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T hani yeela. These words—there is no water—still haunt me. Every morning when I brush my teeth and every evening when I do the dishes, these images come flooding back into my head as I hurriedly turn off the faucet that I’ve left running absentmindedly.

For the past 40 years, my family has been involved in World Cassette Outreach of India (WCOI), a beautiful ministry of providing Scripture for people who otherwise would have no access to it. WCOI provides audio Scripture for people with visual impairments and people who are non-literate. And as the ministry evolved over the last 40 years, it began to see itself serving more and more on the front lines with the least of these. So it was not entirely surprising, when last year, in Thokampatti, a village where people who are affected with leprosy are quarantined to, a cry came up quietly. A humble whisper, really.

There is no water

When WCOI asked this community what else we could do to be of help, they simply said, “Thani yeela”—there is no water. There was a well nearby, but they didn’t have access to it because it belonged to a nearby community who said that unclean lepers weren’t welcomed there. So the only access they had to water was when they purchased it from the city on the city trucks.

An Indian woman in a yellow sari leans against a cement wall, empty water jugs in front of her.

They simply said, “Thani yeela”—there is no water.

But this was tricky for a couple of reasons. For one, these trucks are expensive, especially for people whose primary occupation is begging. And second—and this is the more heart-wrenching reality—is that for people who suffer from leprosy, as many of them do, they are missing their fingers. So the simple act of filling water from a water truck into those little plastic jugs that they have is a Herculean, if not impossible, task. So they take these little water jugs to that truck that is shooting water and they try to capture as much of it as they can in this little bucket. They bring it home sloshing, and they use that water, but no water is wasted. You save every precious drop. And we discovered that our brothers and sisters were reusing the same water in their homes, between five and six times. By the end of the day, all you’re left with is this deep, dark, putrid, viscous fluid that was your water in the morning.

Reformed Church in America (RCA) Global Mission began to work with the ministry in seeing how we could meet this need through our Care Network Fund. A hydrologist who was consulted in India said you can get water at 700 feet. And so arrangements were made, and funds were transferred. On the morning of July 30, 2019, the social media page of the ministry abuzz, live updates began to take over the bottomless feeds of Instagram and Facebook.

Trying and trusting

Joy and expectation set the stage for the day. Photos of people gathering joyfully around the truck that carried the borewell equipment set the tone. Women in resplendent saris shed their sad stories because today was going to be different. Today was going to be spectacular.

Indian woman in colorful, patterned saris wait and pray for water.
Men and women lift hands in prayer over the dry earth and digging equipment, waiting for a well of water.

As the machines whirred and shuddered, as the earth was pierced, every foot deeper the machine dug, the anticipation rose. A hundred feet, 200 feet, 400 feet, dirt spilling out of the crevice. The glitter of hope was everywhere. At 600 feet, anxiety began to wrinkle their weather-worn faces. No water. 700 feet, no water. Now the worry was real. At 800 feet, though, some hope began to creep in because the soil that was being churned out was wet with the promise of water. Within a few feet, that wet soil was replaced by a puff of dust. A thousand feet. At 1,200 feet, the machines met the deepest point this borewell company had ever gone before and could go.

Twelve hundred feet and no water. Just a puff of dust.

The last enduring image I have etched into my head is this: a group of my beautiful brothers and sisters standing beside the borewell truck, praying. Missing limbs and fingers intertwined as they folded their palms together, their faces willing God to work a miracle. Tears flowing freely as the sun set slowly.

We were all wrecked by this story. This is not how the story’s supposed to end. “We tried and we trust God’s plan. We may never know nor understand why this took place.” This was the final post on the ministry’s Instagram page that day.

Dust everywhere

It was the same ominous puff of dust that Dr. John and Harriet Scudder experienced after hearing God’s call for a pious physician in the land of India. In 1819, having sold everything they had and saying goodbye to everybody they knew, they took their baby girl and set sail for Calcutta. And on the way, they lost their baby girl.

