"This is my work, my mission."
I'll never forget these words spoken by my dear friend Prabhukumari in India one day, in January 2005. The words flowed from her mouth boldly yet humbly. Over the course of 10 days, I watched her go about her home tidying, cooking from scratch for multiple people, mothering two young boys, taking care of her duties as a pastor's wife, hosting a guest from America (me) that spoke a foreign language, and doing it all with joy and a peaceful smile.
Eight years ago this past January, I did one of the scariest and bravest things I've ever done - boarded a plane alone, with a back injury from falling a few days before, and flew 21 hours across the world to Chennai, India. There, without even a cell phone, I waited to be retrieved by Prabhukumari and her husband Pastor Samson, both of whom I had only ever seen in photos. We met and traveled another 5 hours by train to their town, where I stayed for the next 10 days working with the organization Peace Gospel, visiting children in an orphanage, embracing the culture, helping tsunami victims, and making new friends (I wrote about my experience here and here).
When I think about that trip now, I can't believe I did it. I barely got on the plane. I remember crying to my then fiancé/now husband the night before on the phone, telling him I was too scared to go. But the ticket was bought, and I went. Turns out it was absolutely watershed - a shattering, humbling, encouraging, emotional experience in which I saw for the first time just how much Christ could sustain me, how sinful I was, how much I cling to my luxuries of everyday life, how in the minority I am. And how far, far-reaching the love of God is, all the way to a concrete single-room church in the tiniest Indian village.
Today is International Women's Day, and as my Instagram feed fills with breathtaking photos of women all over the world, my mind is occupied with memories of Prabhukumari, this one woman who changed me forever, whose gentle hands I can almost still feel on my back.
On my last few hours in India, I was tired, homesick, sad to be leaving my new friends but eager to return to my routine and family and friends in Texas. Prabhukumari, Pastor Samson, and I spent several late night hours in a hotel room watching Indian television and resting before it was time for them to take me to the airport. I was wearing my sari (which had become familiar garb over the course of the trip), lying face-down on the hotel bed with my head resting sideways on my elbows, drowsily watching TV. Then, without a word, Prabhukumari reached out and touched my dirty, curly, frizzy hair, ran it through her fingers. She placed her hand on my back and ran it up and down, up and down, gently, sending shivers throughout my body. She must have done this for a solid hour. At first it felt strange to be accepting so much physical touch from someone I was supposed to be serving. But my injured back began to feel like it was healing, and tension and tiredness from this scary, wonderful trip began to leave my body. Her touch was absolutely the touch of Christ to me in that moment, and I felt enveloped in His love, His care. I didn't want to leave her and my new friends. At the same time I so desperately wanted to return home. From this point on, a part of my heart would be left among these people in India. And she would always be my sister.
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There are many other stunning women I met in a remote Indian village near the coast, where the tsunami had just taken the lives of many of their men who were out fishing for the day. We delivered food, Bibles, and clothes to the widows. Their vibrant smiles, the lines on their faces, their colorful garments, their shyness mingled with strength...I couldn't get enough.
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Today as a mother and a wife, I think of Prabhu's words often. On days (all too often) when I'm anxious and grumbling and overwhelmed by everything that's on my plate, by how many directions I feel pulled, I hear her voice saying, "This is my work, my mission," and I stop in my tracks. I feel her love and encouragement across the oceans that separate us. If she can do it with joy and a smile, certainly so can I.
I cannot begin to imagine the daily lives of some of the women I met and these women that Peace Gospel serves today, but I know their smiles and lives have touched me more than they'll ever know. I'm thankful to be a small part of this tribe of women that traverses the globe and to have held their gazes in my eyes, their hands in mine, even for a short time.
* All photos untouched, as the beauty of these women speaks for itself.