference, so all the elders in Hyderabad gathered together with President and Sister Nichols. President Nichols' PowerPoint included different elders' experiences in their own words as they shared experiences showing their maturity (willingness to admit faults without kicking themselves, sharing insights, showing they're recognizing their weaknesses and trying to improve). If they were there they read their own quotes; if not President had one of their former companions read it for them. Elder Gervais' picture, name, and quote flashed on the board, and I automatically stood up.

"That's all mine, President."

"Oh yes it is, Elder Bhagwat. You two weren't companions, you were practically married to each other. (other elders' laughter). Every week I'd get letters: 'Please don't transfer Elder Bhagwat.' 'I'm learning so much from Elder Gervais.'"

"Pretty much, President."

That was the funny part, with me in the spotlight, but it was a really good presentation. My MTC companion, Elder Diamond, shared a really good story. There was a church member named Savitha, and they were visiting her sister Sharmila and encouraging to read the scriptures, come to church, and such. She always said she would, but never did, so he and his companion decided to go back to the basics, to ask questions and start with some things they knew. Or, it turns out, only thought they did.

"Sharmila, do you love your sister?"


(stunned silence on elders' side)

"Well, is there anything you at least like about her?"

(after some hemming and hawing) "Well, she has a cute baby face. And she prays."

The elders ask the next logical question.

"Savitha, do you love your sister?"

The answer was also "no," and this sister couldn't think of anything she liked about the other one. Elder Diamond continued: "We thought we'd made a big mistake, because they started fighting then. In Telugu. But Sunday came around and there was Sharmila, and there was Savitha, and they were sitting right next to each other." (And as time went on their relationship continued to improve.)

One elder that I have a lot of respect for, Elder Hunn, said something really good. "In Rajahmundry we had a lot of people that wanted our help, even were begging for us to visit their home. But nothing ever happened, nothing changed really in any of the families. Looking back on it now, it wasn't that we were doing anything stupid, or outright wrong. It was just that we didn't understand how to focus on those we could help. I'm hoping to change that in Hyderabad."

One of President Nichols' conclusions, which I found very insightful, was that because we loved these people, we were not looking at them with a clear lens and being able to understand exactly what they were thinking and feeling. As a result, we were misjudging their level of commitment and their reasons for it, not understanding what principles really touched them, and not concentrating our limited time and energy on the right people. Thus, we miss the chance to do the right thing at the right time to help the person who's ready to successfully change their life. Not because we are lazy or stupid or unloving, but just because we didn't know what to do.

(As for helping the person who's ready to be helped, there's a whole sidenote about this with that family.. We called President Nichols about it a while back. His response:

"I've been in the marriage counseling business for a long time. If two people come to you and say, 'We want to make this work we just don't know how, please tell us how we can, we'll do whatever you say,' you have a chance, maybe. Otherwise, it's just a good way to suck out all of your time and love and mental energy that could actually be used for doing something productive.")

Mostly, I'm writing all of this because I've been thinking about these topics a lot recently. I guess it revolves around change for good or bad, and how to encourage and facilitate the one and prevent the other, and how many times good intentions are insufficient to the task, and how I must conquer pride, and its stepchild self-deception, to be effective.

My mind comes back to one of my personal mottos, which I stole from a man named Eugene England. I think I'll conclude with it.

"It is not enough to be sincere, you must also be right. It is not enough to be right, you must also be effective."

With love,