Or the Swart family, who faithfully committed generations to mission work only to have their dear son Jack tragically killed in an automotive accident. Or Dr. Maurice Heusinkveld, who was assassinated while doing his job in the Middle East.

Every great RCA Global Mission story involves stories of pain and tragedy and suffering. It was the swirl of dry dust that ravished the Board of Foreign Missions when first the Civil War raged in the United States and funding for our missionaries had to be cut. This puff of dust swirled again when the World Wars broke out, sandwiching the Great Depression. Puffs of dust when countries gained their independence and sent their missionaries back home. Dust swirled around us. The Cold War, the great recession, the rise of capitalism and the other major religions of the world, the scandals that rocked the church, the decline of the North American church, the wave of nationalism that continued to sweep the nations.

This year, another cloud of dust has hit RCA Global Mission in the face: COVID-19. It’s dust everywhere.

A better story

And yet in this dust—the dust that’s blasted us for 377 years—we’re called to stand and let the dust coat our every pore. Because as my family left Thokampatti that day, we knew in our hearts that this story was not done, not with the God we serve.

All we wanted to do was provide water to these beautiful people—a cup of cold water, a straight-up cliché from the Gospels. And yet that hopeful expectation would only continue to perpetuate the story of the rich coming to help those who had nothing. Providing water would have been amazing, but the greater story happened that day when we stood with people who had no hope and watched with them when disappointment swept over them one more time. This was their life. This is how it’s always been. One disappointment after the other.

And what we felt on July 30, 2019, was a taste of what every day was like for our brothers and sisters. We stood with them in their moment of pain. We felt the crushing cloud of disappointment envelop us like that dust cloud that hovered over the pit of useless hope. And we could do nothing but stand shoulder to shoulder with the least of these and squint.

A man stands in a puff of dust while watching well-digging equipment.

Providing water would have been amazing, but the greater story happened that day when we stood with people who had no hope and watched with them when disappointment swept over them one more time.

I invite you to stand and squint alongside, too. Stand in the swirling cloud, this dust cloud of hope and expectancy and disappointment. And slowly but surely you will see our (RCA) legendary names like Chamberlain, Swart, Ford, Sterk, Abeel, Van Engen, Zwemer, and Scudder, inviting us to make room for Sayuri, Rawee, Muntolol, Alcidir, Jang, Yakuv, Isaías, Iekel, and Salthanvunga, standing next to each other as God begins to create new life through RCA Global Mission.

Maybe, just maybe, from all this, God can bring forth water that springs up to eternal life. Because if there’s one thing that brings us all together, one thing that unites us, may it be God’s mission to this world. May it be global mission. You see, mission has always involved the actual physical transfer of people and families and both the conscious and unconscious transfer of our cultural mores. Through all the hiccups, mistakes, and successes, we have woven a web that now serves as a highway from which we can transmit but also receive the gospel in a fresh new way.

The translation of the gospel to the various communities of the world has helped shape many beautiful new expressions. Not only that, but it has helped us reframe how we interpret Scripture, how we view Jesus as Lord and Savior. And now, it’s coming back to the shores of a post-Christian West in fresh, vibrant ways, claiming us all back again for the kingdom. This is good news.

An elderly woman with leprosy drinks water from a silver bucket.
A gray-haired Indian man receives fresh water from a bucket into his cupped hands.

Out of the dust

Last fall, we got a phone call from our family in Thokampatti. They simply said, “We think there might be water in the well because the monsoons have just ravaged the plains of South India, but we’re not going to open it until you come back.” And so we went back, and yes, from a hole that spewed up dust, God brought forth water.

 

This article was adapted from RCA Global Mission director JP Sundararajan’s keynote speech at Mission 2020, a celebration of RCA Global Mission in January. This article was also published in RCA Today, the Reformed Church in America’s denominational magazine.

JP Sundararajan 

JP Sundararajan is director of RCA Global Mission.