In January, 27 students and faculty members from McCormick Theological Seminary and the Lutheran School of Theology Chicago (LSTC) traveled to South India to study the faith and practice of Christianity in a pluralistic society. Student Gina Sterk offers her reflections on the trip:
As I went down to the river to pray / studying about that good old way / and who shall wear / the robe and crown / good Lord, show me the way…
Somehow, this traditional American song became the anthem of our time in South India.
On more occasions than you might expect, our group of 27 travelers from LSTC and McCormick was asked to sing a song, and this one ended up being our go-to.
We sang it one Sunday morning during worship at Ascension Church of South India in Kottayam. We sang it at Smile India, a care center for the elderly (in the company of the family of a current LSTC student). We sang it in worship at United Theological College in Bangalore, and we sang it at a center for women with disabilities. And each time, a song was sung to us in return.
It quickly became apparent that this exchange of songs was not a singing competition, a test, or a cause for confusion or embarrassment — it was an expression of Indian hospitality. Through song, we could connect in a way that transcended language and other cultural barriers. Singing to each other served as a kind of gift exchange — but one which didn’t cost a thing and was worth more than most other souvenirs.
The hospitality our group received in India didn’t just take the form of singing, of course. It took the form of home cooked meals, well timed pick-me-up snacks, and cups upon cups of coffee. It took the form of the front pew, meetings with high level seminary and church administrators, and eloquent articulations of greeting and gratitude. It also came in the form of the unabashed “HI!!!” shouted at our bus as it passed by. These countless gestures of welcome and kindness filled each of our 17 days in India.
It is easy to make the case that hospitality is (or should be) a central part of the Christian tradition. The Israelites are told to remember that they were slaves in Egypt so should care for the immigrant, orphan, and widow. Jesus welcomes, heals, and eats with the most unlikely company — children, women, and those labeled “untouchable.” And as we gather around the communion table, we are continually reminded that just as God gives so abundantly to us, we are to give as abundantly of ourselves.
Hospitality within a Christian context was certainly evident in our visits to Ascension Church, as well as to the Tamil Lutheran Church of Chennai. In both communities, we were warmly welcomed on stage during worship, introduced, given gifts, and greeted by many after the service. This was also evident in our very warm receptions by everyone from LSTC and McCormick alums to the Metropolitan Joseph Mar Thoma of the Mar Thoma Church of Kerala.
Indian hospitality was just as alive, of course, within other religious contexts as well. At the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, each and every member of our large group was fed a delicious lunch, regardless of the fact that we are not Sikh, nor Indian, and showed up several hours late to the meal.
Hospitality found its way into our study of Jainism as well, which teaches non-violence, compassion, and the interconnectedness of all life, inspiring us to open our eyes to the potential divinity of everyone we meet.
We were reminded of hospitality once again while participating in a Pongal celebration. In this Hindu harvest festival, an overflowing pot symbolizes the abundance which all community members share.
Our experience of hospitality transcended any one community, city, denomination, or religion, leading me to the conclusion that in this country with over one billion residents, hospitality is a shared priority. Somehow, though we were strangers, usually clueless as to what we should be doing or saying, our hosts were willing to extend every possible kindness, comfort, and privilege to us.
It was humbling, and at times jarring, to see how short my own efforts fall in comparison when it comes to welcoming the “stranger” in my circles, whether at McCormick, church, or walking down the street.
I have a lot to learn from my neighbors in India, for whom welcoming, serving, and sharing are firmly established instincts.
Gina Sterk is in her second year of McCormick’s Master of Divinity program. She is originally from Duluth, Minnesota. She is involved with the Center for Faith and Service at McCormick and is seeking ordination in the ELCA.