You know that feeling you get when you discover you are a stranger? Every word is foreign to you, and the smiles on the faces of others are suspicious. You don’t know if they are laughing at you or laughing with you…and when you don’t speak their language there is a better chance they are laughing at you. I’ve experienced that feeling plenty of times in my life as I moved over and over again. To be the stranger is a dangerous and powerful state of being. I once again played the role of the stranger this week as I visited a southern Indian jungle village called K. K. Gudi. I was there at the good graces of Sam Rajshekhar and his colleagues at Yuvalok, an NGO out of Bangalore that partners with state, city, and community leaders to bring education to the children that need it most. That day we were at the village to inaugurate a school that had been planted by the good work of pastor Francis Prasad, a minister from the valley below who had a great heart to better the lives of his own people. My tentative presence rested on the shoulders of Sam and Pastor Prasad, and it was because of them that the stranger among the people was greeted with respect and gifts…gifts that were hard to accept.
As the official remarks were made in a language that was probably something other than Hindi, I allowed myself to be ushered here and there at the whim of men who were about the business of framing an important occasion. When ignored for a moment, I would wonder over to the children to make faces and wave at them. I’d even snap a photo or two of the precious children with the IPhone that I would cautiously pull out of my pocket and then quickly slip back in when I was done. I was called back to a chair with the other leaders and elders in order to receive a lei, one that I half expected because I just received one at another school two hours before. The weight of this lei was still significant though. It wasn’t like I just got off the plane in Hawaii or something. Only Sam, the chief administrator of the area tribes, and I received them. The weight came not from the flowers, although they were fairly dense, but rather it came from knowing that my presence in this community was attached by one single microscopic thread in the tapestry of life.
After books and uniforms were handed out and I encouraged them in a language they didn’t understand to study hard, we walked down to a plot of land 50 yards from the stick constructed stable the school was held in. The group of elders, in addition to Francis, Sam, Danny, and Murali, stood around talking for a few moments before some picks and shovels were produced. I had no idea what was going on. But, it soon became apparent that they were breaking ground, and Sam was asked to be the first to break it. Sam took the long medal rod and thrust it into the ground several times, loosening the dirt. Then the chief took his turn. Behind them came a villager who dug a shallow hole where the ground was turned up. Another villager grabbed a big slab of rock from a nearby pile and laid it near the hole. I thought they might just build this thing right in front of us. They didn’t. Instead, they motioned to me to stand by the hole and then they pointed to the stone. Danny, the wise and soft spoken Director of Business Development and Public Relations at Yuvalok, instructed me that they wanted me to pick up the rock and lay the corner stone. I didn’t see the request coming. As is the case with many things for an American visiting India for the first time, you are at the whim of those who are guiding you. I wasn’t told I was to pick up and place the cornerstone in the ground until 30 seconds before I actually did it. I didn’t have time to consider what posture or feeling I was supposed to wear; I just picked up the large piece of rock (tried to look strong while receiving instructions) and placed it on its edge in the hole dug for it. I then scooped dirt into the hole around the stone to support it. It was not until 5 to 10 minutes after the event that I began to reflect on what just happened there, and then almost cried. These people had lived in these hills for hundreds of years at least, and they were asking some strange visitor from who-knows-where to lay the cornerstone for their new school building. But it wasn’t just the hospitality of the tribal people that was humbling; it was also the selfless nature of my hosts, Yuvalok. Sam, the founder of Yuvalok, should have been the one to lay the cornerstone. Or possibly even more deserving than Sam was the pastor, Francis Prasad, who had been laboring with the tribe and farmers in the valley for years and had approached Yuvalok to partner in his efforts. Francis was a worn man who labored tirelessly to bring a better life to his people.
None of us deserve the honors and privileges that we receive in this life in view of our broken relationship with God and his creation. Most of us don’t even deserve the culturally formed contextual honor we receive from others we are in constant community with. Thus is the nature of true grace and hospitality; they are humbling things when well received. It was humbling to have flowers hung over my shoulders because of who I was with and how they had framed my presence there with them. I am just a broken man who has been given much, but who is still trying to figure out what it means to be a good steward of what I have been given. The honor and privilege shown to me by that tribe on the mountain makes me want to be a better steward, a better servant, and a better friend. Ultimately it was God who brought me to India to teach me, discipline me, encourage me, and comfort me. He reached out to me through the smiles of messy children, the service of wise humble women, the embrace of thankful men, hands in the dirt, and the laying of a cornerstone. There are no strangers to God, and everything good from him is a gift we don’t deserve; a gift calling us to know him, as the villagers called me to know them through their hospitality.