5 Things I Learned as a Missionary in India

by Abigail Follows

I was in my mid-twenties, newly married, and still growing up when my husband and I bought a one-way ticket to India. During our seven years in that colorful, story-rich land, we had two babies, hiked in the Himalayas, and learned to think and dream in Hindi. We did our best to listen, understand, and faithfully represent Jesus in a life-changing way.

I had no idea my life was going to change, too. Here are some things God taught me in India.

1. I Learned to Cook without a Recipe

I’m going to be vulnerable here. When I got married, I could make toast, ramen, and scrambled eggs. I soon added to that list Anything With a Recipe. I thought I had arrived.

Enter India.

The food was, without exception, amazing. I ate curry so spicy I couldn’t feel my lips, but so delicious I had to keep eating, anyway. I knew I must learn to cook that food.

I spent hours in Indian friends’ kitchens. They pinched in bits of red and brown powder, set in a dried leaf or two, shook in yellow spice mixtures from copper spoons.

“How many teaspoons of turmeric should I use?” I would ask.

“Just watch,” they would say.

I soon learned that cooking is like art—intuitive, self-expressive, and adaptable to your circumstances.

Looking back, I understand why cooking without a recipe intimidated me. I was so dedicated to being perfect that I didn’t want to “waste my time” on mistakes. Cooking from recipes was a way to avoid failure. My Indian friends helped me learn to go with the flow, in cooking, and in life.

2. I Became More Extroverted

I once read a book about the second coming of Christ. The (obviously extroverted) author said that in Heaven, we will be with people all the time.

I loved being with people. I just didn’t love it all the time.

People all the time?! I panicked. Am I not cut out for Heaven?

Then we moved to India, where I experienced a whole new level of social connectedness. In our village, happiness, grief, and boredom are experienced in community.

When your husband leaves for a week, your friends come stay with you.

If you have been enjoying a morning of introverted solitude, someone comes by to make sure you’re not lonely.

When you are feeding your baby and your breast is out and about in the living room, someone will stop by for tea and, most likely, stay.

After several months of this, I thought I couldn’t handle another minute of being with people all the time. I would try to make it look like I wasn’t home just so I could be alone… while feeling like a jerk who wasn’t going to get into Heaven.

I was too impatient with myself and my surroundings. My Indian friends could just be. They could be with a grieving person. They could wait two hours for a good, hot meal. They could stand in line at the hospital for hours and not get angry when someone sicker than them cut in line.

In India I learned to care more about people than about what people think of me. Though I still recharge through solitary activities, being with people all the time in Heaven doesn’t sound terrible.

It sounds like home.

3. I Learned to Be Mean

Several of my closest Indian friends are single mothers. That is a tough social group in many parts of India. My friends experienced a lack of social support and were often the targets of dodgy men.

One of my friends, Darshika, told me something that changed my life.

“Abigail, you have to learn to be mean.”

She was right. I was not good at being mean. I thought way too much about how everyone felt to be mean. But Darshika didn’t have the luxury of thinking about others’ feelings all the time. She had to have good boundaries and send clear signals: I am not your target; I am not naïve; I am not a pushover.

Darshika was one of the friendliest women I’ve ever met. She was also one of the fiercest. Through her and other women, I learned that having boundaries, standing up for yourself, and feeling righteous indignation is not mean. I also learned that I had somehow replaced the Biblical Jesus with some guy who is nice all the time.

Jesus was gentle the same way a mama bear is gentle—with her cubs. But if you threaten the cubs, watch out!

Jesus was gentle the same way a mama bear is gentle—with her cubs. But if you threaten the cubs, watch out!

Jesus called the Pharisees white-washed tombs. He avoided flattering crowds, purposefully offended those who tried to get him to use his power for selfish means, and spoke in parables so that those with closed hearts wouldn’t understand His message. Jesus was strong and kind, and He knew who needed kindness and who needed reprimanded.

4. I Learned What it Costs to Follow Christ

Eventually, my friend Darshika, a high-caste Hindu, decided to follow Jesus.

As you may have noticed from the first three points, Indian society is community-centered. In fact, the word for religion is the same as the word for “duty.” And your “duty” is prescribed by what religion, gender, family, and caste you were born into.

For instance, the duty of a Hindu son includes taking part in Hindu rituals, getting married, earning money, having children, staying within the expectations of his caste, and in all things honoring his parents’ wishes—above his own and that of his wife. Fulfilling these is doing your duty—it is righteousness.

For a Hindu, becoming Christian means exchanging your “duty,” the set of expectations people have of you based on how you were born, for Biblical expectations. The label of Jesus-follower also brings with it a lot of baggage. Christianity disrupts the family and community, historically and practically.

Although following Jesus should make us more loving, respectful family members, and more honest, forgiving community members, it can feel like a betrayal to Hindu families.

Hindu people who choose to take a detour from their expected path and follow Jesus are not making a flippant choice. They are making a potentially dangerous commitment. They realized they will face ridicule, rejection, and intense social pressure to perform rituals and take part in activities that violate their changing conscience.

I’ve never been attracted to the prosperity gospel. Still, seeing Darshika try to follow Jesus in that environment really challenged me. I realized I had unwittingly believed that following Jesus “makes everything okay.”

But is that what Jesus said? “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33, NIV.

But is that what Jesus said? “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

John 16:33, NIV

Jesus doesn’t promise everything will be okay in our circumstances. He promises to be with us, to bring us peace, and to bring about a plan to fix everything in the end.

The day I saw Jesus empower my friend to forgive for the very first time, I got a glimpse of the plans God has for each of us. Darshika agrees. It’s worth the cost to follow Him.

5. I Learned to Trust God

God brought me to the brink of my faith so many times in India. He allowed me to face my doubts and questions, some of my deepest fears, and my many flaws. But as He brought me to that brink, He proved Himself to me.

Once, when I was pregnant in India, too sick and tired to pray, I asked Him to ask someone to pray for me. He asked three people. One had a dream that I was pregnant and needed help. Another was awakened in the middle of the night with the impression to pray for me. And one pulled over their car to the side of the road with the impression he and his family should pray for me.

It may seem like a minor miracle. But for me, it is a precious pearl, one that I keep on an imaginary string in my heart. A reminder that God sees me, and cares about me, and sees India, and cares about India.

Because of its history, culture, political environment, and diversity of language and culture, India is not an easy place to share the gospel. But God doesn’t need something to be easy. All He needs to do is speak, and there is light; to breathe, and there is life.

In India, I learned to trust that God has a beautiful plan. I learned I am like a tiny stroke of color in the tapestry of God’s plan to redeem human beings.

By learning to trust God, I came to better understand the role of a missionary.

Being a missionary isn’t about me changing anyone. It’s about obeying God. Doing so makes space for Him to make life-giving changes. In those we serve, in the world, and in us.

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