The Revd Jessie Anand writes:
In February this year a group of 32 people from the Southwark Diocese was led by Bishop Christopher Chessun on a 15-day pilgrimage to the Dioceses of Amritsar and Delhi in the Church of North India. The programme for the journey, which covered the three states of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, was co-ordinated by Rev S Anand Asir Anand of All Saints Church, Battersea.
Pilgrimages are always inspirational, as they always bring to light new things which we never expected. In this case, there are two particular stories which, as I have reflected upon them, seem to me to relate very much to the life and work of USPG, both past and present.
The first concerns a priest who worked in the Church of St John-in-the-Wilderness at Dharamshala, a forested area at the foot of the Himalayas much visited by tourists. As it happens, I had met Rev Gunjamol when he visited the UK in 2008 and called at the USPG Office in Great Dover Street, where I worked as one of the Desk Officers. He wanted to meet me, as a South Indian, because he himself came originally from Kerala. He told me, however, that he had moved to North India after his family abandoned him. After studying theology, he looked after this Church in Dharamshala faithfully as both pastor and caretaker, and lived out the Gospel to those who visited it as tourists.
By the time of our visit, sadly, he had died. But as part of our pilgrimage we paid a visit to his grave and learnt more of his story from people whom we met around that area. We were told that he lived in the vestry with his dog, and despite these poor conditions was very content. He was not only a jolly person but also very brave. It was reported in the local newspaper that he had once met a bear in the forest, but had managed to confuse it with his torchlight and his dog!
Having somewhat neglected his health (he suffered from both diabetes and heart problems), towards the end he was taken to the nearby mission hospital at Kangra and was treated by the dedicated doctor, Dr Paul, whom we met. After his death, members of the Church tried their level best to contact his family in Kerala, but were unsuccessful. They therefore took his body as their own and conducted the funeral and burial. His final resting place is in the churchyard.
This story speaks to me both of the remarkable faithfulness of this family-abandoned person and of his sense of belonging to the Church. I still recall his coming to the USPG Office and sharing his conviction that ‘Tourists are my immediate congregation’. I had the privilege of preaching in that Church and laying flowers on his grave, while Bishop Christopher offered prayer.
In the words of Amritsar’s Diocesan Bishop Samantroy, “Rev Gunjamol was an unsung hero. He lived a low-profile life, never put himself at the front and was a good servant for the Lord”.
The second story comes from Delhi Brotherhood Society in Delhi, which is still very much connected with the life and work of USPG. While there, we had the chance to visit some of the Society’s social projects. One of these is called ‘Women’s Helpline’, where many examples of women’s suffering were described to us. At the end a woman was brought before us, a mother of four children, whose life story was one of unspeakable suffering. A victim of almost daily beatings by her husband, she in the end lost the sight in both of her eyes.
She then approached the Women’s Helpline. After an operation she recovered the sight in one eye and was awaiting, in a month’s time, an operation on the other. Women’s Helpline was caring for both her physical and mental healing, and at the same time was in conversation with her husband on the issue of domestic violence.
Bishop Christopher graciously requested me to share some encouraging words with both this mother and the Helpline project. I held one of her children and spoke words of hope and God’s inclusive love. Many of our fellow pilgrims felt that we, as pilgrim friends, were also journeying with this family in showing them Christian love and compassion.
It is obvious that Women’s Helpline is giving sustaining hope and compassion in many such cases, and in so doing is revealing the love of Christ today. When, as part of our pilgrimage, we saw the fruits of USPG’s ongoing support work through this and other projects, our hearts could only rejoice and glorify God’s name.
Pilgrimage is indeed an occasion for knowing and experiencing God’s presence in the world, for witnessing how He works in the here and now, and for understanding how He can use every one of us to bring His Kingdom in this world in His own way.