[This week we revisit a reflection from 2004 about being a family living amongst the poor in India. If you feel God is calling your family to serve the poor, contact us to find out more about how Servants supports families: email info [at] servantsasia.org]
Sometimes, God calls families to serve the poor by living in urban poor communities. Is this possible? Can families survive in Servants? These reflections from one family who have lived for the past few years in an urban poor community in India show that it is not only possible to survive but even to thrive:
When our elder son Tony (names changed for security reasons) was born, I was worried for a while about how I would answer the criticism I anticipated about where we lived. But on praying about what was “good for them”, I felt deep conviction and assurance from God that the very best thing for our children was for them to grow up to “first seek the Kingdom”, and they would have a much better chance of that, living in a poor neighbourhood in India, than in the consumerism and materialism of Australia.
After some time of coming and going between India and Australia, we have come to see that there is plenty of good and bad in both places. While many people perceive that we lead a life of sacrifice and our children are deprived of many good things, we just don’t see it that way. Sure, we have given up some good things, and there are some good things that our kids have not yet experienced, but we have also received and experienced so much good, that I can’t imagine describing ourselves or our children as deprived. I genuinely feel that they are having a great childhood, and hope and pray that they will look back in years to come and agree with me.
We arrived in India with no kids – this was really helpful for us, as we only had to look after ourselves and our own cultural adjustment and language learning etc. This gave us a real head-start over families with children.
Next best option is to come when your kids are still young – this is when they are best able to learn languages effortlessly, less likely to miss material things of “home”, still more dependent on their parents and oblivious to the wider world. Also you don’t have to worry about school straight away.
It’s never too late though – starting your new life here with school-age or teenage children is also possible. It will all just take more time and energy, as each member of the family will have their own experience of adjustment and learning. Older children will need to understand why you’re doing it, and hopefully be willing participants who contribute in decisions about housing, schooling, ministry, etc.
Whether you bring kids with you when you come, or have them later on, they are great ice-breakers! You are suddenly much more like everyone else, a real human being, when you too have children.
Of course we are all quite a novelty, especially the children. People are just curious, and all that staring and questioning does actually wear off after a while. As a tourist the attention continues as you keep moving on, but when you live in one place for a while, slowly people get used to you being there, and learn to relate to you as a friend and neighbour rather than a curiosity.
My philosophy has always been to try the simplest option first. Tony was weaned straight to a cup, and to the same filtered water and same milk that we drink – if he couldn’t manage it or he got sick at all, we would have used a bottle, boiled the water, or bought some formula, but since he was fine we didn’t have to go through all that drama. Tony has gone to a local Indian school – if it didn’t work out, we would certainly try something else, but he has coped with it fine (and is currently revising hard for 1st term exams, keen to top his class this year after coming in 2nd last year).
God has also been very involved in making our life here possible. Both our boys are very healthy, and we’ve had no major illness or accidents at all. We can take some credit for being careful with our health and not taking unnecessary risks, but we are also aware of our friends’ prayers and God’s involvement in making it possible for us to keep on staying here.
Tony is now 8, and has a good grasp of why we are here and of life in Australia and life here. His advice is:
- Bring a few toys!
- Reading is a very good hobby, because it makes time go by fast, and you can sit in a very small room to do it and completely forget your surroundings;
- After visiting friends in rich areas, our house seems small and uncomfortable, but after visiting poor neighbours, our house seems luxurious;
- Just learn a few words of Hindi, then you will start to make friends, and as you play with them you will easily learn more and more Hindi;
- Moving to India is a bit like most of my exams at school – before the exam it seems difficult, and I feel nervous, but once it’s over I wonder what I was worried about.
Because of many everyday dangers here (such as unfenced balconies, chaotic traffic, rabid dogs, dirty floors) we have been fairly strict with basic discipline – STOP has to mean stop right now and ask questions later, drinking bath water is a significant offence. On the other hand we are very flexible with things like table manners (we don’t usually eat at a table anyway) as these are very culture-bound ideas we have about the right way to do things.
There are also a lot of personality factors. Tony is compliant, cautious and introverted by nature, so unlikely to get himself into dangerous situations, but sensitive to all the attention, sometimes scared by dangers he sees, and unlikely to stand up to being unfairly treated. Olly (almost 3) on the other hand is more independent spirited, adventurous, and extroverted, so more enjoys the constant stream of friends in and out of our home, but far more likely to wander off without telling us, or just plain disobey clear instructions. It remains to be seen whether he will fit into the Indian schooling system as easily as Tony has!
While we need to do all we can to prepare ourselves, a lot is just up to God, or at least beyond our control. We can know ourselves and our children well, and make guesses about how each of us will respond to a new culture and new living situation, but we just can’t know for sure. So, like life anywhere as a disciple of Jesus, it’s a matter of taking each step in faith.