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,
Sam

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