entering the land of the gods

a study abroad journey

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A Bowl of Compassion

Read about my return to A Bowl of Compassion!

Taking the Call

Slowly the train came to a halting stop in the gray fog of the early morning. With a yawn, I heaved my pack on my back and joined the cue of people waiting to disembark at Gaya Junction, but before my feet reached the platform I was pulled into Murari-ji’s bear-hug embrace. “Maria-ji!” He proclaimed with enthusiasm beyond the early hour.

The next 48 hours continued in the same manner – with shouts of joy and loving embraces of return – and each and every day of the week I remained in Bodh Gaya was filled with love in every sense.

Being back in Bodh Gaya, being back at A Bowl of Compassion (BOC), was like returning to a home. As I wrote before I left, BOC was a huge part of my initial study abroad experience and what nudged me to move in the direction of mission and…

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Bodh gaya: Bowl of Compassion

When I was planning my final journey to the north, Bodh Gaya was not on my list. I planned to travel straight from Varanasi to Kolkata. Bodh Gaya is where Buddha received his Enlightenment and is therefore a religious pilgrimage site. The small city is full of Buddhist temples with gorgeous architecture and bright colors.

However, I had another purpose for stopping in Bodh Gaya. Through various connections I was introduced to Bowl of Compassion. After learning about their mission I knew that I needed to make a stop! http://www.bowlofcompassion.org/en/home.html

Bowl of Compassion is a non-profit organization that provides schooling and lunch to the impoverished community in the area. The school was started just a few years ago by a German traveller and and Indian local. The school now has 100 children grades 1-5 as well as a waiting list of children. However, the school is at its max right now. The children come to school around 8am where they brush their teeth and comb their hair. After meditation time, they split into classrooms where they are taught basic subjects like math, Hindi, and English. Then before they leave for the day, they are served a hearty lunch.

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Before arriving, I didn’t know what kind of work I would be doing or how I would take part. When I did arrive, I met Murari, the founder who grew up in Bodh Gaya. He is a jolly man with a warm smile and outgoing personality. When I asked what he needed done, he responded with the question- what do you like to do? Well, I said I loved to cook and….he stopped be before I could go further. “You cook?” He asked. “Do you know how to cook Indian food?” I explained that I had cooked with my Hindi professor and knew basic Indian cooking.  Well, God brought me to Bowl of Compassion. It turns out that the cook was gone for 2 days so Murari needed help in the kitchen!

So for the next 2 days I helped prepare lunch for the children. I worked with the cook’s assistant. I appreciated her expertise as I have not cooked in such large vessels before! The most rewarding aspect was serving the food to the children. The first day I was there was a Monday. I was appalled by how much food these kids could eat. We served them up huge plates of rice with a vegetable curry on top. It was enough food to last me two meals and yet some kids came back for seconds. Then I realized that some of these children probably didn’t have much to eat over the weekend and that this was their main meal of the day. It is such a blessing for them to be able to be a part of this school to feed their minds and stomachs.

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I was also able to visit the secondary school down the road that is run by Murari’s brother, Vivek. This places houses the next grades, 6-12. Vivek asked me if I would come in and speak to the 7th class about myself and where I come from. Well in India, no one knows where South Dakota is. So I was able to describe the great land of South Dakota as well as who I am! The students were able to understand most of my English with a bit of translation. I really tried to use simple words to explain. Eventually I asked if the students had questions. There were some very interesting responses: Is America beautiful? What has Obama done for the U.S? What do you think about marriage?

Bodh Gaya is located in the state of Bihar. Bihar is a very traditional and conservative state. I found that their perceptions of America were very stereotypical and limited. They see our country as paradise. I tried to explain that American has different types of regions just like India and that we too have poverty and violence. On the topic of marriage, Bihar is known for ‘child marriage.’ Years ago, children were wed at the young age of 10! Even today it is common for marriage to occur at age 14 or 15. When a girl asked me what I felt about marriage I responded that I hoped to get married someday and that I will chose my husband because I love him. “Love marriage?” She questioned. When I nodded, she looked around to her fellow girls with wonder and giggled. Arranged marriage is the standard in this area and I wondered if some of these girls were already married or arrangements were in place. Being in the classroom opened my eyes to the perceptions of the students. I wish I had more time to interact with them!

There are many NGOs in Bodh Gaya and it has become a bit of a problem. Some NGO’s that claim to be nonprofit are deceptive and use the donations for other uses. But I can attest that Bowl of Compassion is a truly compassionate organization with the right intentions.

