Click the map above to see an interactive map of our India trip.

When Sara and I go to India, guess what? We’re taking you with us! No, not on our carry-on.

We will spend two weeks in India, half of it vacation and half continuing education. Of course, the halves can’t be separated. But the continuing education half means we at St. Stephen share this trip. I do not go alone. Instead, you go with me, and this is just the start of sharing the experience. I go so we all can better understand our neighbors.

What time is it?

10:30 AM in New Jersey is 9:00 PM in Madurai, India.

This means we’ll start the New Year before you! Wednesday, December 31, 2008 at 11:59 PM in New Jersey is Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 10:29 AM in Madurai, India!

So why go to India? Well, Sara’s brother and sister-in-law live there. Our sister-in-law, Connie, is doing research for her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. She is studying a Christian community near their home in Ma-durai, India. Sara’s brother, Brent, is also getting a Ph.D., his in environmental geography. He finished his research in Oregon last summer, and he’s writing his dissertation right now. They’ve lived in southern India since August.

The opportunity to visit family in India was too great to pass up. Connie speaks Tamil, one of many languages spoken in India, and she knows the region from many summers spent there learning Tamil. She will be our guide and cultural interpreter. Thanks to her, we won’t just be tourists, we’ll get a glimpse of real life.

U.S. / India comparison
Land area: 3.8 / 1.3 million square miles
Population: 305 / 1,150 million people

On the evening of Sunday, December 28, Sara and I will board a plane in Newark and fly to Paris, then to Chennai, India, then Madurai, India. When we arrive it will be 8:00 AM Tuesday morning! (Local time, of course.)

Madurai will be our “home base.” From there, we will travel by bus and train to other destinations. First, we’ll go to the beach at Varkala on the Arabian Sea over the New Year’s holiday. Next, back to Madurai to meet Sara’s mom who arrives after us. There, on Sunday, January 4, we’ll worship with Christians at the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary. While in Madurai, we will also visit the Sri Meenakshi Temple, dedicated to the Hindu goddess, Meenakshi. Then, we go west again to the state of Kerala for backwater cruising in small boats on big lakes and also a visit to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary where there are tigers and elephants.

Finally, as worship begins on Sunday, January 11, we’ll get back on a plane to come home–Madurai to Bangalore to Paris to Newark–arriving in the afternoon on Monday, January 12. We will be pooped!

When we return, I look forward to sharing lots of photos and stories. Maybe dinner and slides sometime before Ash Wednesday? Stay tuned. In the meantime, talk to your Indian neighbors and coworkers. Where are they from, and why did they come to the United States? What is life like here compared to India? What do they miss most? Together, we will meet our neighbors in South Plainfield and around the world!

A note about Christians in India:

Eighty percent of Indians are Hindu, 13% are Muslim, and only a little over 2% are Christian. Still, Christianity has a long history in India. Some Christians in India trace their roots back to the Apostle Thomas, who wanted to see and touch Jesus before believing the resurrection. Europeans evangelized India, especially in the south, starting in the 1500s. For this reason, the regions we will visit are more Christian than the national average. From 5 to 20% of Indians in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala are Christian.

Christianity in India has a different “flavor,” so to speak, than in the United States. Many Indian Christians are very poor. Called dalits or “untouchables,” they are members of the lowest caste in Indian society. Jesus is seen as a liberator as much as a redeemer. Faith in Christ for many in India leads directly to work dismantling the caste system, ending poverty, and caring for the poor.

Lutheran World Relief in India

A few months ago, when China was hit with a powerful earthquake and Burma with a cyclone, we at St. Stephen responded by sending prayers and also money through Lutheran World Relief.

LWR works with partners globally to bring long-term aid, not only relief in crisis. LWR is still working in India after the 2004 tsunami. And it was there in the 1950s, long before that disaster. Even now, your giving in the plate at St. Stephen passes through LWR to sponsor many projects in India that assist the poor and marginalized.

Visit to learn more.

And keep in mind, LWR offers “study visits” for people like you and me. With a group of fellow Lutherans, visit India, Africa, or Central America. See what your offering is doing around the world!

Learn more about LWR in India here

When Sara and I attended seminary in Chicago, many of our classmates were Indian. The Ph.D. program at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago is well-known globally, and Indian pastors, theologians, and bishops come there to study. Their goal is not to stay but to return to India to teach and lead the Church of South India, which is a union of denominations that are separate in the United States, including Lutherans.

In stark contrast to decades of peace, sharp anti-Christian violence marred recent months. Dozens of churches have been burned, and the Catholic church estimates almost 40 have died. We send our prayers for peace to India, remembering especially our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Recommended Books & Movies

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
A bestseller by a native of South India.

India: A History by John Keay
Recommended by Lonely Planet: South India.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Another bestseller about an Indian family that immigrated to the U.S. Made into a film in 2006.

“Ghandi,” 1982.
Starred Ben Kingsley and won 8 Oscars.

About the Mumbai attacks:

Life is dangerous. The world is dangerous. In November, a terrorist attack in Mumbai–India’s largest city–killed 172 people. It also reminds us of what we already know: Life is dangerous, and workers making peace and seeking justice are badly needed everywhere.

Mumbai is 700 miles away from Madurai. That’s about the distance between Indianapolis, Indiana and South Plainfield. Our family was far from the danger during the Mumbai attacks.

We also take comfort in Connie’s special status in India. Connie won a Fulbright Scholarship (smartypants!) to fund her research. This means she’s under the umbrella of the U.S. State Department. If a threat arises, she’ll be among the first to know.

Also, the Mumbai attacks make it more, not less, important to go to India. Understanding is a first step toward peace. Biblical wisdom invites “regular” people to be peacemakers–think Sermon on the Mount–not only foreign policy and diplomatic elites.

Like after 9/11/01, the people of Mumbai are scared and hurting. That means our neighbors and classmates who immigrated from India are scared and hurting too. Imagine trying to find out if your loved ones are safe when you are several oceans from home.

So pray for safe travels for Sara and I, and pray especially for Indians touched, directly or indirectly, by these recent attacks. When you’re talking to Indian neighbors, ask about Mumbai. Did they fear for loved ones? What are they thinking and feeling in the aftermath? What can we at St. Stephen or the U.S. government do to help?

Our hope for peace and understanding here and everywhere invites us to engage with our neighbors. Jesus Christ himself lived a life of engagement, becoming human despite the foreseen danger. After events like 9/11 or the Mumbai attacks, hope competes with our fear of danger, which would have us withdraw, seeking safety for ourselves. Christians, however, believe hope is stronger than fear and life stronger than death. We trust God through our fear and live for the sake of a peaceful world not yet born.

Pastor Clark Olson-Smith