By Jennifer Kotila
COKATO, MN Angela Rahkola of Cokato and Jim Peterson of Howard Lake, recently participated in a mission trip to India.
Both Peterson and Rahkola are members of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Howard Lake, which is where they heard about the mission trip.
This was Rahkola’s first mission trip. “Honestly, I went to church one Sunday, opened up the bulletin, and saw the trip to India, and my heart kept saying ‘Oh, I want to go, I want to go,’ but I didn’t have money,” she said.
With only a few weeks left before the trip, Rahkola did not think it would be possible to come up with the funds she would need to participate, but there was also a little voice in her head saying, “God will provide,” and he did.
Rahkola spoke to Pastor Ernest Samson of Apple Valley, who operates Indiahope.org and he explained the lodging and all her needs in India would be taken care of, so she only had to buy the plane ticket, which friends and family helped her purchase, she said.
Rahkola also needed to take time off from work at Lakeview Ranch in Dassel. Fortunately, there were a couple of co-workers who needed extra hours and were willing to fill in for her.
Although Rahkola was not able to cover all of her hours during the time she would be gone, once she explained to her boss what she needed the time off for, her boss urged her to go.
“It was kind of a small miracle how everything came together so I could go. I know it was God at work,” Rahkola said.
This was the third mission trip for Peterson, who went to India with his wife for the first time in 2006, and also did some mission work in the Philippines when he was there for his nephew’s wedding.
“My wife was more interested in a mission trip than I was in 2006,” Peterson said. “I thought it could be a bit rough to travel in India.”
But his brother had been on a mission trip to the Philippines before, and assured Jim it was a worthwhile cause, he said.
After that mission trip, “God created a calling for me to become more involved,” Peterson said. He joined the mission committee at St. John’s, becoming more involved in the missions and meeting the missionaries.
“As I felt more called to be in mission work, I realized this desire and need to reach out to people who don’t know Jesus, and help in any way,” Peterson said.
Joining them on the mission trip were Pastor Nirmala Reinschmidt of Zion Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Pastor Ernest Samson, his wife Gloria, and their three children from Apple Valley, Janet Heyer of Texas, and Marilyn Kubly of Maple Grove.
The trip to India was multi-faceted, said Peterson.
Pastor Samson and his wife, Gloria, had adopted children from India, and visited Calcutta, where their daughter was born.
The rest of the group remained in Chennai to practice street ministry for a few days.
The group then traveled to Siloam, where St. John’s Lutheran Church has been supporting the Karunya boarding house for at least eight years, according to Peterson.
Pastor Reinschmidt’s parents operate the boarding school which the girls who stay at the Karunya house attend.
Street ministry in Chennai
Both Peterson and Rahkola agreed that street ministry is really a faith-stretching experience.
“You’re not used to getting up in front of a large group of people and sharing your faith with them,” Peterson explained.
“Praying over people I had never done that before was really stretching for me,” Rahkola said.
A local church in Chennai had organized the street ministry for the mission group. Peterson described the street ministry as being similar to revival meetings.
To organize the street ministry, members of the church picked out five locations surrounding the church to place loudspeakers, then in the evenings, the mission group gave their testimonies.
Each night, more than 100 people gathered to hear the testimonies, sometimes as many as 200 or 300. Even more also heard the testimonies, because the loudspeakers could be heard for blocks, Peterson said.
Rahkola, who has always been nervous speaking in front of large groups of people, was really scared when she heard mission group members would be speaking during the street ministry, she said.
“I was shy even in high school, where I knew everyone. My heart pounds and my mind goes blank,” said Rahkola.
But she prayed about it and trusted God to help her through.
When it was her turn to speak, she felt calm and knew exactly what to say. “It wasn’t me,” Rahkola said. “It was God working through me.”
It surprised Rahkola how eager and passionate believers were in India, and how much they believed in the power of prayer.
After the testimonies each night, the mission group prayed over those who wanted them to, and each night at least 60 people came forward, Rahkola said.
Even before the first night of street ministry, people were asking to be prayed over. When the group first arrived at the church, it took nearly 45 minutes to reach the top of the stairs because so many people wanted to be prayed over, Rahkola said.
