In 1995, my husband Mark and I moved to Delhi in India, full of enthusiasm to love God and our neighbours in the urban slums there. We had married two years earlier, already intending to live and work in the majority world, after being deeply affected by short immersion trips to India as singles. Suddenly we were there!
Part of my dream was to offer good news and hope for people that the world pushes aside. But it turned out to be not as simple as that – either to hold onto hope myself, or offer it to others.
In the 20-something years we spent in India, we faced many challenges. First up for me was extreme sickness during pregnancy, followed by 18-months of post-natal depression. Then, a couple of years later, our teammate died from a brain tumour, only days after the delivery of her first baby. Despite tonnes of prayer, and top medical care, we were suddenly grieving a dear friend, and many dreams and plans for life together. These early personal challenges humbled and crumbled us, as alongside our neighbours, we experienced the fragility of our own hopes and plans.
Living in a poor neighbourhood also poked holes in our hope, and continually stretched our faith and theology in new directions, as we grappled with a whole different set of circumstances and questions. The same year that our teammate died, we lived in a tiny room in a slum strip along a drainage canal, and were good friends with two beautiful, intelligent and hard-working young girls. They both managed life joyfully, despite living in poverty and facing quite severe disabilities. How we prayed for healing for them, with no apparent reply.
In 2006, a friend working at a small garment factory was earning less per shirt sewed, now that he was a husband and father, than years earlier when he was single. National and international politics and economics made it harder and harder for his family to eat, let alone pay rent. We were torn with how to respond. We prayed, listened, offered practical help, and started to get involved in advocating for people’s rights. The “good news” we could still speak about with integrity was that God knows and cares about all these details and difficulties. But our bright hope for seeing transformation was becoming more like a gritty act of defiance, persevering in our attempts to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
From 2003 to 2012, we lived in a densely populated neighbourhood infamous across the city as a den of thieves and addicts. Indeed, drugs, violence and corruption were rife, but most people were just doing their best with very limited resources. These years were terrible and wonderful. They were full of deep connection with suffering people, and we experienced much joy watching our boys thrive among friends in our simple home. There was huge fulfilment and frequent frustration, always having close friends in crisis and distress, and working to respond to the complex issues that were behind their poverty. These people became family for us during those years.
In retrospect, I think the better we understood the causes of the poverty and suffering we witnessed, the harder it was to hold onto hope that God might intervene dramatically so that people’s lives would change, and that we could make a difference.
Yet hope was still there. It was rarely written in blinking neon lights and amazing success stories, impossible to miss or ignore. Instead, I discovered it was to be searched out earnestly, like that one lost sheep, or the potential bush hidden within a tiny mustard seed. With some persistence, hope was always somewhere to be found.
A surprising source of hope was the generosity of people living in poverty. Our neighbours had amazing empathy for others in distress, from their own lived experience. Once, we persisted for a whole year to help one neighbour access the government widow’s pension. For that year, she and her three children were fed almost entirely by the gifts of other poor neighbours and generosity of local shopkeepers, knowing she was destitute.
Another reliable source of hope for me, was community – having a team of people to share our struggles and joys, and connecting with others who cared. For many years we were invited to contribute to the TEAR InDEEP trip, and would always look forward to spending time with these rare Aussie Christians, willing to expose themselves to the chaos and trauma of deep poverty, meet Jesus there, and let that influence their lives. Having companions on the journey was vital to holding onto hope as we followed Jesus into places of pain and injustice.
Finally, a great inspiration and hope for me has been the picture painted in scripture of this journey’s destination. Revelation 7:9; 21:1 and Isaiah 65:17 beautifully describe the final multi-coloured multitude of God’s people, and the amazing shalom of God’s reign, when it will finally come into fullness.
Living back in Australia now and looking at the current reality of our world, I find it challenging to imagine just how this dream will come to reality. However, knowing the destination of God’s plan gives me the hope I need to keep living towards that future.
Cathy is a long-term friend of Tearfund and was on staff as our Community and Supporter Engagement Coordinator in Queensland. For more than two decades she lived with her husband Mark and two sons Tom and Oscar in urban slums in India, responding to God’s call to serve among Muslims there.