Right now they are trying to raise money to put in a new floor for the children to sit on at lunch time.

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Similarly, they would like to convert on old building into a creative space in which the children can create art and learn music! If you feel so called, I encourage you to give a donation to Bowl of Compassion. Literally all the funding, from educational resources to food costs, are funded by donations. Every dollar counts 🙂

Anyone can make donations at this link: http://www.bowlofcompassion.org/en/donations.html

And if you ever find yourself in northern India, take some time to stop in Bodh Gaya. You will receive and incredible experience at Bowl of Compassion and have time to see the temples as well 🙂

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with Murari and his wife

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Oh, and I got to meet and spend extensive time with Dr. Upendra Prasad, a member of the Bihar Legislative Council! Sweet! IMG_3212

Before & After Photo Gallery

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On the train in Hyderabad – Nampally to Lingampalli, February 2013                                          Vote for my photo here!

Some things never change!

You can walk millions of miles in a single life without ever touching the surface of the places, nor learn anything from the people seen. The sense of the travel lies in stopping to listen, everyone has a story to tell. –Anonymous

2013 (on left), 2016 (on right).

Halwa cooking at A Bowl of Compassion.

There is always time for Mr. Das!

 

Teacher of Hindi, cooking, and life – Bhavani-ji!

Indian godparents, Raman & Tarenjeet!

Lucky to have seen the Taj twice now!

On the Ganges, Varanasi.

Reuniting of scholars!

Friendships at Charminar!

And being dressed in a saree always seems to fit it’s way in. 🙂

Stories to come this week! Stay posted!

re-entering the land of the gods

Originally published on Taking the Call. 

Three years ago, at about this time exactly, I was beginning a study abroad journey to India. I was a Junior in college seeking to study Indian dance, expand my knowledge of religious customs, and be challenged by the world.

I returned home, five months later, changed in many ways. Not only did I come home with an expanded religious perspective and culinary palate, but my view of mission and justice had also been challenged.

For the first time I really questioned what I believed and why, what others believed and why, and why justice looks different in every context. There are so many moments, so many stories from that experience that ultimately shaped me into who I am as a Global Mission Fellow today. Therefore, from the moment I stepped out of the country in 2013, India has continued to be in my heart and mind in various ways. I have always felt like I would be back someday…and now I am!

India’s close proximity China ultimately made returning to India much more feasible, yet it didn’t feel right to return until this fall when a door opened.

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Cooking and serving lunch at Bowl of Compassion, May 2013

One of my many powerful experiences in 2013 included a trip to Bodh Gaya, where I volunteered at Bowl of Compassion, a local primary school and soup kitchen. You can read about my experience here, which began a long and beautiful relationship in many ways. I was inspired by the founder, Murari, and his sense of compassion and vision in the light of educational injustice in Bodh Gaya. This compelled me to share my experience and connect the children at Bowl of Compassion to First Presbyterian Church in Sioux Falls, SD (where I was working at the time). That year at VBS we raised almost $2000 to help build a new tile floor and an art building for the school. But even better, the kids were able to learn about each other and their differing cultures. For the past 3 years, First Presbyterian has been able to continually support Bowl of Compassion with various offerings, so when Bowl of Compassion reached out to me to return to Bodh Gaya, I immediately contacted Kathie Douma, director of children’s ministries, to pray about this opportunity together.

Education in India is very much like China in some ways. The kids are taught very logically and formally with little room for imagination, creativity, or even critical thinking. Bodh Gaya is particularly stuck in this traditional system being in one of the poorest, illiterate, and corrupt states of India.

As children’s ministry lay people, Kathie and I are being asked to train the teachers some more creative ways to teach the kids in order to allow for imagination, creative thinking, and activity! We don’t know exactly how this will go – but we have a bag of tricks that is bound to help. 🙂

And thus, next week, I will re enter the land of the gods. I will spend almost an entire month in the country! After volunteering at Bowl of Compassion, I will do some traveling, first heading to Varanasi and New Delhi, then heading south to Hyderabad (where I studied), west to Mumbai/Pune, and finally, north to Amritsar. It will be a journey of old and new places, old and new connections, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Most of all, I hope the Lord will continue to shape me. I pray that he may allow for continued processing of my experience three years ago and provide the space for new insights, challenges, and growth.

Going to India in 2013 was a part of my call story to becoming a Global Mission Fellow! Please help me share my story by voting for my #IAmCalled Video! Click HERE!