“They really believe in the power of prayer. It’s different than what I see here,” she added.
Visiting Karunya boarding house
Siloam is a very small village in rural India about three hours south of Chennai, Peterson said.
The boarding school there serves the Dalits, or the untouchables.
Dalits in India, which is a traditionally Hindu society, are considered the lowest caste in a caste system that is deeply ingrained, especially in rural areas such as Siloam.
Because Dalits are associated with occupations considered by Hindus to be impure, and polluting to the individual, they are commonly discriminated against and it is very difficult for them to attend school.
Since Siloam is located in an area of India that is not normally visited by Westerners, Peterson said it was a little different entering the villages.
Children would immediately surround them when they would go into a village or school.
“They were probably wondering why we would come to see them,” Peterson said. “Because of the caste system, they are considered the lowest of the low. They look at themselves and believe that, too.”
Since the boarding school in Siloam is filled to capacity, St. John’s Lutheran Church supports the Karunya boarding house for girls.
“Because of the boarding house, 60 more girls are able to receive an education and Christian teaching who normally wouldn’t,” Peterson said.
Most of the girls are from the surrounding villages and live in small mud huts with thatched roofs, Peterson said.
At the school, they sleep on thin bamboo mats on a concrete floor and their meals consist of rice with a little broth.
“Even though they have no possessions or comforts, they seem very happy,” Peterson said.
“They are so happy and thankful to be at school,” Rahkola said. “They really respect Nirmala’s parents (who run the boarding school).”
Even though the girls do not have much, many of them want to be doctors, Rahkola said.
“They have as many hopes and dreams as kids in the US, but they are stuck in the caste system, and lack money,” Peterson said.
While the mission group was at Karunya, they had an opportunity to meet the girls’ families during a traditional Indian meal.
The girls also performed traditional Indian dances for their guests, Peterson said.
When they left Karunya, Rahkola said the girls who live there were all begging her to come back next year, and crying, which made her cry, as well.
The trip gave Rahkola a new perspective, she said.
“I used to think, ‘Man, I’m so poor,’ but I think I was in shock for a few days at the poverty in India,” Rahkola said. “This trip makes me want to do more, and made me look at my finances. Where am I spending my money?”
Hopes for Karunya
The mission group visited Siloam for two reasons. One reason was to see what was happening at the school and how things were going. The other reason was to develop a support system for the girls living at Karunya.
“We want to establish individual sponsorship for the girls, so there is more broad-based support and they are not as vulnerable if something happens to one of their sources of funding,” Peterson said.
While at Karunya, a picture was taken of each of the girls, and they each wrote a short biography and shared their hopes and dreams.
Each of the girls can be sponsored for $25 per month, which provides them with food, clothing, health care, and other basic needs, Peterson said.
One of the girls at Karunya wrote in her paper that she would soon be graduating from the boarding school.
After graduation, she wanted to go on to college to become a doctor, and also wanted to share with others about Jesus, but she doesn’t know what will happen because she does not have money.
“So, we will work to set up a scholarship fund to help some of the girls continue their education,” Peterson said.
Peterson experience on the mission trip changed him, he said.
“It’s exciting to be able to see the church at work in other countries, where people are so on fire to share the gospel with others, and have the desire to do so much,” Peterson said. “I desire to do what I can, in whatever way I can, to be involved and be able to witness God at work.”
Poverty in India
In India, 1.18 billion people, or 27 percent of the population, live on only 40 cents per day, Peterson said.
“That’s nearly the entire population of the US that lives on that small amount of money,” he said.
Rahkola added that the average middle-class person in India only makes $500 per year.
“Personally, it slapped me in the face and made me realize how blessed I am and how much I really do have,” Rahkola said.
One thing that really hit Rahkola hard was when they visited a village in which 120 homes had burned to the ground.
While it was a blessing that those living in the village were out working in the fields at the time, it also meant there was nobody there to fight the fire, Rahkola said.
Now, the entire village has nothing, including no food, and is starving. Other Hindu villages believe the village is being punished by God, and do not help.
“It made me realize we are really blessed here,” Rahkola said. “There is poverty, but we also have resources to help people when things like that happen.”