The air was pregnant, golden, and heavy with dust and the heat of spent effort. A warm, animal smell. Nighttime comes suddenly in this part of the world with only the briefest of warnings and the cotton fields around were active with the firefly brightness of women in saris hurrying home in the fading light.
Our van slowed for another Oxcart, this one with a trailer attached full of tired girls. We pass them at eye level, their startled eyes registering our white faces before turning modestly away, giggling behind hands or folds of headdress. Beautiful faces, high cheekbones, the deep leather tan of Indias rural poor.
The road is more congested now, carts, bicycles, walkers with enormous burdens balanced on their heads, men in white dhotis, long shirts and loose white turbans driving animals, boys with goats, girls with water pots or baskets of dung for evening cooking fires. Our van parts them as a boat cleaves the sea. The moon looms suddenly huge as the sky crosses over into evening. Soon there will be stars, countless millions of them. But not yet.
Anthony turns to me and says: "Be expecting miracles brother. Blind eyes will be seeing. Tumors will be falling"
"Oh yes brother. These things are happening all the time. I feel it, here!"
With his whole heart in his face and his teeth and eyes flashing in the gloom it's not hard to believe him-to want to believe him-anyway. To feel the pulse quicken at the possibility that this passionately evangelistic man might just be speaking the reportable, western version of truth and not some locally coloured variety that is born in his culture but will not translate into mine.
The village seems an appropriate setting for a New Testament story. Flat roofs. Earth walls. Women at the well. Families huddled on the earth floors of single rooms, lit by oil lamps. Snatches of conversation from open doors. The whites of curious eyes .The weight of night pressing down, pushing the houses closer together for protection in the vastness of the unseen plain.
We roll to a halt
in a kind of square, lit by two or three solitary light bulbs and the
moon. On three sides the village huddles in the gloom, on the fourth
a larger building incorporating a stage of sorts, ordinarily used for
the celebrations of quite another god than the one we will celebrate
tonight. As soon as we step down from the van we are chest deep in a
rolling, clutching, tide of eager children. My heart and eyes fill together.
There are seven
white people in our group, accompanying six Indians. We know why they
are here-to preach the Gospel where it has never been heard, in villages
like this one all over Karnataka. Quite how we fit into this is somewhat
less clear. We don't speak a word of the language, called, ironically
(to me a resident of Canada) Kanada. As the equipment-a portable generator,
amplifier, speakers and mikes-is being set up and tested the square
begins to fill. We smile and nod more than appears sane, but what else
to do? With much throat clearing, our performance begins.
|From the back of
the stage, where we smile [ again!] and clap enthusiastically-and only
a little out of time- to songs we have never heard, we can see that almost
the entire village is out there in the dark. The children in front, the
men behind, the women discreetly to the sides-some even peeking from the
'wings' [rooms either side of our makeshift stage.] Just visible beyond
the circle of artificial light, we can see the silhouettes of a rooftop
audience against the stars. The heat is tremendous. The nearness of hundreds
of bodies and the gathering tempo of the music envelops each of us in
A group of boys close to the stage seem less than attentive until a man behind them rains accurate blows upon them with sudden and effective savagery. They are all ears from then on.
Among the torrent of lyrics I recognise only "Yesu" but the sense of worship is palpable and the crowd seem happy to clap along, even singing some repetitive phrases, more from sheer exuberance than any possible knowledge of the man these songs celebrate.
As the singing winds down we become aware that we are being introduced, we bow and wave. Then Anthony, the expecter of miracles, invites our Pastor to "Bring them the Gospel", promising to translate. Ivor gamely steps up to the mike, signaling that we three men should enact what he is about to say, to "keep it interesting for them."
It should be fairly
interesting for us as we have no idea what he's about to say, far less
a well-rehearsed performance worked out. And so it was that I, the dispassionate
eye, the artist and photographer, the imagined spectator and recorder
of all this, found myself centre stage, dying for the sins of the world,
arms outstretched on a cross of air, while John -as Satan- over enthusiastically
beat Tom to the ground and bound him with a leather belt. He was more
fortunate than me. As I went down into my tomb among the straw on the
floor something bit me, though mercifully the full effects were not
apparent until the next day. I rose again to tremendous applause as
Ivor wound up with a rousing challenge to prove the living power of
the God he had just preached.
"Let God touch you right here and right now. Feel the saving power of His Spirit. Prove Him in the healing of your bodies-bring your sick up here!"
Mixed with the undoubted
power of his call to salvation this cry produced pandemonium. Everyone-or
at least several hundred of them-wanted to receive Christ, a laying
on of hands, a healing, a blessing or just a chance to be in the thick
of things, simultaneously and they charged us en masse.
Being just over six feet tall I found myself keeping my head and shoulders just clear of a boiling sea of upturned faces. Freeing my arms, I blessed where I could, touching as many heads as I could reach, all the while watching a blind man, helped by several friends, pressing through the crush to Anthony, who was about three feet away. I turned this way and that, trying to pray for all those nearest to me, whilst all the while keeping an eye on the scene unfolding just beyond.
The old man was undoubtedly blind; cataracts had turned his eyes into two sightless puddles of milk. Doubting nothing, Anthony placed his thumbs over them and called on God, both in Kanada and a prayer language of his own. As I watched, spellbound, the old man began to count the fingers Anthony held up for him to "see." When this proved difficult Anthony prayed again, this time the mans sight was fully restored! His eyes were black and sparkling with tears of joy. I whooped incoherent praises into the night and turned my full attention to the child being pushed toward me by her grandfather.
"What's wrong with her?" [sighs]
"She cannot hear or speak!" [more signs]
Oh. Great! Oh help
(I'm praying inwardly!) Why couldn't this be something simpler -a cold,
a slight headache? I don't do this stuff. I'm an artist from England-via
Canada -who's a very long way from home and completely out of his depth.
The man you want, the man with the magic touch is over there.
"You pray for her brother!"
I prayed like I never have before. I prayed in anguish, I prayed in fear. I prayed with great drops of sweat coursing down my face. I prayed in English. I prayed in tongues.
"Oh God do
something, I'm dying here. I'm going to look a fool and these people
want to believe in you. Give them their miracle. Please."
I dropped on my knees and held the child's face in my hands. She was afraid and so was I. Then I knew it was God they were appealing to, not me, that I wasn't expected to pull any rabbits out of any hats. He was in charge. I had to believe with them. I looked into her beautiful little face again and saw, for the first time, the painted stripes of Shiva on her forehead. And I knew, from somewhere inside of me, this was the mark of a demon and I called out against it in a loud voice "Come out of her in the name of Jesus, come out!"
I dropped to my knees, deeply aware of the ring of faces pressing in close enough to threaten suffocation, seeing the uncertainty in the child's eyes.
"Speak to me,"
I implored her.
And she tried-making sounds, copying me- the first sounds she had ever made.
"What's her name?"
We tried that-she got close, she seemed afraid of the sounds she could make, overwhelmed by all she could now hear. People were cheering .Her grandfather was weeping. I was weeping-I picked her up and threw her into the air, catching her in an immense hug that had relief, joy and profound praise in it.
We prayed for others-a
lame girl that walked a corridor that opened in the crowd, an arthritic
man who danced, his knees almost slapping his chin- and many others
who were not healed physically but who, none the less, saw a glimpse
of heaven fall to the scorched and thirsty earth that night.