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A year ago…

A year ago today my suitcase was packed.

A year ago today my stomach was queasy with anticipation.

A year ago today I began a journey.

It seems so surreal that my adventure in India was just beginning last year and I find it fitting that this anniversary is so close to the new year. My trip began a year of new experiences, new emotions, and a new phase of my life. Now, on the verge of 2014, I feel nostalgia and pride at those experiences and anticipation at the year to come. It has been interesting to see how my experiences in India have affected my semester and my plans for the future.

My fall semester back at Nebraska Wesleyan University was more difficult than I expected. Even though I returned to the U.S in May, I actually felt more culture shock returning to school in August. Meeting other students and faculty on campus was overwhelming. I realized that there were very few people who wanted to hear about the meaningful aspects of my semester abroad, and even my closest friends could not understand the impact of these experiences and the emotions that came with them.

I found comfort in conversing with other study abroad returnees. We all shared similar travel experiences, culture shock emotions, and could understand the impact of our time abroad. These people kept me alive this semester, helping me to share my memories and evaluate the impact.

As I expected, I jumped into a million activities on campus, from sorority life to theatre management, in addition to working at a church and making grades.

Overall, returning to campus there was a concept of familiarity but yet newness in my heart. But I had the opportunity to share the India in my heart and opportunities to continue to experience India.

I immediately found the Indian grocery store in Lincoln, NE. The owner, Mahek, has become a good friend. I am impressed that I can purchase everything from paneer to henna, frozen breads, and even sweets! I have been cooking Indian food on occasion, mostly when I am at home with my family. I have mastered curries, roti, gulab jamun, and chai…but I have failed at bhatura and dosa (any tips??).

In light of receiving a Gilman International Scholarship, I followed through with a project to promote study abroad. My project reached out to our theatre department, which has one of the lowest study abroad rates on campus. First, I led a Kuchipudi dance workshop! I taught the attendees about the history of Kuchipudi dance and basic feet movement and hand gestures. Attendees loved the interactive experience of actually trying the movement, especially with the fast speeds. The workshop transitioned into a presentation in which I provided study abroad information and elaborated on my experienced in India. Indian snacks were provided of course 🙂

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I was also able to lead mini dance workshops like the above to a few theatre classes as well!

In celebration of Diwali, I attended a celebration in town. There was a large gathering put on by the Indian Student Association at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The night was filled with classical and Bollywood dance–young and old dancers! Of course the buffet of food was wonderful and homemade. It was a night to remember…hope to experience it in India someday.

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Bowl of Compassion continued to build the art room from the money we raised at First Presbyterian, and now they have a wonderful space for their kids to be creative!

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I continue to keep in touch with my friends at Tagore as well as friends that are still in India. I definitely miss the heat in the cold winter of the midwest 🙂

As I enter a new semester, my last semester of college, I will continue to share my experiences. Looking towards graduation, I have realized that my study abroad experience has broken down barriers. I feel excitement at the fact that I can go anywhere in the world, I do not feel limited by insecurities or distance. Instead, I feel called to go out into the world! Whether it be volunteering overseas, leading children’s ministry in the midwest, or pursuing a culinary training on one of the coasts, I know the Lord will guide each step along the way.

Thank you to all of those who have prayed for me this year through travel and transition. Now I pray for discernment and direction. May the adventure continue…

Being Back

I woke up to another hot and humid, Nebraska day this morning. Sleepily I crawled down from my bunk bed, changed clothes, and walked over to the gym to get moving on the elliptical machine. Upon returning, I freshened up, threw on a tank top and pair of shorts, and sat down at my laptop to check my mail before breakfast and another day of classes. Just another day, just another routine to follow.

Before I knew it, I found myself crying with tears of happiness and nostalgia! In Bodh Gaya, Bowl of Compassion has been working diligently. The tile floor was finished a few weeks ago…

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And look at the progress of the new art building! Due to an gracious last minute donation, we were able to send another $500 to complete the building!

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My heart is overcome with joy for all of the children at Bowl of Compassion! What work the Lord has done to complete this project so efficiently!

Upon sharing my happiness on Facebook I found a second wave of tears coming over me as I encountered photos of dearest Tanvi (my Hindi professor’s daughter) dressed up as Lord Krishna in celebration of His birthday.

Oh how I miss all of these wonderful people who touched my life in more ways than I can describe. I marvel at the fact that it is so easy to fall back into a morning routine, yet I feel so different being on campus.

