Saturday, January 17, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

When I landed in Mumbai I remember stepping out of the airport in the middle of the night looking for the bus that would take me 3 miles to another part of the airport for my connecting flight to Hyderabad. I was traveling alone, and was met by beggars standing in the dark. I felt vulnerable and, I confess, afraid.

In Hyderabad when I exited the airport I was greeted by a boy who was, I think, about 12 years old. He held out his hand, asking for money. I remember his teeth. They were brown and rotting. A 12-year-old boy, losing his teeth. The image stays with me.

I spent 10 days on the Deccan Plateau in central India, with the city of Kurnool being home base. Kurnool has a half-million people and no sewage system. I saw people urinating and defecating on the streets. The whole place smelled like a giant cat-litter box.

I traveled throughout the region speaking and teaching about God and Jesus. I was in villages that had no electricity and, I was told, had never seen a white man in person before. I can believe that, since the people in these villages don't get to travel like I do. Some of them are as poor as a person can be.

In one village my Indian host told me "The government does not care about these people." It sure looked that way to me. The caste system, though formally discredited by the Indian government, is alive and well. I think "caste system" is in our genes. We all hierarchize and rank-order people in terms of honor and shame, worth and worthlessness, value and expendability. I spoke to this issue in the villages I visited. Galatians 3:28 was the verse I proclaimed: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." This concept is so caste-breaking that I could see the people wondering if it could be true. Jesus descended to the bottom of the caste system and became an expendable. I told the people that they were loved by God and that, in Jesus, God has come to them. Everyone responded to this message of hope. But then that's part of India, too. It's hard to separate out the real thing from India's hyper-spirituality.

On my way out of India I spent one night in Mumbai, hosted by a Christian leader whose name I have now forgotten. When you fly into Mumbai you see a huge slum, a shantytown, directly adjacent to the airport runways. I was told by someone on the plane that this one slum held 10,000 people. 60% of Mumbai's twelve million people live in slums. I saw the poor everywhere as I rode through the streets of this city.

Last night Linda and I saw "Slumdog Millionaire." And I was transported back to India. It's an amazing story of a young boy who endures much loss and abandonment and suffering in the pursuit of love and loyalty and hope. In the end, the captives are set free and, unforgettably, dance. This movie is brilliant, beautiful, captivating.

As I stood up in the theatre to leave a woman behind me said "You can be certain that I am never going to visit that country." I know how she feels. Who would ever want to leave all that we have and pitch their tent among the poor? In all my life I've only heard of one person who has done that in such a way that the slumdogs get set free.