When I first moved back onto campus 3 weeks ago it felt surreal. My sorority house, my campus felt so familiar yet different as well. For an entire day I felt absolutely frozen to the world–a feeling I have never experienced like this before. My mind was blank, my body was useless, and I felt utterly depressed. All I could do was sit and attempt to work on projects, without much progress. After a day leading sorority recruitment at Alpha Gamma Delta, I felt much better. I realized that there must have been this insecurity inside of me–How do I acclimate back to campus? How am I supposed to lead a group of 30 women after disappearing for a semester? Do I even have the authority to hold this position? In other words, culture shock!

Being able to be back on campus 2 weeks before classes and reconnecting with my sorority sisters was just what I needed to jumpstart my year and regain my confidence! However, being in classes this week I am realizing that I am looking at my life differently. I am wanting to jump back into every student organization on campus and am finding great joy and satisfaction in reconnecting with friends, professors, and mentors on campus. Yet, I am also evaluating why I am taking part in each activity. With such a short timeframe left as a college student, I want to make sure that I am making the most of my time to acquire the experience and skills to take me further in life. The problem is, many things make me happy, therefore, my initial urge is to take part in everything! But can I really do A, B, C, D, E, F…all at the same time? Or is it better to focus more attention on A, B, C, for example?

Of course, there are requirements that I can’t get out of…like Lab Biology, a course that certainly is not my strong point nor in my interests but is required for my graduation! But again, it only increases my desire to do meaningful work in my life!

Seeing these updates from India has brought my experiences to life once more! It gives me hope and desire. It stimulates my confidence when I feel like I missed out on something while I was away. A new year begins–

India, stay forever in my heart!

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Final Total

I am happy to announce that through the July Children’s Offerings at First Presbyterian Church, the congregation was able to match what our kids raised at VBS for a total of…..$1,626.57! That is about 89,461 rupees!!

Wow- what generosity!

The first $320 will go towards tiling the floor, as planned. The rest will start a fund to construct an art building. Currently the children have no place to be creative; this building would fulfill this need. This additional project costs $1935. With the additional costs we raised, that means there is only $630 left to raise!

I ask that you continue to keep Bowl of Compassion in your prayers as they begin construction and continue to carry out their mission.

I will continue to post photos of the work that is happening in Bodh Gaya as I receive them!

Kids helping Kids

Many of you may recall my experiences with Bowl of Compassion in Bodh Gaya, India (read here if you need a refresher).

After spending two days meeting and interacting with the children, I was left with a heart for these children and the people who put their heart and soul into this ministry.

Upon returning to Sioux Falls and my job at First Presbyterian Church (FPC), Bowl of Compassion continued to weigh on my heart. As the Children’s Director and I began preparing for Vacation Bible School in June, the topic of mission came up. For those of you who are not familiar with Vacation Bible School (VBS), it is an exciting week where kids are invited to the church to take part in games, crafts, bible stories, and songs to learn about the Christian God and his Son, Christ Jesus. Everyday the children are encouraged to bring a monetary offering in order to teach them about tithing and helping others. Therefore, every year, the church chooses a new mission to support. Generally, FPC has chosen to support a local mission in the community of Sioux Falls, but with my experiences in India, the team decided it would be neat to support an organization I was able to work with, allowing me to elaborate on my personal experiences.

I worked with 3 different organizations during my stay in India. We had preliminarily chosen one organization due to its Christian emphasis…but Bowl of Compassion continued to weigh on my heart. A few days later I let my team know where my heart was and where the needs of Bowl of Compassion were. Not only did they enthusiastically support the decision to give to Bowl of Compassion but they decided that the Children’s Offering for the entire month of July would go to Bowl of Compassion! Wow what a blessing!

The past few weeks I have been collecting details from Murari, the owner of Bowl of Compassion. There greatest need is a new floor for their children to sit and eat lunch on. After researching the costs, Murari let me know that tiling the floor would cost 17,200 rupees…$320. I was confident that we could raise this amount during the week at VBS!

Each day the kids at FPC learned a little bit about the ‘far away land’ of India. Our kids were able to see pictures of the kids there. We also took a picture of each one of our kids to send over there! I was impressed by the way the kids responded.

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On Wednesday, Day 3, our total was $350!!! Wow! I called Murari that night through Skype to tell him the good news. But the week wasn’t over, by Friday our grand total was $802…44,110 rupees! What generosity!

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The plan is that all of the extra money we raised beyond the costs for the tile floor will go towards building an art building at Bowl of Compassion. This project is much larger- about $2000 (or 110,000 rupees) to construct a building. We will keep collecting funds each Sunday throughout the month of July. Even if we can’t make the total amount, it is a good starting point for Bowl of Compassion!

Words cannot describe the joy in my heart! I am so proud of the kids at VBS and thankful for the generosity of FPC. God is working in many hearts.

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I will leave you with the lyrics to one of my newest favorite songs: “Kings & Queens” -Audio Adrenaline  Listen to the link. This is what our mission has been, kids helping kids!

To donate to Bowl of Compassion please see this link: http://www.bowlofcompassion.org/en/donations.html

 

Volunteering

I definitely recommend taking time to volunteer while in India. I worked with a few different programs that reach out to the impoverished to provide education and resources.

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Here are a few opportunities to look into:

Bowl of Compassion (in Bodh Gaya)

Kriti (in Hyderabad)

Good Life Ministries (in Hyderabad)

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Thoughts before beginning the Final Adventure!

 

As I pack up my bags and do my final preparations to travel north, I have found myself skimming through my blog entries. I am in awe of how much I have seen and learned about this placed called in India…and have discovered a lot about myself  as well.

 

In my “About Me” section (which I wrote before coming here), I described how I chose India and what I hoped to experience. While I have found some of these aspects to follow through, my semester has developed quite differently than expected. For example, I hoped to do much more rigorous study into the religions around me through coursework and visiting temples. But upon arriving at the University I discovered that courses in religious studies were not available. Similarly, visiting temples and mosques were a hassle to visit and often times didn’t teach me much about the respective religion at all. Instead, I have gotten to know about the different religions of India through the people that I have met! Since this country is so immersed in religion, it was never hard to start up a conversation. I stayed with Aslam in Jaipur, learning about the Muslim religion, the Samras were eager to explain the history of Sikhism, and every Hindu I chatted with had a different story to tell. I have found that many young people who grew up in a Hindu home don’t necessarily practice their faith anymore and don’t feel obligated to living out that part of their heritage. Funny how that theme resides in modern day Christianity as well. That being said, I met some amazing Christians who invited me to worship. However, many of my best friends at my hostel consider themselves atheist or agnostic. So while I did not learn about religion in the way I expected, I have shared some amazing conversations that have helped me understand how people live their lives and how that affects their values.

 

On another note, I did much more travel than I expected to. Not knowing how much time I would have off from school, I set my expectations low as to how many places I could visit in India. But, wow! I made two weekend trips- Bangalore & Hampi, an excursion through Udaipur, Jaipur, and Agra, and now I am heading up to northeast India for 2 weeks of travel.

Tomorrow I will fly to Varanasi and spend about 4 days in “the spiritual capital of India.” Then I will head east to Bodhgaya. For Buddhists, Bodhgaya is the most sacred pilgrimage site because it is said to be the place where Buddha himself was enlightened. While I hope to visit the site, my main purpose is to stay at “Bowl of Compassion.” This is a non-profit soup kitchen that takes volunteers who may be traveling through. After a day or so there, I will move along to Kolkata, where I will meet up with my friend, Ayush. I am looking forward to some amazing street food 🙂 We will stay with his extending family there and then travel up to Siliguri for his cousins wedding! The wedding will be in the traditional Vedic-style. It will be overwhelming but so amazing! From there, Ayush and I will be exploring the area of Darjeeling and hopefully make it up to Sikkim! We are looking forward to the cool climate, mountain views, and delicious tea.

Then I will fly back to Hyderabad for a day before returning to the U.S on May 19th! Wow, folks, it has been a journey, yet there is so much to explore in this country. Going back my “About Me” section, I make the statement, “I should study in a country that I may never visit again.”  This statement could not be more false. The statement is not “if” I come back to India…it is “when” I come back to India. The more time I spent here, the more I add to my bucket list of things to see and places to visit! But for now, I will focus on my final trip!

While it is sad to leave my home at Tagore, I am so thrilled to end my stay in India with an adventure! This week I have missed home a lot, and will be ready to return home to my family. It has been the perfect amount of time here. My suitcase is packed and ready for International travel and my duffle bag is almost set as well!

Again, as a precursor, I will be out of internet for two weeks as I travel so I shall leave the beautiful scenery to your imagination until then. I am excited to get back to a written journal while I travel but will make sure some details when I return. Until then, thank you all for your support of my experiences! May it encourage you to explore the world on your own.

Peace,

Maria

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